Program Notes | Saturday, April 27, 2013 | St. Petersburg Sojourn
Notes researched and written by Joan Olsson
PETER (Pyotr) ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
1840 – 1893
Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor – 1875
Son of a prosperous government official in a Russian province, Tchaikovsky was steered by his family to a legal career in government. As a child he had picked up a smattering of musical knowledge but was never thought to possess any special musical talent; no trace of musicianship existed in his family. By age 23 the government clerk was obsessed by a powerful interest in creating music. He entered the Conservatory of St. Petersburg in 1866 and was immediately recommended for a job teaching harmony at the Conservatory of Moscow. With the financial support of a wealthy patron in 1877, the budding composer resigned his teaching post to devote himself exclusively to the western-style music encouraged by his Conservatory training. Having been educated in traditional European forms it was musically comfortable for him to compose in the styles of Italian opera, French Ballet, and German music. He thus became a musical loner who refused to join a strong movement promoting Russian nationalism.
Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and periods of depression. A contributory factor was suppressed homosexuality and the disastrous consequences for a musical career if this were revealed. He mourned throughout his life for his mother who had died during his early teens, and he suffered from chronic depression and physical ailments. A quote from his adult letters sums up his life: "I have very low moments but an insatiable thirst for work consoles me. Without work life has no meaning." Yet the composer's fame grew; he was honored by Tsar Nicholas, awarded a lifetime pension, and lauded in concert halls everywhere. After a trip to America to commemorate the opening of Carnegie Hall, the successful composer plunged into work on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Within a year of its production, 53-year-old Tchaikovsky died from cholera or suicide; the actual cause of his death was never determined.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb minor, op. 23
Tchaikovsky claimed that this concerto was not written, as per tradition, to follow the standard duet style between solo and orchestra; rather its intention was to emphasize a competition between the solo piano and orchestra. The concerto begins with a prologue (or introduction) that sounds like an appropriate way to start. The opening measures display the grand scope of the musical contest. The challenge comes from a pronouncement by four horns answered by crashing piano chords on the offbeat. Strings that introduce a strong melody line against rising piano chords follow this. The strings produce a melody that is one of Tchaikovsky's best loved and has been given wide circulation in a Hollywood movie, a Hit Parade song (Tonight We Love), and ultimately by Van Cliburn's first place medal in the 1957 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. This particular melody then leaves the score for good, never to be heard again.
First Movement: The first theme of the concerto is a gay, skipping melody that the composer claims to have heard from a blind Ukrainian street beggar; it is tossed around at length before a second theme enters the scene. The second theme is a sweet-sounding contrast to the first theme. Part three of the first movement brings a breath-taking cadenza by the solo pianist. It is this crashing cadenza that ratifies the piano soloist's position as the " hero of the hour." It is one of the cadenzas throughout the work which answers orchestral "comments" in a dueling fashion.
Second Movement: This opens quietly and melodically with plucked strings supporting a lone flute in a poignant theme that is repeated by the piano. A new theme by oboe becomes a rapid scherzo based on a French song, " il faux s'amuser, danser et rire" (dance and laugh are necessary). After this second theme is worked over with recurring ideas, the first part of the movement is repeated in varied, abbreviated form.
Third Movement: This begins with a rondo of dancing forms with brilliant rhythmic syncopations from a Ukrainian folk tune. This is followed by a new lyrical theme that sweeps in above the piano line, and the piano responds in kind. Combinations and developments of the movement's themes provide the bulk of the movement; the music builds to a huge climax and the concerto's finale is a free-for-all blasting of musical fireworks.
1906 – 1975
Symphony No. 9 in E Flat Major – 1945
Dmitri Shostakovich's parents were musicians; his father was an amateur pianist and singer and his mother was a graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory. The first sign that Dmitri was musically gifted came when he was 5 years old. After attending his first concert, one that included works by nationalist composer Rimsky-Korsakov, the young boy returned home singing the melodies he had just heard once. Because the boy's mother did not believe in music instruction for young children, Dmitri's first lessons were delayed until age 9. Rapid progress brought about first compositions, and in 1919 he entered the Leningrad Conservatory. The young student's gifts proved so phenomenal that he was considered "another Mozart." Not only did he have musical gifts, but also the patriotic desire to do what was expected of artists in the post-Revolution era; this was to glorify the ideals of communism in the Soviet Union, not difficult for one who had been only 10 when the 1917 revolution succeeded.
Shostakovich rose quickly to the top of musical recognition in both the Soviet Union and the world beyond its borders. However, as he matured, the composer began to notice that all was not well with the Proletariat under Stalin's repressive dictatorship. To vocalize negative criticism was to flirt with banishment or possibly death. The only way to express criticism was through musical satire and humor — by using notes to create musical tricks — "fooling around," similar to the clown who slips on the banana peel. In "playing around," the composer was often accused of "bourgeoisie decadence" and periodic blankets of censorship occurred. His public apologies for "straying away from the desires and expectations of the Soviet people" seemed sincere enough and all was forgiven until the next round of frenzied music came forth. The composer's life was often one filled with yo-yo receptions. But, even with the state of musical uncertainty, the Russian composer was ultimately given the most important award of all, "Hero of the Soviet Union." He had ten remaining years in his life to enjoy the prestigious honor of being an important hero in his native land.
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major - 1945
Symphony No. 9 is renowned for its moods of humor, parody, and satire. It had the effect of a "stun gun," in direct defiance of the composer's public promise to provide the last of three symphonies honoring the Soviet Union's patriotic and victorious participation in World War II. Paraphrasing Shostakovich: "What was expected was deification of our leader through the inclusion of choruses, soloists, and quadruple winds in a grand production. In its place I chose to write a shorter, different kind of symphony. Critics will delight in blasting it but musicians will like it; it is simply music to entertain."
The music of Symphony #9 may be difficult to fathom upon first hearing. It is fraught with sudden starts and stops, "out of tune" notes, skipped beats, unexpected blasts and responses, awkward accents and trilling, and other twists and turns.
Stalin was incensed with thoughts of having been ignored, even by a dedication. The symphony was built on abstract ideas and music that Stalin personally disliked. However, the dictator's plate was full of international diplomatic relationships that needed manipulation, so he could ill-afford to criticize the world-famous composer at this time. The expected censorship came later; the symphony was accused of "ideological weakness with failure to reflect the true spirit of the people." Along with banning all performances was destruction of all scores and recordings; the composer remained musically silent until after Stalin's death in 1953.
First Movement: This begins with a sprightly theme by violins in the classical style of Haydn or Mozart, with shades of Prokofiev's neo-classical symphony. A solo trombone blasts unexpectedly with two out-of-place notes; the piccolo responds with a snippy, scornful-sounding little motif. These motives get tossed around until the middle of the movement when the music becomes harried. The over-eager trombone keeps interrupting with its two-note call. (Critics have named these blasts the "Stalin motif," thought to ridicule his overblown ego). Muted trumpets give a strident cry before the trombone seemingly pushes at a solo violin to rejoin the music. The movement comes to an unexpected halt.
Second Movement: This opens with a soulful clarinet solo that is joined in its waltz-based, melancholy meandering by woodwinds. The movement's second theme is a gently rocking melody for strings. The slow, dancing rhythms are marked by sudden stops and starts that suggest hesitation and doubt.
Third, Fourth and Fifth Movements: The last three movements are joined together without a break while offering the usual, quick changes of moods, textures, and tempi. A brilliant trumpet solo briefly cuts through agitated instrumental textures. Piccolo and tambourine are accented in rapid-fire activity before the movement slows down as if in an exhausted state. A huge fanfare by trombones and tuba acts appears to be prelude to something big ahead — only to segue into an introspective bassoon solo. Blasting brass and bassoon are pitted against each other with the bassoon soloing into whimsical flights. The lightness of the first movement returns with woodwind duets that eventually sound ominous in awkward-sounding harmonies. Strings come out of nowhere in a rush of confusing arpeggios matched against brass and woodwinds. Booming bass drum and the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drum occur before the snap of a tambourine ends the confusing rush of sound.