musings of a professional bassoonist

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shostakovich 11

Dmitri Shostakovich
Judging from the reaction of the audience following last night's Columbus Symphony performance of Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, Opus 103, "The Year 1905", the power of this symphony transcends the specificity of Bloody Sunday and the Revolution of 1905 which the piece commemorates.  On Bloody Sunday, a peaceful protest (against autocratic rule) by Russian workers and their families turned into massacre as Russian troups opened fire on the defenseless crowd.  Hundreds died senselessly; the Revolution of 1905 ensued.

Shostakovich himself wrote of his 11th symphony:
" deals with contemporary themes even though it's called '1905'.  It's about the people, who have stopped believing because the cup of evil has run over."
Undoubtedly, many people in the audience and the orchestra were mindful of current events in Egypt during last night's Shostakovich 11 performance.  We were fortunate to participate in such a powerful demonstration of the relevance of classical music.

Shostakovich quoted nine different Russian workers' revolutionary songs which were woven into the texture throughout the 65-minute symphony.  This was a departure from his usual style, and probably contributed to this symphony's immediate success in Russia upon its publication in 1957.

Shostakovich wrote some of the greatest bassoon solos of all time, most notably the recitative-like solos of 4th movement of Symphony no. 9.  The first page of the 1st bassoon part of Shostakovich 11 contains nothing but solos:

The first solo (2 bars before 15) occurs following a lengthy rest.  To avoid surprising yourself and everyone else with a pitch below A=440, it is advisable to remove the reed from the bocal and quietly blow air into the instrument for a couple of minutes prior to the entrance.  Bassoons are extremely sensitive to temperature, and any entrance following a lengthy rest should be preceded by blowing air into the bassoon, unless the stage temperature is unusually high.  The reason I know this is because I listened to the InstantEncore stream of the Columbus Symphony's Handel's Messiah performance from a couple of months ago.  I was horrified to hear an entrance of mine sounding quite flat on low F after a prolonged rest.  Then I remembered the advice of my Japanese bassoon teacher, Ryohei Nakagawa: he insisted on blowing into the instrument during long rests to keep the pitch stable.

The passage above which begins 3 before 21 (and becomes a soli with the 2nd bassoon at 2 before 21) is to be played as powerfully as possible.  It really is ff!  The last 3 bars complete the passage with 1st bassoon and contra.  Of course, it's a good idea for the bassoonist to drop his/her jaw in the attempt to keep the pitch of low Eb down.

Near the end of the 3rd movement, which is a funeral march lamenting those who lost their lives in the Bloody Sunday massacre, Shostakovich wrote the following bassoon solo which is accompanied by 2 clarinets during the 1st 3 bars:

The bassoonist is well advised to match the dynamics of the 2 clarinets until they drop out.  (It may require a volume louder than p!)  Then the bassoon can end the solo quietly beginning at 5 after 117.

There are some tutti passages which require significant wood shedding in this piece.  This example is from the final page of the 1st bassoon part:

Along with the other woodwinds, the bassoons are likely representing the intensity of the crowd - the people who will ultimately prevail in their revolution.  We should not let Shostakovich down by fumbling through this passage!  Its intensity requires precision.

Here is the audio stream of the Columbus Symphony's performance of Shostakovich from this past weekend:

Russian Masters - Rachmaninoff Paganini Rhapsody - InstantEncore



Matt Corey said...

I love your blog, Betsy. I remember Nakagawa (Aspen, '93) telling me the same thing about blowing air through the instrument during rests.

Keep up the great work! I look forward to reading more and sharing your blog with my students.

B.S. said...

Thank you, Matt! I'm thrilled that another Nakagawa student is reading my blog, and it's comments like yours that keep me going.