Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Tchaikovsky stands head and shoulders above the nineteenth century Russian musical scene, far and away its greatest talent. His music is so approachable and direct that it has been fashionable for musicologists to call it shallow. His formal training stamped him with a Western approach to musical structure and the intellectual development of thematic materials that set him apart from his more nationalistic contemporaries such as Rimsky-Korsakov. Yet his spirit is quintessentially Russian, and this gives rise to the emotional content of his mature works. His genius was for what he himself called the “lyrical idea”, which goes beyond merely composing a beautiful melody line.
His life was troubled in all its stages, and this clearly influenced his later music. It would be difficult to conceive how a man who lived through Tchaikovsky’s emotional anguish could write anything purely cerebral and unemotional, and he did not. Even his earliest works are visceral rather than intellectual, and “highly charged”. Even a non-programmatic piece is generally expressive. The Coronation March is one of his earliest finished pieces, composed for the coronation of the new Czar. It is the least known of his three concert marches, and seldom performed in the usual repertory. Yet, even though it is an immature work, it shows his mastery of orchestration and hints at the towering genius that would later develop.
Tchaikovsky loved Russian folk music – looking to it for inspiration throughout his career – and many of the themes of the Coronation March are derived from it. He naturally incorporates the Czarist national anthem (with several notes that sound jarringly “wrong” by comparison to his much better-known revised version, used in the 1812 Overture … those are the right notes, folks, however strange they sound!). But, as in his later works, Tchaikovsky uses these folk themes as brick and mortar, building them into a finished structure that obscures its individual pieces. And, even though this is not the noble monument that his later better-known compositions would become, it is still a well-crafted bit of musical architecture worth visiting on your tour of the famous sights!
Music from “Tristan and Isolde”
Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Richard Wagner was a “self-made” genius. His family was connected with the stage (several of his sisters became actresses) and he naturally gravitated towards the arts. He taught himself to play piano, probably with no great skill because he never performed publicly, and picked up enough understanding of music theory to compose an early overture that was performed at age seventeen. From the beginning, his love of music and his well-endowed ego convinced him that he could rise to the top as a composer. Although he briefly studied formally in Leipzig, his real exposure to composing was a self-directed study of the scores of the masters, particularly Beethoven. This led him to compose two early symphonies, neither revealing much of the musical style that he would grow into. He finally turned to opera, recognizing that this was the only avenue in music that could lead him to financial success. It turned out that he was eventually right, but initially this proved a disaster, and he lived a hand-to-mouth existence as a composer and conductor in musical backwaters while he wrote and promoted his first operas.
Nevertheless, by his mid-thirties Richard Wagner had completed four moderately successful operas (as well as two immature failures), and had acquired a bit of a reputation, but had not yet truly “made his mark”. Still living in relative poverty while relentlessly promoting his own works, he fell in with the radical anarchist forces that were fomenting revolution in Germany. In late 1848 a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he and his first wife fled across the border to Switzerland, using a fraudulent passport. In a way, this was the best thing that could happen to him, for he then enjoyed a period of relative isolation in which to reflect intensely on his art and where it was leading. He spent nearly a decade in exile before an amnesty allowed him to return to Germany.
During his exile he completed the series of books he had begun which detailed his concepts of the music-drama as the ultimate extension of opera. He wrote and published the epic mythological poems that would later serve as libretto of his masterwork (the four-opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelungen”). He composed – but did not publish or stage – most of the music for this giant cycle, before temporarily abandoning the project for fear that it was too elaborate and costly to produce. He fell in love with the wife of his financial patron, composed a set of songs dedicated to her and caused a scandal that resulted in separation from his own wife and eventually forced him to leave Switzerland for Italy. All the while, his conception of music was growing and evolving.
At the end of this decade of ferment, he was finally ready for the opera that would eventually transform the language of music, just as his intellectual concept of the music drama would later transform its production and staging. Under the obvious inspiration of his love for Mathilde Wesendonck, he created in an intense two year period of composing Tristan and Isolde. Although the idea had been in the back of his mind for some time to create a work based on the legend of Tristan, it was his unachievable love for Mathilde that prompted it to finally take shape.
The music itself is as remarkable as the story leading up to it. The Prelude opens with a short melodic fragment in the lower strings that ends with a curious sequence of chords. In place of the harmonic resolution that composers used to give melodies a sense of “completion” during the entire Romantic period, Wagner ends with a series of chords that are neither consonant nor dissonant, and definitely not what the listener expects. They leave one in a state of suspension, which exactly suits the psychodrama that the opera will turn into. The whole thing is then repeated, based on a different key center, without the traditional modulation to prepare the listener. The motive then returns yet a third time, centered around a still different key. The net effect is to leave the listener with an unworldly, almost eerie, sense of detachment. Those first audiences to hear that sequence must have been truly puzzled. Those strange suspended chords, neither consonant nor very dissonant, permeate the entire opera.
The plot is not intricate. Tristan, the nephew of King Mark of Cornwall, is dispatched to Ireland to escort Isolde back to Wales to be his queen in an enforced marriage. Enroute, Isolde discovers that Tristan had previously slain her brother in battle, and vows vengeance (the Act I aria performed this evening) by poisoning him. After he drinks the potion, she feels anguish over her own act – and possibly over the impending enforced marriage – and drinks the remainder herself. However, her maid Brangäne had accidentally used the wrong ingredients for the fateful draught and prepared a love potion instead. When they awaken, Tristan and Isolde are hopelessly in love, and caught in a social situation that would prevent them from ever wholly possessing each other (with obvious parallels to Wagner and Mathilde). The rest of the opera unfolds around King Mark’s discovery of the betrayal by his nephew, Tristan’s shame and loss of his will to live, followed by his death in Isolde’s arms. Isolde’s “love death” (the final aria this evening, which concludes the opera) resulting from grief over her loss of Tristan finally mystically unites them in a world beyond this one.
Tristan and Isolde was a watershed in music. Wagner’s daring evolution in harmonic language exactly suits the action of the drama, and would start a movement that broke up the German musical establishment into factions that praised him and those that detested him. The conflicts between these groups forced developments in the language of classical music that are being felt to this day. At one extreme of reactions was a zinger by Wagner’s enemy, the critic Hanslick: “The Prelude reminds me of an old Italian painting of a martyr whose intestines are being slowly unwound from his body on a reel”. Less critical comments range from the puzzled reaction of the forward-thinking composer Berlioz: “ I have read and reread this strange piece of music … I have to admit that I still haven’t the slightest notion of what the composer was driving at”, to Jean Sibelius: “It leaves one feeling that everything else is pale and feeble by comparison.” Modern audiences now find it an enduring masterpiece, finally an accepted part of our musical language.
Scheherezade, op. 35
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908)
In the latter part of the nineteenth century five Russian composers banded together to form a group dedicated to creating music that was not Western European (i.e. German) but truly Russian. The last to join this “Mighty Five”eventually became its most influential member – Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Oddly, he was initially the least musically trained of them all.
The youngest son of an aristocratic family, he originally learned to play piano only as a means of entertaining himself, and his primary knowledge of serious music was through playing keyboard transcriptions of operas. His early dream in life was to follow his brother as an officer in the Russian navy, and to this end became a Kadet in the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. It was here that he heard his first life opera, and he was overwhelmed – not with the singing or the staging, but with the glorious sound of the full-blown orchestra in the pit! He fell in love with orchestral music, and this immediately became his new life dream. Nevertheless, he completed his naval training and took a commission.
He originally met three of the other members of “the Five” at age seventeen, and immediately fell under the spell of Balakirev, the only trained musician of the group. Balakirev got Korsakov started on learning orchestration by asking him to “finish” a symphony that the older composer had started but abandoned (this eventually became Korsakov’s First Symphony). Before he could finish the project, though, he was forced to leave St. Petersburg on a two year naval assignment. (Ironically, the assignment came about because he had petitioned his brother, now a high naval officer, to leave service to concentrate on composing. The elder Korsakov reminded Nicolai of his obligation, and sent him away to sea instead!)
After finishing his obliged tour of duty, Nicolai described himself as a “gentleman-officer-dilletante” who sometimes enjoyed playing at the composing of music. Through the influence of a friend (not his brother!) he finagled a shore assignment that only required about three hours a day, which left him free to compose. He left the Navy a couple of years later, and won an appointment as Professor of Composition at St. Petersburg Conservatory (even though he was absolutely ignorant of many of the fundamental techniques, such as counterpoint). Apparently, in that day as in this, it never hurt to have influential connections.
Korsakov’s composing career proceeded by fits and starts. Although he initially scorned the Germanic traditions of composing, to handle his new position at the Conservatory he was forced to either learn them or develop viable alternative techniques. Consequently, his early compositions depend more on his flair for brilliant orchestration and sonic effects than on genius with inventing new musical substance. Much of his most significant work was in the orchestration of unfinished or flawed compositions after the death of his two closest friends within “the Five”. He completed the scores of the opera Prince Igor after Borodin’s death, as well as the most frequently played version of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain.
In spite of his disdain for non-Russian musical traditions, his own later orchestral compositions depend heavily on the developments of the Romantic period in German music. His three masterworks (Russian Easter Overture, Cappriccio Esapagnole – both recently performed by ISO – and Scheherezade) were completed in a single summer, while on vacation from his position at the Conservatory. What an intense summer that must have been!
In spite of their heavy use of Russian musical themes, all reflect the techniques that had developed in the West. Scheherezade, in particular, owes a huge debt to the concept of symphonic tone poem, invented by Franz Liszt. Termed by Korsakov a symphonic suite, it is really a set of four symphonic portrayals inspired by episodes from Tales of the Arabian Nights.
In his autobiography “My Musical Life” Korsakov states his intent to present a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images, connected by a single element: the character of Scheherezade (represented by the recurring violin solo that begins the Suite). In The Arabian Nights, Scheherezade was an Arabian princess who entertained her husband the Sultan with stories every night. The Sultan had murdered several previous wives when he grew tired of them. Knowing this, Scheherezade devised a strategy of telling him a story each night that left him in suspense. He couldn’t afford to get rid of her, or he wouldn’t know how the current tale worked out. The strategy worked for a thousand and one nights, after which he relented his diabolical plans and accepted her as his permanent wife.
The menacing opening statement, whether intended by Korsakov or not, is a perfect depiction of the stern Sultan. It contrasts exquisitely with the creatively lyrical theme that follows immediately on the solo violin, representing Scheherezade herself. At the end of the first statement of her theme on the violin, the orchestra presents five wistful chords that almost perfectly depict the opening of the book and the words “Once apon a time”. (Almost identical four-chord sequences are used in the same way by Mendelssohn in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Andrew Lloyd Webber to end The Phantom of the Opera.) At the beginning of each tale (and in the middle of the love story of the prince and princess) the violin solo reappears, as Scheherezade abandons the tale – to be finished the following evening. At the end of the work, the five-chord sequence reappears, as if the book is finally closed: The End.
The original titles of the four movements refer to stories told by Scheherezade: the Sea and Sindbad’s Ships, the Tale of Prince Kalendar, the Tale of the Prince and the Princess, and finally Festival in Bagdad and Shipwreck on the Rock With the Bronze Warrior (how those two images are juxtaposed boggles the mind!). Although Korsakov originally gave a title to each movement, he disavowed the titles in later editions of the work, and consistently denied that any of the four followed any particular story line. The titles were intended only to provide the listener with a context and an inspiration. He wanted the music to be heard as a symphonic development of related themes, reminiscent of the literary settings rather than depicting any narrative scenarios. Whatever his intentions, Korsakov created one of the most dramatic and memorable programmatic pieces in the orchestral repertory, and it remains on of the all-time audience favorites today.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly