1960 Classical Music, part 1

1960 was an interesting year for classical music, assuming that we look at the term ‘classical music’ in broader lenses than its conventional scope. Some composers were still writing works in the tradition of late Romantic or Impressionism, others were covering new grounds that put to question what exactly is classical music, or even what is music. In this article we focus on the first group, starting the review with a pair of string quartets by one of the iconic composers of 20th century music.

Dmitri Shostakovich

1960 was the year Shostakovich premiered two of his most personal works, both in the form of a string quartet. He started exploring this setting of chamber music in 1938 and completed an impressive cycle of 15 quartets by 1974. It is one of the most celebrated collections of string quartets and his most frequent form of expression next to his 15 symphonies.

In March of 1960 Shostakovich completed writing string quartet no. 7, with a dedication to the memory of his late wife Nina Varzar who passed away in 1954 after being diagnosed with cancer. He started composing it in 1959, the year Nina would have celebrated her 50th birthday. It is the shortest of his quartets, less than 12 minutes in total, its three movements played continuously without a pause.

Shostakovich with wife Nina Varzar and friend Ivan Sollertinsky

The quartet was premiered at Leningrad’s Glinka Concert Hall by the Beethoven Quartet on May 15, 1960. That ensemble played most of Shostakovitch’s quartets and one of its members, violin player Dmitri Tsyganov, recalls a conversation he had with the composer while rehearsing the seventh quartet. He informed Shostakovich that the recording company Melodiya wished to record his last quartet.

The composer was livid: “Last quartet? When I’ve written all my quartets, then we’ll talk about my last quartet!”

When Tsyganov asked how many quartets are forthcoming, the composer answered, “Twenty-four. Haven’t you noticed that I never repeat a key? I’ll write 24 quartets, so as to have a complete cycle.” That would have been true had he written a quartet for a major and minor key in each of the music scales. That was not to be.

Shostakovich String Quartet number 7:

Five months after the premiere of Quartet no. 7, the same performers returned to the venue in Leningrad to debut the next quartet. Quartet no. 8 is by far the most popular Shostakovich quartet, composed during a difficult year for the composer. In 1960 he joined the communist party, an odd move after avoiding that act throughout Stalin’s regime. Rumor has it that he signed the admission when he was heavily drunk. His complex relationship with the party saw ups and downs during the 1930s and 1940s, and he was constantly under a threat of demotion, denunciation and worse plights. His friend Lev Lebedinsky remembers Shostakovich’s miserable comments about becoming a member of the party: “I’m scared to death of them”, “From childhood I’ve been doing things I wanted not to do”, ”I’ve been a whore, I am and always will be a whore.”

In July 1960 Shostakovich was commissioned to write the score for the Soviet film ‘Five Days – Five Nights’, a documentary about the ruin of Dresden. The city, once known as the Florence of the Elbe, was leveled during an unprecedented bombing attack by allied planes towards the end of World War II in February 1945. He surveyed the ruined city, talked to local people who survived the hellish experience, and retired to a nearby spa resort to compose the music. After three days he completed the composition, but the result became String Quartet no. 8.

Dmitri Shostakovich in Dresden composing music for the black-and-white film “Five Days, Five Nights.” July 1960. Credit: Höhne, Erich & Pohl, Erich/Deutsche Fotothek

Shostakovich later talked about this composition: ”When I wrote the Eighth Quartet, it was also assigned to the department of ‘exposing fascism’. You have to be blind to do that, because everything in the quartet is as clear as a primer. I quote ‘Lady Macbeth’, the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these? The Eighth is an autobiographical quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: ‘Exhausted by the hardships of prison’.”

The quartet became known as ‘The Dresden Quartet’, and Shostakovich added the dedication ‘In Remembrance of the Victims of Fascism and War’. However to personal friends he said, “I started thinking that if some day I die, nobody is likely to write a work in memory of me, so I had better write one myself.” A letter he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman reveals the autobiographical nature of Quartet no. 8: “The main theme is the monogram D, Es, C, H, that is – my initials (In German music notation, Es(S) is E flat and H is B natural). The quartet makes use of themes from my works and the revolutionary song ‘Tormented by Grievous Bondage’. My own themes are the following: from the First Symphony, the Eighth Symphony, the Piano Trio, the first Cello Concerto and Lady Macbeth. There are also some allusions to Wagner’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung and the second subject of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. And I forgot – there’s also a theme from my Tenth Symphony. Quite something – this little miscellany!”

How affected was the composer by his own work is revealed in another section of the same letter: “While composing it, my tears flowed as abundantly as urine after downing half a dozen beers. On arrival home, I have tried playing it twice, and have shed tears again.”

Benjamin Britten

1960 was the year Shostakovich met British composer Benjamin Britten. The occasion, which seeded a lasting friendship, took place at the Royal Festival Hall in London when Mstislav Rostropovich performed Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. A few years later Shostakovich came to admire Britten’s War Requiem, placing it on a level with Mahler’s Song of the Earth. In 1968 Britten dedicated his opera The Prodigal Son to Shostakovich, who reciprocated the gesture the following year with his 14th Symphony.

Shostakovich (far right) with (from left) Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and Britten during the festival of British music in Moscow. March 1963. Photograph: Irina Antonovna Shostakovich

In 1960 Britten returned to one of the musical genres he is best known for, the opera. Seven years earlier he staged the grand opera Gloriana during the celebrations of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. In 1954 he composed the opera The Turn of the Screw, based on the novella by Henry James, for a small opera company. In contrast to the mix of tonality and dissonance and a recurrent use of a twelve-tone theme found in The Turn of the Screw, his composition for the 1960 opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream is full of graceful melodies and pleasing harmonies.

The opera was commissioned to celebrate the completion of a Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh, Britten’s town of residence since 1947. It was premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in June 1960 with a dedication to Stephen Reiss, general manager of the festival. The libretto, adapted from William Shakespeare’s play by Britten and Peter Pears, featured 14 major singing roles, percussion, harps, harpsichord and strings. A stage band plays soprano recorders, small cymbals and woodblocks, and a full performance takes 144 minutes.

It took Britten seven months to compose the opera. In an interview a week before its first performance he said: “This is not up to the speed of Mozart or Verdi, but these days, when the line of musical language is broken, it is much rarer. It is the fastest of any big opera I have written.”

Britten made an interesting choice for the role of Oberon, King of the Fairies, writing it for countertenor Alfred Deller. It is rare that an opera male leading role is written for a countertenor voice. In a letter to Deller in August 1959 Britten wrote: “I wonder how you would react to the idea of playing Oberon? It is for a big cast, and each group of people has to be carefully calculated vocally. I see you and hear your voice very clearly in this part.”

Alfred Deller and Jennifer Vyvyan as Oberon and Tytania

Deller gave a fantastic performance at the premiere, but his acting skills did not match his vocal mastery. The Sunday Times reviewer Desmond Shawe-Taylor wrote that Deller “offered some exquisite soft singing but his personality is undramatic”. In later performances he was replaced by American counter-tenor Russell Oberlin and when the opera moved to Covent Garden in 1961, it was directed by John Gielgud.

Francis Poulenc

We move to France and composer Francis Poulenc, who in 1960 completed one of his best loved compositions, the choral work Gloria. It was scored for soprano solo, large orchestra and chorus, based on the Gloria text from the mass ordinary. This was a commission by the Koussevitsky Foundation in honor of Sergei Koussevitzky and his wife Natalia. Poulenc later related the chain of events that led to that commission: “First, they asked me for a symphony. I told them I was not made for symphonies. Then they asked me for an organ concerto. I told them I had already written one and I didn’t want to write another. Finally they said: ‘All right, then do what you like!’”

Francis Poulenc, 1960 in New York. Credit: John Jonas Gruen

Koussevitzky, known for his long tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949, naturally asked for the premiere to be performed by that orchestra, at that point conducted by his successor Charles Munch.

Given carte blanche, Poulenc came up with the idea of composing a Gloria in the style of Vivaldi with a liturgical text divided into six sections. He was not sure if his idea would be appropriate for the commission, and in his a letter to Munch in 1959 he wrote: “I have suggested writing a Gloria for mixed choir, soprano solo and orchestra, 20 or 25 minutes in duration. You may perhaps be able to sway the balance in my favor if there is any hesitation.”

Francis Poulenc

The premiere was set to January 1961 in Boston Symphony Hall to be performed by soprano singer Adele Addison, the Chorus Pro Musica and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Working with the musicians at the first rehearsal proved a taxing experience for the composer, but Poulenc kept his humor in a letter he wrote to his friend, singer Pierre Louis Bernac: “If I had not come here, what peculiar music would have been heard! Dear, adorable, exquisite Charlie (conductor Charles Munch) had understood precisely nothing. Arriving late for the first rehearsal of the choir, I heard something so unlike me that my legs almost failed me on the staircase. All Munch’s tempi were wrong, all too fast. I tell you, I wanted to run a mile.” But things improved dramatically a couple of days later at the final rehearsal. Poulenc was especially impressed by the soprano: “Addison drives you wild, she is sheer heaven, with that warm Negro purity.”

All’s well that ends well. Summarizing the performance, Poulenc wrote: “The Gloria is without doubt the best thing I have done. The orchestration is marvelous. The ending, among other things, is astonishing.”

Here is a recording of that historical performance in Boston:

William Walton

In 1955 English composer William Walton received a commission from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society for a new symphony. The occasion was the 750th anniversary of the city of Liverpool, with the goal of premiering the work during its 1957/58 season. Walton, a slow worker and a notorious perfectionist, only completed the work in July 1960, 25 years after he published his first symphony.

Walton’s Symphony no. 2 is truly a bridge between late romantic and impressionistic orchestral compositions and new trends in classical music such as atonal and twelve-tone systems. Some said it is a cross-over between Ravel and Schoenberg, if such a thing is possible.

Michael Kennedy, in his book ‘Portrait of Walton’ writes that “this is music which is curiously reluctant to yield its secrets and inner meanings through a few hearings. Not that it is difficult music, but it does need concentrated and frequent listening before, suddenly, the veils part and one is admitted to the inner circle of its highly distinctive sound-world.”

The symphony was finally performed by Royal Liverpool Philharmonic but not in their city. On September 2, 1960 John Pritchard conducted the orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival. In February 1961 Walton flew to New York to listen to conductor George Szell with his Cleveland Orchestra perform the symphony and was highly impressed. A month later Szell led the first recording of the composition, much to Walton’s delight. He sent a letter to Szell, saying “This morning I received the record of your recording of my 2nd Symphony, and have already played it several times. Words fail me! It is quite fantastic and stupendous performance from every point of view. The virtuosity of the performance is quite staggering. Everything is phrased and balanced in an unbelievable way, for which I must congratulate you and your magnificent orchestra.”

After the conductor’s death in 1970 Walton re-dedicated the score ‘to the memory of George Szell’.

Here is the beautiful second movement from the symphony, Lento assai, performed by The Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by George Szell:

Alan Hovhaness

We cross the pond and finish this review in the United States and composer Alan Hovhaness. Born in 1911 to an Armenian father and a mother of Scottish ancestry, Hovhaness composed 67 symphonies in a span of close to 60 years, a productive achievement not many composers in the history of music can claim. In 1960 he composed his eleventh symphony, titled ‘All Men Are Brothers’. The work was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the New Orleans Philharmonic and premiered by that orchestra under Frederick Fennell in March 21, 1961.

Alan Hovhaness

Hovhaness explained the title of the symphony as an attempt to “express a positive faith in universal cosmic love as the only possible ultimate goal for man and nature. Let all unite on our tiny planet, our floating village, our little space ship as we journey across mysterious endlessness”.

The symphony went through a number of revisions over the years and has references to some of the composer’s earlier works. In a 1971 interview Hovhaness explained that “The Eleventh Symphony actually harks back to my earlier style in the sense that the first movement really came from the time when I was just given a scholarship to the New England Conservatory, and it was part of the symphony that won a prize at that time. That was back in 1932. So the First Movement was 1932, with some changes here and there. The Second Movement was from about 1960. The Third was from 1969, I think, although the theme might have been an early one from the 1932 period.”

In 1963 Hovhaness founded the Poseidon Society label as a way to regain total artistic control over his recorded output. Symphony no. 11 was the first work he recorded for that label.

Categories: A Year in Music

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5 replies »

  1. This is a wonderful overview of the state of classical music in 1960. Being able to hear the differences, as well as the very interesting stylistic crossovers was really enlightening. Many thanks!

    • Thank you. Part 2 of this article is quite different stylistically but still tells us something about the state of classical music in 1960.

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