Notes: February 13

Posted on Jan 16, 2015 in Program Notes
Notes: February 13

February 13 • From Russia With Love

Concert program notes by Leigh Townsend

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 “Winter Reveries” 1st version composed 1866 and premiered in 1868 (Moscow), 2nd version composed in 1874 and premiered in 1883 (Moscow)

2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, strings

About the composer:
Although musically inclined, even as a child, Russian composer Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) attended law school at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence between 1852 and 1859. At the time, there was no formal music school in Russia. However, when the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music was founded by composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein in 1860, Tchaikovsky immediately enrolled. In addition to theory and composition, he studied piano, flute and organ. Apparently he was quite the overachiever, even by today’s music major standards.

When he began his first symphony, Tchaikovsky had only just moved to Moscow to work as a theory teacher at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory. In Moscow, the young composer and teacher also become something of a social celebrity. He was part of an elite artistic circle: a who’s who of modern Russian literature, theater, ballet, and music. The security of his new professional status and the access to some of the brightest artistic stars of the time encouraged him to experiment with musical form while still advocating the use of Russian folk melodies. His experimentation led to some bad reviews by well-known critics of the day. The negative views of his music sent Tchaikovsky into a deep depression “on the verge of madness” from which he clawed his way out and composed his first symphony.

About Russia:
In the late 1860s, when Tchaikovsky was writing this symphony, Russia was experiencing a bit of split-personality. The previous decades had seen defeat in the Crimean conflict, which illuminated the corrupt tendencies of the government and the technological deficiencies of the nation. When he ascended to the throne in 1855, Tsar Alexander II vowed to reform both the government and the industries of Mother Russia, without sacrificing her culture. Nationalistic roots and tendencies have always run deep in Russia, and Tchaikovsky loved the Russian folk tunes of his childhood, but he found that their melodies and harmonies didn’t fit within the prescribed forms of Western music composition.

About the Music:
Tchaikovsky’s symphonies of any period are opulent and technically demanding explorations in form and function. Rich in musical substance, they correspond to Western expectations of integrated structure and coherence while still displaying qualities of Russian individuality and range of emotion within the proudest of Western genres: the symphony.

In the First Symphony, even the revised standard version of 1874, the struggle is obvious: Tchaikovsky had a hard time separating his concert music from his ballet music. To find the balance between architecture and emotion, he had let the drama of the story unfold within the established rules of form.

The first movement is subtitled “Dreams of a winter journey.” The brittle and light opening string sounds are clearly influenced by Mendelssohn’s Italian and Scottish symphonies; the same brisk and refreshing flute and bassoon duet that opened the movement now closes it out, with a sinister and haunting hint of movements to come in the strings. The beautiful second movement is subtitled “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.” The extended horn section solo at the end of the movement builds in momentum, then drops away to reveal the mist below as the movement ends. The third movement does not have a subtitle, yet if it were written as a ballet, you could picture young dancers on stage frolicking in the snow, maybe even having a snowball fight before they walk off two-by-two on their way to a party. The innocence of the third gives way to the final movement, also without a subtitle. The opening low bassoon part sets a dark and mysterious tone for the first section of the finale. The subsequent allegro section is a triumphant celebration. Programmatically, Tchaikovsky is highlighting the brilliance of the season, while compositionally he is showing off his ability to write successful fugal patterning and pairing of winds/brass with strings. The horns and trumpets lead joyful fanfares in contrast to the low and lugubrious bassoon opening, which comes back as a brief reminder of the darkness of winter before the final shimmering march bursts forth at the conclusion of the symphony.

Length: 44 minutes


Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23 composed in 1874, premiered in 1875 (Boston), published in 1879

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

More about the composer:
Tchaikovsky was recruited as a music theory teacher when Anton’s brother, Nikolay Rubinstein, opened the Moscow Conservatory of Music in 1865. We know from his letters and from recollections by his students that Tchaikovsky wasn’t a very good teacher. However, he certainly enjoyed an active and varied social life in Moscow, perhaps even a bit more than his paycheck allowed for since he was forced to supplement his income during this time with translations and arrangements.

More about Russia:
Russia’s population growth rate from 1850 to 1910 was the fastest of all the major powers except for the United States. Between 1850 and 1900, Russia’s population nearly doubled from 60 million to 111 million people, but it remained chiefly rural well into the twentieth century. And rural life was harsh, the ancient feudal laws had been abandoned in the rest of Europe in the previous century, but Russian serfs were still completely at the mercy of the wealthy landowner class. The Proclamation Law of 1861 freed the serfs from dependence on the landowners and granted them both the land and their freedom. In addition, this liberal reform by Alexander II gave approximately 23 million peasants the right to own property and their own businesses, as well as the ability to marry without consent.

About the Music:
Before it was completed, Tchaikovsky shared his first piano concerto with his boss and mentor, Nikolay Rubinstein. Rubinstein metaphorically ripped the piece apart, complaining that it was among other things: tawdry, plagiaristic, and unpianistic to the point that it was impossible to play; a reaction one imagines was less than what Tchaikovsky had hoped for. Rubinstein further demanded Tchaikovsky make alterations to the piece, or else it would never be performed, certainly not by him. Unshaken, Tchaikovsky finished the piece, without alteration, in an admirable fit of stubbornness and sent the completed work to pianist Hans von Bulow, who loved it and agreed to premier it on his upcoming American tour.

Piano Concerto No.1 is an exuberant and passionate concerto filled with uninhibited virtuosity. The dramatic and lengthy first movement is based on a menacing-sounding Ukrainian folk tune titled “Song of the Blind.” The movement is filled with extensive technical passages made up of lush chord sequences and scales. The second movement opens with a gentle lullaby tune, the piano part softly rocking against the orchestra. The second part of the movement is a rhythmically complex and mysterious-sounding Prestissimo with quotes from a popular waltz of the time. The final movement is also based on a folk tune. A combination of hymn-like solemnity and more technical wizardry, this thunderous conclusion shows off the inherent compositional talent of Tchaikovsky and the epic nerve and stamina of any performer who makes it all the way through this piece.

Length: 32 minutes


Leigh is Library Assistant III at the Lamont School of Music at University of Denver.