|The Seductress, the Prince and the Princess|
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
|Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka|
Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Mikhail Glinka was the true founder of Russian national music. Until his appearance, Russian musical life, including opera, was dominated by such Italian composers as Cimarosa and Paisiello, who had spent part of their careers in St. Petersburg. The rich indigenous folk music culture was totally ignored.
Glinka, a product of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the 19th century, changed all that with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar. It was the first opera to use a Russian subject and to incorporate Russian folk music, and it quickly became a great success.
Ruslan and Lyudmila, based on a fairy tale poem by Alexander Pushkin, was completed in 1842. Glinka had recruited Pushkin’s help in writing the libretto, but the poet’s untimely death in a duel left the text in a disjointed and confused state that contributed to the initial lukewarm reception of the opera.
The inspiration for the virtuosic overture came to Glinka during a court wedding dinner celebration, with a chorus and orchestra providing the entertainment: “I was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them in the prelude to Ruslan. I later did so, with fair success.”
Glinka's overture replaces the clatter of silverware with the glitter of instruments, playing at breakneck speed. Like most opera overtures of this period, this one is in classic sonata allegro form, the first theme, boisterous, the second more lyric.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
|Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky|
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking... [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.
Why did the Concerto premiere in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.
What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.
Then there’s the fact that there was no love lost between the two great nineteenth-century imperial behemoths, Russia and Austria-Hungary, who continued to slug it out until the end of World War I. That Tchaikovsky disliked Johannes Brahms, Hanslick’s favorite composer, probably also added fuel to the fire.
At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits and helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.
The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction with motivic germ of the main theme. & After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.
The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky's second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, no. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement. The violin enters with an equally wistful counter-melody that renders the seamless merge into the raucous Final such a surprise. Hanslick’s appraisal of the movement: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”
It is the unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna's critics but which was even at the time becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music. Another peculiar bit that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction & and leads right into the main theme. This quick-footed dance demands of the soloist enormous agility and rhythmic control. After a second dance that ramps up on speed like a typical Cossack trepak, there follows another slower lyrical section introduced by solo oboe and taken up by clarinet, bassoon and finally the violin. The Concerto concludes, of course, with flash and flamboyance.
Carmen Suite, Op. 37
One of the most prolific of Russian composers of the second half of the twentieth century, Rodion Shchedrin was born in Moscow, the son of a composer and professional violinist who taught at the Moscow Conservatory. He graduated from the Moscow Conservatory where he subsequently taught composition. Since 1969 Shchedrin has worked as a freelance composer. From 1973 to 1990 he succeeded Dmitry Shostakovich as chairman of the Composers’ Union of the Russian Federation and in 1990 was made honorary chairman of the organization. Since 1992 he has divided his time between Moscow and Munich, composing and teaching.
Shchedrin’s style is eclectic; he has a knack for combining the most avant-garde styles and methods with traditional folk and Russian church music. He has composed in all musical genres, including three operas and five ballets, twelve concertos, two symphonies and many other orchestral, chamber and vocal works. His larger compositions are marked by non-traditional structures; the Third Piano Concerto is a set of variations on a theme that is heard only at the end. Much of his music, especially since the mid-1980s, is neo-Romantic and always laced with musical irony and humor.
In addition to his many original works, Shchedrin has enjoyed “recomposing” other composers’ music. In fact, the ballet Carmen, a recomposing of George Bizet’s opera, first brought him to the attention of the West. Shchedrin composed the ballet in 1967 for his wife, Mayya Plisetskaya, then prima ballerina of the Bolshoy. He extracted from the ballet a suite of 13 movements, scored for a large body of strings and an army of percussion instruments requiring five percussionists. With sly humor Shchedrin took Bizet’s familiar melodies and served them up in ways Bizet would never have dreamed of. In love with Bizet’s music, Shchedrin could not resist adding to the stew the farandole from the incidental music to the play L'Arlésienne and the Danse bohèmienne from the opera La Jolie Fille de Perth. The Suite nearly foundered on the shoals of Soviet bureaucracy, who considered it “insulting to Bizet’s masterpiece.” Only intervention by Shostakovich rescued it and had it reinstated on the officially approved list.
Shchedrin’s approach to Carmen deliberately flies in the face of the expected. “Bizet's score is one of the most perfect in the whole history of music, and so I felt that it was very important, while working on the piece, to bring out the differences between my transcription and the original by means of tone colors,” he wrote. To begin with, the ballet is pure dance without any discernable plot line, and the order of the movements bears little relationship to the order of the music in the opera.
Instead of the opera’s well-known tremolo of the fate motive, the Suite begins with the fragmented refrain from Carmen’s habanera scored for chimes. The first of two intermezzos features a marimba solo based the soldier’s Act 1 greeting at Carmen’s entrance. Shchedrin’s “Changing of the Guard” – incidentally based on the Act 3 smugglers’ music – morphs into a syncopated tango. These startling divergences from such a familiar classic, suggesting both irony and humor, are a component of much of Shchedrin’s other music.
Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Trained both as a chemist and musician, Alexander Borodin spent a lifetime juggling his two loves. He made his living as professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg and also as the first professor of physiological chemistry in the newly founded medical courses for women. Borodin played the flute, cello and piano; he was fluent enough in German, French, English and Italian to translate scientific books; and when any time was left over, he composed, calling himself a “Sunday composer.”
In 1869 Borodin began working on the opera Prince Igor, based on a Russian epic from the twelfth century. It recounts the story of the heroic Russian warrior, Prince Igor, who goes to war with the Polovtsi, a Tatar warrior tribe. When a sudden eclipse of the sun foreshadows the defeat of Igor’s army, the Prince is captured by the Polovtsi’s Khan, who attempts to seduce Igor into join forces with him by means of the sensuous dancing of the Polovtsian slave maidens. Igor, however, manages to escape and rejoin his faithful wife.
Borodin and his colleagues were intrigued with all aspects of indigenous music from the vast Russian steppe. Whether any of the music of Prince Igor bore any relationship to authentic ethnic music is dubious, but a lot could be accomplished with some modal melodies, a good percussion section – and imagination. Borodin conducted research into the musical culture of the Polovtsian tribes, but he settled in the end on the vague orientalism so popular in Russian music at the time. At his death 18 years later he left the score still unfinished and mostly unorchestrated. Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov took upon himself to finish the manuscript and in the process “modified” the orchestration to fit his own ideas. Recently a number of attempts have been made to complete the opera in a style more faithful to Borodin.
Borodin’s work on the opera was very protracted and haphazard. To force his hand, his friends put some scenes on a concert program, but still he procrastinated and the Polovtsian Dances scene which ends Act II nearly didn’t make it to the concert. While it was composed entirely by Borodin, it required, according to Rimsky-Korsakov, a rush overnight job by himself, Borodin and Anatoly Lyadov to finish the orchestration. While the original version was for chorus and orchestra, an orchestral version is the one most commonly performed today.
Nearly all of the music of the Polovtsian Dances is familiar to audiences today, not only because of the popularity of Borodin and company’s ballet but also because all of the music – not just the “Stranger in Paradise” theme – was used in the 1953 Broadway hit Kismet. The instrumental version of the Dances without chorus emphasize the upper woodwinds and percussion, the latter always considered exotic and “oriental” by Europeans, and the former traditionally representing the more hedonistic, libidinous emotions. Borodin and his colleagues were intrigued with all aspects of indigenous music from the vast Russian steppe. Whether any of the music of Prince Igor bore any relationship to authentic ethnic music is dubious, but a lot could be accomplished with some modal melodies, a good percussion section – and imagination
The Dances comprise four main melodies, beginning with a whirling, modal melody on the clarinet and oboe, accompanied by plucked strings and finger cymbals Then comes the famous “signature tune” played by the oboe and later the English horn. The speed picks back up with a whirling clarinet solo with attendant tambourines and finger cymbals that introduces the next dance. The final dance, a grand “oriental” waltz, ends the set. All the themes return, however, at the ever more frenzied pace typical of such entertainments.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2010|