Saint John's Night on the Bare Mountain
(Arr David Matthews)
Fantasy on Themes from Swan Lake
Caucasian Sketches, Suite No. 1, Opus 10:
IV. Procession of the Sardar (5’)*
Vocalise, Opus 34 No. 14
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36:
IV. Finale (9’)
The Sleeping Beauty, Opus 66:
(Arr Vincent d’Indy)
Melody in F, Opus 3 No. 1
I. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship (10’)*
None But the Lonely Heart, Opus 6 No. 6
Marche slav, Opus 31
*Indicates approximate performance duration.
Program subject to change.
Note: Program notes do not follow exact concert order
Of the ten works (or excerpts of works) on tonight’s program, half of them are by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). While certainly the most celebrated Russian composer (now and while he was alive), his success drew its share of naysayers. Among those who sought for a truly authentic Russian voice in music, Tchaikovsky’s embrace of western classical practices was regarded as a sell-out. Yet his music is just as steeped in the music of his homeland as any written by the most nationalist of composers.
Tchaikovsky wrote three ballets – and all are treasured works which continue to hold the stage to this day. The first was Swan Lake
(1877), next was The Sleeping Beauty
(1890), and a few months before his death came The Nutcracker
(1892). This evening, we’ll hear excerpts from two of them, beginning with a Fantasy for violin and orchestra of music from Swan Lake,
arranged by David Matthews, and given its world premiere at tonight’s concert. Composer of some of the finest waltzes outside the Strauss family, Tchaikovsky wrote several of his best for ballet scores, from which we will hear the famous waltz from The Sleeping Beauty
. Fans of classic Disney may know it from the 1959 animated movie to which words were added for a song called “Once Upon a Dream.”
Tchaikovsky wrote his Fourth Symphony
in 1878, and it is dominated by a theme about which the composer himself said, “This is Fate, the fatal power which jealously provides that peace and comfort do not prevail.” But in the work’s final movement, Tchaikovsky allows hope to enter. The Fate theme is heard, no less powerful but not as oppressively overwhelming as presented earlier in the full work. It is tempting to imagine a sense of man’s triumph over Fate. “If you can’t find causes of joy within yourself,” Tchaikovsky wrote, “look at others. Go out among the people.” He seems to do this himself by quoting a folk song, In the Field There Stands a Birch Tree
– graphically illustrating the indomitability of ordinary folk? Perhaps this is so, but it is important to remember that Tchaikovsky loved quoting from Russian folk songs – he had done so in the finale of three of his four symphonies to that point.
Known mainly for his orchestral works and a few of his operas, Tchaikovsky wrote dozens of miniatures, including songs. The only one consistently in the popular repertoire is the sixth of six songs published in 1869 as his Op.6, and known to the English-speaking world as None But the Lonely Heart
. We will hear its familiar melody in an orchestral arrangement by Carmen Dragon.
Writing works for specific occasions brought out some of Tchaikovsky’s most popular music (1812 Overture
, anyone?) – and some of his biggest complaints. He accepted such commissions begrudgingly, as he did in 1876, though for a good cause: a benefit concert for soldiers wounded in the war between Serbia and Turkey. The Marche slav
(“Slavic March”) quotes from a number of other pieces, including Slavic folk songs, and God Save the Tsar
, the Russian national anthem at the time. By turns amiable and ceremonial, the Marche slav
has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular concert works.
Pursued by doubts, depression, and alcoholism, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) left many of his works incomplete by his death at age 42. The work which began with the name Saint John’s Night on Bare Mountain
is a case in point. Mussorgsky actually finished the work in 1867, but the harsh assessment of it by his colleague Balakirev caused him to withdraw it. It was brought back in 1872, intended to be part of a collective stage work for the Imperial Theatre, combined with works by other composers. That project fell through. Determined not to give up on it, Mussorgsky then intended to include the piece as part of an opera. For that version, he appended a tender, gentle ending – a strong contrast to the violence and power of the rest of the work. That ending was intended to illustrate the dawn, and the tolling chime of a church bell, driving away the evil spirits. Known popularly now as A Night on Bald Mountain – a translation of the name of a real mountain near Kyiv, Ukraine – the work was never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime. His friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov took the version which included the beautiful, quiet ending, and orchestrated it, and it is this version which has become a standard part of the concert repertoire.
Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935) is known today pretty much for a single movement from a single work – and that’s what we’ll hear tonight. Far from a politically incorrect title, the Caucasian Sketches
have to do with the Caucasus Mountains. For seven years, Ippolitov-Ivanov served as director of the Conservatory of Tblisi, capital of the Russian region of Georgia. While there, he immersed himself in studying the folk music of Russian minority groups, and his Caucasian Sketches
is a four-movement suite based on folk themes of the Caucasus mountain people. The suite ends with the glittering Procession of the Sardar. Sardar is a term of nobility, usually reserved for a prince or other royal, in several regions of Asia and eastern Europe.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was one of the most popular and successful composers of the 20th century. While known more for his larger-scale works, he also wrote many short works, including several volumes of songs. His Fourteen Songs, Op.34
were published together in 1912. The last one of the set was a “song without words,” also known as a Vocalise
, which contains no lyrics, but is sung to a single syllable chosen by the singer. Its simple, direct beauty has made it a favourite, and it has been arranged for many different varieties of instrumental combinations – including for full orchestra, arranged by Rachmaninoff himself.
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was a friend and almost exact contemporary of Tchaikovsky. While a prolific composer, his legacy is based more on his formidable talents as a pianist and teacher. Like Ippolitov-Ivanov above, Rubinstein’s fame as a composer is today relegated to a single movement of a single work. In 1852, he published a pair of piano pieces which he called, logically enough, Two Melodies, Op.3
. The first of these is the Melody in F
. Its popularity took hold from its first performances, and has never diminished. Its principal theme is instantly appealing, and what unfolds after is a set of variations on that theme. French composer Vincent d’Indy orchestrated the piano work.
One of the most popular and thrilling works in the entire Russian orchestral canon is Scheherazade
, a four-movement work inspired by traditional Arabian tales, composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). The first movement of the piece introduces the “story-teller” of the tales to be depicted. Scheherazade herself is given a haunting, beautiful melody on solo violin, and following her theme, she tells the tale of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, full of exotic Arabian colours and Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterful use of orchestra.
Program notes © 2013 by D.T. Baker