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  • Writer's pictureHelsingin Kamariorkesteri

Vernacular and Art Music

Updated: Feb 13, 2021

Concert at Temppeliaukio Church on November 19th 2020. Martin Malmgren, piano |

James Salomon Kahane, conductor. Register here.

“With noise are born chaos and its opposite: music. With music are born power and its opposite: subversion. In noises one can read the codes of life, the relations between men.” Jacques Attali

For many centuries, and preceding the era of widespread access to all genres of music in which we are living today, the art of manipulating sounds, transcribing them, and sharing them, existed mainly through the opposition between secular and religious. While this opposition was mostly relevant and clear during the medieval period until the renaissance, the dichotomy later evolved into the more actual notions of art music and popular music. The art music, the music of high aesthetic value, implied careful craftsmanship and numerous considerations. On the other hand, popular music stood for its accessibility, having a free rapport with the high structural and theoretical concepts on which art music is based. Until today, and at times with great audacity, many composers have willingly played with this opposition and de facto rendered it null, by showing that art music too, could be popular and appeal to wide audiences. In a similar fashion, popular music has often enjoyed levels of craftsmanship and theoretical depth which contributed to question the relevance of the dichotomy. Mozart, Shostakovich and Bartók are three composers that have continuously played with these notions, by composing popular music with formal structure and harmonies, or by incorporating preexisting popular styles into their own compositions. In this program, the Helsinki Chamber Orchestra explores music of these three composers in order to show that at the end of the day, the lines between every style of music are often much more blurred than one might think: with Mozart, light music of the classical period. With Shostakovich, some popular excerpts from the early 20th century. And with Bartók, themes and sonorities of Hungarian folk music.


  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Divertimento in D major, K. 136

  • Béla Bartók: Divertimento

  • Dimitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Divertimento in D major, K. 136

Mozart's Divertimento in D major, K. 136 (K.125a) is the first of a group of works collectively known as the "Salzburg" symphonies. These works stands apart from Mozart's remaining symphonies, in that they are set for strings alone, rather than for the otherwise customary mixed instrumentation including winds. A further point which separates these compositions from Mozart's others in the symphonic genre, is that they are comprised of just three, rather than four individual movements, each lacking the usual Minuet. And lastly, the compact three-movement form further distinguishes the "Salzburg" symphonies from Mozart's true Divertimentos and Serenades, which were multi-movement creations on a large scale, regularly spanning six movements and sometimes even more. In keeping with Classical conventions, works such as these for string orchestra could also be played by the four voices of the string quartet when the occasion demanded. At the time of the Dievrtimento’s composition, early in 1772, Mozart was then just 16 years of age, and already held the post of Court Concertmaster to Hieronymus Coloredo, Prince Archbishop of Salzburg. This period fell between Mozart's second and third visits to Italy, where he may well have found the impulse to compose works in the style of the three-movement Sinfonias and Concerti Grossi which had been widely popular since the times of Corelli. Mozart's Divertimento in D seems indeed to closely mirror the style of the Italian concertos for strings, which he must certainly have encountered during his several visits to Italy. The work consists of a lively opening Allegro, in simple sonata form; a charming central Andante; and a brilliant concluding Presto. It is interesting to compare this work with its close companion in B flat, K. 137, which follows a slightly different general scheme, in which the main Allegro is placed second, and follows (unusually) a first movement headed "Andante." The brilliant inventiveness and virtuosity of the D major Divertimento is, to echo the words of Alfred Einstein (writing about another closely related work, Mozart's perennial Eine kleine nachtmusik, the Serenade in G, K. 525) "a masterpiece of masterpieces, on the smallest possible scale."

Béla Bartók: Divertimento

Bartók’s Divertimento for string orchestra, composed in 1939 on commission from Paul Sacher, the pioneering conductor who commissioned so much fine music for his string orchestra in Basel, Switzerland, is the piece which clearly marks the end of Bartók's European career. Bartók was then already planning to move to the United States to escape both the gathering war clouds of Europe and the Nazi sympathizing regime of his native Hungary. He had already sent his manuscripts and papers to London, but remained at home because of the terminal illness of his mother. While taking a break from all this he visited Sacher in Switzerland and while there composed this substantial (nearly 25 minute) work in 15 days. His mother died in December; Bartók finished up his personal affairs in Europe, giving his farewell Budapest appearance in October 1940. Meanwhile, the Divertimento had been successfully premiered in June in Basel. Audiences were struck with a new clarity and classical approach in Bartók's music, as well as by his returning to a much clearer tonal feeling. This consolidated a trend which actually began a few years earlier. Longer, more attractive melodies (almost always in folk-character) reappear after a decade and a half in which Bartók's music was famous for its harsh sounds, uncompromisingly dissonant harmonies, and tight, motive-driven formal procedures. In this period it is easy to find (and hear) distinct tonality. The work's three movements, for instance, are in F Major, a modal scale based on D, and again in F. Bartók's use of solo strings against the large string group (particularly in the first movement) recalls the concerto grosso form. The opening movement is a suave and gracefully dance-like "Allegro non troppo," full of attractive melodies, but also making highly intellectual use of canons, inversions, and other such devices. The Second movement is a remarkable example of Bartók's "Night Music, " including a frightening central section which seems to suggest some terror of the night. The third movement is even more playful than the first, a bit earthier, and somewhat faster. It even spoofs Bartók's tendency to drop into canons and fugues: what appears to be a full-fledged fugato section dissolves soon after it starts, the music laughs at itself, and comes to a whirling conclusion.

Dimitri Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1

The Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra, Op. 35, was completed by Dmitri Shostakovich in 1933. The concerto was an experimentation with a neo-baroque combination of instruments, and was premiered on 15 October 1933 in the season opening concerts of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra with Shostakovich at the piano, Fritz Stiedry conducting, and Alexander Schmidt playing the trumpet solos, and was very well received.

Despite the title, the work might more accurately be classified as a double concerto rather than a piano concerto in which the trumpet and piano command equal prominence. The trumpet parts frequently take the form of sardonic interjections, leavening the humor and wit of the piano passage work. The trumpet does assume relatively equal importance during the conclusion of the last movement, immediately after the cadenza for piano solo. Years after he wrote the work, Shostakovich recalled that he had initially planned to write a concerto for trumpet and orchestra and then added the piano to make it a double concerto. As he continued writing, it became a piano concerto with a solo trumpet. This concerto incorporates and parodies many other musical works, from both the art and popular music realms. Shostakovich's extensive use of diverse musical quotations was groundbreaking at the time. In album notes, Robert Matthew-Walker writes, "With such a polyglot collection of quotations and influences, only a composer of genius could have moulded this variety into a cohesive whole. The miracle is that Shostakovich succeeded, and constructed a distinctive and indestructible work…”. He also notes that the concerto contains a strong element of parody, beginning with a reference to Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, and ending with "an uproarious quotation" of Beethoven's "Rage Over a Lost Penny" and a slice of Haydn's D major Piano Sonata. The last movement's final cadenza is introduced with exactly the same trill as in the final bars of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 cadenza. The work also includes quotations from Shostakovich's own Hamlet incidental music, Op. 32a, and from a revue, Hypothetically Murdered, Op. 31. In the second movement Shostakovich presents a parody of a theme from his ballet The Golden Age (1935). In the final movement Shostakovich includes excerpts from his opera Christopher Columbus (1929). On the more popular side, Shostakovich adds sarcasm with quotations of the Austrian folk song "Oh du lieber Augustin" - Augustin being a character who seems to survive any catastrophe, thanks to his propensity for alcohol. In addition, the trumpet solo in the nine bars starting one bar after rehearsal mark 63 is identical to the melody of the folk tune "Poor Mary" (aka "Poor Jenny").

Information regarding COVID-19: In order to guarantee the safety of our audience and in following the recommendations of the Finnish Government, the following concert has a total of 140 seats available, in order to guarantee the safety distance of at least 2 meters between each audience member. Due to the rapidly changing conditions, tickets will not be paid for in advance. Instead, register online now to save your seat and pay your ticket at the door!

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