Some capital music

The moment when the meaning of ‘globalisation’ started to sink in was during a visit I made to Beijing some years ago; specifically, a day trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, when first impressions weren’t formed by the impact of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but by the incongruous vision and aroma of a KFC outlet. So, if your sensory association with capital cities has been blunted by such so-called advances, I hope the following musical-metropolis selection will refresh your palate and maybe turn up a few new pieces in the process.

Moscow is our first stop, with Shostakovich setting the scene. He wrote the operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki in 1958, combining his popular musical style with the work’s satirical commentary on the issue of Moscow’s housing shortages and redevelopments. The orchestral suite assembled from Shostakovich’s score has a first movement titled A spin through Moscow (C71096). Its light-hearted fizz may not fit the common perception of a land currently beset by a raft of sanctions, but it’s perfect as a reflection of Shostakovich, the optimistic Russian survivor.

Next stop Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina and home to Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), whose name has become synonymous with tango, the signature dance of his native country. Piazzolla said that Buenos Aires taught him the secrets of the tango. He learned these “in a cold room in a boarding house, in the cabarets in the 1940s, in the cafés with balconies and orchestras, in the people of yesterday and today, in the sounds of the streets.” Top that off with the sound of the bandoneón, which is joined at the hip with the tango concept, and you have Piazzolla’s Sinfonia Buenos Aires (8.572271). Here’s part of the opening movement.

I’ve lost count of how many years a visit to Prague has been on my to-do list. It has a distinguished history as regards classical music. Whenever life was proving bumpy for Mozart, for example, he could always rely on a genuinely warm welcome from the people of Prague. The city witnessed two Mozart world premières in the year 1787, with his Symphony No. 30 (‘Prague’) receiving its first airing in January of that year, and Mozart himself conducting the first performance of his opera Don Giovanni in October. But I’ve chosen Dvořák (1841–1904), one of the early leading exponents of Czech musical nationalism, to give us our Prague sound bite. Here’s the opening of his Five Prague Waltzes (8.557352).

There’s no such gaiety to be found in the next snapshot; it paints instead a typically plangent episode in Warsaw’s turbulent history. Schoenberg wrote his A Survivor from Warsaw (8.557528) in 1947. It’s a fully formed music drama, despite being only seven minutes long. The economy of statement and formal compression are extreme, even for Schoenberg: militaristic Germans, limping Jewish victims, stark contrasts in instrumentation, tempo and metre. They all make their mark, not least in the opening couple of minutes.

Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) takes us from Warsaw to Jerusalem, a city of special significance for the Polish composer. He first visited it during the aftermath of the ‘Yom Kippur’ War in 1974. In 1995 he was commissioned to write a work to celebrate the city’s third millennium, and so opted for an oratorio entitled Seven Gates of Jerusalem (according to Jewish tradition, the eighth ‘golden’ gate remains closed in anticipation of the Messiah’s arrival). Penderecki subsequently renamed the work his Seventh Symphony (8.557766). The piece is scored for five soloists, speaker, three mixed choirs and a large orchestra that includes unusual instruments such as the bass trumpet and the tubaphone. The end of the fifth movement, Lauda Jerusalem, gives an idea of the score’s potency.

Rome was recently baking in searingly high temperatures, which put me in mind of the cooling waters in The Fountains of Rome (8.550539), the first of three sets of symphonic poems by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) that depict different aspects of the city. The four movements capture the famous fountains of the Eternal City at different periods of the day and night. At noon, the ornate Trevi fountain is portrayed, a solemn theme followed by trumpets announcing the triumph of the sea-god Neptune, in his chariot drawn by sea-horses.

Finally to the The Washington Post, but with no intention of stirring the pot of issues simmering between the established journal and the current occupant of the top Washington post. The (F major) Washington Post (8.559248) is the march that made Sousa famous, the march that made the newspaper famous and the march that made the two-step famous. Composed in 1889 for the U.S. Marine Band to perform at a children’s essay contest sponsored by the newspaper, the march is thought to have been concocted to be the perfect music for a new dance called the “two-step”. By the early 1890s dancing the two-step to the music of Sousa’s The Washington Post March became the popular ingredients that sparked a huge world-wide dance craze.

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