From Music Director Daniel Meyer
Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, or so the saying goes. But what about writing music about philosophy? How does a worldview creep in between the notes of a symphonic work? Well, you could certainly argue that over history artists and composers have tried to bring a distinctive philosophy to light based on the content or intended effect of their creations. Richard Strauss, deeply steeped in the Romantic notion of the artist as hero, had a special take on how philosophy may or may not be revealed in his music.
He named his stunning tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra directly after the famous work by Nietzsche, yet disavowed the source to say "I did not intend to write philosophical music or to portray Nietzsche's great work in musical terms." Rather, Strauss wrote that he strove to musically portray “the evolution of the human race from its origins, through its various phases of development, right up to Nietzsche's idea of the superhuman." Pretty heady stuff for a 35-minute musical composition, but Strauss didn’t shy away from such grandiose ideas. More important to us today as listeners of this densely-packed work is to know that Strauss crafted his musical sections based on chapter titles from Nietzsche's original. He reshuffled the chapter titles in order to fashion a unified work. Today we may or may not subscribe to Nietzsche’s self-reliant attitudes, but it certainly makes for wonderfully over-the-top symphonic music that leaps off the stage in colors and bold gestures that made Strauss famous.
Dmitri Shostakovich must have known deep down that he was an artist of ‘superhuman’ power and creativity, faced with the often dangerous task of producing music that didn’t offend the rather ‘less-than-superhuman’ Soviet leaders who stood in judgement of his life’s work. This stifling and critical atmosphere, while personally miserable for Shostakovich, certainly fired his creativity in ways that forced him to explore the role of a hero in the face of insurmountable obstacles. You can hear some of this desperation and strife in the Cello Concerto No. 1. It’s a strikingly personal work (hear Shostakovich’s own initials encoded in the first few bars!) in which the interplay between soloist and orchestra becomes a model for the individual versus society. But even more than that, with its angry outbursts and searing, heartbreaking moments, the concerto contains the full range of human expression. I am so pleased that Narek Hakhnazaryan has agreed to make his Erie Philharmonic debut with such a rich and dramatic piece, and I am confident you will appreciate what makes him such a special young artist.
We will begin our November concert with a piece that is strikingly anti ‘superhuman.’ In fact, Arvo Pärt’s Fratres is distinguished by its humble, simple gestures and hauntingly slow chord progressions. This music strikes me as about an ego-free piece as one could imagine. The music sets you in a contemplative space. Imagine a room lit by one simple candle, and you will already have an appreciation for the slowly-unfolding process by which the composer reveals this music. The instrumentation is also sparing, making use of only the strings of the Philharmonic plus one bass drum and claves. The percussion instruments mark the passage of time much like an old, reliable grandfather clock. This music has always haunted me (in a good way!) and I have admired how, with such simple materials, Pärt constructs an atmosphere that transcends its place in time and space. It should, if we get it just right, provide the perfect foil to the turbulence, passion, and decadence of the ‘superhuman’ music of Shostakovich and Strauss.