From Russia... With Music

Classic 3: February 11-12

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | 1840-1893

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | 1840-1893

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Marche slave (Slavonic March), Op. 31

In 1865, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was invited to join the faculty of the new music conservatory in Moscow, a position that inaugurated his career. Part of his duties frequently required him to provide music for various public and social occasions. Most of these works have disappeared, but Marche Slave, has survived as an orchestral favorite. In 1876 the Russian Musical Society commissioned Marche slave for a benefit concert to support Russian troops wounded in the Balkans, where they fought on the side of Serbia and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire.

Pro-Slavic feelings were running high in Russia, and the overture is full of references to Russian and Serbian folk melodies. The opening is marked “In the manner of a funeral march,” with the bassoon introducing the first theme. Example 1 But the mood improves with a theme that is played contrapuntally with Russia’s national anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” introduced by the tuba and strings. Example 2 Tchaikovsky recycled the finale into the 1812 Overture.

At the premiere on November 17, 1876, the audience went wild and the work had to be repeated. 



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking... [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.

Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.

What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career. 

Then there’s the fact that there was no love lost between the two great nineteenth-century imperial behemoths, Russia and Austria-Hungary, who continued to slug it out until the end of World War I. That Tchaikovsky disliked Johannes Brahms, Hanslick’s favorite composer, probably also added fuel to the fire. 

At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits and helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.

The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction with motivic germ of the main theme. Example 1 & Example 2 After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. Example 3 The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself. 

The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky's second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, no. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement. Example 4 The violin enters with an equally wistful counter-melody Example 5 that renders the seamless merge into the raucous Final such a surprise. Example 6 Hanslick’s appraisal of the movement: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.” 

It is the unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna's critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music. Another peculiar bit that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction Example 7 & Example 8 and leads right into the main theme. This quick-footed dance demands of the soloist enormous agility and rhythmic control. After a second dance that ramps up on speed like a typical Cossack trepak, Example 9 there follows another slower lyrical section introduced by solo oboe and taken up by clarinet, bassoon and finally the violin. Example 10 The Concerto concludes, of course, with flash and flamboyance. 


Sergey Rachmaninov | 1873-1943

Sergey Rachmaninov | 1873-1943

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.”

Reggie Rucker