After a lengthy pause, due to pandemic restrictions, we restarted our meetings to a select invited group, in order to make sure that we could comply with social distancing. We began with three piano pieces, played by Esteban Sanchez, by the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz born in Comprodon in 1860. Albeniz was a child prodigy on the piano and, at the age of seven he passed the examination for piano at the Conservatoire de Paris although he was not admitted as he was too young. He gave his first concert performance at the age of 11 and subsequently embarked on an international career when he travelled with his father, a customs agent, who was required to travel frequently. He never actually composed for the guitar but many of his works have been transcribed for that instrument and are often better known as the transcriptions rather than the original version.
We heard the Pavana Capricho, Tango in A minor and Torre Bermeja. It is not clear whether there is any linkage between the three pieces other than they were the right length to fill up the space in a CD of two longer pieces!
The Pavana, first performed in 1882, was amongst the last pieces written by Albeniz from his early period where he was experimenting with traditional styles in the manner of Rameau, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt before he turning to more Spanish influences. It was originally written for four hands but this version is by a single pianist.
The Tango in A minor (1889) was one of two Spanish dances written for the piano. The Torre Bermeja was originally published as a set of 12 characteristic pieces (op92) and the title means vermillion tower. Although there is a tower of that name in the Alhambra, the piece is believed to be named after another vermillion tower near Cadiz.
We then moved onto more familiar ground with Mahler’s fifth symphony. Although we had heard the well known adagio movement from this symphony before, on this occasion we listened to the first movement. It was written in 1901 and 1902 whilst he was staying at his summer home in the Austrian province of Carinthia. Earlier in 1901 he had suffered a major haemorrhage and was close to bleeding to death. Later in the same year he met Alma and by summer 1902 they were married and expecting their first child. It opens with a trumpet solo reminiscent of a funeral march with ominous and remorseless themes. It must be admitted that Mahler is not one of the most cheerful composers!
Finally, on a completely different note, we heard three pieces by Scott Joplin, Maple Leaf Rag, Elite Syncopation and The Entertainer played by Alexander Peskanov. Scott arose from humble beginnings and his father Giles was a former slave. He was born in 1868 either in Texarkana or Linden both in Texas. His parents had some musical talents with his father playing the violin while his mother sang and played the banjo. He was given some rudimentary musical education and was allowed to play the piano whilst his mother cleaned. The family broke up in part because Scott and his mother wanted him to pursue a musical career whilst his father favoured a more practical one. Young Scott benefitted from free music lessons from neighbours, principally from Julius Weiss, a German born American Jewish music professor, no stranger to racial prejudice. In the late 1880’s he gave up his job as a railway labourer to become an itinerant musician. Amongst other venues he was part of the Texarkana Minstrels who, ironically, were raising money for a monument to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States. Opportunities for black pianists were scarce and the few sources of steady employment were churches and brothels! In 1893 he was in Chicago for the World Fair and formed a band in which he played cornet. 27 million visitors attended the Fair which spread the popularity of ragtime. By 1897 ragtime had become a national craze in the US and was described by the St Louis Dispatch as “a veritable call of the wild which mightily stirred the pulses of city bred people”. Maple Leaf Rag was one of his first successes, although he is probably best known today for The Entertainer famously used in the film The Sting. His output was not purely ragtime and he did write two operas neither of which was a great success. He died in 1917 of syphilitic dementia at the Manhattan State hospital and was buried in a pauper’s grave which remained unmarked until it was finally given a headstone in 1974 the year the Sting won Best Picture at the Oscars. Perhaps his early career in Texan brothels contributed to his demise.
We finished on a more sombre note with the 4th movement of Shostakovich’s seventh symphony, The Leningrad, played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov. The symphony was completed in December 1941 and was premiered in Leningrad, as it then was, in March 1942 when the city was being besieged by German and Finnish forces. It was submitted in honour of the besieged city. The symphony soon became popular both in the Soviet Union and the West as a symbol of resistance to fascism and totalitarianism, thanks in part to the composer’s microfilming of the score and its clandestine delivery, via Tehran and Cairo, to New York where Arturo Toscanini led a broadcast performance on July 19th 1942 and Time Magazine placed Shostakovich on its cover. That popularity faded somewhat after the end of the war but the work is still regarded as a major musical testament to the 27 million Soviet people who lost their lives in World War II, and it is often played at Leningrad Cemetery, where half a million victims of the 900 day Siege of Leningrad are buried.