The Mighty Russians
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
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
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44

Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos did not fare well in their early careers. The First Concerto was initially rejected by its dedicatee Nikolai Rubinstein before acquiring its overwhelming popularity, and the Second started with a checkered career as well.

When the orchestrated score was finished in 1880, Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Rubinstein and asked him to give the premiere, but Rubinstein procrastinated. Perhaps he had his doubts about the music or perhaps the technical difficulties daunted him, and he had also been burned by his hasty rejection of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. He probably was hesitant to stick his neck out again.

Rubinstein died suddenly in March 1881 in Paris, without ever having played the Concerto. The premiere performance actually took place in New York with the British pianist Madeline Schiller and conductor Theodore Thomas. Probably on account of its 22-minute-long first movement, audience and critics alike received it coolly, thereby opening it up to modifications and cuts by subsequent pianists and conductors.

The first performance in Russia was in May 1882, with Sergey Taneyev as pianist. Taneyev suggested a number of minor cuts, mainly some piano solo sections in the first movement and the cello and violin concertante in the second.

The first movement has a rigid symmetry, with large, alternating orchestral and piano sections, as opposed to the dialogue and ensemble playing typical of most classical concerti. Tchaikovsky opens with a martial theme; Example 1 later he manipulates it so that it retains its rhythm and character but changes melodically. Example 2 Example 3 The flowing second theme, introduced by the clarinet provides the expected contrast. Example 4 A middle section is like a meandering reverie for the soloist. There is an orchestral interlude, featuring pairs of woodwinds, followed by a huge cadenza including a technically challenging "fluttering" effect on the piano. Only after the cadenza does Tchaikovsky proceed to the recapitulation. The prestissimo coda creates the dynamic rush. Example 5

The Second movement suggests a triple concerto for violin, cello and piano, in which the two string instruments frequently have the field to themselves, especially at the opening where they engage in an amorous duet. The movement opens with a series of orchestral sighs that set the mood for everything that follows. Example 6 The violin solo takes quite a while ramping up into a fully formed melody, Example 7 after which it is joined by the cello on the same theme. The piano enters only after four minutes. The middle of the movement is symphonic in character, Example 8 but gradually reverts to the cello and violin with near cadenzas of their own. Although the orchestra makes a reappearance at the end, the rest of the movement proceeds as a piano trio, a forerunner of Tchaikovsky's own Piano Trio, written two years later. Example 9

Unfortunately, pianists did not want to be upstaged by the violin and cello soloists while sitting on their hands for minutes at a time, and conductors frequently did not have the first chair violin and cello good enough to play the solo parts. Pianist and conductor Alexander Siloti made some further major cuts and changes in order to make the Concerto easier for the pianist. Although Tchaikovsky totally rejected the modifications, they were incorporated into the 1897 published version after the composer’s death, as if approved by him. Today the Concerto is usually performed according to the composer’s wishes.

The Finale, a rondo/sonata structure is the shortest movement, compact and neatly packaged. The piano opens with the rondo theme Example 10 and also brings in the second theme. Example 11 Except for its sheer speed, it doesn’t give the soloist the same vehicle for either technical display or emotional intensity as the previous two movements.
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 2017