Program Notes: Roderick Cox Conducts Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

Program Notes: Roderick Cox Conducts Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky

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Full program notes:

Claude Debussy
Born: August 22, 1862, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France
Died: March 25, 1918, Paris

Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun ca. 10'

This shimmering, endlessly beautiful music is so familiar to us—and so loved—that it is difficult to comprehend how problematic it was for audiences in the years after its premiere in December 1894. Saint-Saëns was outraged: “[It] is pretty sound, but it contains not the slightest musical idea in the real sense of the word. It’s as much a piece of music as the palette a painter has worked from is a painting.”

We smile, but Saint-Saëns had a point. Though it lacks the savagery of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun may be an even more revolutionary piece of music, for it does away with musical form altogether. This is not music to be grasped intellectually, but simply to be heard and felt.

Debussy based this work on the poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” by his close friend, the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The poem itself is dreamlike, a series of impressions and sensations rather than a narrative. It tells of the languorous memories of a faun on a sleepy afternoon as he recalls an amorous encounter the previous day with two passing forest nymphs. This encounter may or may not have taken place, and the faun’s memories— subject to drowsiness, warm sunlight, forgetfulness and drink— grow vague and finally blur into sleep.

a soft and sensual world
Like the faun’s dream, Debussy’s music lacks specific direction. The famous opening flute solo (the faun’s pipe?) draws us into this soft, sensual world. The middle section, introduced by woodwinds, may be a subtle variation of the opening flute melody—it is a measure of this dreamy music that we cannot be sure. The opening theme returns to lead the music to its glowing close.

Audiences have come to love this music precisely for its sunlit mists and glowing sound, but it is easy to understand why it troubled early listeners. Beneath its shimmering and gentle beauties lies an entirely new conception of what music might be.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, antique cymbals, 2 harps and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger


Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born: April 1, 1873, Oneg Novgorod, Russia
Died: March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills, California

Concerto No. 2 in C minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 18 ca. 32'

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto may be the best-loved piano concerto on the planet, but it almost didn’t get written, and the tale of its creation is one of the most remarkable in all of music. Rachmaninoff graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 with its highest award, the gold medal, and quickly embarked on a career as a touring pianist. But he wanted to compose. He had written a piano concerto while still a conservatory student, and early in 1895 the 21-year-old composer took on the most challenging of orchestral compositions, a symphony. Its premiere, on March 27, 1897, was a catastrophe. Conductor Alexander Glazunov was unprepared, the orchestra played badly, and audience and critics alike hated the music, César Cui describing it as a “program symphony on the Seven Plagues of Egypt...[music that would give] acute delight to the inhabitants of Hell.” What should have been a moment of triumph for the young composer instead brought humiliation.

Rachmaninoff may have been a powerful performer, but he was a vulnerable personality, and the disaster of the premiere plunged him into a deep depression. His first act was to destroy the score to the symphony. It was never performed again during his lifetime, but after his death it was reassembled from the orchestral parts, and the painful irony is that this work is now admired as one of the finest works of his youth. However, in the aftermath of the fiasco of its premiere, Rachmaninoff lost confidence in himself and wrote no music at all for the next three years.

the doctor steps in
Alarmed, the composer’s family and friends arranged for him to see Dr. Nicholas Dahl, an internal medicine specialist who sometimes treated patients through hypnosis. Dahl was also extremely cultured—he was an amateur cellist—and Rachmaninoff’s friends were hopeful that contact with such a man would improve the composer’s spirits. During a lengthy series of visits, the composer heard a steady message of encouragement from the doctor: “You will begin to write your concerto….You will work with great facility….The concerto will be of excellent quality.” To the composer’s astonishment, Dahl’s treatment worked. He later said: “Although it may sound incredible, this cure really helped me. By the beginning of summer I again began to compose. The material grew in bulk, and new musical ideas began to stir within me—more than enough for my concerto.”

With the dam broken, new music rushed out of the rejuvenated composer. Across the summer and fall of 1900, Rachmaninoff composed what would become the second and third movements of his Second Piano Concerto. These were performed successfully that December, and Rachmaninoff composed the opening movement the following spring. The first performance of the complete concerto, in Moscow on November 9, 1901, was a triumph. Not surprisingly, Rachmaninoff dedicated the concerto to Dr. Dahl.

the music
moderato. The very beginning of the concerto seems so “right” that it is hard to believe that this movement was written last. Throughout his life Rachmaninoff loved the sound of Russian church bells. The concerto begins with the sound of those bells, as the solo piano alone echoes their tolling. Into that swirling sound, the orchestra stamps out the impassioned main theme, one of those powerful Slavic melodies that instantly haunt the mind; the solo piano has the yearning second subject. Rachmaninoff writes with imagination throughout this movement: the orchestra reprises the main theme beneath the soloist’s dancing chordal accompaniment, while the solo horn recalls the second subject in a haunting passage marked dolce. The music demands a pianist of extraordinary ability. 

adagio sostenuto. A soft chorale for muted strings introduces the second movement, but in a wonderful touch the solo flute sings the main theme as the pianist accompanies. The theme is repeated, first by the clarinet and then the strings, growing more elaborate as it proceeds, and only then is the piano allowed to take the lead. A brief but spectacular cadenza leads to a recall of the tolling bells from the very beginning and a quiet close.

allegro scherzando. The final movement begins quietly as well, but in a march-like manner full of suppressed rhythmic energy. Rachmaninoff makes effective contrast between the orchestra’s opening—powerful but controlled with an almost military precision—and the piano’s entrance, which explodes with an extraordinary wildness. The second theme, broadly sung by the violas, has become one of those Big Tunes for which Rachmaninoff was famous. This wonderful melody would become an inspiration for countless Hollywood composers and, many years later, would be used to set the words “Full moon and empty arms.” If one can escape such associations and listen with fresh ears, this lovely music is an excellent reminder of Rachmaninoff’s considerable melodic gift. The concerto rushes to its conclusion on a no-holdsbarred coda (another Rachmaninoff specialty) that resounds in every measure with the young composer’s recently restored health.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass drum, cymbals, timpani and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia



Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 Premiered: February 22, 1878 ca. 44'

"Our symphony progresses,” Tchaikovsky wrote in late summer 1877. The other half of “our” was Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who had come into Tchaikovsky’s life some eight months before, in December 1876. She was a wealthy woman, recently widowed, tough, given to organizing things and people. She loved Tchaikovsky’s music to the point of obsession and made contact with her idol. Almost at once they found themselves embarked on a voluminous, exhaustive, intimate correspondence. And 500 rubles were moved every month from the vast Meck account into Tchaikovsky’s fragile one, bringing him years of blessed financial security.

an unusual friendship
Clearly, her feelings for Tchaikovsky and his music were on some level erotic, but she seems to have been unwilling to have that feeling transmuted into sexual reality. She insisted that they must never meet, and with that liberating condition in effect, their mutually nourishing friendship, so strange and so understandable, lasted nearly 14 years. Being rich as well as neurotic, Mme. von Meck was doubly entitled to caprice, and in a maggoty moment she broke contact, seemingly without warning—at least with no warning Tchaikovsky understood. By 1890, when that happened, Tchaikovsky no longer needed her money, but he never got over the hurt of the sudden abandonment.

It was during the first year of his friendship with Mme. Von Meck that he took the most foolish step of his life: he got married, succumbing to the advances of a former pupil of his. He tried to be as candid with her about his homosexuality as the manners and the permissible language of 1877 allowed, but she seems to have had no idea what he was talking about. They married, he fled, and with the massive support of relatives and friends he got his life back on track.

Tchaikovsky began the Fourth Symphony soon after Nadezhda Filaretovna’s arrival on the scene; he completed it in the aftermath of the catastrophic marriage. He realized at once the significance of Mme. von Meck’s entrance into his life and knew that he wanted to dedicate his new symphony to her. He wrote to her on February 24, 1878, just two days after the premiere was conducted “o Minn Orch January 2017.qxp_Minnesota Orch copy 12/15/16 1:32 PM Page 33 MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA SHOWCASE 34 in Moscow by Nikolai Rubinstein: “In my heart of hearts I feel sure it is the best thing I have done so far.”

“things which arise in the heart”
At one point, Mme. von Meck asked Tchaikovsky what their symphony “was about.” Tchaikovsky shilly-shallied, explaining that the answer was to be found in the music itself and not in words about the music. Nonetheless, he did oblige at length with a “program” in which the opening fanfare is identified with “Fate, the decisive force which prevents our hopes of happiness from being realized, which watches jealously to see that our bliss and peace are not complete and unclouded, and which, like the sword of Damocles, is suspended over our heads and perpetually poisons our souls.”

Tchaikovsky had a rather more illuminating exchange about the Fourth Symphony with his friend the composer Sergei Taneyev. “Of course my symphony is program music, but it would be impossible to give the program in words. It would only appear ludicrous and raise a smile. But ought this not always to be the case with a symphony, the most lyrical of musical forms? Ought it not to express all those things for which words cannot be found but which nevertheless arise in the heart and cry out for expression?” He continued: “Please don’t imagine that I want to swagger before you with profound emotions and lofty ideas....In reality my work is a reflection of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I have not of course copied Beethoven’s musical content, only borrowed the central idea.”

the music: a great adventure
The Fourth Symphony is also among the great adventures and the great successes. It all has to do with harmonic design, with gravitational pull. In short, Tchaikovsky goes to surprising keys at surprising times.

andante sostenuto—moderato con anima. In the first movement, having emphatically set up F minor as a center of gravity in the introduction and the keening start of the Moderato, he declines to return to that key until this long movement is almost nine-tenths over. That moment is marked by the fourth appearance of the “fate” fanfare, and it is more powerful for the extreme delay.

Tchaikovsky sets up a network of harmonic reference across the entire symphony. To cite a grand example: “recapitulation” usually means a return to the original key as well as a return to all the themes. Tchaikovsky recapitulates the themes, all right, but he holds off bringing back the tonic key, F minor, until the coda; instead he sets the recapitulation in D minor, a key hitherto untouched. But the finale of the symphony is in F major, closely related to F minor by virtue of sharing the keynote F, but equally close to that surprising D minor.

andantino in modo di canzona. The burden of Tchaikovsky’s musical and extramusical arguments is in the large, brooding first movement with its latent—and not so latent—waltz content. What follows is picturesque support. The Andantino is a melancholy song introduced by the oboe, that most melancholic of wind instruments. Its impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominate the first movement.

scherzo: pizzicato ostinato. In the Scherzo, Tchaikovsky was especially proud of his novel instrumental scheme: the perpetual pizzicato and the assignment of distinctive material to each group in the orchestra. Once the symphony was in circulation, he was annoyed because it was always the “cute” scherzo that made the biggest hit.

finale: allegro con fuoco. The principal tune of the Finale, also introduced with an odd harmonic obliqueness, is a folk song, There Stood a Little Birch. The “fate” fanfare intrudes once more, making a musical as well as a programmatic point, after which the symphony is free to rush to its emphatic conclusion. This irresistible Finale beats all records for the number of cymbal clashes per minute.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1995), used with permission.

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