Son of a prosperous, government office clerk in Votlinsk, Russia, young Pyotr was musically precocious, but not enough to warrant special music training. However, a strong interest in “tinkering” out little compositions on the piano warranted basic piano studies for the five year old, who soon became as adept at reading music as his teacher. Because there was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia, his parents sent him to law school to prepare for a legal career. During and after 3 years of law studies and clerkship, Pyotr’s interest in all aspects of music never faltered. He refused to set aside his music studies and concert attendance. A performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni pushed the 23-year-old legal clerk to give up law and enter the Conservatory of St. Petersburg. After graduation, Tchaikovsky was accepted for a position teaching harmony at the Conservatory of Moscow. While teaching, the 29-year-old musician wrote his program music for Romeo and Juliet, marking the serious beginning of his professional career.
The composer devoted himself to creating the Western style music encouraged by his Conservatory training. Hoping for stability, as well as to conceal his homosexuality in a country that harshly condemned it, the 27-year-old musician agreed to marry a pursuing student. The marriage was a total disaster, but its demise led to an annual stipend by a wealthy patron, Nadezna von Meck. He quit teaching and devoted the next 13 years exclusively to composition, concertizing, conducting, and to a detailed correspondence with Mme. von Meck. The annual stipend transformed Tchaikovsky into Russia’s first fulltime, professional musician/composer. Financial support ended abruptly as a result of misunderstandings; the effect of the breakdown was emotionally devastating to both for the rest of their lives. However, Tchaikovsky could now financially fend for himself as a celebrated musician with a worshipping public and world acclaim. He received countless awards and a royal title. In 1891 he traveled to America for the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York where he conducted his 1812 Overture. At home again, the composer plunged into two works the Nutcracker Suite and his last work, Symphony No. 6, which he conducted in its premiere in 1893.
Soon after that the 54-year-old composer succumbed to cholera, after drinking un-boiled water during a cholera epidemic. The debate continues as to whether the composer died as a result of contaminated water, or suicide, or a combination, or other undiagnosed ailments. A half-mile funeral procession followed him to his final resting place in a St. Petersburg cemetery near the graves of composers Borodin, Glinka, Mussorgsky, and RimskyKorsakov.
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique,” Op. 74 1893
The symphony’s premiere was received by critics and audience in a lukewarm fashion. Tchaikovsky had recognized that his orchestra was unsure of the music, but this did not cool his ardor for “the best work I’ve ever composed or will. It is the most favored of my musical children.”
First Movement: Tchaikovsky sets the mood of the symphony in an introductory passage by solo bassoon, supported by the low notes of whispering double basses. A four-note motif is repeated three times in different registers before the composer drives the nervous theme to its climax. The music moves to one of his most beautiful melodies, presented by soaring strings and followed by a lingering afterthought by the clarinet. An unexpected chordal crash by the orchestra begins the next section of the movement and the opening motif returns in another key. The subsequent dying out of the soaring melody leads to a presentation by winds of the Russian requiem service. With subdued dignity, the brass sound against a descending scale by the plucked strings of the violins.
Second Movement: This is a relaxed movement with a waltzlike tempo presented in an unusual five beats to the bar. One critic referred to the movement as being in “mysterious limping motion” and another as a “three-legged stool.” The mood is light almost gay, enhancing a melody which stands out as one of Tchaikovsky’s most graceful and whimsical ones.
Third Movement: The listener hears musically indistinct, whirling figures that appear and vanish before evolving into a distant march. The defiant march seemingly tells all to get out of the way. This particular passage serves as a fine example of Tchaikovsky’s ability to turn repetitive music into an attentive listening experience by varying orchestral color and tempo. As with the preceding movement, this serves as a change from the symphony’s other movements of anxiety, frustration, misery, and “pathos.”
Fourth Movement: A great cry pierces the echo left by the last bang of the march, and the mood goes sour. A succession of simple ideas lightens the mood to one of despair rather than one of unrelieved grief. A lamenting elegy for strings begins quietly and increases in intensity. It fades away to the tolling of a gong; a deathlike silence ends the symphony.
SERGEY PROKOFIEV 1891 1953
Sergey Prokofiev was born in 1891 in a small Ukrainian village, son of an agricultural engineer and an amateur pianist/mother. Sergey’s mother began to teach piano to the three year old, which soon led to his clamoring to learn how to musically notate what he was composing “by ear.” He soon produced a three-act opera. The young boy was sent for advanced piano studies and at age 12 headed to St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he concentrated on harmony, theory, composition, and the study of orchestral instruments for the next 10 years.
Sergey’s professors were horrified by the student’s fascination with unorthodox chords and harmonies, which became part of his antiRomantic music philosophy. The cocky student was delighted to mock and shock authority figures who held views that favored traditional Germanic styles of composition. To the credit of the Conservatory, the graduating student was awarded the Rubinstein prize for piano performance, even though he had dared to play his own sharp-edged composition rather than one of the traditional concertos.
To avoid the violence of the Russian Revolution of 1917, Prokofiev signed up for a long tour through Siberia to Asian ports, and then on to America. There his music was received halfheartedly by critics and audiences, which were put off by his sullen, arrogant personality. One critic said that Prokofiev’s music “evoked visions of charging mammoths over some vast Asiatic plateau,” while another referred to “the Bolshevik composer of cold steel.” By this time, the composer’s compositional style included traditional and experimental sounds, abrasive, percussive effects, complex rhythms, and dissonant chord clusters, all mixed in and around tuneful melodies. Audiences and critics often resented the intrusion of the bizarre on the dazzling orchestrations and melodies, and the composer decided to find a more favorable country to introduce his work. He moved to the more relaxed Paris scene where he stayed 10 years, while establishing a world reputation for his music innovations. By the mid-1930s Soviet critics acclaimed him one of their great Russian-trained musicians. After several visits back to his “beloved Russian soil and fresh air,” Prokofiev returned to his native land for good. The crowning lure was a luxury apartment provided to artists who proved a reliable conduit of state propaganda. Acceptance by the Proletariat was to choose subject matter that glorified past history and honored communist pride in hydroelectric dams and collective farming. Prokofiev retained his sense of humor and also produced clever, comedic, musically entertaining works often aimed at fictional figures.
Suddenly, the Communist Party issued a public resolution denouncing its contemporary Russian composers for “decadent formalism,” saying they had been “infected” by Western music, and the complex, dissonant music had become too far-removed from the goals of the Proletariat. One by one, Russian composers, including Prokofiev, admitted that they had erred, and would henceforth promote music encouraging the Proletariat. The in-and-out-of-favor music pendulum kept swinging back and forth, and as a consequence, Prokofiev’s composing style kept ranging from innovative to insignificant marches and patriotic fluff.
Nearing age 60, Prokofiev, a confirmed Christian Scientist, began to suffer from stress and a number of ailments, and his health deteriorated over the next 8 years. He passed away in 1953, the same day as Stalin. Four years later, the dictum against “decadent formalism’’ was officially revoked; a resolution was passed to allow composers greater freedom in choosing subject matter and style.
Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63 1935
Written while on tour, the composer stated, “The number of places in which I wrote this Concerto shows the effect of nomadic concert touring, in that foreign/cultural influences find their way into my work.” The new violin concerto bears telltale signs of a composer in transition; he was shedding some of his steely modernism, and embracing a Soviet aesthetic of musical simplicity and lyricism. Prokofiev was thinking seriously of returning to his native land forever, and he began an appropriate Russian ballet score for Romeo and Juliet, which this violin concerto mirrors in numerous passages.
First Movement: The work begins with a first theme by unaccompanied solo violin. The theme is passed over to other instruments, and a second dreamlike theme develops, and the two melodies become interwoven. The movement develops with contrasts in mood and color, and the horn followed by oboe echoing the theme, as the soloist takes flight with strings. The two themes continue in colorful, brisk manner, and the movement ends in a meditative mood, with muted horns sounding against the sharp pizzicato motion of the strings.
Second Movement: This begins with plucked, arpeggio chords in the strings before the soloist launches into a sweet, soaring melody. The roles are reversed at the end, as the violin plays pizzicato triplets against the main tune played by lower-range instruments.
Third Movement: After much restraint, Prokofiev brings forth his more energetic self. With a firm, pulsing beat, the violin leads the orchestra into rustic, dancelike motion. The unexpected use of castanets adds Spanish flavor, perhaps predicting a premiere in Spain, which did in fact take place in Madrid.
Research and notes written by Joan Olsson