The Music

Notes on the music at “Rebel”

Posted by SoundBox

March 17, 2017

WEILL (ARR. JEKABSON)  Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera
HINDEMITH Selections from Kleine Kammermusik für 5 Bläser
HARTMANN  Allegro di molto from
Concerto funebre
SHOSTAKOVICH  Andante and Largo from Five Fragments, Opus 42
SHOSTAKOVICH  The Kreutzer Sonata from Satiri (Satires)
SHOSTAKOVICH  Selections from Symphony No. 14 for Soprano, Bass, and Chamber Orchestra, Opus 135
GEORGE CRUMB  Selections from Black Angels
EASTMAN (TRANS. GRUNBERG)  Excerpt from Gay Guerilla
CAROLINE SHAW  I’ll Fly Away from By and By
JESSIE MONTGOMERY  Excerpt from Banner


REBEL features music of three different cultural contexts in which artists dealt with oppression and censorship.



WEILL (ARR. JEKABSON)  Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera 1928  |  3 mins
The Threepenny Opera, a “play with music” collaboration between composer Kurt Weill (1900-1950) and playwright Bertolt Brecht, is nothing short of brilliant and inspired. Among the work’s colorful characters are Macheath, a murderer and adroit chief of a gang of street-robbers, and Tiger Brown, Chief of Police and excellent at not seeing where it pays not to see. In the Cannon Song, we witness Macheath and Police Chief Tiger Brown reminiscing about their army days, when, if they encountered “a new race, no matter whether brown or pale, we quickly turned it into beefsteak tartare.”


HINDEMITH Selections from Kleine Kammermusik für 5 Bläser  1923  |  7 mins
Put mildly: Hitler disapproved of Paul Hindemith (1895–1962). Throughout the 1920s, the composer was routinely subjected to accusations of “cultural Bolshevism.” Hindemith was a revolutionary leader and his Modernist music was considered the ne plus ultra of avant-garde craziness. Soon after the establishment of the Third Reich, he was condemned to official disfavor. His wind quintet Kleine Kammermusik für 5 Bläser shows the cool, measured sophistication of an artist who was fully invested in the state of his surroundings. With its almost caustic timbre and lean orchestration, Kammermusik bristles with satire and cleverness, and smirks at slothful, emotional indulgences.


HARTMANN  Allegro di molto from Concerto funebre  1939/rev.1959  |  8 mins
There are few composers who witnessed more horrors during the Third Reich than Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963), who made a conscious decision to keep himself in “internal exile.” Instead of fleeing the country, Hartmann expressed his indignation and contempt for the Nazis by refusing to allow his music to be performed in Germany. The self-imposed ban did not silence him, however. He continued to compose, exposing what he saw and felt through pieces like Concerto funebre, which spans extreme moods and temperatures. The piece opens and closes with music that declares his support of intellectualism, which he felt was facing “a future without hope.” Nestled within that heady music is the Allegro di molto heard tonight, a violent fast movement of incredible rhythmic vitality and a fascinating show of the raw power, depth, and impact of his experience.




Shostakovich was one of music’s greatest reporters on the human condition. He was an essential composer, a man who could not commit himself to heroism nor to moral and intellectual slavery, one whose actions and statements cover the gamut from noble to base, whose music exhibits staggering divergence between public and private works, who functioned in a society tyrannically demanding of its artists. It is hard to think of another composer whose work is so intensely affected by life—his own, but also that of the world in which and for which he wrote.


SHOSTAKOVICH  Andante and Largo from Five Fragments, Opus 42  1935  |  2 mins & 4 mins
Written in a single day (June 9, 1935), Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Five Fragments is modeled on an aborted opera. That opera’s subject was to be the heroine of the People’s Will movement, a nineteenth-century Russian organization most widely remembered for assassinating Tsar Alexander II. Shostakovich repurposed that operatic musical material in these sparse and succinct fragments, each of which are wholly distinct in atmosphere. The Andante offers a mocking and grotesque portrait of a tsarist general—listen for heavy-footed brass, a parody of the fussiness and mannerisms of a bygone age by an oh-so-mocking bassoon, and a pompous and affected martial march. The Largo is conjured from an opposite world: a drifting, nocturnal soundscape showcasing the strings. A harp beckons us toward a somber close.


SHOSTAKOVICH The Kreutzer Sonata from Satiri (Satires), Opus 109  1960  |  4 mins
“It came into my head that there exist certain eternal themes, eternal problems,” Shostakovich once said. “Among them are love and death. In the past I have turned my attention to the question of love… in my setting of [Russian poet] Sasha Chorny’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata.’” At the time of writing Satiri, Shostokovich was anticipating forced membership into the Communist Party. He was vexed, to say the least. These pieces were intended as an emotional outlet, and he supposedly wrote them with humor. That humor, however, was a bitter and caustic kind. Appropriate, perhaps, considering how it was handled by authorities. Although Satiri was rapturously received at its premiere, it went no further than that—the musicians were specifically denied permission to record the music nor could the performance be broadcast or shared.


SHOSTAKOVICH  Selections from Symphony No. 14 for Soprano, Bass, and Chamber Orchestra, Opus 135  1969  |  7 mins
This music occupies a dark emotional landscape. Shostakovich wrote that he was in part trying to argue with the idea that death leads always to serenity. “All this,” he wrote, “it seems to me, originates in various religious beliefs, which suggested that, though life may be bad, when you died everything would be all right, and you could expect complete peace in the next world. . . . I see nothing good about such an end to our lives, and this is what I have tried to express.” Angry string attacks open The Zaporozhian Cossack’s Reply to the Sultan of Constantinople, a strutting movement that builds to a point where each of the ten violins is playing its own buzzing line of music. It is a nightmarish moment. The strings are also much divided in the ensuing O Delvig, Delvig! but to far different effect; here the low strings are heard weeping in hopelessness.—From notes by James M. Keller




GEORGE CRUMB Selections from Black Angels 1970  |  6 mins
At the head of Black Angels, George Crumb (b.1929) inscribed the date he completed the piece: “in tempore belli, 1970.” The notation “in the time of war” gave rise to the widespread misunderstanding that this work bore a direct connection to the United States’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Semantics notwithstanding, it was certainly a time of war, and Crumb acknowledged that the war contributed to the dire essence the work reflects and confronts. “I didn’t set out to write an anti-war piece,” he explained. “But…it struck me—music can do this—that Black Angels just pulled in the surrounding psychological and emotional atmosphere.” It was, he said, “conceived as a kind of parable on our troubled contemporary world.”—From notes by J.M.K.


EASTMAN (TRANS. GRUNBERG)  Excerpt from Gay Guerilla  1969  |  5 mins
Julius Eastman (1940-1990) found a degree of fame in the 1970s and early ‘80s, mainly as a singer: He performed the uproarious role of George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s “Eight Songs for a Mad King,” in the company of Pierre Boulez, and toured with Meredith Monk. He achieved more limited notoriety for works that defiantly affirmed his identity as an African-American and as a gay man. These days, Eastman’s name is everywhere…. Identity politics has probably played a role in the Eastman renaissance: programming a black, gay composer quells questions about diversity. But it’s the music that commands attention: wild, grand, delirious, demonic, an uncontainable personality surging into sound.

Eastman first made his name as a creator of conceptual scores in the vein of John Cage, his incantatory baritone often serving as a connecting thread. In the same period, he acquired a taste for provocation. [He] perfected his multifarious minimalism in three works of the late seventies, including Gay Guerilla. Classic minimalist works tend to introduce change by way of horizontal shifts. Eastman’s method, by contrast, is vertical. He keeps piling on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur. New ideas appear out of nowhere: “Gay Guerrilla” hammers away at the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” beloved of Bach. Furthermore, players are given some freedom in realizing the score, their parts taking the form of structured improvisations. This exuberant chaos is far removed from the deadpan cool of Steve Reich and Philip Glass.—From notes by Alex Ross



CAROLINE SHAW  I’ll Fly Away from By and By   2016  |  6 mins

In January 2015, Kanye West performed “POWER” at a Democratic National Committee Fundraiser. Before he took the stage, the curtain rose to reveal a woman singing and harmonizing alone. That was Caroline Shaw (b.1982), a contemporary classical composer. She is a member of the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, frequently collaborates with Kanye, and works with bands like the tUnE-yArDs and with Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry. In 2013, Shaw also won the Pulitzer Prize for music, the youngest-ever recipient of that prize.


JESSIE MONTGOMERY  Excerpt from Banner  2014  |  4 mins
New York native Jessie Montgomery (b.1981) is a New York native violinist, composer, and music educator. She has long been associated with the Sphinx Organization, a group that supports the accomplishments of young African-American, Latino, and minority string players. The piece we hear tonight was a commission to pen a tribute for the 200th anniversary of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Montgomery’s Banner transforms America’s national anthem into a musical melting pot of extraordinary depth. 


Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.