Best known today for his symphonic music, Tchaikovsky also composed eleven operas, two of which, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, are frequently produced today. Both operas are based on works by the premier poet of nineteenth-century Russia, Alexander Pushkin.
Tchaikovsky, ever on the lookout for suitable operatic material, got the idea for using Pushkin's epic poem from a friend during a casual conversation. The composer wrote that the idea at first seemed far-fetched, but after dining alone in a tavern he had made up his mind to use it and, after a sleepless night, had created in his mind the complete scenario for Eugene Onegin.
Composed in 1877-78, Eugene Onegin, tells the common operatic story of love, jealousy and missed chance for happiness. Tatiana is madly in love with Onegin who rebuffs her and flirts instead with Olga, the beloved of his friend Lensky; she flirts with him in return. Lensky, appalled, challenges Onegin to a duel and is promptly killed. Onegin goes into exile, returns after six years and tries to talk Tatiana into eloping with him but she, by then older and wiser, rejects his offer.
Tchaikovsky described Eugene Onegin as lyrical and wanted his performers to concentrate on subtlety of characterization. He chose students to give the premiere, fearing that seasoned opera singers would think their job was only to make a beautiful sound.
The Polonaise opens Act III, a ball in the house of a St. Petersburg nobleman, with an elaborate fanfare. The dance rhythm known as Polonaise is a stately Polish national dance in triple meter. While names like “Polonaise” or “Polnischer Tanz” hark back to the late sixteenth century, none of these had any similarity to the classical Polonaise, which acquired its current form in Poland only around 1800.
The Polonaise from Eugene Onegin is structured like the classical minuet/trio form with polonaise section constituting the main theme, followed by a "trio" with transition that leads back into the repeat of the main theme.
Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his fraught relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often difficult to verify. What is clear is that the composer was a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare and apparently only survived the purges because Stalin liked his music for propaganda films.
His first – and worst – brush with the authorities came in January 1936. An article appeared in the official soviet newspaper, Pravda, severely criticizing his highly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood taken away and his life put in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he used to sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family. He redeemed himself in the eyes of the authorities in 1937 with the Symphony No. 5, which gave him a conditional reprieve. The opera, however, was not performed again for 25 years.
World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, with the horrors of the '30s temporarily forgotten. But in 1946 came a resurgence of purges, suppression and disappearances, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov, whose decrees stipulated only cheerful, uplifting and folksy art.
Shostakovich responded by splitting his creative personality in two: composing works for public consumption, mainly film music, cantatas on revolutionary themes and the like; and works “for the drawer.” Some of his greatest and most personal compositions, including the Violin Concerto (1947-48), did not see the light of day until after Stalin's death in 1953. In many of these latter pieces, Shostakovich incorporated an acronym of his name, made out of the sequence D E-flat C B, which in German would be written D ES C H. Using the German transliteration of his name, "D. Schostakowitsch," the motive spells out his initials in musical notation, D S C H.
Creative subterfuge was a wise move. In addition to their somber mood, definitely not in the spirit decreed by Zhdanov, many of these works incorporated Jewish folk melodies and dance rhythms that were in part a protest against the resurgent Soviet anti-Semitism.
The Violin Concerto is a “Symphonic Concerto” showing greater kinship with Brahms's concertos rather than the usual Russian virtuosic showpieces – although it certainly contains its share of fiery writing. Shostakovich demands a soloist with stamina and musicianship rather than mere showmanship and technique. Formally, it does not follow the three-movement concerto convention with a first movement in sonata form, a slow movement and a fiery finale. Instead, it is more like a suite, harking back to Baroque, Romantic and Russian folkdance.
The opening movement, Nocturne, Moderato, creates a gloomy landscape in a seamless, ever intensifying soliloquy with no rest for the soloist. It is a meditation on several motives introduced by the orchestra, but there is no formal design, almost like an improvisation. In the middle, a celesta tries to interject a dreamlike mood but is drowned out by rumbling from the netherworld. There is a muted climax featuring the lower woodwinds and the first occurrence of a shortened version of the DSCH motive (minus the H). The unrelieved sadness soon returns, accompanied at the end by the harp and celesta to close the movement.
The second movement Scherzo is frenzied and grotesque, a devil’s dialogue between the violin and winds with muted strings in the background. Its sarcasm is reminiscent of the “satanic style” of violin playing in works by Giuseppe Tartini, Camille Saint-Saëns, Igor Stravinsky and others. In keeping with the constant dialectic between the high violin and the lower winds and brass, Shostakovich includes an eerie dialogue between the soloist and the contrabassoon. As in the first movement, he finishes the scherzo theme with his shortened DSC(H) signature, introducing it with a hint of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre in the background. The movement has two trios: the first consists of a simple six-note motive that again features the bassoon and violin, the second a Jewish danse macabre, introduced by the “rattling bones” of the xylophone. In the return of the scherzo, Shostakovich completes his signature.
The third movement is a passacaglia, a form dating back to the Renaissance and Baroque with a tradition associated with lamentation. Traditionally, it consists of a repeating bass line over which other instruments – or even voices – weave variations. It is the heart of the Concerto, a dirge for the war dead and/or Soviet repression. The movement opens with a fanfare for brass and timpani, recalling the funeral marches of Gustav Mahler. The theme is seventeen measures long and is repeated nine times, each iteration involving a different instrumentation. The opening four notes, however, serve as a motto for the dirge. With the entrance of the soloist, the music becomes more personal and triumphant with the soaring spirit of the violin overcoming the overall sadness. A long cadenza–virtually a movement in itself–is another intensely emotional statement with little in common with the traditional flash and bravura displays appended to faster movements. It is at first accompanied by pianissimo timpani. It takes up the fanfare theme and other fragments of the passacaglia (Chaconne) and the other movements – even foreshadowing the finale – and gradually evolves into an increasingly frenetic conclusion, containing the complete DSCH motive that ties this movement to the fourth movement without pause.
The finale, marked Burlesca, is a rondo, apparently a parody of the wild drinking parties and heel-kicking Gopak folk dancing thrown by Stalin and his henchmen – although allusions to the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto are also present. The dance, introduced (symbolically?) by the xylophone again, is the Nocturne theme on speed. The movement evolves into a mad rush reintroducing the themes from the previous movements – even the passacaglia. After another Jewish dance, the tempo ratchets up into a syncopated coda; but if you get too caught up in the fun, a final blast of the horns with the first four notes of the passacaglia dirge – not the expected personal DSCH motive – can stop you in your tracks and actually bring tears to your eyes.
At some point between the composition of the third and fourth movements, in January 1948, the ideological ax fell on Shostakovich and his colleagues. It is possible that the grotesque nature of the fourth movement was the composer’s way of maintaining his sanity and expressing his feelings at the outrage. The coda is an example of what some have dubbed Shostakovich’s signature “rat music.”
One of the great successes of American musical theater in the 1920s was Vincent Youmans’ No, No, Nanette. And the most popular and enduring number of the musical was Tea for Two.
In 1928, in the home of Nikolai Malko, the conductor of the Leningrad Philharmonic, Shostakovich met Ivan Sollertinsky, who became a life-long friend. Sollertinsky, a linguist, historian and musicologist, became musical annotator and lecturer for the Leningrad Philharmonic and was a major influence in the composer’s life. On a bet, Shostakovich sat down and in 40 minutes wrote and orchestrated a set of variations on Tea for Two, known in Russia as Tahiti Trot.
It should be noted that the date, 1928, is important in understanding where Shostakovich was coming from. The caper occurred before the Stalinist purges and the composer’s agonized attempts to stay alive and still be true his muse. Ultimately, he avoided the gulag because Stalin liked his film music.
The Tahiti Trot variations are not your grandmother’s increasingly decorative and complex set. Instead, Shostakovich varies not just every iteration of the tune but each phrase with a different combination of instruments while retaining the melody intact, including the little introduction. Even the first appearance of the famous melody has a strikingly original texture.
In 1901, after the great success of his Piano Concerto No. 2, Sergey Rachmaninov launched a triple career, as a pianist, conductor and composer. But in the following years, as his self-confidence grew and his economic situation improved, he cut back on his commitments to performing and conducting in order to concentrate increasingly on composing. This balancing act continued until it was cut short in 1917 by the Russian Revolution.
A conservative and traditionalist in politics as in art, Rachmaninov viewed the Revolution with horror. He left the country with his family in 1917, never to return, eventually settling in the United States. As his property in Russia was confiscated and his sources of income dried up, he realized that in order to provide for his family he had to become a full-time pianist, since it was as in this capacity that he was best known in the West. These economic constraints consumed him, leaving him little time to compose. “For 17 years, since I lost my country, I have felt unable to compose. When I was on my farm in Russia during the summers, I had joy in my work. Certainly, I still write music – but it does not mean the same to me now,” he said during a 1933 interview. After 1917, his only major works were his Piano Concerto No. 4 (1926), Variations on a Theme of Corelli (1931), Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934), Symphony No. 3 (1938) and the Symphonic Dances.
Composed in 1940 and dedicated to Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Symphonic Dances are Rachmaninov’s last work and often considered his best orchestral composition. Surprised by its favorable reception, Rachmaninov commented: “I don’t know how it happened. It must have been my last spark.”
The work is something of a retrospective nostalgic piece that recalls pre-Bolshevik Russia, with its romantic sentimentality and the Russian Orthodox Church. Two of the three movements contain references to previous works: The principal theme from the First Symphony appears in the coda of the first movement and a modified version of the syncopated chant “Blessed be the Lord” from the Vespers in the last.
The first movement, marked Non allegro, is written in ABA form, the B section providing a sharp and often un-dance-like, contrast. Rachmaninov demonstrates a particular interest in the texture of individual instruments; in the opening, he introduces the principal motive gradually via several solos for English horn, clarinet, bassoon and bass clarinet over a light violin ostinato, each of which gives a different character to the theme. The dance proper has a primeval quality with its pounding ostinato and large percussion section, including piano. The middle section features the oboe and the alto saxophone – Rachmaninov’s only scoring for this instrument. It begins with an introduction of birdcalls for violin, oboe and clarinet, followed by another of the composer’s broad romantic themes on the saxophone, accompanied by the birdcalls on the oboe. The transition back to the first dance theme is a long, gradual build-up of dynamics, speed and instrumental forces. A muted coda – the quote from the First Symphony – with glockenspiel finishes the movement.
A fanfare for muted trumpets introduces the second movement, Andante con moto (Tempo di valse), followed by a mini-cadenza for solo violin that quotes the main theme of the first dance. The second dance is a dreamy serenade, recalling the waltzes of Glazunov and Tchaikovsky but with more of the whirling chromaticism of Ravel’s La valse. Also in ABA form, the second section begins with more wind solos and duets. Much of the movement is lightly orchestrated with solos passed off from one instrument, or section, to another in mid-phrase. It never settles on a key, creating a more uneasy – even, at times, menacing – rather than festive quality to the dance. As the waltz approaches the end, the tempo becomes increasingly erratic in tempo, ending with a frantic coda.
Following a slow introduction, the dark final movement combines the syncopated rhythm of the Vespers theme with dance-like allusions to the Dies irae plainchant melody – Rachmaninov’s signature theme from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. In fact, throughout this dance, Rachmaninov plays a clever game with the listener, never quoting exactly either the Vespers theme or the chant melody, but rather, insinuating ever more obvious hints of them into the fabric of the dance.
Like the first movement, this one has a contrasting middle section in which the tempo slows considerably; only instead of featuring the winds, this one focuses on the strings, especially the cellos and violas. After the initial tempo has resumed, the solo trumpet begins hinting more broadly at the Dies irae by extracting it from the Vespers dance rhythm and returning it to the non-metrical rhythm of the original chant. Finally, near the end, Rachmaninov states it openly as part of the climax to the movement with the full battery of percussion instruments accompanying it. Now the character and meaning of the entire movement is revealed as a dance of death.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017
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