March 25, 2017
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)
Russlan and Ludmilla Overture
Composed in 1842
Considered to be the father of modern Russian music, Mikhail Glinka’s nationalistic Russian style was a seminal influence on all Russian composers who followed, from Rimsky-Korsakov to Tchaikovsky to Stravinsky.
Born into a wealthy family, in his late 20s Glinka left his life as a government bureaucrat so that he could pursue music. After studying in Italy and Berlin, in 1834 he returned to Russia and rediscovered his Russian heritage, reading the works of Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. From this, he was inspired to write his first important work, the opera A Life for the Tsar (1836). The work drew on Russian and Polish folk themes, and also prefigured the use of the leitmotif (a recurring theme for a particular character) that Richard Wagner would refine in his operas.
A Life for the Tsar met with immediate popular success, and the director of the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg suggested that Glinka adapt Pushkin’s epic poem, “Ruslan and Ludmilla,” as his next opera. The poem tells of the abduction of Ludmilla by an evil sorcerer, Chernomor, from a party given for Ludmilla’s three suitors, one of whom is Ruslan. Each suitor rides off to save the girl, encountering a fantastic assortment of witches, hermits, magic castles, enchanted gardens, magic swords, and so forth, rather in the style of the tales of the “Arabian Nights.”
The sorcerer is vanquished in the end by Ruslan, who revives Ludmilla from a trance and wins her hand in marriage. The overture consists of two main themes, the first driving and rhythmic, the second more lyrical and reminiscent of courtly dances.*
Glinka Program Notes courtesy of Richland Symphony, CA.<
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 3
Composed in 1909
Sergei Rachmaninoff composed Piano Concerto No. 3 for an American tour in 1909-10 which turned out to be very successful, despite his initial reservations. He was well compensated and received additional offers to perform with both the Boston and Cincinnati symphonies, but wishing to return to Russia, he declined. Eventually, he moved to the United States, after the revolution forced him to leave Russia in 1917.
Piano Concerto No. 3 is one of the most revered and difficult concerti in standard piano repertoire. Pianist Gary Graffman said that he regretted not learning the piece as a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.”
The piano opens the first movement with a single theme in octaves, followed by flourishes in the piano, while the orchestra hums the theme underneath. The middle section introduces a second and third theme, intertwined with woodwinds, horns and low strings, followed by a huge cadenza, part of which is sprinkled with responses from the woodwinds and horns. The coda begins with the restatement of the opening theme in the piano and quietly concludes.
The second movement opens gently with woodwinds, answered by strings, with combined forces of both just before the piano enters with a flurry of scales and arpeggios. The first theme is heard, followed by a cadenza-like section. This movement is rhapsodic in nature, with alternations of solo piano and woodwind/string interaction. A fast section in 3/8 time is followed by another slower section, then fast again, leading directly into the final movement.
The final movement was described by Patrick Piggot as “one of the most dashing and exciting pieces of music ever composed for piano and orchestra.” It can be divided into three segments, the first of which is the unifying link of the concerto, containing themes from the first movement. The second segment also recalls themes from the opening movement. The third section closes with the four-note rhythm that some believe to be Rachmaninoff’s musical signature.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C Minor
Composed in 1872
Tchaikovsky lived during the era of the reforms of Peter the Great, the dynamic young Czar of Russia (1672-1725), who brought Western European influences into his country. However, the latter half of the 19th century witnessed the rise of nationalism, so many Russian composers sought to rid themselves of European influences and focus more directly on things Russian. In terms of music, this meant avoiding the German, Italian, French and English traditions, including formal structures and technical features.
The leading group of Russian composers in this effort, known as the “Mighty Five,” included Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Cui, with Balakirev as the leader. Unlike his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky embraced European influences and was comfortable using the German formal structures and Italian and French influences in his orchestrations, so he never joined his colleagues in their pursuit, yet he became the most well known Russian composer in history.
This symphony is nicknamed “Little Russian” which at the time referred to the Ukraine. Two Ukrainian folk songs are used, one at the beginning of the piece, the other as the main theme of the fourth movement. The French horn plays the Ukrainian song, “Down by Mother Volga,” which opens the first movement and is heard once again in the development section. A more agitated second theme complements the plaintive first theme. The two themes serve as the basis of the first movement.
The second movement is a mild-paced march, said to be a bridal march Tchaikovsky wrote for an unpublished opera. The first theme is stated in the woodwinds, with the strings responding. Then he quotes the folk song “Spin, O My Spinner.” We’re off to the races in the third movement, and though Tchaikovsky does not include an actual folk song, his music has a folk-like character.
A grand fanfare opens the fourth movement, followed by the folk song, “The Crane,” which Tchaikovsky uses in increasingly intricate and colorful variations of the theme. A more lyrical theme from the strings provides contrast before the symphony ends in a rousing c Major conclusion.