Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto

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Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Born: March 18, 1844, Tikhvin (near Novgorod), Russia
Died: June 21, 1908, Lyubensk (near St. Petersburg)

Suite from The Snow Maiden

We in the West are so enamored of Rimsky-Korsakov’s spectacular orchestral frescos like Scheherazade, the Russian Easter Overture and Capriccio espagnol that we tend to forget he was also the composer of some 15 operas, written across the entire span of his creative life, from his mid-20s onward. In fact, opera formed the basis of Rimsky-Korsakov’s popularity during his lifetime. None of his stage works are much performed outside of Russia, though suites from some of them, notably The Golden Cockerel and Czar Saltan, are occasionally heard. (The famous Flight of the Bumblebee also comes from Czar Saltan.) Tonight we have a rare opportunity to hear a suite drawn from The Snow Maiden.

snow in summer

In the spring of 1880, Rimsky-Korsakov moved to the rustic estate of Stelyovo to spend the warm months there. In his autobiography, he relates: “For the first time in my life, I had the opportunity of spending the summer in a genuine Russian village. Here everything was to my liking…a big forest, fields of rye, buckwheat, flax, wheat…solitude, antique names of villages. The excellent garden with a multitude of cherry and apple trees, currents, wild and garden strawberries, gooseberries, lilacs in bloom, an infinity of field flowers, and the incessant singing of birds.”

In this idyllic natural setting the composer wrote most of his fourth opera, The Snow Maiden. He had years before read Alexander Ostrovsky’s eponymous fairy tale, and just before moving to Stelyovo he had read it again, struck by its “marvelous poetic beauty.” With the splendid, inspiring scenery of Stelyovo as a backdrop, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote that “no previous composition had ever come to me with such ease and rapidity” as The Snow Maiden. The opera had a highly successful premiere in 1882 at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. (Stravinsky’s father was in the cast.) Ostrovsky noted that “the music to my Snow Maiden is wonderful. I could never have imagined anything more appropriate to the subject, and expressing with such vitality all the poetry of the Russian pagan cult, and of the heroine of the tale.” Tchaikovsky too set the story, a decade earlier, as incidental music to a play.

The story is a variant on the Turandot theme used by Puccini: a girl’s transformation from a creature with a heart of ice to one of passionate love. But whereas Puccini’s opera is set in a large city (ancient Peking), Rimsky-Korsakov’s takes place amidst pure, undefiled nature, and the larger issue actually involves the eternal life-giving forces of nature, which bring mankind its greatest happiness.

As in his purely orchestral works, the orchestra is used with great skill. Rimsky-Korsakov in Russia did for this ensemble what Berlioz in France had done before him—expanded its range of colors, textures and sonorities far beyond what his predecessors had done. His Principles of Orchestration, published posthumously in 1913, is still, more than a century after his death, a standard in music schools for teaching students the art of writing for orchestra. Most of the musical examples in the text are drawn from the author’s own works.

introduction. The opening number of the suite is also the opera’s introduction, depicting a snow-covered, moonlit landscape. Spring is overdue and birds have arrived from the south, but winter maintains its icy grip. Forests are still thick with snow, mountain peaks are white and the river is still frozen. The problem lies in the Snow Maiden—a girl born from a momentary dalliance between Bonny Spring and Grandfather Frost years ago. If she is exposed to heat, the sun, or the power of love, she will melt and die. Hence, perpetual winter covers the land of the Berendeyans.

dance of the birds. Spring sings a long aria describing the baleful situation, after which the birds launch into a chorus whose orchestral support is sufficient to become a number in the suite without voices. There is no mistaking the call of the cuckoo, but surprisingly, this bird is not among the many mentioned in the text: eagle, quail, owl, geese, ducklings, teal, sparrows, crane, cock, linnet, swallow, woodpecker and fish-hawk.

cortège. The Cortège is a short number from Act II, in which Tsar Berendey enters to a slow, stately march.

dance of the tumblers. The celebrated Dance of the Tumblers (or Buffoons or Jesters) forms part of the festivities in the Holy Wood in Act III. In popularity it may rank second, after the Flight of the Bumblebee, among excerpts known in the West from Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas. This constitutes the end of our suite, but in case you were wondering, the story has a fairy-tale happy ending: the Snow Maiden falls in love, the spell is broken, the land bursts forth into glorious spring and everyone lives happily ever after.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle and strings

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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

Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23

On Christmas Eve, 1874, Tchaikovsky sat before his friend, the conductor Nicolai Rubinstein, at the Moscow Conservatory to play for him the piano concerto he had almost completed. “I played the first movement. Not a single remark!... Then a torrent poured forth from Nicolai, gentle at first, then growing more and more into the sound of Jupiter....My concerto was worthless and unplayable....The piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar. I had stolen this from somebody and that from somebody else. It was so clumsy, so badly written that it was beyond rescue.”

Tchaikovsky’s description, sent to his patroness Mme. von Meck, goes on at great length. Obviously, he was insulted and deeply hurt, but resolved to publish the concerto anyway. As a result of the bad feelings between Rubinstein and the composer, the dedication was changed to Hans von Bülow, who performed it on a tour of the United States. The world premiere, on October 25, 1875, took place then, not in Russia, but in Boston, from where Bülow sent what is thought to have been the first cable ever sent from Boston to Moscow, telling Tchaikovsky of the great popular success of his concerto.

Strange as it may seem, the critics did not agree with the public acclamation. The Evening Transcript thought it had “long stretches of what seems…formless void, sprinkled only with tinklings of the piano and snatchy obbligatos from all the various wind and string instruments in turn.” The Journal was confident that “it would not soon supplant…the fiery compositions of Liszt, Raff and [Anton] Rubinstein,” and Dwight’s Journal of Music found it “strange, wild, and ultra-modern,” and wondered “could we ever learn to love such music?” History has decided resolutely in favor of the question, and the work went on to become the world’s most popular piano concerto. Tchaikovsky’s original confidence had borne fruit. Even Nicolai Rubinstein changed his mind in later years, and performed the concerto often. Tchaikovsky too capitulated by accepting some of the pianist’s suggestions for revisions.

unique charms and a famous introduction

Each of the three movements has its unique charms and attractions. The concerto’s most famous theme—that beautiful, lyrical song played by violins just after the opening horn fanfare—is used as introductory material only, and after it has run its course of development through various instruments, never returns. This theme, incidentally, occurs in the key of D-flat major, not the main key of the concerto, B-flat minor. As this is the tune most of us remember most about the concerto, it is worth recalling Michael Steinberg’s comments about it: “The effect [of the crashing piano chords] is splendid, it is even exciting to watch, and it makes much more of Tchaikovsky’s bold idea of having the first solo entrance be an accompaniment—but what an accompaniment!” The first movement’s true principal subject is a jerky, almost tuneless idea introduced by the soloist in the concerto’s nominal key of B-flat minor. Its essential folk character can be detected if the individual pitches are sung slowly. (It is actually a Ukrainian song traditionally sung by blind beggars.)

The dreamy flute solo that opens the second movement also exudes a folksy flavor, but in this case it is entirely Tchaikovsky’s own. This slow movement incorporates what is in essence a miniature Scherzo movement—a prestissimo passage of whimsical, lighthearted fun. (Steinberg describes it as “something akin to a waltz at about triple speed.”) It features a lilting tune in the strings that Tchaikovsky borrowed from a French chansonette.

The finale offers the most brilliant virtuosic opportunities yet. Again, we find a Ukrainian folk song used as the basis of the first theme. A lyrical second theme soon follows. The concerto concludes with the soloist roaring her way up and down the keyboard in a stunning display of pianistic pyrotechnics guaranteed to elicit thunderous applause from a super-charged audience. Small wonder that at the premiere in Boston, and at subsequent performances in von Bülow’s American tour, audiences demanded the entire movement to be encored.

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

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Born: October 12, 1872, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died: August 26, 1958, London

Symphony No. 4 in F minor

Few would challenge the claim that Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of England’s greatest composers in all of history. Add him to the company of distinguished men who wrote the seemingly magical number of nine symphonies— Beethoven, Spohr, Schubert, Dvořák and Bruckner, among others—and one gasps in astonishment to realize that Vaughan Williams’ nine symphonies, all fine works and some of them masterpieces, remain unknown to most concertgoers, even experienced ones. Symphony No. 2, the London, seems to be performed the least infrequently of the nine.

Like Beethoven, Vaughan Williams did not attempt a symphony until he was about 30. Over the next five and a half decades he turned out, at fairly regular intervals, eight more, the Ninth being his last major work in any medium. Also like Beethoven, he composed a 70-minute choral symphony, but this was his first, not his last. More than half a century after Vaughan Williams’ death, it is gratifying to have the opportunity to hear a particularly fine representative of this canon on tonight’s program.

Of the composer’s nine symphonies, the Fourth is without question the most intense and most violent. It was completed in 1934, so many commentators have felt free to detect in it the composer’s preoccupation with the darkening days of pre-war Europe and his premonition of disaster. There is no denying the tone of this music, but Vaughan Williams left no confirmation that he had anything like this in mind when composing it. “It is about F minor,” he once quipped. Furthermore, most of the symphony was composed in 1931-32, before Hitler’s rise to power.

allegro. The violence begins immediately, with fierce, grinding dissonances played by the full orchestra fortissimo. The clash of adjacent pitches in alternation, D-flat and C, gives the music what one writer called “seething malevolence.” This “combines with a raucous, bounding energy to produce a furious, rampaging exuberance.” A lyrical passage for unison strings, marked to be played appassionato sostenuto yet still filled with agitation and torment, leads into the second subject. This is built around a single pitch, F-sharp, repeated to an irregular rhythmic pattern. Though the movement owes its character to volume, violence and dissonance, it ends quietly, yet uneasily, on a comforting consonant chord.

andante moderato. The second movement opens with the quiet unease that ended the previous one. Violins float a long, lyrical line marked to be played cantabile (singing) over a “walking” pizzicato bass line. An air of forlornness hangs heavy over the music, interrupted twice by periods of anguish.

scherzo: allegro molto. The Scherzo is a virtuosic tour de force infused with tremendous energy. It opens with an exuberantly rising subject that is immediately followed by a four-note cell in muted brass that is recalled from the first movement. These two elements quickly become entangled, then are joined by several more ideas, including a galloping theme, mad-cap races up and down the scale, a quirky three-note call repeated with obsessive force, and a jaunty theme for bassoons and low brass that might well have served to represent Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza, had Vaughan Williams chosen to set this subject to music.

finale con epilogo fugato: allegro molto. The mysterious transition from the third to the fourth movement, with its rumbling timpani and culmination in a blaze of sound for the full orchestra, has often been compared to the analogous passage in Beethoven’s Fifth. The finale surges ahead, its power and ferocity only briefly interrupted, until it reaches the fugal epilogue. This is constructed primarily from a four-note cell familiar from previous movements. The epilogue, in the words of music critic Frank Howes, “gathers up into its torrential embrace the other themes of the finale and ends with the recall of the opening theme of the first movement, its anger still unassuaged, its discords still unrelenting.”

The first performance was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London on April 10, 1935, with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. The applause afterward was “almost hysterical,” according to one source. Boult recorded the symphony twice. Dimitri Mitropoulos and Leopold Stokowski were also early champions of the symphony. Vaughan Williams too conducted the symphony in a recording from 1937, “unique in its vertiginous wildness [and having] the elemental force of a thunderstorm,” as Richard Tiedman reported in his review for American Record Guide.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, triangle and strings

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.