Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti 1974 | 45 mins
Completed less than a year before his death, Shostakovich’s setting of the texts of the Michelangelo Suite are an extended meditation on aspects of an artist’s life and work. The opening song grapples with the question of truth, the next three with love, then three on the relationship of the artist to the powerful (especially grappling with exile), two on the joys and sorrows of being a creative person, and, to end, contemplations of death and immortality. Autobiographical references are subtly worked into the score, including the dedication of the Suite to the composer’s wife, Irina.
Symphony No. 5 1888 | 49 mins
Tchaikovsky offered no written program for this symphony. Yet the opening theme has a function other than its musical one: It recurs as a catastrophic interruption of the second movement's love song, as an enervated ghost that approaches the languid dancers of the waltz, and finally in majestic triumph. He begins with a portentous introduction. The tempo is slow, the colors are dark. The theme, suggestive here of a funeral march, sticks easily in the memory. Let’s call it the Fate theme. He builds a strong, highly energized movement, which, however, vanishes in utter darkness.
In 1939, the world fell in love with a pop song called “Moon Love.” It had a great tune—by Tchaikovsky. It is the one you now hear the French horn play in the second movement. Later, the clarinet introduces a new and wistful phrase, picked up and carried further by the bassoon and then the strings. This idea is then brutally interrupted by the Fate theme. The music stops in shocked silence. Order is eventually restored, but again the Fate theme intervenes. This time there is no real recovery, and the movement sinks to an exhausted close.
Next Tchaikovsky gives us a graceful, somewhat melancholic waltz. Varied and inventive interludes separate the returns of the initial melody, and just before the end the Fate theme ghosts softly over the stage.
The finale begins with the Fate theme. This time, though, it is possessed by an almost violent energy, and a highly dramatic movement unfolds. Toward the end, Fate reappears, this time just as a rhythm. It’s a headlong race to the finish!
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.