Shostakovich’s Return to Favour

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his 5th symphony slightly before World War II, in 1937.  The historical context in which he composed it is the ‘Great Purge’ – a Stalinist campaign to rid the Soviet Union of communist dissenters and counter revolutionaries which saw millions of people executed.  The only form of approved art at that time was so-called socialist realism, which glorified and celebrated communist values.  As well as expressing the ideas behind communism, Soviet art also had to be accessible to everyone rather than a privileged few.  This meant that complex Western music such as serialism was not tolerated, and traditional, conservative music had to take its place.

Shostakovich ran up against this censure of creativity in his opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, which was condemned for not depicting communist values.  The plot itself was not criticised but the music’s depiction of some of the scenes seemed to be creating a controversial satire.  Shortly afterwards he was forced to withdraw his fourth symphony before it had even premiered, after rumours of its ‘formalism’, which was seen as inaccessible and self indulgent bourgeoisie art.  Symphony No. 5 had to be different if it was to be accepted, and rather symbolically was written to celebrate the anniversary of the October revolution.  It was composed in a conservative, classical style, incorporating folk tunes and expressing a triumphant, heroic mood.  When it was first performed in Leningrad, it was so well received that the ovation lasted for well over half an hour.  It has been widely speculated that this reception was actually acknowledging Shostakovich’s covert rebellion against Stalin, and that the symphony was not a celebration of communism but a reflection of the people’s courage to stand up to the oppressive regime.  Notes on my own response to the symphony are on my listening log.


Harris, S. (2015) Communism and Artistic Freedom At: (Accessed on 05.03.2017)

Harris, S. (2016) The Lady Macbeth affair At: (Accessed on 05.03.2017)

Ross, A. (2012) The Rest is Noise. London: Fourth Estate. pp. 241-258

Wigglesworth, M. (1998) Mark’s notes on Shostakovich Symphony Nos. 5, 6 & 10 At: (Accessed on 05.03.2017)

Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

The D minor symphony opens with the strings alone, setting a threatening mood.  Later on in the first movement an insistent rhythm gives the feel of a march, and the texture and dynamics build up, propelling the music on and on.  There is a brief transition to a major key and a sudden lyrical style – a glimmer of hope?  But the mood darkens again before the end of the movement and a solo violin sounds pleading and desperate.  The allegretto second movement is a waltz, with simple Classical sounding melodies.  Mark Wigglesworth has described it as a parody and I can see why – something about the tempo (slightly slow for a dance perhaps?) and instrumentation makes it sounds mocking and forced.  The Largo again opens with the strings, this time playing at their most expressive – long, beautiful, sorrowful melodic lines.  Spine tingling the whole way through.

The final movement is a fast paced march complete with powerful brass and timpani, and the strings playing as though in a whirlwind.  It culminates in D major, with most of the orchestra playing repeated quavers on the dominant note, A, and has a sense of defiance to it.  There is some dispute about the intended tempo for this section, which was written in the score as 184 quavers per minute.  I listened to one version at approximately this tempo, one at 300 quavers per minute, one at 400 and one at 170.  I found the slow versions much more effective, sounding dramatic and intense compared to the more hurried ending of the fast versions.

For a work which was intended to mark a celebration, I was shocked at the sense of despair it evokes so clearly.

The Turn of The Screw

Programme Note on Benjamin Britten’s Opera: The Turn of The Screw

Benjamin Britten’s opera The Turn of The Screw is a gripping ghost story based on Henry James’ disturbing novella of the same name.  A prologue sets the scene of a young governess who has been given the charge of two orphaned children, Miles and Flora, at their country home. Act One reveals an unsettling history of the previous governess Miss Jessel and her relationship with the valet Quint, both sinister characters who it is hinted abused the children and died under mysterious circumstances.  The governess starts to see strange apparitions around the house, which to her horror she realises are the ghosts of Jessel and Quint.

In Act Two the governess’s sense of evil increases, and she decides to write to the children’s Uncle to ask for advice.  Under the spell of Quint’s ghost, Miles steals the letter and Flora begins to behave strangely.  As the governess forces Miles to admit who made him steal the letter, he speaks aloud Quint’s name and falls dead from shock,  leaving the governess in a fit of guilt and grief.

The opera was commissioned by the arts organisation Venice Biennale, and was premiered in Venice in September 1954 to a positive reception.  It was staged in London soon afterwards and has since gained international popularity; in the five years leading to 2014 it was the second most performed opera in English.  The musical theme is based on a mysterious and threatening 12-note motif which Britten develops throughout the opera. Often the music is tonal, but dissonance is also used to full effect, underlying the malice and evil which pervades the story.

Considering Chance and Serial Music

This exercise asks us to compare twentieth century chance (also known as indeterminate) music with complex music such as serialism.  I have listened to music written in both of these styles and made notes on each in my listening log: Listening to Serialism and John Cage.

Some of the works I listened to by John Cage I do consider to pass my own personal definition of music – comprising at least some form of either melody, rhythm or harmony.  His Sonatas and Interludes for Piano definitely fit into this category, and Imaginary Landscape No. 1 also just about does – this piece is less musical but does have a brief melody and a definite minor tonality to it.  The exceptions in my mind are 4’33” and Music of Changes, both of which contain none of these elements to my ears.  Defining what it means to be a work of art is a harder challenge – the definitions I found around the web use phrases such as:

imaginative; aesthetic appeal; attractively presented; great skill; human creativity; beauty; emotional power;

Most of these terms don’t really work in the context of modern arts however, there are plenty of famous works in the visual arts which are decidedly not beautiful and don’t require much skill to create, as I’ve talked about earlier in my log.  ‘Emotional power’ perhaps opens up more possibilities.  I think it is possible to gain emotional impact from music without necessarily understanding how it was put together – many non musicians for example enjoy listening to and are emotionally affected by classical music although they don’t have the first idea about its harmonic relationships, counterpoint or structure.  I think that understanding the systems used to compose a piece of music helps me to appreciate it at a higher, more abstract or intellectual level, and perhaps gives me a better insight into how to interpret it as a performer, but isn’t strictly necessary for me to enjoy listening to it.  The opposite extreme to this is formalism, the concept where the entire meaning of the music is determined by its form.

In music, I think emotion is largely created by the build up and resolution of tension.  In more traditional classical pieces, this is mostly dictated by a number of elements such as melodic lines and harmony changes, which are carefully planned and written down by the composer.  Chance music is an interesting concept as the composer is no longer in complete control of how the music will sound to its listeners.  In contemporary music which is often more repetitive (e.g. in minimalism), perhaps it does make sense to leave some of the decisions up to the performer to create the maximum impact.  For example if a particular phrase is being repeated a number of times, the best time to stop and move on may well depend on a particular performance (for example how quickly he/she has changed tempo or dynamics, or even by gauging the audience’s response).  I think there’s no fundamental reason why chance pieces of this kind can’t deliver the same impact as traditionally written pieces, though it’s dependent of course on the skills of both composer and performer.  The subtype of chance music which involves chance purely in the compositional process (such as in Music of Changes) I don’t see adding any value however.  This seems a complete gimmick to me, and I don’t know why a composer would choose random chance over his or her personal creative process which surely has more capacity for creating art/music – whatever your definition.

Serialism is a very different beast to chance music as it is completely crafted by the composer, often through a very complex process.  Listening to some of the pieces by Berg and Schoenberg, I wasn’t often able to hear directly the processes that were used, but they did nevertheless result in a kind of evident cohesion to the music.  Whereas Cage’s chance music sounds pretty much random, disconnected and often quite sparse, the serialism pieces I listened to were much more complex, structured and polyphonic.

John Cage

Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939)

The piece starts with a pure electronic sound sliding up and down between two notes an octave and a minor third apart.  A muted, percussive sounding piano plays some mysterious sounding glissandos low down in the bass notes, together with a cymbal.  Later on the piano plays a repeated phrase walking up and down the three notes in a minor third.  The electronic sounds reminded me somewhat of hearing tests, entering and leaving at seemingly random intervals and pitches, and at times were quite uncomfortable to listen to in their full intensity.  The combination of effects creates quite an eerie atmosphere.

Number Pieces: Four3

This is one of a set of pieces written between 1987 and 1992 (the year Cage died).  The name of each piece relates to the number of performers: this is the third piece he wrote for four players.

This particular piece opens with single, slow notes on the piano, and an accompanying effect which sounds like running water.  It is aleatoric music, based on a system called time brackets which are short fragments of music together with indications in the score of how long they are to be played for (sometimes fixed and sometimes at the performer’s discretion).  This technique has attracted quite a bit of research, and I found a published paper which actually does a statistical analysis on the score!

The version I listened to is a very slowly progressing piece; different effects entering and leaving after long intervals, over a period of almost half an hour.  The melody in the piano is atonal and has a desperate, lonely quality to it.

Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano

‘Prepared piano’ refers to a piano which has had objects placed on or between its strings, often creating percussive effects.  Invention of this technique is generally credited to John Cage, but other composers have since also used it.  As a pianist I’m afraid I do cringe at the idea of interfering with the piano’s beautiful sound (and possibly causing damage in the process!).  However I found the resulting effects quite interesting to listen to, and not jarring or unpleasant like some of the electronic sounds in Cage’s other works.

This set of pieces was written between 1946 and 1948, considerably earlier than the Number Pieces.  The sonatas in the set are in the form of early Classical sonatas (binary or ternary form).  To create the structure Cage uses another technique called nested proportions, in which the music is based on a series of numbers both to create each section (the ‘microscopic’), and the structure as a whole (the ‘macroscopic’).

Sonata no. 5 is based on a repeating, rhythmical phrase which sounds like some form of African drumming.  After listening to the previous very non rhythmical pieces, this was quite refreshing.  Others, such as sonata no. 8 are less rhythmical and more atmospheric.  The effects of the prepared piano create pitches which are not tuned as normal for Western music, reminiscent of Eastern cultures.

Music of Changes (1951)

This chance piece was composed using the Chinese I Ching method to determine almost all aspects of the music from large charts.  It was written for piano, and appears to be a series of random notes, silences, dissonant chords and percussive effects, at random dynamics.  It genuinely sounds like a cat walking up and down the piano to me.  There is nothing at all to hook you in as there is no thread or continuity to the music – just stark, random sounds.


This exercise asks us to create our own performance of John Cage’s piece which is essentially the absence of any intended sound for four minutes and thirty three seconds.  I did this on my own at home, sitting in my study.  Since it was around sunset, the predominant sound I heard was birds, and the occasional car going past.  I was aware of sounds from downstairs in the kitchen where my husband was making dinner, and water trickling through the central heating system, as well as my own breathing and the chair I was sitting on creaking slightly.

This was a very calm and meditative few minutes in my day, but I find myself in no way able to call this music.  My own personal definition as previously mentioned necessitates at least one of the building blocks – melody, rhythm, or harmony, and even the birds did not fulfil that criteria on this occasion.  I can completely appreciate the value of silence  (even prolonged silence) within a piece of music, but there is no musical context here at all.  One philosopher has labelled the piece as ‘conceptual art’ which I think is a better description.

Electronic Music

Edwin Roxburgh: At the Still Point of the Turning World (1976)

This piece for solo oboe and tape delay system starts with a series of overblown notes, sharpening the pitch and creating additional harmonics.  The delay system is used to record and play back the sounds through speakers.  This starts off sounding like echoes, but builds up in intensity and the ‘real’ sound can no longer be distinguished from the recording.  A few minutes into the piece the sounds start to be electronically modified, creating strange effects that sound like something from a sci-fi movie.  At this point the sounds become very far removed from the ‘natural’ sound of an oboe.  I found much of this piece quite unpleasant to listen to, as the interactions create dissonances and also harsh, abrasive sounds.  Towards the climax at the end it sounds like many oboes playing (or rather screeching) together at the same time, before fading out into a single pure note.  This piece does not satisfy my personal definition of music as I can identify neither melody, rhythm nor harmony at any point.

Side note: I have previously discovered a really interesting piece for recorder by Ziegenmeyer which also uses delay electronics – notes are on my listening log here.  I much prefer the Ziegenmeyer piece which feels more like ‘music’ to me than the very abstract soundscape of the Roxburgh piece.