Classical Check-Up – 1957

1957 was an interesting year for classical music — Iannis Xenakis took influence from advanced science and mathematics, Igor Stravinsky returned to avant-garde ballet, Dmitri Shostakovich made a bold political statement, and an obscure Frenchman named Jean Barraqué schooled Pierre Boulez at his own serialist game. Far from a dead genre at this point.


Piano Sonata

Composer: Jean Barraqué

Genre: Serialism

Grade: A

Filled with an all-encompassing sound that is constantly falling over itself, it’s a wonder that Jean Barraqué’s Piano Sonata, originally conceived in 1952, can even stay upright at all, let alone for over 40 minutes. But it does, and that’s a marvel in itself. Expanding upon Pierre Boulez’s experiments in serialism by adding Romantic intensity, Barraqué delivered a work that is both transfixing and timeless. His Piano Sonata is a spatial marvel, using strategic silences to counteract the harsh waves of dissonant onslaught. After a while, the anti-melodic polytonality has a calming effect.


Pithoprakta

Composer: Iannis Xenakis

Genre: Experimental

Grade: A-

I’m not going to pretend like I know anything about Gauss’ Law, Brownian motion or Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution (scientific concepts that apparently influenced Iannis Xenaxis’ compositional process), but I do understand this: Metastaseis succeeded by expanding infinitely outward; Pithoprakta essentially does the same by scaling back to a molecular level. Plucked strings, wood block and an eerie tone cluster created by knocking on the bodies of the violins all combine to form a microtonal cacophony of constant movement. Like neutrons inside of an atom. Or quarks inside a neutron.


Scene-Battleship-Potemkin-sequence-The-Odessa-Steps
Still from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin.

Symphony No. 11 in G Minor (“The Year 1905”)

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

Genre: Romantic

Grade: A-

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony approaches the Russian Revolution of 1905 with the same spirit as Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin — over-the-top and full of spectacle, yet undeniably powerful. Shostakovich drew influence from Modest Mussorgsky to convey the distinctly Russian struggle heard in the chaotic music, a montage of clashing moods.

Symphony No. 11 looks back on the events of 1905 from the viewpoint of 1956 — if all that resulted was Stalin and Hungarian oppression, was the Revolution even worth it? It’s hard to say if the opus ends in hope or dread.


Agon

Composer: Igor Stravinsky

Genre: Avant-Garde Classical

Grade: A-

Choreographed by George Balanchine, the genre of dance performed in Agon is neoclassical, yet the music finds Igor Stravinsky returning to his experimental ballet roots by way of the twelve-tone row. Fans of The Firebird, Frank Zappa and Arnold Schoenberg will rejoice; fans of The Rake’s Progress may be disappointed.


Piano Concerto No. 2 

Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich

Genre: Classical

Grade: B+

Rumor has it that Shostakovich himself disowned this concerto before it even premiered. And while it may only be a minor work in the great Russian composer’s extensive catalogue, it’s still a worthwhile piece of music. The second movement in particularly is noteworthy for its impressive ambience and emotional power. However, the opening and closing movements bear little to no resemblance to the subdued “Andante,” detracting from the piece’s overall impact.

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