RUSSIAN EASTER OVERTURE, op. 36
NICOLAI RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest son of an aristocratic family Korsakov) that had years earlier added Rimsky, place-name of their region, to confer a mild distinctiveness to the family name. As a youth, Nicolai learned piano only as a means of entertaining himself. His earliest knowledge of music was through playing keyboard transcriptions of operas. However, his dream was to follow his brother as an officer in the Russian Navy and to this end he became a Kadet in the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg. It was here in the cultural center of Russia that he heard his first live 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, which he had previously never heard. He fell in love with orchestral music, and thus was born his new life dream. Nevertheless, he completed his naval training and took a commission He served a two-year tour of duty, before “pulling strings” through family connections to receive a shore assignment. His nominal duties took only a couple of hours a day, leaving him plenty of free time to compose.
Korsakov lacked formal training. He would probably be considered a “musical dilettante”, except for all that he accomplished. As a youth, while studying for his naval career, he had met semi-socially the other young musicians (Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin and Cesar Cui) who were eventually nicknamed “the Mighty Five” because of their influence on Russian music. He fell under the spell of Balakirev, the only trained mu-sician of the group. Balakirev began Korsakov’s study of 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 his first naval assignment.
When he returned to St. Petersburg, Balakirev drew him back into the former musical circle, which had grown influential in his absence. With Balakirev’s help he won an appointment as Professor of Composition and Instrumentation at St. Petersburg Conservatory (in spite of his absolute ignorance of many of the fundamental technical aspects of composing, such as counterpoint). Apparently, in that day as in this, it never hurts to have influential connections. Nevertheless, Simply accepting the appointment demonstrated a tremendous self confidence (not to mention “guts”!)
Nicolai’s composing career proceeded by fits and starts. Initially, he scorned the Germanic traditions of symphonic composing, believing Russians should write Russian music, not in the style of other national musical traditions. However, to handle his position as Professor at the Conservatory, he was forced to either learn Western techniques or invent viable alternatives. Consequently, his early compositions depend more on his flair for brilliant scoring and sonic effects than on inspiration at inventing new musical substance. Much of his most significant work was in the orchestration of unfinished or flawed compositions after the deaths of his two closest musical friends. (He completed the scores of the opera Prince Igor after Borodin’s death, as well as the most frequently performed version of Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bald Mountain).
In spite of his initial 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, Capriccio Espagnol and Scheherazade) were completed in a single summer, while on vacation from his position at the Conservatory.
In spite of their heavy use of Russian musical thematic material, all three of his greatest works reflect the techniques that had previously been developed in the West
Russian Easter Overture is not liturgical music at all, but rather a non-programmatic sonic portrait. With it, Korsakov hoped to capture the excitement of the festive Easter celebration of the Russian Orthodox church. It is based on a single Russian song, which appears at the very beginning of the piece in virtuoso passages for flute, violin, cello and harp.
Later themes are closely related to orthodox chants, in ancient modal harmony. At one point a solo for the second trombonist evokes the image of a Russian Orthodox monk, clad in black and with a beard stretching to his waist, chanting solemnly. (This shows Korkakov’s willingness to break with conventionality for it is rare for such a solo not to be given to the principal player) The last half of the piece is a whirlwind showpiece for full orchestra, reflecting the glorious sound that the young Nicolai had originally fallen in love with. In this work, Korsakov created one of the most exciting and sonically splendid showpieces in the orchestral repertory Though infrequently programmed, its excitement makes it an audience favorite at each performance.
CONCERTO FOR TRUMPET AND ORCHESTRA
ALEXANDER ARUTIUNIAN (B. 1920)
Corcerti for trumpet and orchestra are something of a rarity in modem orchestral composition. In the Baroque and Classical periods, the trumpet was considered a virtuoso instrument just as the other winds. Almost as many works were written by composers such as Vivaldi and Telemann for the virtuoso trumpet as for practically any other instrument but violin (and later the piano). But for some unaccountable reason, when the valves were added to the trumpet so that it could play all the notes, it began to disappear from the solo literature-at precisely the same time as composers began to use it for their most dramatic and powerful orchestral moments. Today, virtuoso trumpet playing in the concert hall is mostly relegated to these relatively ancient works.
A few modern composers have written minor works for the trumpet (for example Copland’s Quiet City), but few have composed full length -concerti. One of the best of these is by the obscure Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian. Although by 1950 the stylistic trends in serious orchestral music had moved off in a variety of different directions, many of which were hard for listeners to relate to, Arutiunian chose to cast his music in the harmonic language of the Romantic era. His concerto is easily accessible to modern audiences, featuring long beautiful melodies, dramatic moments and lively virtuoso technique – all in the context of a sound that is easy to listen to.
Although “undiscovered” outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union, Arutiunian was a well-established composer. He became Music Director of the Armenian People’s Orchestra, and was eventually named a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union. At the time of this work he had written an opera, a sinfonietta, several cantatas, two major concerti and several smaller works featuring trumpet and orchestra. A graduate of the Yerevan Conservatory (in the capital city of Armenia), he frequently makes use of melodies and themes from Armenia’s somewhat Eastern-influenced folk music. But like his countryman Khachaturian, his brilliant and exciting orchestral colors are purely Western in style.
Although a single unbroken movement, the concerto follows a traditional concerto pattern of fast-slow-fast sections. As an introduction, it opens with a series of dramatic statements by the orchestra, to which the trumpet makes its equally dramatic replies, almost as if they were debating some weighty question in open forum. After a few moments, the orchestra introduces the first real section of the work. Fast and furious, frequently broken up into unexpectedly irregular rhythms, it brings to mind images of a wild nomad’s dance around a campfire … complete with wild kicks and leaps. Initially, this section features the virtuoso agility of the soloist, but eventually culminates in a dramatic and noble theme for the full orchestra. The second section is quiet and lyrical, featuring the “big band” sound of a muted trumpet. However, the soloist does not play just some trivial pop tune. Instead, it is cast in the role of a poet, evoking a serene beauty. The final section returns to the same wild dance with which the work opened. After a brilliant cadenza fanfare for the soloist, it concludes with a brief, dramatic statement by the orchestra: an exclamation point to this dramatic essay, featuring the trumpet as orator-poet. With the possibilities demonstrated in this work, it’s almost amazing that other composers have not equally featured this exciting instrument
SYMPHONY NO.5, OP. 47
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Dmitri Shostakovich was probably the most important Russian symphonist of the twentieth century, rivaled in this medium only by Prokofiev. His early promise as a student at the Leningrad Conservatory (successor to the St. Petersburg Conservatory at which Korsakov had been so influential) prophesied a brilliant career. His graduation piece (his First Symphony) was an instant popular and critical success, and was immediately adopted into the orchestral repertoire not merely in the Soviet Union, but throughout the West as well. His next two symphonies politically motivated and named for events in the Russian revolution – betrayed his initial promise, and perhaps Shostakovich himself knew it. He resolved to create a true masterpiece, to establish his position within the creative vanguard of twentieth century music.
Meanwhile, he composed several ballet and film scores, with much public success. One of these early works proved his undoing, as Joseph Stalin attended a performance to hear the musk of this young “phenom”. Stalin knew little of serious modern music, and probably expected the sensational young composer who had achieved so much public adulation to sound like Tchaikovsky or Korsakov. Instead, the opera Lady MacBeth of Mzensk featured dissonance, odd harmonic structures, strange rhythms and vocal and orchestral sounds that grated on the nerves rather than either uplifting the soul or soothing it. Stalin was appalled at the dissonance, and made his feelings known to his political associates. Almost immediately, Shostakovich was denounced in the official communist newspaper Pravda by the Minister of Culture for betraying the artistic side of the Revolution by his “decadent modernism”. Discretion being the better part of valor, Shostakovich withdrew his intended masterpiece, the Fourth Symphony, which had been in rehearsal for weeks and was just about to be premiered. This probably saved his career (and possibly even his life), and Shostakovich kept its manuscript in his desk drawer until long after Stalin’s death.
It is a tribute to the composer’s genius that his next major work, the Fifth Symphony became one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century. A subtitle “A Soviet Artist’s Reply to Just Criticism” was appended to it shortly after its premiere. This probably came from a critic, not Shostakovich himself, but he can hardly be faulted for not arguing to have it removed, in light of what he had just gone through with Lady MacBeth and the Fourth. Shostakovich could have easily fallen back upon his considerable skills to write a piece of orchestral fluff, as he did on many other occasions in his career when called on to compose a work to commemorate some event in the Revolution. Instead, he chose to walk a fine line between what the official state policies would tolerate and what he himself could live with. Many believe that, along with the Tenth and the ill-fated Fourth, the Fifth Symphony was his orchestral masterwork.
Shostakovich himself described the programmatic elements of the symphony. It represents the struggle of man against the forces of fate arrayed against him (sort of a Russian “Everyman”), leading from despair to eventual triumph. The first movement opens with the strings painting a picture of anguish, which gives way to a prolonged struggle. The tension grows gradually, culminating in a dramatic orchestral statement the long, flowing line is played in unison (a truly rare orchestral effect), with every instrument sounding the same note in octaves. Before this passage ends, it eventually expands to include some variation, as if a few brave souls dare offer commentary or counterpoint to the enforced policy of the whole. The intensity of this moment is overwhelming, as the hero (our “Everyman”) is forced to toe the line, however anguishing it may be and Shostakovich invokes this anguish without having to resort to dissonance! The movement ends with a repeated rhythmic pattern (two eighth notes followed by a quarter note) that can hardly represent anything but repeated hammer blows, pounding our hero into his place after his moment of anguish. (Square peg into a round hole?) Eventually, the intensity dies away slowly, leading to a horn-flute duet of poignant melancholy beauty. The movement dies away slowly, leaving “Everyman’s” struggle unresolved.
The second movement is a twisted demonic Scherzo, reminiscent of Mahler’s uncompleted Tenth Symphony, featuring woodwinds (including the rare soprano clarinet), horns, and trumpets alternately carrying the theme. Our Soviet “Everyman” apparently isn’t even allowed the simple pleasures of peasant dance without an element of disquieting unease. The third movement, without brass, provides a few moments of idyllic relief. A long, dramatic adagio, once again tracing back to Mahler (whom Shostakovich admired), this movement provides the most serene beauty in the entire symphony. It is not pure respite, however. At one point Shostakovich employs dissonance piled on dissonance in the strings, to create an almost palpable tension: is our hero nearing the breaking point as life’s woes are heaped upon him?
In the finale, “Everyman” carries his struggles through to their ultimate conclusion. Following the buildup to an incomplete climax, the music decays through a stern fanfare using the same “hammer blow” rhythm as in the first movement in the horns and trombones. This yields to another quiet passage of restrained tension. The final section starts with a snare drum establishing a march rhythm against a pianissimo low note in the horns (probably the lowest such note ever written for a full horn section in unison).
In the political climate of the times, it was absolutely necessary for the hero to overcome all obstacles by his heroic struggle, and emerge triumphant and happy. Shostakovich dutifully acceded to the rules, and the musical momentum begins to gather. It builds gradually but inexorably, finally yielding to an irresistible climax as our hero (Shostakovich himself?) triumphs. Even at the end, though, the composer couldn’t resist a social commentary: the strings plus piano and xylophone!) repeat a single note over and over for almost three full minutes, while the brass and winds are entrusted with the big ending. It’s almost as if the thought police end the work by beating “Everyman” over the head with a mallet, chanting: you will be happy, you wiIl be happy! There is no joy in the final passage, but rather a paean to the unconquerable human spirit.
Program Notes by C. Michael Kelly