Seattle Symphony Music Director Thomas Dausgaard shares a curated playlist of music born out of adversity, including works by J.S. Bach, Bernstein, Hindemith and more.
All over the world people suffer in today’s situation - and we ask ourselves existential questions. In this desperate situation I believe music is there to help us. Music can take us to deep places inside beyond the many words and numbers we hear. It can take us to new insights, new decisions for our lives, new hope and light. It tells us what we resonate with and that can be healing. Many composers and artists show and have shown us how they respond to hardship, and their music can bring us inspiration and resonance.
No doubt, music is best experienced live. Today that is less likely for us to experience. Seattle Symphony stands like a lighthouse in our time, still keeping the music alive, making it accessible - yet being seriously impacted by a situation where we are challenged to make essential choices in our lives. All our programmes are rethought to express our commitment to diversity, scaled-down to make for a safe environment for the musicians on stage, and streamed to make it safe for our audience to experience it. This is our response to the hardship and adversity of today.
My playlist is a further reflection on how composers and artists have responded to adversity from the day of Bach to today, each overcoming or addressing adversities of different kinds. I hope it will be an inspiration for you!
J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: I. Chorus with chorale: Kommt, ihr Tochter, helft mir klagen
The opening chorus of Bach’s St Matthew Passion is the lamenting depiction of us carrying the cross with Jesus. For me its unrelenting seriousness is touching an universal ur-nerve of overcoming the hardship of suffering.
George Walker: Sonata No. 1: Theme & Six Variations
Hardship of race: You might have heard our posthumous world premiere performance of the African American George Walker’s Sinfonia No 5 in 2018, - a work responding with indignation to the Charlotteville shooting and bringing up the history of slavery in music, words and visuals. Walker was an accomplished pianist and composer, experiencing hardship as he was largely ignored by the musical establishment - and here uniting both roles as he plays his own touching Theme and variations from his 1st sonata.
Felix Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 6, Op. 80 in F Minor: IV. Finale: Allegro molto
Hardship of loss: Influenced by the death of his young and very dear sister Fanny, Mendelssohn composed one of his last works, the string quartet op. 80 as a “Requiem for Fanny”. This is Mendelssohn at his most disturbing - and great!
Bernstein: Songfest: 4. "To What You Said..."
Adversity of sexual orientation: I was so looking forward to performing Bernstein’s Songfest in Seattle last spring; since learning it from him as his student at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in 1988 it has been a very meaningful work for me. In this movement Bernstein weaves an endless and endlessly beautiful melody to Walt Whitman’s words, “I am he who kisses his comrade lightly on the lips.” Music and words hinting at Whitman’s as well as Bernstein’s sexuality at a time when it was not accepted.
Weinberg: 24 Preludes, Op. 100: Prelude No. 3
Adversity of race: Maybe you were among the lucky ones at Gidon Kremer’s stunning recital at Octave 9 in January, where he performed some of Weinberg’s cello preludes transscribed for violin, or heard him perform Weinberg’s violin concerto with us? Weinberg’s large output of music suffered neglect in the Soviet Union, most likely because of the charges against him as a “Jewish bourgeois nationalist.”
Beach: Symphony in E Minor, Op. 32, "Gaelic": II. Alla siciliana – Allegro vivace – Andante
Adversity of gender: Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony is for me the first great american symphony - and the first american symphony by a woman! - and I was so excited to be performing it in Seattle this season - now unfortunately postponed! It was a success at its premiere in Boston in 1896, but since largely ignored. How can one not love this music?
Krasa: Brundibar (Bumble-bee): Act II: Liebe Leut', hier bin ich weider
Adversity of oppression: In the Czech children’s opera Brundibar, the main character is a symbol of evil - here in a song ending in a grotesque waltz trying to entice the children. It was performed by children at the KZ camp Theresienstadt; absurdly understood by the performers to portray Hitler, but by the German authorities highlighted as proof of how good life was in a (death) camp!
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler: Vorspiel: Concert of Angels
Adversity of censorship: Mathias Grünewald was a renaissance painter most famous for the Isenheimer altar in Colmar, France; his life as an artist of integrity and vision, regardless of political considerations was portrayed in Hindemith’s disturbing and beautiful opera Mathis der Maler - here the Overture in response the altar’s depiction of angels making music. Hindemith’s works were banned from the stage, deemed “Entartete Kunst” in Nazi times.
Scriabin: 3 Pieces, Op. 2: No. 1. Etude in C-Sharp Minor
Hardship of coming to terms with the past: I had the fantastic privilege of hearing several concerts with the two russian piano giants Svjatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels, both deeply moving in their music making. Richter was like a force, yet so vulnerable and sensitive in his way of making the music sing. His tragic family background might give us clues: the ramifications of a love triangle led to his father being killed young because of his German origin; Richter refused to meet his mother until on her death-bed.
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61: II. Scherzo: Allegro vivace
Hardship of mental illness. Schumann considered the composition process of his 2nd symphony as his life-saver bringing him back from a severe depression. Its devilish Scherzo is for me a wild expression of his manic side. Schumann attempted suicide some years later and ended his life lonely in an asylum.
Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 28
Hardship of unfreedom. Gilels enjoyed the support of the Soviet Union as one of its star musicians, allowed to travel internationally, reflecting glory back on the USSR as the country of great artists. At the same time Gilels was being watched very closely, in case he would take the opportunity to not return home, like many of his contemporaries. It was an unnerving cocktail, and there is still speculation over his relatively early death in 1985. Recently a completely stunning CD was released of Gilels’ concert at the Seattle Opera House in December 1964 and I am so excited to share it with you. Please, let me know if you were at this concert where Prokofiev’s 3rd sonata explodes in his hands.
Cory Henry: "Black Man"
Hardship of race. “Don’t be scared,” the musical multi-talent Cory Henry sings, reflecting desparately and movingly on how it is being a “Black Man” in a society where segregation is still not overcome. Henry is a phenomenon I have just recently got to know - please, check him out on the internet - and enjoy this song from a CD just released a few days ago!
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125: IV. Finale – Presto
Adversity of disability. The symbol in classical music of idealism is Beethoven, the deaf overcoming his disability, and the composer we were hoping to celebrate intensely this year. Clearly, it was not to be - maybe he had enough of all that glorification long ago! In his 9th symphony finale, he reflects on the music of the previous movements, bringing them back in short clips - and in every case he musically says “No” to them. No more of that old music. To make his message even clearer he introduces singers; the bass interrupting the music to sing: “No, not these tones!” And he continues: “Let us sing more cheerful songs, songs full of joy.” What follows is a tumultuous expression of joy, and at its most central point the chorus intones: “All men become brothers.”
Beethoven’s music sums up my wish for the playlist. Enjoy!
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Posted on November 18, 2020READ MORE BEYOND THE STAGE