Myths, Tzars, and Musical Giants

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787)
From Orfeo ed Euridice, Dance of the Furies

Gluck is one of the few composers of note who seems to have been completely self-taught. Raised by his father, a forester who tried to discourage his son’s musical bent, Gluck left home as a teenager to follow a musical career. His fame gradually spread in the course of holding several minor musical posts in central Europe. His first known composition was a full-fledged opera, Artaserse, set to a libretto by Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio had a kind of stranglehold on libretto writing in early and mid eighteenth century and his texts were repeatedly set to music by the period’s composers. For decades, the opera seria, as it was called, ruled the boards. It followed a standard and rather monotonous structure consisting of scene after scene of recitative followed by an aria in ABA form. The subject matter was generally about an event – often fictitious – in the lives of some ancient king or queen or a dramatization of a scene from an Italian Renaissance epic poem.

Throughout his highly successful career, Gluck composed only operas and a few ballets. Most of his operas are in the opera seria genre, but in 1760 in Vienna Gluck met the poet Raniero Calzabigi, who introduced him to the issues raging in Paris between adherents of the opera seria and indigenous French operatic tradition. Weary of the old opera seria, Gluck collaborated with Calzabigi to create a new operatic style more varied musically and directly expressive of the text, in accordance with neo-classical principles of simplicity and humanism espoused during the Enlightenment. Their first foray into new operatic territory was Orfeo ed Euridice (in Italian), which premiered in Vienna in1762. The French version, an actual recomposing of the opera, premiered in Paris in 1774, started a veritable war between the supporters of Gluck and Piccini, a composer of the standard opera seria.

Opera in France always included at least one ballet. Gluck provided two, the "Dance of the Furies" and the "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," both of which take place in Hades as Orpheus seeks to reclaim his beloved Eurydice. Gluck portrayed the wildness of the Furies in music by denying them a true melody; the dance is all tremolos under disorganized chord progressions. Example 1

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77

One of the marks of great artists is accurate self-assessment, the knowledge of their strengths and limitations. Like Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, Brahms sought the advice of a leading violinist when he was composing a concerto for the violin, an instrument with which he was not intimately familiar. Brahms’s long-time friend Joseph Joachim, a Hungarian violinist, composer and educator who for over half a century was the world’s dominant violin virtuoso, was intimately involved in the concerto’s composition. Needless to say, Brahms dedicated it to him. Joachim gave the premiere on New Year’s Day, 1879.

The initial reception of the Concerto was respectful but cool. Its technical demands deterred many violinists, who dubbed it “Concerto against the Violin and Orchestra.” It is, like the other Brahms concerti, a true partnership between soloist and orchestra; virtuosity for its own sake is totally absent. Joachim attempted to have Brahms make it easier for the soloist, but the manuscript of the violin part in the State Library in Berlin, full of Joachim’s suggestions, shows that, in this respect at least, the violinist seldom prevailed.

The sunny mood of the concerto is close to that of the Symphony No. 2 in D major, written shortly before. The dreamy opening movement is necessarily long for the development of each of the themes Brahms employs. While many composers choose to concentrate on developing a single theme, Brahms decided to expand on all of them. The orchestral first exposition introduces the main theme Example 1 and two secondary themes. Example 2 & Example 3 Immediately afterwards, the soloist takes off on a flight of cadenza-like passagework that gradually leads into the formal second exposition propelled by little hints of the main theme in the orchestra. Example 4 A classicist in form, Brahms writes a new secondary theme for the soloist. Example 5 Joachim wrote a large cadenza for this movement, which is still a favorite with soloists and audiences, although many violinists have written their own.

Brahms’s original plan was for a concerto in four movements, including a scherzo. But he discarded the scherzo and the original slow movement because their style did not fit with the rest of the work. The slow movement we have today opens with the solo oboe playing one of the most delicate and beautiful melodies in the literature. Example 6 The violin – entering a full two minutes into the movement – then embellishes this melody with arabesques (florid ornamentation of a theme), Example 7 continuing to maintain a special relationship with the oboe throughout. The middle of the movement becomes more intense and dramatic, but Brahms never loses sight of the theme. Example 8

The fiery rondo-finale exploits the melodies and rhythms played by itinerant Rom (Gypsy) musicians in the cafés of central Europe. Example 9 It is one of the few places where Joachim’s intervention attenuated the difficulties for the violinist. He managed to get Brahms to moderate the movement’s tempo by adding “ ma non troppo ” (but not too much) to the tempo indication Vivace. Brahms employs a secondary refrain in addition to the initial rondo theme. Example 10 The episode turns into a fiery, accelerated coda with cadenza-like passagework for the soloist.

Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (1839-1881)
From Boris Godunov, Introduction and Polonaise

Arr. by Rimsky-Korsakov

Modest Musorgsky, one of the mavericks of nineteenth-century Russian music, left very few completed scores by the time of his early death from alcoholism. Of his meager output, the opera Boris Godunov, some of his songs, the short orchestral score St. John's Night on Bald Mountain and the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, were completed at his death and have stood the test of time. They now are considered among the greatest masterpieces of Russian music. Musorgsky was a proponent of Russian nationalism, and he was a member of the “Mighty Five,” together with Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose goal was to further the pan-Slavic movement and Russian nationalist music.

Boris Godunov, based on a historical tragedy by Aleksander Pushkin, is a story of the usurpation of the Russian throne through regicide by the boyar Boris Godunov, followed by his inexorable descent into madness and death through guilt and remorse.

Musorgsky based his melodies on the rhythm of natural conversational speech, insisting in detailed instructions in the score that the singers create something like a singing speech, with emphasis on the text.

The Introduction and Polonaise is Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 orchestral arrangement of music from Act III, Scene 2 of the opera. The lush orchestration is in stark contrast to its origin in the opera, where the Polish nobles sing about dismembering and impoverishing Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov made the arrangement shortly after hearing Wagner’s Ring, applying Wagner’s orchestration to Musorgsky’s music and claiming that the original orchestration was inadequate and inappropriate. Some years later, Rimsky-Korsakov made a controversial rearrangement and reorchestration of the whole opera.

Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Even before the Russian revolution in 1917, Sergey Prokofiev was already known as the enfant terrible of Russian music. He raised plenty of eyebrows in the St. Petersburg conservatory, where the faculty had to acknowledge his talent although they didn’t understand his music. He left his native country in 1918, settling first in the USA and then in Paris.

But homesickness was growing on him: “The air of foreign lands does not inspire me because I am Russian and there is nothing more harmful to me than to live in exile,” he said to a reporter in Paris in 1933. Although his family was still living in France, he was spending more and more time visiting Russia. Aware that he would have to change his compositional style to satisfy Soviet cultural demands, he nevertheless moved back to Moscow permanently in 1936.

At the time, the atmosphere in the Soviet Union was a nightmare, with everyone under suspicion and daily disappearances of friends and colleagues. Dmitry Shostakovich kept a packed suitcase by his front door in case the secret police came to fetch him to the gulag. Prokofiev, having spent time in the West, was always suspect, had his passport confiscated and was never allowed to travel aboard again.

Before his return, Prokofiev had already moderated the spiky quasi-atonality of his younger years, adopting a lyrical, expressive and singable music that was able to satisfy the Soviet ideologues. Shortly after his return, he composed the highly successful ballet, Romeo and Juliet. Echoes – but no direct quotes – of the ballet show up in the Seventh Symphony; the second movement particularly could be seamlessly integrated into the score of the ballet.

By the late 1940, Sergey Prokofiev was in poor health. In addition to circulatory problems and some minor strokes, he suffered a concussion from a fall off the podium that left him with chronic headaches and dizziness. The brutal dicta of the cultural commissar Andrey Zhdanov, stipulating that only cheerful, uplifting and folksy art were to be allowed, condemned Prokofiev and others for “Formalism.” The accusation prevented performances and publication of much of their music, as well as instilling justifiable anxiety, even paranoia. Nevertheless he continued to compose, finishing the Symphony No. 7 in 1952, his last completed work. Written for the Soviet Children’s Radio Division, the Symphony is particularly tuneful, without much pessimism even of his slow movement.

His death was overshadowed by Stalin’s; had he lived, we might have seen the emergence of a completely new style in light of the following relaxation of aesthetic restrictions.

The first movement is marked Moderato, a ramping down that shifts the traditionally Allegro tempo into a more nostalgic mood. Example 1 The bridge section on its way to the second theme begins with an oboe solo that toggles at the interval of a half step. Example 2 Prokofiev then combines these two opening musical ideas contrapuntally. Example 3 The formal second theme is one of those sections that harks back to Romeo and Juliet. Example 4 Throughout the Symphony, Prokofiev gives moments of special prominence to a large and varied percussion section. The first case in point is a passage for oboe, flute and triangle, which share a third melody that closes the exposition. Example 5

“Juliet” appears as the first theme in the second movement, which morphs into a brassy waltz reminiscent of the Capulet’s fateful ball. Example 6 And even an allusion to Cinderella’s first waltz with her Prince shows up. Example 7 The image of the dance, however, becomes threatening with a crashing percussion section solo. Example 8 The movement features extensive solos for the entire woodwind section, the instruments handing off phrases of the melodies to each other. Example 9

If the second movement suggested a ball, the third marked Andante expressivo is a peaceful cantabile made up of a series of short but related melodies. Example 10 Example 11 Unlike many slow movements, this one proceeds on an even emotional keel throughout. In the middle section, the solo oboe plays the only specifically Russian melody in this Symphony. Example 12

The last movement is a circus-style rondo that humorously juxtaposes the composer’s mildly spiky dissonance with catchy tunes. Example 13 Retaining the idea of contrasts, he inserts a march episode, perhaps a shout out to Mahler. Example 14

Conductor Samuil Samsoud urged the composer to add a rousing coda, convinced it would earn Prokofiev the coveted Stalin Prize of 100,000 Rubles, a large sum for the impecunious composer. Prokofiev complied, with a not too subtle effort at the obligatory bombastic patriotism, tacking on the broad second theme from the first movement, now with full orchestra. Example 15 In addition, however, he added a new, grim appendage that completely cancels both the circus and the patriotic mood. Example 16 His “rousing coda,” however, sounds more like a bit of musical sarcasm. Example 17 He apparently told Samsoud, “But Slava, you will live much longer than I, and you must take care that this new ending never exists after me.” For whatever reason, many conductors have not complied with Prokofiev’s wishes.

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn