|MASTERWORKS I: The Mighty Russians, Part III|
Carnaval Overture, Op. 45
Born in St Petersburg, the son of a successful publisher father and a mother who was a talented amateur pianist, Alexander Glazunov studied with Mily Balakirev, who encouraged him into a musical career and recommended him to the young Rimsky-Korsakov. Glazunov became Rimsky-Korsakov’s favorite pupil and was 16 when his First Symphony was performed successfully in public. A Second Symphony and a tone poem, Stenka Razin, were equally successful. From there on his rise was meteoric.
In 1899 Glazunov was appointed professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory and in 1905, became its Director. He made no secret of being a musical conservative and walked out on a performance of an early Prokofiev work, commenting that encouraging such compositions would only encourage "harmful trends" – and this even before the Soviet toxic intrusion into artistic creativity.
By 1902 Glazunov was well known in Europe; his name appeared regularly on American concert programs and he traveled extensively conducting his own music. For a while, his eight symphonies were held in high esteem, regarded as – next to Tchaikovsky's six – the most substantial contribution to the Russian symphonic repertoire.
Glazunov felt alienated from the new Soviet order that came to power after 1917, but he remained in St Petersburg – now re-named Petrograd –bringing a valuable sense of continuity to the Conservatory. By 1928, discouraged with the direction of the doctrinaire Soviet music establishment, he left for Paris, joining its large community of expatriated Russians, including Igor Stravinsky and his bête noir Sergey Prokofiev. Needless to say, in the Paris of the 20s poor Glazunov was musically a forgotten man, his late-Romantic style considered uninspired and academic.
Glazunov composed the Carnaval Overture in 1892, dedicating it to famed music critic Herman Laroche, a lifelong supporter of Tchaikovsky and an opponent of Balakirev’s Nationalist Russian School. Perhaps in keeping with the traditionally chaotic atmosphere of the holiday, the Overture is a potpourri of moods and tunes. There are a couple musical ideas, pieces of which recur throughout; others make a single appearance. Among these towards the middle section of the Overture, is a slower section reminiscent of Russian Orthodox chant, in which the mood becomes more subdued, a reminder of the Lenten season to follow.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1
Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a musical family, middle-class but under strained economic conditions. His ne’er-do-well father squandered the family’s fortune to the point that his parents eventually separated. His mother had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been left to the supervision of a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision at all.
By age 19 he was already established as a performer, but he always wanted to compose and considered himself a composer first, pianist second. He gained instant fame as a composer with his Prelude in c-sharp minor, a work that haunted him all his life because audiences always expected (and demanded) it as an encore at his concerts.
A conservative and traditionalist, Rachmaninov viewed the Russian Revolution with horror. He left the country with his family in 1917, never to return, eventually settling in the United States. His sources of income having dried up, he became a full-time pianist for the rest of his life, leaving him little time to compose.
In 1889 Rachmaninov started work on a piano concerto but abandoned it, leaving only some sketches. But he returned to the genre in the following year, finishing the f-sharp minor Concerto in 1891 as a graduation project from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It was a sensational success at its premiere, lauded by fellow pianists and public alike for its brilliant dramatic contrasts, sensuous slow movement and fiery, driving finale that required dazzling virtuosity from the soloist. Rachmaninov performed it on a number of occasions but was dissatisfied with it and revised it extensively, especially the orchestration, shortly before his departure from Russia in December 1917. The revision is the version generally performed today, although there exist historic recreations of the original on CD.
The overall structure of the first movement bears what was to become Rachmaninov’s unmistakable signature, repeated in the subsequent three concertos. It opens with a brass fanfare, followed by the piano in descending octaves and ominous chords, after which the orchestra introduces the main theme. A sparkling piano transition leads to the gentler cantabile second. The development involves much flashy finger work and in places recalls Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. A lengthy cadenza leads to the end of the movement.
Although the second movement conforms to the conventional ternary form, the quality of the themes, unusual harmonic progressions and languid figuration by the piano give it the quality of an endless melody. The movement opens with a plaintive horn call. After a lingering buildup, the piano introduces the main theme, which becomes increasingly embellished as it goes along. A brief secondary theme, a duet for the piano and solo bassoon, constitutes a middle section that is actually one long melody. Repeating the horn call, the bassoon then leads back to a variation of the first theme. The movement has been compared to a Chopin étude.
The Finale is particularly noteworthy for its surprising harmonic wanderings and showy pianistic display – sometimes at the expense of coherent melodies. In all of his concertos, however, Rachmaninov’s finales alternate flashy writing for piano with a contrasting slower and more lyric middle section combining his skills as a melodist with romantic expressiveness. The startling Allegro vivace opening is a sparkling burst of energy with hints of a mazurka rhythm. The second theme seems at first to be going in a more lyrical direction, but it, too, dashes off in a whirl of chromatic harmonies. Even in the contrasting Andante ma non troppo middle section the composer appears more interested in harmony than melody. Rachmaninov returns to the opening Allegro vivace, repeating the two themes but adding even more fireworks and an even faster coda.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
|Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky|
Manfred Symphony, Op. 58
The mid-nineteenth century was the era of the Gothic Romanticism. And nothing illustrates this fascination with the spooky so much as the tangled relationship between Lord Byron, Hector Berlioz and Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky. Actually, Mary Shelley started it off with Frankenstein; Byron, who was present at the monster’s birth, took it up with his dramatic poems, which inspired the literary Berlioz with Harold in Italy and the Symphonie fantastique.
In 1867-68, the aged Berlioz visited Russia to conduct Harold, bringing Byron’s poetry to the attention of Russian composers. The dean of Russian critics, Vladimir Stasov, tried to convince his friend, the composer Mily Balakirev, to compose a similar symphony on Manfred, even suggesting a scenario. But Balakirev declined, trying to pass the ball to one of his colleagues. Finally, in 1885, he succeeded in convincing Tchaikovsky to undertake the task.
The arch-Romantic Tchaikovsky – the solitary and outsider tortured by his own sexual conflicts – was captivated by the gloomy self-indulgent poem Manfred. The poem has no real plot or action. Rather, it describes an anti-hero consumed by guilt over an unnamed sin involving his deceased beloved Astarte. Manfred conjures seven ghosts to cast a spell of forgetfulness, but they cannot change the past, and he commits suicide by jumping off the Jungfrau. Byron himself had been forced to flee England because of a scandal over his incestuous affair with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh; he wrote the poem shortly thereafter, and history has put two and two together. Byron’s wife, mathematician Lady Ada Lovelace, left him and spent the rest of her life working with Charles Babbage on the invention of the concept of the digital programmable computer. Not surprisingly, the poem had appealed also to Robert Schumann who used it as the inspiration for his Manfred: Dramatic Poem with Music in Three Parts.
Tchaikovsky’s take on the poem reflects the influence of Berlioz and Franz Liszt, both of whom created hybrid tone-poem symphonies (Symphonie fantasique and A Faust Symphony). These were narrative vignettes unified by a single motto, or idée fixe, which recurred transformed but recognizable in every movement. Tchaikovsky prefaced each movement with a quote reflecting Stasov’s original concept:
1. “Manfred wanders in the Alps. Tormented by fateful questions of existence, tortured by the burning anguish of hopelessness and memory of his guilty past, he experiences cruel spiritual torments. Manfred has delved deeply into the secrets of magic and communicated imperiously with the powerful forces of hell, but neither they, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which he so vainly seeks and craves. Memories of his ruined Astarte, whom he had once passionately loved, gnaw and eat at his heart, and there is neither Grace nor an end to Manfred’s boundless despair.”
The Symphony opens with the first part of the “Manfred” motto, followed by threatening orchestral punctuation. Tchaikovsky subsequently completes the theme, devoting the rest of the movement to what Liszt called “thematic transformations” of the idea for over 15 minutes of unresolved harmonic tension. Although not composed in conventional sonata form, the movement contains one gentle contrasting theme, which also resembles the Manfred motto and may represent Astarte.
2. “The Alpine Fairy appearing to Manfred in a rainbow from the waterfall’s spray.”
This scherzo is a showcase for the upper woodwinds, probably influenced not a little by Mendelssohn. The trio adds the melodic component absent from the fluttering scherzo. Although the Manfred motto quietly inserts itself into the picture, things begin to fall apart as the Alpine Fairy’s magic begins to fail.
3. “Pastorale. Simple life, freedom and tranquility of the Alpine people.”
As mentioned above, Harold in Italy had been a smash hit in St. Petersburg, and Tchaikovsky’s pastoral siciliano (9/8) mirrors the equivalent scene from Berlioz’s tone-poem/viola concerto. Of course, Manfred crashes the party, but while his theme sobers up the atmosphere, it cannot infect the bucolic innocence.
4. “Arimanes’ (The spirit of evil) subterranean palace. Manfred appears in the midst of a bacchanale. Raising of Astarte’s spirit. She foretells an end to his earthly pains. Death of Manfred.”
If Harold in Italy was the model for the third movement, the Symphonie fantasique served as an apt model for the finale. In addition to the Manfred motto, the movement centers on an initial angry statement. Tchaikovsky sets the orgiastic goings on as a Russian trepak The subsequent Adagio reintroduces Manfred onto the scene. Then, the composer adds a chromatic fugue (for which critics since have roundly dissed him).
Fortunately, the composer provided a road map, so that the following Adagio probably represents the spirit of Astarte’s interchange with Manfred. The rest of the movement recaps his existential despair and death.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018|