The Spirit of Russia program notes

Program Notes
by Jane Rausch

It is not surprising that beautiful and powerful music born out of the great suffering and misery of Russian people over centuries has inspired Russian composers to produce masterworks that convey a sense of “The Spirit of Russia.” In the United States, African-American spirituals have performed something of a similar role. The works programmed in our concert this afternoon illustrate the contribution that “humble” folk songs have made to the classic music of both Russia and the United States.

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Reinhold Glière was a Russian composer of German-Polish ancestry. He was born in Kiev, and in the first decade of the 20th century he taught in Moscow at a private conservatory where his pupils included Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian. Later he was director of the conservatory in Kiev, before moving to the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught for twenty years.

Glière as a political neutral was able to survive the cultural upheaval created by the Revolution of 1917. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he had few problems with the new Soviet artistic authorities, and the traditional style of his music, often based upon folk songs of the various Soviet republics, was perfectly in keeping with Revolutionary aesthetics. Eventually he became chairman of the Soviet Composers Union, and in 1938 he was named a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union.

In Russia today Glière is a well-known composer whose oeuvre includes concertos, symphonies, operas, chamber music, overtures, poems, and ballets. In America, however, The Russian Sailor’s Dance from his ballet, The Red Poppy, is virtually his only piece that is ever performed. Written in 1927, The Red Poppy was the first Soviet ballet with a modern revolutionary theme. Because it is set in a 1920s Chinese port city where the harbor master’s cruel abuse of the “coolies” arouses the sympathy of a visiting Russian ship captain, the work extols “socialist realism,” and the poppy symbolizes love and freedom from tyrannical exploitation of the working class. The ballet is quite long – over 108 minutes – but the less than four-minute Russian Sailor’s Dance is the only part of it ever played separately.

Gière based this celebrated excerpt on “Yablochko (Apple),” a traditional dance-song of Russian sailors. After a rambunctious introduction, he introduces the tune and proceeds to set it in a series of ever-more intense and faster variations that climax in a dramatic coda. The continuing popularity of the work around the world is perhaps due to the fact that in expressing feelings of pride and nationalism, it serves as a reminder of the Russia before the Soviet Revolution that continues to be a beloved and well-defined part of contemporary Russian culture.

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David Kidwell has provided the following note for his Three Spirituals for Orchestra that was given its world premiere by the HCS in 2008:

I have always had a great fondness for African-American Spirituals – simple melodies and harmonies that manage to convey a huge range of passions and emotions. The three which I selected for my Three Spirituals for Orchestra are particular favorites, and ones that I thought would lend themselves to instrumental settings. My arrangements are very straightforward. “Ride On, King Jesus” includes some canonic writing, and “There is a Balm in Gilead” features a bit of quartal harmony, but there are no flashy compositional techniques – nothing to distract from the beauty of the original material. Each movement is dedicated to important people in my life: “Deep River” to my former minister, the Rev. Dr. Peter Kakos; “Ride On, King Jesus” to my dear friend, Mary Annarella; and “There is a Balm in Gilead” to my parents, Kenneth and Emily Kidwell.

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Many people acquainted with Piotr Ilich Tchaikovsky were struck by his intelligence, culture, charm, and humanity. However, his family and others close to him knew he was bedeviled by a string of neurotic problems: periods of depression, imagined ailments, loss of confidence, fits of uncontrollable weeping, episodes of nervous breakdown, etc. A continuing issue was his homosexuality, viewed as a crime in the very socially and politically conservative Czarist Russian of his day. Chronically nursing a desperate fear of being “outed,” he even attempted marriage – a short-lived, disastrous affair – in the vain hope it might lead to a “cure,” or at least provide cover for his sexual activities. Over the years writers have “psychoanalyzed” him, mining every shred of data on his life in attempts to understand better the sources of his intensely emotional and melodic outpourings that embraced a heart-on-sleeve romanticism rarely matched in the history of Western music. And despite some earlier misgivings, his music has captivated generations of listeners and performers alike, not the least because they convey an authentic spirit of Russia.

Tchaikovsky composed the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36 (which is sometimes given the nickname “Fatum,” or “Fate”) in 1877. A turbulent work, it reflects the personal turmoil he was experiencing during its creation and the influence of his relationships with two very different women. The first was Mme. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy patron who supported him financially and with whom he maintained a prolonged correspondence although they never met in person. The second woman was his former student, Antonina Milyukova, who declared that she was madly in love with him. In the hope that marriage would quiet rumors about his sexual preference, Tchaikovsky reluctantly married Milyukova on July 6, 1877, but the union lasted less than three months. This brief affair left Tchaikovsky so distraught that he had a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. It was only after his brother took him to Switzerland and Italy to recuperate that he was able to resume work on the Fourth Symphony, completing it in January 1878.

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth is the first of his three last symphonies, all larger in scale and intensity than his first three. On von Meck’s urging, he produced a “program” for the piece – a narrative to go along with it that focused on the concept of “Implacable Fate”, a motif introduced by the trumpet theme that opens the first movement. Tchaikovsky compared his work to Beethoven’s Fifth which likewise progresses from struggle to triumph, from minor to major, but in contrast to the Beethoven work, the minor mode “Fate” motif returns unchanged in Tchaikovsky’s last movement. Critical reaction to the symphony when it was first performed in Moscow on February 22, 1878 was initially unfavorable, but in spite of the early negative reviews, it has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire and remains one of the most frequently performed symphonies of the late 19th century.

The first movement, Andante sostenuto – Moderato con anima – Moderato assai, quasi Andante – Allegro vivo (F minor) as the title implies is remarkably long unlike Beethoven’s compact opening. It begins with horns and woodwinds, and trumpets join with a high A-flat. As the music solidifies into large, slow syncopated chords, Tchaikovsky unleashes the musical equivalent of lightning bolts: two short fortissimo chords each followed by a long measure of silence. As the music ebbs away the woodwinds hint at the main melody which the strings properly introduced at the Moderato con anima. The melody develops quite rapidly, and repeated introduction of the fate motif, the A-flat phrase, serves as a separation between each section of the sonata-allegro form. At around twenty minutes in length, the movement is one of the longest composed by Tchaikovsky and just short of the length of the remaining movements combined.

A plaintive melody from the oboe accompanied by pizzicato strings introduces the Andantino in modo di canzona (B-flat minor). The pace picks up as Tchaikovsky adds a dance-like melody until the gentle theme returns in the violins. The impassioned climax is a reminder of the grieving phrases that dominated the opening movement.

The third movement, Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato – Allegro (F major) is a playful diversion – a typical scherzo and trio – and the most balletic movement of all. The movement begins with a fleet pizzicato opening and includes a tangy peasant dance at its center.

The final movement, Allegro con fuoco (F major) is the most “Russian” of the movements for Tchaikovsky incorporates a famous Russian folk song, “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree,” as one of its themes. In this movement, a hint of the A-flat phrase of the first movement is presented about halfway with the addition of cymbal “lightning bolts”. Although the dark opening theme from the first movement reappears, as if to remind listeners that fate can not be outrun, the positive force is not suppressed. Having carried its listeners from gloom to melancholy to slow recovery to life-affirming energy, Symphony No. 4 ultimately concludes with Tchaikovsky’s prescription for happiness: “If you cannot find reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others. Get out among the people … Oh, how gay they are! … Life is bearable after all.”

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