Franz von Suppé (1819-1895) wrote his operetta, Pique Dame (also known as The Queen of Spades) to a German-language libretto very loosely based on the Pushkin short story, “The Queen of Spades”. The author of the libretto is unknown. Pique Dame was a revised version of von Suppé's 1862 operetta Die Kartenschlägerin ("The Fortune Teller") and premiered in June 1864 at the Thalia Theater in Graz. The work is primarily known today for the overture, heard today, which remains a popular concert piece. By 1862 von Suppé was the most prominent Viennese composer of operettas, and is the earliest whose works are still commonly staged today. He came from a family with a musical pedigree, and a distant relative, the Italian opera composer Gaetano Donizetti, supervised much of his education in music. Consequently, von Suppe's music is strongly influenced by the techniques found in the best Italian opera styles of the day. A prolific composer, von Suppé specialized in music with a light-hearted, almost tongue-in-cheek character, and the music to Pique Dame is a perfect example of his style. This operetta by von Suppé should not be confused with Tchaikovsky's later opera by the same name. The works have little in common except for their source: a story by Alexander Pushkin about a sinister countess who takes her secrets to the grave and returns as a devious, vindictive ghost who taunts her murderer to suicide. While popular as a theatrical composer during his lifetime, today von Suppé is better known as a composer of light, fluid orchestral overtures. The strings begin von Suppé's overture to Pique Dame with a humorously sly and scheming theme in a moderate tempo. Soon harsh, loud chords by the full orchestra, complete with crashing cymbals, interrupt the cunning string theme. This melodramatic disruption is followed by a joyous gallop that highlights the flute and concludes the overture with a vibrant, light-hearted tone.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is regarded as one of the most important composers of the early twentieth century and as the "founder" of the ground-breaking movement known as Impressionism which also has its geneology in the visual art of Claude Monet and others. For the French modernist composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez, "Modern music was awakened by L'après-midi d'un faune” – just as other pioneering works, such as Ludwig van Beethoven's Eroica Symphony or Verdi's Nabucco and Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps stunned the music world with their overwhelming power, energy and dissonance. Debussy, however, chose to wake his listeners in a far more seductive fashion, with new and elusive tonalities and rhythms enveloped in the most exquisite orchestral sonorities. Debussy's most famous orchestral work was inspired by the Stéphane Mallarmé's poem of the same name, which dates as far back as 1865. “L'après-midi d'un faune” relates the tale of a fawn's erotic (and unrequited) fascination with a pair of nymphs. Mallarmé conceived The Afternoon of a Fawn as a monologue to be recited on stage by an actor. Debussy described his Prelude to "The Afternoon of a Fawn" as "a very free interpretation of Mallarmé's poem. It has no pretensions of presenting a synopsis of the poem. It is rather a series of scenes against which the desires and dreams of the Faun are seen to stir in the afternoon heat." In an October 10, 1896 letter to music critic Henri Gauthier-Villars, Debussy observed, “More precisely, the work conveys the general impression of the poem...it follows the ascendant movement of the poem and illustrates the scene marvelously described in the text.” The closing is a prolongation of the last line: "Couple adieu! Je vais voir l'ombre que tu deviens." ("Farewell, couple! I go to see the shadow that you have become.") The orchestration is lush but somewhat spare with only French horns in the brass and only the most minor and exotic touches in the percussion. The role of the faun is carried exquisitely and famously throughout by a solo flute and his voice is commented on and replied to by brief but rhapsodic moments for the clarinet, oboe and bassoons.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was just 19 when his professional life got off to a brilliant start with an amazing First Symphony, a work that soon spread his name abroad. But in 1936, his career hit a major snag. Joseph Stalin decided to see the composer’s much talked-about opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. He was scandalized, and in an article titled “Chaos Instead of Music” Pravda launched a fierce attack on Shostakovich. “Now everyone knew for sure that I would be destroyed,” Shostakovich recalled later. “And the anticipation of that noteworthy event—at least for me—has never left me.” He completed his Fourth Symphony, musically his most adventurous score to date, but withdrew it at the last minute. It was 1961 before he dared allow it to be played. On April 18, 1937, Shostakovich began a new symphony, his Fifth. He completed it in July and presented it to the public in November. An unidentified reviewer called it “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” a formulation subsequently accepted by Shostakovich and indeed often attributed to him. We in the West read such a phrase with a certain embarrassment, and the story of an artist pushed into withdrawing a boldly forward-looking work and recanting with a more conservative one—for that the Fifth undoubtedly is—fits too easily our perceptions of life in the Soviet Union. It is wrong to simply accept the idea that “just criticism” coming from the ‘fake news’ (to use today’s vernacular) of Pravda may actually have set the composer on a more productive path, and that the style of Lady Macbeth and the Fourth Symphony was one well abandoned. The most striking features of the large works immediately preceding the Fifth Symphony are those of dissonance, dissociation, and an exuberant orchestral style. Though the chamber music of Shostakovich’s last years is based on more radical compositional means, the controversial opera and the Fourth Symphony still come across as the most “modern” of his works. The completion of the Fifth Symphony and the jubilant embracing of it by the public (a nearly thirty-minute ovation at its premiere) constituted the most significant turning point in Shostakovich’s artistic life. The political rehabilitation was the least of it; just ten years later, at the hands of Andrei Zhdanov and the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Shostakovich was subjected to attacks far more vicious and brutish than those of 1936. (A second rehabilitation followed in 1958.) But Shostakovich found a language in which, over the next three decades, he could write music whose strongest pages reveal his voice as one of the most eloquent of his time. In the case of the Fifth, each movement is practically a poem. It cries, it shouts, it demands attention. The first movement opens with the starkest and simplest of dramatic gestures. After much desolate rumination, momentarily brightened by themes on violins and solo flute, a raging emotional tempest is launched by a harsh, machine-like tread in the depths of the orchestra, including piano. Once this invasive and violent storm has blown itself out, the quasi-optimistic flute theme reappears, but only briefly. The following scherzo-like movement is filled with grotesquery and satire. With its heavy-footed dance rhythms and intentionally schmaltzy violin solo, it demonstrates Shostakovich’s strong affinity with Mahler, whose music he had been studying for more than a decade. After the tragic third movement, the Finale opens in a mood of defiance. In the wake of a powerful central climax, something of the opening movement’s wistfulness returns. Then comes the conclusion; at once triumphant as well as ‘accusatory’ of a world and its demons the composer endured first hand.