The Mighty Russians
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 75

Tchaikovsky never really wrote a third piano concerto.

In the spring of 1892 he started to write a symphony in E-flat, but by the fall he realized it was going nowhere and told his friends that he had destroyed it because “there is nothing particularly interesting or symphonic in it. I decided to throw it away and forget about it.”

But by next summer he decided to use the material for a third piano concerto. He worked on the first movement, finishing the orchestration in October 1893. He still had some serious doubts about the result, considered it “overlong” and thought of issuing it as a one-movement concert piece. He also sent it to Sergey Taneyev, a composer and brilliant pianist, for evaluation. Taneyev liked it but considered it not virtuosic enough.

Two weeks later, before he could do anything with it, Tchaikovsky was dead of cholera. The movement was published posthumously in 1894 as Concerto No. 3. Taneyev reworked two more movements left in sketches from the discarded symphony, trying to create a complete concerto, but his attempt, published as Op. 79, never caught on.

In his last works, Tchaikovsky seems to have had a penchant for the low register of the orchestra. His Sixth Symphony begins with probably the most dismal introduction in the repertory, a mournful bassoon, bass and cello theme; the Third Piano Concerto features the two bassoons, accompanied by timpani, tuba and cellos, with the emphasis all about rhythmic contrast between syncopation and metrical regularity.

The opening measure of the bassoon theme, which is the principal focus of the Concerto, puts the emphasis solidly on the second beat, while the second measure is a series of “four-square” quarter notes. Example 1 The bridge passage that leads into the second theme consists of repeated measures of syncopation, Example 2 but the second theme is once again regular. Example 3 The third theme revs the piano into more virtuosic mode with a toccata-like motive featuring repeated notes and a syncopated accompaniment in the bassoons. Example 4 Notice how all three themes begin with descending leaps.

For the development, it’s back to the main theme and the nether regions reminiscent of the occasional signals that pass among the guardians of Dante’s Inferno; the signal moves up through the orchestra. Example 5 Instead of working with his more cantabile second theme from the exposition, Tchaikovsky transforms and “gentrifies” the first theme à la Liszt, Example 6 leading into an internal cadenza consisting of lots of sequences and scales. Example 7

The recapitulation provides a mini-development for the second theme, which was pretty much ignored earlier. A Presto coda takes up a fragment of the main theme again. Example 8
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Bluebird Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66

Arranged by Igor Stravinsky

Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake (1877) was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premiere, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score. The ballet itself was dropped from the repertoire after 1883 and was only revived in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, and even then in modified form.

By 1888, however, with the composer’s reputation now firmly established, such shabby treatment would have been unthinkable. The Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg commissioned The Sleeping Beauty, promising Tchaikovsky a lavish staging financed by no less a patron than Tsar Alexander III himself.

The plot, based on a French seventeenth-century fairytale, was the work of the director of the Imperial Theaters and consists of a Prologue and three Acts. It offers a combination of high drama, “pure dance,” and character pieces.

In 1941, Igor Stravinsky made chamber orchestra arrangements of four excerpts from the ballet, including the Bluebird pas de deux from the third act. He wrote in the liner notes for a recording: “The one novelty, and non-Tchaikovskyan feature of the instrumentation, is the prominent piano part which helps to conceal the small number of strings.” Otherwise, there are few changes from the original, but they include the introductory passage from the opening part of the pas de deux. Example 1 Stravinsky, then, takes up with the flute/clarinet duet. Example 2 The male and female bluebird solos are virtually unchanged, Example 3 Example 4 but the final pas de deux includes some brass internal “punctuations.” Example 5
Sergey Prokofiev 1891-1953
Sergey Prokofiev
Sergey Prokofiev
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major, Op. 10

Sergey Prokofiev was a composer caught between two cultures. Born into an affluent and musical family, he left the Soviet Union in the summer of 1918, shortly after the 1917 revolution. For the next eighteen years he toured the United States and lived in Paris, then in the mid-1930s returned to his native country, never to leave again.

This is "my first more-or-less mature composition, both in conception and realization,” Prokofiev wrote about his First Piano Concerto. Composed in 1911 while he was still a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and premiered in the following year, the Concerto marked Prokofiev's first public performance with orchestra. Its spiky dissonances and unromantic tone clashed with the taste of the prevailing musical establishment, and the critics and audience were sharply divided in their opinions. Two years later Prokofiev defied his teachers in using the Concerto – rather than an established work from the repertory – to win the coveted Anton Rubinstein piano prize. The composer commented cynically that most of the 20 judges would be unfamiliar with the work and would, therefore, be hard-pressed to judge his performance. The conservative Alexander Glazunov, who headed the Conservatory, was furious, commenting that to promote such compositions would only encourage "harmful trends."

The Concerto is in one continuous movement, but in three distinct sections, similar to Liszt's concertos. Like many nineteenth century works, it is also cyclical, the opening theme serving at the end as the closing theme of the entire work. Example 1 The thematic structure shows the composer’s fondness of wide leaps and angular melodies that he deliberately conceived to demonstrate his pianistic prowess. Example 2 & Example 3 & Example 4 A short Andante middle section sounds like nineteenth century Romantic concertos with lots of "wrong" notes. Example 5 The final movement returns to the pianistic display mode of the opening. Example 6

Considering that the romantic concertos and symphonies of Rachmaninov and Scriabin were the popular works at the time, the Concerto's harmonies came as a shock. Today, 90 years later, the music sounds quite tame to our ears.

Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44

The premiere performance of Rachmaninov's First Symphony took place in St. Petersburg in 1897. It was a dismal failure, in large part due to the shoddy conducting of Aleksander Glazunov, who was drunk. The disappointment brought on a severe depression, and for three years Rachmaninov was unable to do any significant composing. Finally in 1900 he went for therapy and hypnosis to Dr. Nikolay Dahl. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Rachmaninov was able to return to creative work, resulting in his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. Relapses into depression dogged Rachmaninov, however, for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions, as well as most of the rest of his oeuvre, are in minor keys.

Rachmaninov refused to publish the failed symphony, only acknowledging its existence by calling his next one, composed in 1906-07, No. 2. It took him nearly 30 years to premiere his Third Symphony, composed in 1935-36, with “his most favorite orchestra,” the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

It was more than his reluctance to write symphonies that gave rise to this long time gap. Rachmaninov, with a well-established reputation as composer, conductor and pianist, left Russia in December 1917 with his family, having lost all his property in the revolutionary upheaval. With a family to support, he resigned himself to life as a full-time career pianist, leaving little time to compose. The Third Symphony is one of the few works he composed after settling in the West.

This Symphony is to some extent a departure from the late-Romantic language of its predecessors. Except for the first movement, which is quite accessible both melodically and formally, the composer’s lush themes and flowing melodies are significantly attenuated. Instead, the musical language is more austere, chromatic and dissonant, also revealing Rachmaninov’s interest in the qualities of individual instruments. One idiosyncrasy of the Symphony is the abrupt change in tempo and the introduction of new music about halfway through every movement, where the composer goes off on a musical digression – a fast one in the middle of the slow movement, and a slow one in the middle of the allegro movements. There is also considerable thematic unity in the Symphony, both within movements and between them.

One of the bits of thematic glue occurs in the opening notes – a feature not uncommon in composers as early as Haydn – but Rachmaninov puts a slightly different take on it by using a major second instead of a minor second and adding a third note in the motive in the opening of the second movement while retaining just enough of its features, including its melodic contour and rhythm, to be recognizable. Example 1 & Example 2 The contrast in tempi that characterizes the Symphony are suggested early in the crashing measures after the slow opening of the first movement, after which the movement begins in earnest with the first in a series of themes introduced by a pair of oboes. Example 3 Typically with Rachmaninov it is the second theme that is the most lush and the one that he develops most thoroughly in his orchestral works, but in this Symphony, the second theme is similar to the first, although now in the major. Example 4 After a repeat of the exposition and a short foray into a classical development, Rachmaninov proceeds on his first "intra-movement" digressions, a series of short, often nervous and unmelodic themes – including a folksy xylophone lick – that provide the climax to the movement. Example 5 The burst of energy exhausts itself with a recapitulation of the brief three-note introduction and the formal classical recapitulation. A short coda provides the final repeat of the introductory motive. Example 6

As already noted, the introductory measures of the Adagio are based on the introduction of the first movement. The principal theme of the movement makes its first appearance as a lovely violin solo. Example 7 This movement also undergoes an long digression with sparkling orchestration. A long fanfare leads into its main theme. Example 8 As in the first movement, the energy gradually winds down into a reprise of the Adagio and a repeat of the introductory motto from the first movement.

By comparison with the familiar morose Rachmaninov and his seemingly inevitable quotes from the Dies irae, the Finale seems positively joyous. Example 9 Nevertheless, the chromatic and tonally ambiguous second theme is not as lyrical as expected of this composer. Example 10 While this movement does not contain a lengthy section in a contrasting tempo, it does regularly alternate between the sprightly main theme and more attenuated passages. A third theme that begins as if its going to be another Rachmaninov blockbuster melody is cut off by a whimsical interruption by the bassoon. Example 11 In the same vein, later the composer inserts a short Hispanic dance Example 12 and further on a Russian one, a slow version of the little xylophone passage from the first movement Example 13 & Example 14 that creeps up the chromatic scale, gradually increasing in tempo. The Symphony's motto appears in its final form, now embellished and as a quiet but jaunty dance in the upper winds Example 15 just preceding the exuberant conclusion.

The Symphony disappointed the audience and critics, who had expected another “Second.” The lukewarm reception at the premiere, in turn, disappointed the composer, who felt misunderstood. He wrote to a friend after the premiere that the Philadelphia Orchestra played wonderfully. “…both audience and critics responded sourly. Personally I’m convinced that this is a good work. But – sometimes the author is wrong, too! However, I maintain my opinion.”

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018