January 17, 2015
Symphony No. 6
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia. Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia
This work was first performed on October 28, 1893, in St. Petersburg, conducted by the composer. It is scored for piccolo, three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, percussion, timpani and strings.
By the late 1880s, Tchaikovsky had composed nearly all of his most revered works – five of the six symphonies, the ballets Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, and most of his operas and chamber music. Since the mid-1870s, the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck had been his benefactress, providing him with an annual stipend of six thousand rubles on the condition that he would devote his energies to full-time composition. These were the brightest years of his life, but they were not to last.
In 1890 von Meck severed their relationship. Even though he no longer relied on her financial assistance, the world-famous composer sorely missed the emotional support he found through their many correspondences. For years he had suffered from depression over his failed month-long marriage in the 1870s, his general insecurity, and his difficulty in coming to terms with his homosexuality. The loss of von Meck’s support sent Tchaikovsky into the deepest depression of his life. On his American tour of 1891 (during which he gave the opening concert for New York’s Carnegie Hall), he began to feel as if something was gravely wrong. By 1893 he had hit rock-bottom. On November 6 of that year, the composer died under mysterious circumstances. Although the official story has Tchaikovsky committing suicide by drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, arsenic poisoning has never been ruled out.
Tchaikovsky composed the Pathetique Symphony in the depths of his despair – a state of mind that somehow helped him immerse himself in the creative process. He completed the symphony in seven months time, between February and August of 1893. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere on October 28 – just nine days before his unforeseen death
The Pathetique is one of Tchaikovsky’s most soul-searching scores. He claimed that the work was a program symphony – one that tells a story – but refused to divulge the underlying program. One significant clue was found on a scrap of paper among the sketches for his Nutcracker ballet:
“Following is the plan for a symphony LIFE! First movement – – all impulse, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (Finale death – result of collapse). Second movement love; third movement disappointment; fourth end with a dying away (also short)”
Although the final symphony does not follow this impromptu sketch directly, it is no doubt autobiographical to a large degree.
The opening bassoon solo sets a somber mood before giving way to a more agitated incarnation of the same melody at the outset of the Allegro. After a brief respite with the lyrical second theme, the turmoil returns. The movement ends with gestures of emotional resignation. The second movement is the famous 5/4 waltz – lopsided, but flowing and completely natural. The march of the third movement is the brightest emotional moment of the entire work, but is more akin to Berlioz’ March to the Scaffold than Tchaikovsky’s ceremonial music. The final movement is tragic and melancholy, and seems even more heartrending after the bright ending of the march. The intensity builds until the devastating moment near the end when a gong sounds, followed by a brass chorale, and the symphony fades away into silence.
Overture to La Forza del Destino
Born October 9, 1813, in La Roncole, near Parma, Italy. Died January 27, 1901, in Milan, Italy
The opera that eventually included this overture was premiered on November 10, 1862, in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The revised version, which included this overture, was first heard on February 27, 1869, at the La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy. It is scored for pairs of woodwinds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion two harps and strings.
Giuseppe Verdi was a political artist. In the 1840s there was no unified country of Italy. Instead, Italian geography was divided into several city-states, with much of Northern Italy controlled by Austria. Across Europe, in the wake of Napoleon’s conquests and the collapse of the French monarchy, nationalist interest grew as many areas strove to embrace their local identities. In Italy, a movement called the Risorgimento sought to unify all Italians under the only native Italian King, Vittorio Emanuele, of the small Northern Italian country of Piedmont. Because of Verdi’s political bent, supporters of the cause took up the rallying cry of “Viva VERDI.” The composer’s name here became an acronym for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re D‘ Italia” (Victor Emanuel, King of Italy).
Verdi composed nearly all of his operas for stages in his native Italy. His music, perhaps more than any other composer, has come to personify all that is Italian. However, the composer received a commission in 1861 to compose a new opera for the Russian Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg. After some negotiation, Verdi settled on a setting of the 1835 play Don Alvaro that deals with love, revenge, curses, and murder – standard fare for Verdi. In short, the action follows a nobleman who is forced to commit the very deeds he despises most, all because of a series of events attributable to a curse (the force of destiny mentioned in the opera’s title). Biographers have drawn a parallel between the protagonist’s dilemma and that of the semi-retired Verdi accepting the commission – his own curse – because of the lucrative payment attached to the project. Verdi thought he would be able to write the opera and then return to a peaceful existence of leisure. However, La forza del destino did not satisfy his perfectionism, and he revised the work twice over the next decade, removing some of the numerous deaths in the story line.
Verdi’s overture dates from his 1869 revision and opens with the theme of fate – six unison brass notes, plunging the listener into the stark mood of the opera. A rushing string section follows, full of unrest and turmoil. The brass repeats its peal. A central section quotes Leonora’s prayer from Act II of the opera, leading to an extravagant climax that reveals Verdi’s gift for dramatic music.
Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 82
Born August 10, 1865, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Died March 21, 1936, in Paris France
This work was premiered on February 17, 1905, in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the composer conducting and Leopold Auer as soloist. It is scored for solo violin, piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.
Alexander Glazunov’s story is one of those tales where everything falls into place to produce a stellar career – at least for a while. Born to a middle-class household, the young Alexander was an intelligent child who had an interest in music. His mother gave him his first piano lessons shortly before his tenth birthday. Two years later, he was writing music. In 1879, when the boy was fourteen, he began studies with Rimsky-Korsakov. Within two years, Rimsky had taught Glazunov all he could, but the two would remain friends until the elder composer died in 1908.
The most important opportunity in Glazunov’s life came in 1881 when a wealthy industrialist and patron of the arts, Mistrofan Belyayev, heard the premiere of the young composer’s Symphony No. 1 and decided to include him in a weekly gathering of composers at his home. The “Belyayev Circle,” as it was called, attempted to reconcile the distance that the brand of nationalism espoused by the influential group of Russian composers called “The Mighty Handful” had put between Western art music and younger Russian composers. Conversely, in an effort to show Western Europe the new music that Russian composers were writing, Belyayev founded a publishing company in Leipzig, Germany – a major musical center and the home of the legendary publisher Breitkopf & Härtel. In 1884 Belyayev took the young composer to Western Europe where his Symphony No. 1 was performed in Weimar. Glazunov’s earliest premieres and publications were the result of Belyayev’s actions.
Although Glazunov is known primarily as a composer, he was an extremely important teacher and administrator at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His association with the institution spanned from his hiring as a professor in 1899 until his retirement in 1930. In late 1905 he was named director – a job that unfortunately took so much of his time that the quality and frequency of his later works was greatly compromised. Among Glazunov’s many students was Dmitri Shostakovich.
Glazunov’s musical output is widely varied. There are nine symphonies, many other orchestra pieces, three ballets, numerous songs, several choral works, seven string quartets, various chamber pieces, and many piano miniatures. His Violin Concerto is one of only four concertos he composed, the others consisting of a pair of piano concertos and one for saxophone.
The Violin Concerto is arguably Glazunov’s final masterpiece, although he lived for over three decades after its premiere. This piece departs from the traditional concerto form in many ways, perhaps most obviously by the entry of the solo violin in the first measure of the work without the usual orchestral exposition. Rhapsodic and almost improvisatory in character, the first movement is alternately poetic and bittersweet. The soloist plays highly chromatic lines, while the orchestra takes a supporting role. Nowhere to be found are the dotted martial rhythms that often dominate the first movements of concertos.
In one of the most ingenious gestures, Glazunov places the expressive second movement within the first movement, substituting it for the traditional development section. Both themes from the first movement return after the second movement material is finished – exactly as they would in a typical first-movement recapitulation. This introspective opening two-movement mélange is connected to the extroverted finale by a brilliant cadenza in which the soloist plays difficult harmonics and multiple stops (simultaneous notes).
Traditionally, the finale of a concerto is begun by the soloist, but Glazunov entrusts the beginning of this finale to the trumpets and the martial dotted rhythms that were missing from the opening of the piece. After the short fanfare, the soloist enters with a rondo theme that is varied throughout the movement with harmonics, multiple stops, arpeggios, and pizzicato passages. These episodes are punctuated by orchestral tutti interjections of the rondo theme – strangely, the only traditional instance of tutti in the entire concerto. The dazzling coda returns to the majestic sound of the brass section over which the soloist plays high harmonics.
©2014 Orpheus Music Prose & Craig Doolin