Entire Programs

Program Notes for an Entire Program (Various word lengths)


Russian Music After 1850 (Mussorgsky, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky)

The miracle of Russian Romantic music is that after roughly 1,000 years of cultural isolation, the last half of the 19th Century produced some of the greatest musical treasures the world has ever known.

The reason is essentially this: for centuries, the Orthodox Church-State of the vast land of Russia kept its people isolated from the evils of the West, shut off from its music, literature – anything “new”. The only music permitted by the Patriarchs was chant, and basically unharmonized at that. It was by scholarly accident, in fact, that in the mid-1600’s harmony within the chant was introduced, yet instruments in the church were still forbidden. And not until about 1700, after Peter the Great’s reforms took hold, did Western European culture begin to make any real headway into that ancient land. By 1760, Catherine the Great’s promotion of art and music began to create a fertile bed for Russian culture to grow. All through those centuries of Rus’-centric isolation, however, folksong, folk and fairy tales, with a heavy influx of Ukrainian folk culture in the mid-18th Century, remained alive and well (if somewhat underground from the Orthodoxy), and would serve as an inexhaustible source for the great Russian composers of the 19th Century.

This isolation persisted even into the lives of the greatest Russian composers. For example, at age 21 in 1861, Tchaikovsky did not know that one could change keys within a piece, nor how many symphonies Beethoven had written. And Mussorgsky, already an accomplished pianist at age 22, did not know who Robert Schumann was, had never heard a symphony, nor any other classical music besides some Italian opera arias arranged for piano. Likewise, this isolation that exploded into creativity during the second half of the 19th Century explains why the two major conservatories in Russia, in St. Petersburg and Moscow, did not open until 1862 and 1866, respectively.

Literature, and interestingly, opera, in Russia pushed forward a little ahead of symphonic music, but it too flourished mightily in the 1800’s, specifically, the writings of Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852), Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837), Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) and Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881). Their heroes were often times the common fellow, the serf, or the tragic and pitiful, brought to heights of glory in their own right; these authors’ styles, especially Pushkin’s, pioneered using vernacular speech in their prose, and authenticated Russian life. Their works heavily influenced the creative minds of the composers who followed. Mussorgsky, particularly, found a voice in both Pushkin and Gogol’s writings, and Mussorgsky’s masterpiece, the opera Boris Godunov, follows Pushkin’s verse-novel closely. Tchaikovsky, likewise, wrote his great opera Eugene Onegin after Pushkin. For authors and composers alike, these were works that celebrated being Russian above all else. But it was Gogol’s short story from his collection of Ukrainian stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, that was the subject of Mussorgsky’s last operatic endeavor, The Fair at Sorochynsk (1872 – 1880, left unfinished), from which comes his wonderful Hopak.


Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky   (b Karevo, Russia, March 4, 1839; d St. Petersburg, March 16, 1881)
Hopak from the opera The Fair at Sorochynsk

The Fair is a comedy about Ukrainian peasants who, through several scenes of buffoonery and misunderstandings, end the opera up by marrying off a young couple and dancing a hopak in celebration. The dance itself dates far back in the Ukraine, and early on entered into Russia’s folk and concert dance circles. Its most remarkable feature is that the dancers leap while squatting, kicking their legs out – a feat of grace and extraordinary athleticism. Mussorgsky’s Hopak is one of the few numbers he did complete in the opera, but only for piano, and its orchestration was completed by Cesar Cui. The music is inspiringly fresh and jubilant.

It’s an incredibly fun piece to hear. So beloved was the Hopak that Rachmaninoff himself, the great pianist, made his own wild version of it and he played it often in recitals. From its first measures where the fiddles saw away on “open” strings, through its fast-paced conclusion, and all the off-beat syncopations in between, Mussorgsky reminds us of why he is often called the most “Russian” of them all. Its exuberance is infectious, and in typically Mussorgsky fashion, the bass accompaniment, which is first heard plucked below the third melodic phrase, and then bowed when the phrase returns, is almost insane – wild notes flying by underneath the simple, folksy melodies, allowing the feeling of the celebration to ratchet up in turns. For Mussorgsky, whose inspirations came from what he termed real life (common folks, everyday speech, folk music), his Hopak certainly elevates the real to art.


Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff   (b Semyonovo, Russia, April 1, 1873; dBeverly Hills,CA, March 28, 1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 43

Rachmaninoff was a pupil of Tchaikovsky’s at the Moscow Conservatory beginning in 1881, and his admiration for the master directed his musical path throughout his career. Even unto his death in 1943, Rachmaninoff remained a true disciple of Tchaikovsky’s Russian Romantic style, even while the rest of the music world in the 20th Century had moved far away from Romanticism.

Rachmaninoff was as gifted a conductor and pianist as he was a composer, traveling extensively as a soloist and conductor beginning at about the age of 25. These engagements allowed him to avoid the unpleasantness of the 1917 Revolution in Russia, and it became imminently clear to him that the Russia he had grown up in was no longer his home. After the Revolution, he never returned, settling eventually in America with his family. But he remained homesick for the rest of his life, even practicing Russian traditions and only speaking Russian in his home. That Russian-ness always seemed to be the gravity of his highly Romantic works, and for Rachmaninoff, rather than folksong, there was always a return to the solemnity of chant, that centuries old mainstay of Russian life.

In 1934, at the peak of his maturity as a composer, Rachmaninoff composed the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. It is one of those masterpieces that seems to defy any criticism; a piece that many would call perfect. Using the famous 24th Violin Caprice by the fabled virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini (1782 – 1840), Rachmaninoff created a set of 24 variations for piano and orchestra. Within those variations, we hear brilliant virtuosity by the pianist and those beautiful and sumptuous Russian Romantic harmonies and colors in the orchestra.

Three particularly clever surprises leap out from the Rhapsody. To begin with, Rachmaninoff does not start with Paganini’s theme outright, but rather a short introduction and then essentially the first of the 24 variations, which is the bare-bones of the theme. The cleverness of this delay anticipates the diabolicalness of the actual theme and its ensuing variations. Then Paganini’s theme is heard outright, appropriately, in the violins.

And then, of course, in Variation 18 comes the concerto’s grandest moment, Rachmaninoff’s exquisite Rhapsody variation, which doesn’t sound like Paganini in any way. Lush and drippingly romantic, the genius of this theme is that it is, in fact, Paganini’s theme turned upside down and played more slowly, creating what is probably Rachmaninoff’s most famous lyrical theme.

The other surprise reminds us of Rachmaninoff’s Russian heritage and his love of church chant. In Variation 7 we begin to hear hints of the Dies irae, that ancient chant from the Mass for the Dead made so famous by Berlioz in Symphonie fantastique, and a theme that plays prominently in several of Rachmaninoff’s other works. By the end of this Rhapsody we will have heard the Dies irae several times outright, and the beauty of this choice of chant is two-fold – it bears close resemblance to Paganini’s harmonic scheme in his Caprice, as well as pokes fun at the old tale of Paganini’s selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for superhuman gifts with the violin (and with women). No one has ever verified Paganini’s Faustian bargain, but it fits the perfect narrative of many an old Russian folktale, and it’s no wonder Rachmaninoff couldn’t resist some reference to it.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky   (b Votkinsk, Vyatka Province, May 7, 1840; d St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
     I. Andante – Allegro con anima
II. Andante cantabile (con alcuna licenza)
III. Valse – Allegro moderato
IV. Finale – Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace

Tchaikovsky’s first three symphonies were steeped in folk tune, but his Fourth and Fifth began tackling some bigger questions. It seems that the composer was gravitating toward his most intimate utterance through these two symphonies on the way to his Sixth – the one so full of foreboding and devastation. But to most accurately describe the self expression in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony of 1888, one must hearken back to the words of his contemporary, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: “There is an indispensable measure of suffering even in the happiness of the Russian people, for without it, its happiness is incomplete.” Such is the indescribable music of this masterpiece. Sorrow and joy exist side by side in Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.

The Andante introduction in the first movement begins with a shadowy and brooding theme played by the clarinets and strings – a halting and disheveled sort of march – the first two bars of which Tchaikovsky called a “Fate” motto. The motto itself, though at first gloomy, will be heard countless times throughout the Symphony and take on many different representations, from desperate to glorious. Fate here, however, for Tchaikovsky is not essentially tragic, it is simply unstoppable, or as Dostoyevsky put it, equal parts sorrow and joy. For sorrow’s part, the scene that Tchaikovsky paints in this introduction is a rather desolate one, and the story that would seem to unfold from it assuredly a tragic one. But when the Allegro begins, again with strings and clarinets, we hear a different kind of march. It’s quicker, more steady on its feet and with a little more spring in its step, and is, in fact, a clever derivation of the Fate motto. As this theme builds, the brass will begin to puncture its fabric with a clipped, more surprising version of the Fate motto. Tchaikovsky, through masterful compositional crafting, is giving us a taste of the philosophy of the Symphony as a whole – through light and dark, Fate persists in many guises. The second main theme is wonderfully lyrical and it too builds in tension. The path it takes is one of those great Tchaikovsky moments, when he manipulates a descending, tumbling fragment of the second theme and cascades it over several key changes. It emerges, groaning, out of the musical depths and rises into a fanfare of a resplendent version of the Fate motto. From the 21 year old who didn’t know one could change keys within a piece, a long road has been trod. The ending section builds colossally, almost violently, but then dies away quietly. If nothing else, the Russian Tchaikovsky was a master storyteller, and the first movement closes with the notion that there is much more to tell.

The second movement continues the tale somberly. Its opening chords are drenched in passion and longing, and then it opens up to perhaps Tchaikovsky’s most exquisite melody played by the French horn. How this theme can convey so much emotion is one of the great accomplishments in music – so full of yearning, speaking of a deeply felt vastness, so sorrowful and so joyful. The melancholic reverie is interrupted more than once by the Fate motto, giving the beautiful theme even more potency. The second theme picks up near the end in grandness, but the Fate motive blasts in again, smothering all in its wake, leaving the story of this movement to a few feeble breaths.

The third movement brings some release as Tchaikovsky, perhaps the greatest of all ballet composers, returns with a waltz of remarkable grace. It, too, is sabotaged by the opening Fate motive, almost cruelly in the last bars, which prepare us for the finale.

The last chapter of the Symphony begins by restating the Fate motto, but in a major key, and its mood, at least briefly, is more heroic. But the story is not complete, and through this bristling finale much will happen. It’s a battle, essentially, between the dark and the light, like so many great old Russian fairy tales, but how Tchaikovsky brings us through it! — with some of his most exciting orchestral moments, with enchanting and kaleidoscopic colors, and a tempo and pacing that keeps us at the edge of our seats. “And then what?” we want to ask. Tchaikovsky replies by giving us a “Wait and see!” with an incredibly exciting fanfare, nearing the point of a cataclysm … and then, the coda. This ending is a grand affair to be sure, but filled with spine-tingling moments and a rush to a last fanfare of the Fate motto that is at last, and gloriously, transformed into triumph.