It seems appropriate to kick off the summer term of my Opera in Depth Zoom course with Britten's Albert Herring, that Maupassant-adapted classic operatic comedy - one of the few truly great ones of the 20th century - since we're heading towards the merriest of months, and Eric Crozier's libretto is about a virginal May King crowned in the absence of any suitable village maidens (pictured above by Robert Workman: Richard Pinkstone as Albert with Adrian Thompson as the Mayor, Clarissa Meek as Florence Pike and Orla Boylan as Lady Billows in the wonderful Grange Festival production, which I reviewed on The Arts Desk).
Helping that great mezzo Jean Rigby and her husband director Jamie Hayes with some of the fiddly bits about Zoom sound and vision for a talk they were giving to the Northampton Opera Group, and instantly warming to them both, I thought I might be able to call upon Jean to talk about the Glyndebourne production originally directed by Peter Hall (and still ready for revival, I think). She's delighted to be able to help, and I'm hoping we might reassemble other members of that original cast, including John Graham Hall, Felicity Palmer and Alan Opie. Fingers crossed.
We kick off next Monday afternoon (19 April), 2.30-4.30pm, and the next three or four Mondays (Bank Holidays obviously excepted) will be devoted to Albert. Then we move on to Mozart's La clemenza di Tito for the following five Mondays (pages of Metastasio's libretto, much used by the time Mozart came to set/adapt it, pictured above), due a new production to mark the Royal Opera's emergence from lockdown. Director Richard Jones and conductor Mark Wigglesworth, both regular visitors to my Opera in Depth courses, have promised to come along.
The last of four terms on Russian music begins next Thursday, 22 April. You don't need to have attended the other three to follow this one. I've made a provisional draft for each class thus:
1: The Zhdanov trials and after 22 April
After the ‘chaos instead of music’ Pravda article attacking Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1936, a second massive blow fell on Soviet composers in February 1948, when Stalin’s right-hand man Andrey Zhdanov initiated a conference attacking so-called ‘Formalism in Music’. Shostakovich and Prokofiev were the main victims. We look at Shostakovich’s ‘bottom-drawer’ parody of the event, Rayok or The Musical Peepshow, and see how Prokofiev adapted with a further simplified, but still characteristic, style. We hope that Steven Isserlis will be our guest to discuss the cello works of that period.
2: Before and after the death of Stalin: two symphonies 29 April
Prokofiev completed his enigmatic and only surface-simple Seventh Symphony shortly before his death, which coincided so tragically with Stalin’s on 5 March 1953. Shostakovich had begun his Tenth Symphony but did not complete it until after that watershed, allowing himself an uncharacteristically jubilant if wild finale (probably not surprising to see how the Italian communist paper l'Unità covered the event, pictured below).
3: Shostakovich and his acolytes in the 1950s 6 May
Shostakovich’s position as the supreme chronicler of Russian life and soul was now unchallenged, but new names start to emerge: the considerable figure of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, aka Moisey Vainberg, born in Poland in 1919 but Moscow based from 1943, at Shostakovich’s urging; and Galina Ustvolskaya, Shostakovich’s pupil from 1939 to 1941 and then from 1947 to 1948. Her output is small but original – ‘there is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, living or dead’, she declared, with a certain hyperbole – and Shostakovich quotes her 1949 Trio for clarinet, violin and piano in his Fifth String Quartet, premiered in 1953.
4: Chamber music, mostly Shostakovich 13 May
Time to examine the form in which Shostakovich took the greatest and most radical steps forward, the string quartet, with special reference ranging from the Sixth Quartet of 1956 to the Tenth of 1964. That includes, of course, his most autobiographical work, the Eighth Quartet of 1960. We hope to have as special guest for this class Sasha Pavlovsky of the Jerusalem Quartet, whose performances of these works in recent years have been awe-inspiring.
5: Thaw 1: one step forward, one step back 20 May
With the advent of Nikita Khrushchev as President, opportunities in the arts seemed to open up. Shostakovich was hopeful for the performance of his Thirteenth Symphony, ‘Babi Yar’, to outspoken texts by the young poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, but things did not go quite so smoothly.
6: Thaw 2: Stravinsky returns to Russia 27 May
The third great 20th century Russian composer came in triumph to Moscow, celebrating his 80th birthday (pictured above with Rostropovich). We take the opportunity to look at the very different paths he had taken in America, and what came next.
7: The inspirers: great Russian performers of the later Soviet years 3 June
Time to consider those towering artists who offered such lifelines to composers in trouble: violinist David Oistakh, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich’s wife, pictured below at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport in 1963).
8: Shostakovich: Endgames 1 10 June
In his later years, an ailing Shostakovich was much preoccupied by death, and approached each work as if it could be his last. The Fourteenth Symphony is his answer to Musorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death, which he orchestrated: a cycle setting poems by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker and Rilke for soprano, bass, strings and percussion. The Fifteenth Symphony of 1971 is an autobiographical orchestral summing up, but by no means his last work.
9: Shostakovich: Endgames 2 17 June
Each of the last three string quartets offers a different angle on death: terrified in the Thirteenth, ultimately radiant in the Fourteenth and skeletally enigmatic in the Fifteenth. Parallel are the last song cycles, with explicit reflections in the texts especially of the Michelangelo Suite, and the swansong of the Viola Sonata
10: The end of history – the mid-1970s onwards 24 June
Two towering figures in Russian music emerged after Shostakovich – Alfred Schnittke, who like the master constantly surprised with his eclecticism up to his death in 1998, and Sofia Gubaidulina (born in 1931), who has continued to compose music of a visionary intensity.
If you're interested in signing up - each two-hour class is a tenner, making it £100 for each term - leave me a message here with your e-mail. I won't publish it, but I promise to get back in touch.