Hommage á Kurt Masur

Dvořák: Symphony No. 8

25 April 2010, Italian Cultural Institute, Budapest

Budafok Dohnányi Orchestra

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen. Warmly welcome to our concert today, as part of our Understanding Music series. I dedicate this lecture to the world famous conductor Kurt Masur. I was the Master’s student in Weimar, then GDR during my college years. Kurt Masur is a particularly special personality; I can perfectly recall his human habit, communication, relation to the orchestra and us, his students. I’ve met him several times since, moreover, I once had the privilege to replace him and conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 12 concerts, which must’ve influenced my above recollection. First I’d like to introduce Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8, and afterwards tell you what I learnt from Kurt Masur, i.e. about the conductor’s role, the essence of the conductor’s behaviour.

Dvořák is a highly popular composer, the audience love him all over the world. Even if you don’t happen to know him so well, you’ll immediately like Dvořák. Naturally, Dvořák also has some high-ranking works that are particularly popular, still, even in these works just a few recognize how peculiar a composer he is. We, music fans take delight in humming the most beautiful melodies we heard in the concert and that frequently jingle in our heads for hours after. But if you have a closer look, you’ll see that Dvořák didn’t get famous for his glorious melodies. Just rarely will you find such an effusive and beautiful melody in his works as in Tchaikovsky’s. Almost everyone can sing a well-known melody from Tchaikovsky, but Dvořák’s themes are much shorter, much simpler. New World Symphony is certainly his most popular work, but I can hardly believe that even after listening to it several times will there be a lot of melodies (except the famous Indian song which reasoned the title New World) that get stuck in your ears and you can easily sing. The reason is that this is not the key message with Dvořák. Dvořák’s music is made up of a lot of suddenly changing elements, contrapositions, flashes, while he’s believed to be one of the most conservative composers of the Romantic era. He clings to traditions in all aspects; perhaps he’s the one among the Romantics who dares the least to change the formal traditions [1]. Let me show you some examples of this diversity so that you could also see how Dvořák treats the musical themes and what the reason is behind so much liking his works which we hear as musically and emotionally easy to follow. Now we’ll show you the leading theme from the relatively sonata-form first movement [2] in Symphony No. 8 [3]. The theme is played after a short introduction, but I’ll come back to this later. The theme, as played on the flute, is awfully simple and very short.

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No one would think that this is a theme. It’s like a small bird jiggling about and chirruping here and there. But this theme will actually be a very important element of the musical process: just a few seconds go by and we’ll hear the same melody in a wholly different form.

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Got it? This didn’t at all resemble a small bird but was rather threatening, since the major tone turns into a diminished triad [4], which we specifically dislike. Then, in just a few beats, we immediately get to the climax. The small bird-resembling melody sounds in triumphant pomp from the whole orchestra.

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Let’s listen to the whole in one, to help you feel this short process. Practically, we don’t have a leading theme in the traditional sense of the word, still, we have a whole set of leading themes where we can trace a simple melody from the lonely tune through a frightening quest for correct path to the climax, almost inspiring the sense of accomplishment. Now we’ll play the whole part from the flute to the climax.

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(Conductor’s commentary during the music: As if there were some questions here. See, something’s starting. Hear the birds chirruping.)
This is the leading theme. A tiny element that provided a support for something to develop. See what has already happened in this work. But if you listened carefully, you could in the meanwhile hear another musical thought which doesn’t actually seem to be a theme but a mere heroic gesture.

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The function of this motif is similarly difficult to decide, still, we’ll hear it several times and, what’s more, in various characters.
Let’s listen to a part from the development phase [5] of the movement where the previously heard melody is first completed with an airy and playful counterpart, played on the flute and the violins in turn. Then, as our theme is played on different wood-winds and the horn, it gets gradually deformed. Afterwards, it almost evolves into a battle scene, which in turn is supplemented with the bird-chirruping leading theme whose rhythm tends to recall lashing. But don’t forget, as mentioned before, we’re in the development phase which has been the most excising part of any work for the composer since Beethoven. This is the scene of doubts and entanglements, but also a possibility to present craft. The musical components of a work that the composer will mostly use in the development phase differ by ages and composers, still, in many instances has a short musical excerpt, with no characteristics of a theme, turned into a key element in development.

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Where we’ve recently stopped (letter L) closes the climax points of the movement, where you hear exactly the theme that the composer used to introduce the movement and that hasn’t anyway so far taken part in the musical process.
So let’s return to the beginning of the work. It starts with an inward, sentimental minor theme which, on top of it all, is the only genuine theme in this movement: a triple-structured folk song-type typically Slavic music.

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As mentioned before, the theme tends to disappear after it’s first heard after the introduction, but it sounds as the climax of the previously heard monumental development, the “battle scene”. But this time it’s not the deep strings but the trumpet part playing it. This leads to one of the biggest differences in dramaturgy and sounds within the orchestra: when a melody, emotionally played in the deep register, evolves in the solemn sound of a whole orchestra, glazed with trumpets in the climax of development.

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What we’ve heard is definitely the contraposition of up and down, shade and light, introversion and revelation in Romanticism. Although the melody kept its minor tonality, still, even if it cannot be sensed as jubilation but certainly as the expression of thought and emotions which is normally always followed by relief. This is where Dvořák’s multi-faceted nature rests: always to show several facets of a motif, a musical thought, which is not rare in Romanticism, given that many would compose so. For instance, the core element in Ferenc Liszt’s life work is that, connected to the Faust thought but not only in the Faust symphony, he also shows the heroic and diabolic aspect of a specific theme. [6] So this editing mode, which keeps us awake almost through the entire movement with its various theme images, is typical of Dvořák. Still, the end of the first movement suggests cloudless joy: after several metamorphoses, the leading theme closes the movement as a triumphal march.

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The second movement of the Symphony is especially weird. We’ll listen to two clearly separable parts. Let’s now listen to the beginning of the movement.

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It’s quite difficult to describe what this melody is like: a bit dumpish, as if our composer couldn’t utter what he really wants, so all in all it’s somewhat embarrassing. First, we have no idea what tonality we’re in. The colour of tonality is the most important musical element in European music culture. This colour of tonality means a reference point whereby you’ll exactly know where you start from and where you want to return, and the curiosity and tension of all the musical actions is also based on distance from this reference point. If our starting point is not clear in a musical process, logically, we’ll not feel safe. Naturally, by the end of the movement and in fact as early as at the end of the introductory melody we’ll understand what Dvořák has in his mind, though he keeps us uncertain for several beats.
Our uncertainty and slight incomprehension is due not only to the uncertainty of the tonality but the interrelationship of harmonies within the theme gesture. This is a plagal turn (2nd movement, 8th meter) which you don’t have to learn, but believe me, you’ll still understand. This means that harmonies don’t resolve as expected. This is actually a bit complicated: what you should simply understand is that the tones vibrating with the sound are called the overtone. We do indeed hear these overtones, what’s more, the key in European musical mindset is that the tension created by overtone-based harmony is resolved in root-based harmony. If this happens the other way round (i.e. root-based harmony is resolved in overtone-based harmony, e.g. do in so), we’ll feel something’s missing. Yet in this case this also means that Dvořák steps back to where he started from, meaning that nothing’s happened.

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Let’s now play the beginning in the way Dvořák did not, fortunately, compose it; we’ll show what if Dvořák composed a simple, “normal” sequence of harmonies.

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Highly banal, still, it actually pleases our ears or is something we can call correct. But Dvořák doesn’t do this. The icing on the cake is that he starts the phrase in an unaccented point, which consequently creates an interrogative mode, still, the accord first heard in the accent is not resolved where it would be desirable. If you can still endure the ordeals, the treble, though deeper and deeper intonation of this gesture (called “sequence”) leads to discomfort and unsettles us, given that through its increasingly loud and desperate repetition it suggests that he’d like to get somewhere but, out of an unexpected twirl, he loses strength and stops where no one expected this halt.

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Now I’ll show you the contraposition. Just recognize how safe we feel in this part, in a prompt distinguishable tonality, which the composer also supports by accompanying the melody with a full scale.

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Actually, there’re just two harmonies alternating in this part again, still, this feels good because the joy of the root versus the preceding overtone is definitely felt in the closing harmony. Listen to the change of harmonies.

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(Conductor’s commentary during the music: How great, this is it!)
The pledge of our security is that the two harmonies communicate as usual, which in musical terminology is called “authentic relation”. Plagality, which I’ve recently mentioned as something “bad”, shouldn’t be understood as an incorrect solution, considering that it wasn’t felt bad at all for centuries (for instance this was one of the main harmony relations in the Renaissance). But from the very moment when the musical mindset which we call tonal music is prevailing, the feeling of stable tonality [7] and, accordingly, the overtone-root relation [8] will be something we feel good. This is what I’ve shown you last.
On top of it all, the melody overrules all this good. Just listen to it.

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Hey! We know this melody!

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It has the same structure as Marseillaise. Replacing the descending motif at the beginning of the movement, we now hear a soaring melody which in some earlier ages could attract millions in the revolution. The power rests in the interrelation of these three tones [9]. This scale consequentially always suggests dynamism and power in music history. Logically, just the opposite is felt when reversed.
So it’s not at all by mere chance that something that generates tension and something that inspires power oppose each other; considering that the movement is actually about the combat of these two thoughts and about how our composer will finally finish the movement.

When focusing on the third movement, what first comes in my mind is that one of the most exciting gifts of the Romantic era was that the various nations in Europe created their own national music. I have to admit that Slavic music, with its peculiar coloristic effect and amazingly broad emotional spectrum, is something I especially fancy. Dvořák can be considered one of the greatest figures of Slavic national music, still, I can mostly feel the cultural community represented by the monarchy caught in this very movement. There is plenty of interrelation and interlacement in the culture of the monarchy. This applies to music and other arts like dance. We Hungarians are relatively distinct, mainly from the aspect of music, as we don’t really belong to either of the Indo-Germanic or Slavic communities. Given our thousand-year-old music culture we brought with, it was logically tougher for us to assimilate, though some effects can naturally be felt in our music.
The first part of the third movement is, if you like, a Slavic thought or, if you like, a waltz [10], a slow valse. The structure and, especially, the mood perfectly reflect this: the special medley of nostalgy, a determinative factor in the culture of the monarchy, and illusion flows from it. This kind of nostalgic and peculiarly intimate mood can be observed in a lot of works from the monarchy. Strauss’s entire life work and the genre of the operetta are the apotheosis of all this nostalgy. Listen to the magnificent outset of the third movement.

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The middle part, the trio is definitely a Czech dance, with the phenomenal game of rhythms usual in Czech music. Even and odd beats oppose each other, while the basic time is triple, the musical thought covers two beats and the accompaniment is, if you like, twice three or, if you like, three times two.

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Let’s listen to the violins.

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(Conductor’s commentary during the music: One-and-a – two-and-a.)
So here everyone can decide what he wants to feel: one-and-a two-and-a three-and-a or one-and two-and three-and.


When the main part returns, the composer still has a surprise in store for us. All of a sudden, the beat clearly turns into quick even beats and the melancholic mood changes to a quick dance. The Hungarian dances of those times also imitate, after the usual ending “pric-prac-pruc”, a poorly playing village band; some get ditched after the end. Let’s play the coda.

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The closing movement offers a grandiose ending to this magnificent Romantic symphony. The movement is in fact a series of variations [11]. The musical pieces structured in variations can be traced back to the oldest traditions; this is when you play a theme in a lot of ways: sometimes you accelerate or decelerate, sometimes you play it happily and sometimes sad. The Romantic era particularly prefers to play the theme in different contrapositive characters or, frequently, to simply hide it. Variation themes are not out-of-the-common in symphonies, either, and are specifically frequent in Haydn’s symphonies. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony may have been the direct forerunner for Dvořák, but Brahms’s (his beloved and honoured mentor’s) Symphony No. 4 certainly preceded him. Glorious variations were made of very simple melodies. Just recall the French children’s’ song “Ah! vous dirai-je, maman” in for instance Mozart’s or Dohnányi’s works. Dvořák presents us a beautiful Slavic melody, as the theme of the variation series. Let’s listen to the main theme.

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You’ll hear this motif so often that you’ll probably be singing it during lunch. After the fairly explicit first variation we hear a genuine Moravian rustic dance. And since Dvořák wants to show that this is folk music and elevated mood, he composes some sounds that I could simply summarize as piggery for the trumpet part. Trumpet-players are anyway known for their piggery: if you happen to be very close to a trumpet and hear as it’s being blown, you’ll have a dreadful experience. Due to the characteristics of the instrument, not quite presentable sounds can leave the trumpet quite frequently. We’ll show you such an excerpt. The musicians lift their instrument nicely, and you’ll hear some dreadful honking; but this is no blunder, it follows Dvořák’s instructions, a typical rural game.

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Then Dvořák rejoices the flutist with a virtuoso solo, practically preventing him from breathing at all.

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If the trumpet’s previous sound was sensed as village joke, well… then the next variation will be an even more practical joke where we hear an old fogy orchestra playing parody-style funeral march. Here, naturally, the joke is not only the mode of performance and not only that the musicians may play ugly, but primarily that Dvořák looms an especially primitive musical material in the variation, to manifest a tremendously banal musical character.

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A peculiar novelty in the Romantic era is that the last movement of the work is not simply a closure but a summary of feelings and thoughts offering a solution for the entire work. The last movements of Romantic symphonies tend to represent more responsibility and greater circumspection, in addition to the poignant gusto typical in most of the cases. Beethoven may have served as an example here: in the variation movement of Eroica Symphony he also falters, and then a series of slow variations lead to the hilarious closure. Following the non-escalatable joke of the funeral march parody Dvořák also halts the tempo (in musical score: after letter M), as if the series of variations started again but this time in a more inward mood (in musical score: letter N). However, no variations with any genuine novel effect can evolve from here, and even more, as if Dvořák couldn’t or didn’t want to stop power and thought weakening. Our composer gradually consumes his own theme and tends to repeat certain elements only, as if he couldn’t express the thoughts in their entirety. It seems to be the end, as if the record were over. Then for a moment we indeed also turn uncertain as to how Dvořák would finish the Symphony. Let’s now show you the miraculous last variation. (UJ TRACK 24, régi Track 32) (4th movement, 323)
From here on, we can only hope in a good end. But please be reassured, Dvořák still has some entrancing, hilarious ending to offer, which will boost the joyful rustic character of the introductory part.

And here I’ll return to what I’d like to say in Kurt Masur’s honour, what I actually learnt from him. We have a very interesting profession. You might see us here on the stage with a totally different face from what our real work suggests. There are very few who teach us the substance of this work in due time. Naturally, we first of all have to learn the technique, the “literacy” when we’re young, so that we could show our ideas and desires to an orchestra. This is similar to a police officer’s duty: there are some signs, they’re all in our hands and everything concludes from our movements. Still, this is not the profession itself. Profession chiefly means communication with the orchestra. Now I’ll show you something, I’ll frolic a bit, though I have to admit I’ve seen this somewhere else. I’ll try to parodize some great conductors. There’s a whole set of conductor’s behaviours and we consider them all as elementary differences. Some might even be named as they’re so famous. Like the Richard Strauss behaviour. Richard Strauss was a superb conductor. As well known, Richard Strauss’s works require an immensely huge orchestra, all the parts are astonishingly difficult, but as he was conducting, all this seemed to vanish traceless.
This is an existing behaviour of a conductor, meaning: dear orchestra, you’re being paid to work. I’ll give you the beat, you should be playing. Here I have to note that this was also a method long ago. We know this from the drum-majors’ age: the conductors were beating the rhythm with a big baton and there was nothing like expressing emotions, playing drama during conducting. One-two-three-four, play. Originally, this was the relationship between the conductor and the orchestra. Quite many preserved this attitude. I’ll show you a similar conductor’s behaviour:

There’s also another conductor’s behaviour, where the conductor is conducting for the orchestra at least as much as for the audience. But, evidently, this reflects another conductor’s character… and I’ll name him, too. I saw one of Celibidache’s old recordings, from when he was young. I may safely name him as he in his career rose to among the biggest. I was astonished. He was conducting Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel where a ballet dancer was a starter, compared to him. I also like to move but here in this recording the most distinctive feature in the conductor’s behaviour is that “I create everything, everything can be thanked to me…”. Let me show you a similar conductor’s behaviour.

No wonder, you may have seen something similar from me, too, and I must’ve taken it really serious. But do you know what the biggest tragedy is? I’ll ask the orchestra to play it without me. I won’t even look at them. Please don’t even think I’d be doing anything.

This is no hocus-pocus. The orchestra can play in this quality because they shook together in their common work; and the conductor is neither a creator nor an anytime indispensable leader of the performance (which is here and now coming into existence) but a catalyst communicating with the orchestra.
This is what I could actually learn from Kurt Masur when I was still really young: our performance is in fact the result of joint work. And everything depends on the rehearsal. On the rehearsal, on how you articulate your requests, how much they can be followed, understood, accepted and played from every aspect. How much you can make your will accepted so that everyone followed it as much as possible, without reconsideration; so this means an incredibly strong leading relation. And what comes after is already communication. Communication, which is actually focused at what an orchestra needs and what not. But you can truly learn this during work only, and of course if you have such a marvellous orchestra as Dohnányi Orchestra which will tolerate and excuse the conductor for his mistakes, draw his attention to these mistakes kindly or sometimes not so kindly, that is teach its conductor a lot of things; but of course a lot also depends on the conductor, as he should also learn and hear these messages. One can fantastically master the work, which will serve the aim of making a performance out of common will. The road leading to this common will rests on respecting the two parties’ personality and musical competence. This is our job. The conductor’s and the orchestra’s responsibility.
As part of our common work, I frequently tell the orchestra that sometimes I would explain something but not so that they could play it but so that the public could understand what’s happening here and there in the music and enjoy it. Communicating with YOU is immensely important, still, mastering this miraculous relationship is also an integral part of our profession. This is what I can thank Kurt Masur, who had a dazzling communication with his fellow musicians, students and audience. I daresay his musical grandeur, professionalism and humaneness offer a public wealth for us all.
Now we’ll try to play the closure “correctly”, in conformance to a good conductor and his good orchestra.

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[1] The musical form determines the frames of the musical story (e.g. sonata form, rondo, canon, fugue etc.). Starting with Beethoven, the Romantic era preserves the conventional frames and expands only its dimensions and ratios; moreover, in cyclic works with several movements it gradually tightens the loose link among the movements with various musical and mental tools.
[2] The first movement in Dvořák’s Symphony No. 8 takes a form based on the sonata principle, while caring for the formal traditions. The sonata principle represents a tonality plan: the musical material in the starting tonality serves as the leading theme; then we move into another tonality where the musical material is the secondary theme; this is then followed by the development phase which in general covers several tonalities; and then we return to the basic tonality where all the melodies we had heard in a foreign tonality will have to sound again. Actually, the real essence of the sonata form is not its formal manifestation but its tonality-based plan. The formal division of the sonata principle is closer to the four-line structure typical in plenty of European nations’ folk music than to the symmetric exposition-development-return form mostly prevailing in Viennese classicism.
[3] Any references to the musical score rely on the below publication: Antonín Dvořák: Souborné vydání díla, series 3, vol.8 Prague: SNKLHU, 1956. Plate H 1880.
[4] The two pillars in a triad are the root and the perfect fifth above that. The character of the sound depends on the third above the root. A minor third and a major third create a minor and major type triad, respectively. The diminished triad is built on two minor thirds and lacks the perfect fifth, typical of majors and minors, so you cannot define the root of the sound. Consequently, this sound produces tension and uncertainty.
[5] The development phase of the sonata form is practically the development and musical setting of the themes introduced beforehand (which might be the leading theme, the secondary theme or even a secondary thought). Composers generally use several tonalities, may vary the themes and develop them with various editing techniques (imitation, sequence etc.) in this phase.
[6] In his symphony, Liszt depicts Faust’s and Mephisto’s portrait with a wholly identical musical material: for Faust he always follows a heroic, luxuriant, emotional tone, whereas he uses an ironic, grotesque, negative colour for Mephisto.
[7] The core of tonality is the sense of tonality, which in tonal music is supplemented with the consequential succession of harmonies. The musical process essentially means that the harmonies, both neutral and those felt as resolution, immediately carry some tension which in turn strives to reach another resolution. So, properly speaking, the musical process has two dead centres: the start and the final end; and all the interim dead centres are merely fictitious or temporary.
[8] Overtone: the tones vibrating with the root (when the root is sounded), i.e. the integer multiples of the root frequency. (e.g. root: do; overtones: do, so, do, mi, so, ta etc.)
[9] Similar to Marseillaise, the melody here implicates two overtone-root relations (so-do, then re-so).
[10] Waltz: can be traced back to an old traditional jumping dance in odd meters. The name of the dance (Walzer) originates from the Middle High German word ‘walzen’ (to whirl, stamp). Overshadowing almost any other dance, it became suddenly popular in the 19th century.
[11] Variation means the composition technique where a selected theme is repeated melodiously, changing in harmony, rhythm, dynamics and characteristics. The musical form consisting of a series of variations is called the variation movement.

Translated by Helga Párkai