HSO logo banner, Jed Gaylin Music Director


Program Notes: December 6, 2008

Russian Music After 1850

The miracle of Russian Romantic music is that after roughly 1,000 years of cultural isolation, the second half of the 19th Century produced some of the greatest musical treasures the world has ever known. After centuries of silence, suddenly appeared the likes of Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, and Liadov – paving the way for the 20th Century’s Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Vainberg. For 50 brief years, the once-silent Russians created world-class masterpieces steeped in their own beautiful culture, until, tragically, Stalinism tried to suppress their voices once again.

For centuries, the Orthodox Church-State of the vast land of Russia had kept its people protected against the evils of the West, shut off from its music, literature, anything “new.” The only music that the Patriarchs permitted was chant, and basically unharmonized chant at that. It was by scholarly accident, in fact, that in the mid-1600’s harmony was introduced in chant; the church continued to forbid instrumental music. Not until about 1700, after Peter the Great’s reforms took hold, did Western European culture begin to make any real headway in that ancient land. By 1760, Catherine the Great’s promotion of art and music began to create fertile soil in which Russian culture could grow. Even through the many centuries of Rus’-centric isolation, folksong and folk and fairy tales had remained alive and well, with a heavy infusion of Ukrainian folk culture in the mid-18th Century; this rich culture, kept somewhat underground from the Orthodoxy, would serve as an inexhaustible source for the great Russian composers of the 19th Century.

Isolation persisted even into the lives of the greatest Russian composers. In 1861, when he was 21 years old, Tchaikovsky did not know that one could change keys within a piece, nor did he know how many symphonies Beethoven had written. Mussorgsky, already an accomplished pianist at age 22, did not know who Robert Schumann was and had never heard a symphony or much other classical music besides some Italian opera arias arranged for piano. Likewise, the isolation that exploded into such creativity during the second half of the 19th Century explains why the two major conservatories in Russia did not open until 1862 (St. Petersburg) and 1866 (Moscow).

In the 1800’s, Russian literature and, interestingly, opera, pushed forward a little ahead of symphonic music. Composers were most influenced by the writings of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Many of their heroes were common fellows, serfs, or the tragic and pitiful, brought to heights of glory. Pushkin and others pioneered using vernacular speech in their prose, authenticating Russian life. Mussorgsky, particularly, found a voice in both Pushkin and Gogol’s writings; Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov, closely follows Pushkin’s verse-novel. Tchaikovsky, likewise, wrote his great opera Eugene Onegin after Pushkin. For authors and composers alike, these were works that, above all else, celebrated being Russian.

Gopak from the opera The Fair at Sorochinsk

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky

(born Karevo, Russia, 1839; died St. Petersburg, 1881)

Modest Mussorgsky based his last, unfinished opera, The Fair at Sorochinsk (1872-1880), on a story from Gogol’s collection of Ukrainian stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. The Fair is a comedy about Ukrainian peasants who, after buffoonery and misunderstandings, marry off a young couple and dance a gopak (or hopak) in celebration. The gopak dates far back in Ukrainian history. Early on, it entered Russia’s folk and concert dance circles. Its most remarkable feature is that the dancers leap while squatting, kicking their legs out – a feat of grace and extraordinary athleticism. The gopak is one of the few numbers that Mussorgsky completed for his opera, but he wrote it only for piano. The work was orchestrated by Cesar Cui.

The music is fresh and jubilant. It was so beloved that Rachmaninoff made his own wild piano version that he often played in recitals. From its first measures, when the fiddles saw away on open strings, through the fast-paced conclusion and all the off-beat syncopations in between, Mussorgsky reminds us of why he is often called the most “Russian” of them all. In typical Mussorgsky fashion, the bass accompaniment is first plucked below the third melodic phrase, and then bowed when the phrase returns; wild notes fly beneath the simple, folksy melodies, allowing the feeling of the celebration to ratchet up in turns. For Mussorgsky, whose inspirations came from what he termed “real life” – common folks, everyday speech, folk music – his gopak certainly elevates the “real” to art.

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Opus 43

Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff

(bornSemyonovo, Russia, 1873; died Beverly Hills, California, 1943)

Rachmaninoff became a pupil of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory in 1881. His admiration for the master directed his lifelong musical path: He remained a true disciple of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Romantic style, even while the rest of the music world in the 20th Century had moved far away from Romanticism.

Rachmaninoff was as gifted a conductor and pianist as he was a composer, traveling extensively as a soloist and conductor beginning at about age 25. International engagements kept him away during the 1917 Russian Revolution. He realized that the Russia he had grown up in was no longer his home, and he never returned. Eventually, he and his family settled in the U.S. But he remained homesick for the rest of his life, practicing Russian traditions and speaking only Russian in his home. That Russian-ness seemed to be the gravity of his highly Romantic works. Rather than drawing inspiration from folksong, Rachmaninoff kept returning to the solemnity of chant, that centuries-old mainstay of Russian life.

In 1934, at the peak of his maturity as a composer, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. It is one of those masterpieces that seem to defy criticism: Many call it perfect. Borrowing the famous 24th Violin Caprice by fabled virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), Rachmaninoff created a set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra. Within those variations, we hear brilliant virtuosity by the pianist and sumptuous Russian Romantic harmonies and colors in the orchestra.

Listen for three clever surprises:

- Rachmaninoff does not open the piece with Paganini’s theme outright. Rather, he begins with a short introduction and then essentially the first of the 24 variations, which presents the bare bones of the theme and merely hints at the diabolical difficulty of the actual theme and its later variations. At last, Paganini’s theme is heard outright – appropriately, in the violins.

- Variation 7 reminds us of Rachmaninoff’s devotion to Russian Orthodox chant. Here he gives us hints of the Dies irae, that ancient chant from the Mass for the Dead made so famous by Berlioz in the Symphonie fantastique, and a theme that plays prominently in several of Rachmaninoff’s other works. By the end of this Rhapsody, we will have heard the Dies irae several times outright. The beauty of this choice of chant is twofold: Its harmonic scheme closely resembles that of Paganini’s Caprice, and it pokes fun at the old tale of Paganini selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for superhuman gifts with the violin – and with women. No one has ever verified Paganini’s Faustian bargain, but it fits the narrative of many an old Russian folktale, and it’s no wonder that Rachmaninoff couldn’t resist referring to it.

- The concerto’s grandest moment is Variation 18, the Rhapsody Variation, which doesn’t sound like Paganini in any way. Lush and drippingly romantic, this theme’s genius is that it is, in fact, Paganini’s theme turned upside down and played more slowly, creating what is probably Rachmaninoff’s most famous lyrical melody.

After the beautiful Rhapsody Variation, the concerto gains velocity, building devilish excitement, until, just before a full-force ending, Rachmaninoff pulls away from the keyboard and ends in a whisper. The listener is left breathless and smiling at the delightfully tongue-in-cheek wink at the old Devil tale about Paganini.

Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64

Andante – Allegro con anima
Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza
Valse – Allegro moderato
Finale – Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

(born Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia, 1893)

Tchaikovsky steeped his first three symphonies in folk tune, but his fourth and fifth began tackling bigger questions. The composer seemed to be gravitating toward his most intimate utterance through these two symphonies, on the way to his sixth – the one so full of foreboding and devastation. The most accurate description of Tchaikovsky’s self-expression in his Symphony No. 5 comes from his contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky: “There is an indispensable measure of suffering even in the happiness of the Russian people, for without it, its happiness is incomplete.” This is Tchaikovsky’s Fifth: Sorrow and joy exist side by side.

The Andante introduction to the first movement begins with a shadowy, brooding theme played by the clarinets and strings – a halting, disheveled sort of march – the first two bars of which Tchaikovsky called a “Fate” motto. Though at first gloomy, the motto will be heard countless times throughout the symphony, and in countless ways, from desperate to glorious. For Tchaikovsky, Fate is not essentially tragic; it is simply unstoppable, or, as Dostoevsky put it, equal parts sorrow and joy.

For sorrow’s part, the scene that Tchaikovsky paints in the introduction is rather desolate, and the story that would seem to unfold from it assuredly a tragic one. But when the Allegro begins, again with strings and clarinets, we hear a different kind of march. It’s quicker, steadier on its feet, and with a little more spring in its step. In fact, it’s a clever derivation of the Fate motto. As this theme builds, the brass begin to puncture its fabric with a clipped, more surprising version of the Fate motto. Tchaikovsky is giving us a taste of the symphony’s philosophy: Through light and dark, Fate persists in many guises.

The second main theme begins lyrically and then also builds in tension. It takes a remarkable path, as Tchaikovsky manipulates a descending, tumbling fragment of the second theme and cascades it over several key changes. It emerges, groaning, out of the musical depths, and rises into a fanfare of a resplendent version of the Fate motto. Tchaikovsky has come a long way from the 21-year-old who didn’t know one could change keys within a piece. The final section builds colossally, almost violently, but then dies away quietly. Tchaikovsky is a master storyteller, and he closes the first movement having made clear that he has much more to tell.

The second movement continues the tale somberly. The opening chords are drenched in passion and longing. But then the French horn takes up perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most exquisite melody. How this theme can convey so much emotion is one of the great accomplishments in music – full of yearning, speaking of a deeply felt vastness, so sorrowful, and so joyful. The melancholic reverie is interrupted more than once by the Fate motto, giving the beautiful theme even more potency. The second theme picks up grandly near the end, but the Fate motive blasts in again, smothering all in its wake, reducing the story of this movement to a few feeble breaths.

The third movement brings some release as Tchaikovsky, perhaps the greatest of all ballet composers, writes a waltz of astounding grace. However, it, too, is sabotaged by the Fate motto, almost cruelly in the last bars.

The last chapter of the Symphony begins by restating the Fate motto, now in a major key, and with a stance, at least briefly, more heroic. But the story is not complete, and through this bristling finale, much will happen. It’s essentially a battle between the dark and the light, like so many great old Russian fairy tales. But how Tchaikovsky brings us through it! – with some of his most exciting orchestral moments, enchanting and kaleidoscopic colors, and a tempo and pacing that keep us at the edge of our seats. “And then what?,” we want to ask. Tchaikovsky replies, “Wait and see!” with a thrilling fanfare, nearing the point of cataclysm…and then, the coda. The spine-tingling ending rushes to a last fanfare of the Fate motto that is, at last, and gloriously, transformed into triumph.

— Max Derrickson