Program Notes: Russian Nights

Program Notes: Russian Nights

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Full program notes:

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

Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy-Overture

The fateful story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers has attracted a range of composers, from Bellini to Berlioz, from Gounod to Prokofiev. Perhaps it was inevitable that so dramatic a story should appeal to the young Tchaikovsky, struggling to find his way as a composer. In the summer of 1869, shortly after Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony had been savaged by critics, composer Mily Balakirev suggested that Shakespeare’s play might make a fitting subject for an orchestral work. Balakirev sketched an outline for the piece and even contributed part of a theme. Intrigued, Tchaikovsky set to work on October 7 of that year and had the score in first draft by November 27. It would (eventually) be his first real success.

the friar, the families, the lovers

Tchaikovsky based his work on three separate themes, each meant to portray one of the forces in the play. The chorale-like opening passage suggests the pivotal figure of Friar Laurence, alone in his cell. At the Allegro giusto, the music leaps ahead with a dark and thrusting idea that reflects the violent struggles between the Montague and Capulet families. And this in turn gives way to the most famous part of this composition, the soaring love music of the young Romeo and Juliet themselves. But Tchaikovsky tries to treat this music symphonically rather than letting it simply become tone-painting. The themes develop in a sonata form-like structure: they alternate, collide, contrast, and finally drive to the great cataclysm of the end, a shattering climax. Then the music falls back to remember the lovers one last time and ends dramatically.

While the themes may represent specific characters, listeners should be careful not to search for too literal a depiction of the events of Shakespeare’s play. Rather, Romeo and Juliet should be understood as abstract music-drama, inspired by Shakespeare’s tale but not bound by the need for exact musical depiction. This may explain Tchaikovsky’s curious choice of subtitle: he called this an “Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare.”

The first performance, in Moscow on March 16, 1870, was not a great success. Under Balakirev’s guidance Tchaikovsky revised the work several times before he reached a final version in 1880; this may explain why it is one of his few works without an opus number. While early audiences may not have reacted positively, Romeo and Juliet soon became a popular favorite, so much so that when Tchaikovsky made a tour of the United States in 1891 to conduct his own music, he included Romeo and Juliet on every program.

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

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

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Opus 43

In the spring of 1934 Rachmaninoff, then 61, and his wife moved into a villa they had just built on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. They were delighted by the house, its opulent size and its view across the beautiful lake. Rachmaninoff was especially touched to find a surprise waiting for him there: the Steinway Company of New York had delivered a brand new piano to the villa.

a tune that beckons composers
Rachmaninoff spent the summer gardening and landscaping, and he also composed. Between July 3 and August 24 he wrote a set of variations for piano and orchestra on what is doubtless the most varied theme in the history of music, the last of Niccolo Paganini’s Twenty-Four Caprices for Solo Violin. Paganini had written that devilish tune, full of rhythmic spring and chromatic tension, in 1820, and he himself had followed it with 12 variations. That same theme has haunted composers through each century since—resulting in variations on it by Liszt (Transcendental Etudes), Schumann (12 Concert Etudes) and Brahms (the two sets of Paganini Variations) in the 19th century, followed in the 20th century by Witold Lutosławski, Boris Blacher and George Rochberg. And there may be more to come.

After considering several titles for his new work, the composer settled on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a title that places the focus on melody and somewhat disguises the ingenious variation-technique at the center of this music. The first performance, with the composer as soloist, took place in Baltimore on November 7, 1934, with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Pleased and somewhat surprised by the work’s reception, Rachmaninoff observed dryly: “It somehow looks suspicious that the Rhapsody has had such an immediate success with everybody.”

bravura solos, brilliant contrasts

The Rhapsody has a surprising beginning: a brief orchestral flourish containing hints of the theme leads to the first variation, which is presented before the theme itself is heard. This gruff and hard-edged variation, which Rachmaninoff marks Precedente, is in fact the bass line for Paganini’s theme, which is then presented in its original form by both violin sections in unison. Some of the variations last a matter of minutes, while others whip past almost before we know it (several are as short as 19 seconds). The 24 variations contrast sharply in both character and tempo, and the fun of this music lies not just in the bravura writing for piano but in hearing Paganini’s theme sound so different in each variation. In three of them, Rachmaninoff incorporates the old plainsong tune Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) used by Berlioz, Saint-Saëns and many others, including Rachmaninoff, for whom this grim theme was a virtual obsession. Here it appears in the piano part in the seventh and tenth variations, and eventually it drives the work to its climax.

Perhaps the most famous of Rachmaninoff’s variations, though, is the 18th, in which Paganini’s theme is inverted and transformed into a moonlit lovesong. The piano states this variation in its simplest form, and then strings take it up and turn it into a soaring nocturne. The 18th variation has haunted many Hollywood composers, and Rachmaninoff himself noted wryly that he had written it specifically as a gift “for my agent.”

From here on, the tempo picks up, and the final six variations accelerate to a monumental climax. The excitement builds, the Dies Irae is stamped out by the full orchestra, and suddenly, like a puff of smoke, the Rhapsody vanishes before us on two quick strokes of sound.

Instrumentation: solo piano with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel, harp and strings

Dmitri Shostakovich
Born: September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died: August 9, 1975, Moscow

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 54

In January 1936 Shostakovich fell into disgrace when Stalin walked out of a performance of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The prudish dictator had been outraged, and within days Pravda savaged Shostakovich for his “fidgety, screaming, neurotic” music. This was the horrifying period of Stalin’s purges, and Shostakovich’s career was put on ice. Not until the premiere of the acceptably “heroic” Fifth Symphony nearly two years later did he return to tentative favor.

complaints from critics

Following that success, Shostakovich announced that he was setting to work on a new symphony that would be dedicated to Lenin and would feature texts about him by Vladimir Mayakovsky and other writers, as well as folk songs. But when the Sixth Symphony was first performed on November 21, 1939, by Evgeny Mravinsky and the Leningrad Philharmonic, everything about it seemed strange. It was not about Lenin, it had no text, it had no heroic theme, and it was in an unusual and lopsided form: a long slow movement followed by two short fast ones. No one knew what to make of it.

The first performance had been a great success (the finale had to be repeated on that occasion), but Soviet critics were disappointed that the new work was not the announced revolutionary symphony. One went so far as to suggest that the brooding first movement represented the suffering of the Russian people under the czars and the final movements represented their ecstatic happiness under Soviet rule. A number of Western critics, scarcely more perceptive, adopted a patronizing tone toward the Sixth, and their criticism focused on the symphony’s unusual form. One complained that the Sixth is “a symphony without a head,” arguing that it lacks the first movement that would make it complete. Another suggested that Shostakovich should have included a second slow movement to give the symphony necessary balance.

All these critics missed the point: the music needs to be taken for what it is, not condemned for failing to meet ideological or formalist standards. Shostakovich had a penchant for doing what he felt like doing, rather than what was expected of him. Those who listen to what he did write, rather than complaining about what he did not, will find the Sixth Symphony one of his finest.

from haunting to high-spirited

largo. The opening movement contains some of the most haunting music Shostakovich ever wrote. Longer than the other two movements combined, it leads us through a desolate landscape seldom relieved by light. The tone is set by the lower strings’ surging and jagged opening theme, and for a first movement, the pace is extremely slow. The form is also quite original: this movement is not so much a sonata-form structure as it is a long meditation, and it is remarkable for its many solos for wind instruments. Across its length there are extended solos—often lonely and bleak—for piccolo, trumpet, English horn, oboe, flute, horn, bassoon and bass clarinet, often heard above the sound of trilling strings. The movement comes to a striking conclusion on a long, frozen chord in the strings, held over ominous strokes of sound from harp, timpani and lower strings.

The Largo’s dramatic bleakness invites interpretation, and in his much-disputed memoirs Shostakovich suggested that this music reflects the period of his own disgrace and the purges during the Great Terror of the 1930s. As might be expected, the Soviet government hotly denied the authenticity of the memoirs.

allegro. Then comes a complete change: the final movements take us into a different world altogether. The Allegro is a scherzo that rushes along at high speed from start to finish. Once again, much of the music’s character comes from the wind instruments: it opens with the saucy sound of E-flat clarinet, there are brassy horn calls along the way, and the closing minutes bring an impressive solo for piccolo. While there are humor and high spirits throughout, a wistfulness sets in during those closing moments, and the movement vanishes in a quiet wisp of sound.

presto. The concluding Presto is lots of fun, and Shostakovich includes a number of in-jokes, especially in the way he borrows and bends themes of other composers. The opening is a variation of the famous William Tell Overture theme, while the second subject is lifted from the finale of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (this movement has proven evocative: one of the early American annotators of symphonic music, Louis Biancolli, also claimed to hear in it Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore, the Mexican song Cielito Lindo and a whiff of Offenbach). At the end, a circus band swaggers in, and, pushed along by some spectacular timpani cannonades, the symphony races to an all-time knock-out ending.

The Sixth may not be one of Shostakovich’s best-known symphonies, but it is one of his finest. From the haunting, icy beauty of the opening to the high spirits of the conclusion, this is a brilliant work, original in conception and tremendously effective in the concert hall. The Sixth makes sense on its own terms, and if ideological or formalist critics have found it unconvincing, the failure lies with them, not with the music.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, glockenspiel, xylophone, harp, celesta and strings

Eric Bromberger

About the Author

After earning a Ph.D. in American Literature from UCLA, Eric Bromberger was teaching at San Diego State University when, taking up another of his passions, the violin, he joined the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also writing its program notes, which drew enough attention from presenters and performers that he quit his day job to devote himself to music. Now, in addition to writing for the Minnesota Orchestra and giving pre-concert lectures for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he is annotator for such organizations as the Kennedy Center’s Washington Performing Arts, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, University of Chicago Presents, San Francisco Performances and the San Diego Symphony. He and his wife Pat love chamber music, and this summer they’re playing in an orchestra that will tour Spain.