Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Eugene Onegin: Polonaise
Composed in 1878
When one thinks of Tchaikovsky it can be hard not to picture one of his famous symphonies or ballets. Tchaikovsky was also a noted operatic composer. His first opera, which premiered in 1869, has unfortunately been lost to time. Eugene Onegin, arguably his most popular opera, echoes familiar themes of life today and love trysts. Spoiler alert, the main theme involves a self-absorbed young hero who lives to regret his nonchalant rejection of a young lady’s love. Likewise, he carelessly incites a fatal duel with his best friend. At the suggestion of a local opera singer, Tchaikovsky wrote his opera based on the plot Alexander Pushkin’s novel Eugene Onegin.
Although sounding rather tropical, a Polonaise is a Polish dance. The dance was popular at carnival-type parties and affairs. As one of the five historic national dances of Poland, it has been performed since the 15th century.
Written in three-quarter time and played at a brisk pace the Polonaise was meant to be jovial and quick. In fact, U.S. President Chester Arthur asked John Phillip Sousa to compose a “Presidential” Polonaise so Arthur could speed up the receiving line and not spend all night greeting guests at the White House.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Violin Concerto No. 2
Composed in 1935
Violin Concerto No. 2 was the last Western commission Prokofiev wrote before returning to his native Russia. Caught between two worlds at the time of this composition, he enjoyed the lifestyle and creative freedom of the West but missed home, despite the strict rules of Stalin intensifying daily.
In Western Pennsylvania, we can almost compare this split in local Amish teenagers, who leave home for “rumspringa” to experience first-hand what the outside world has to offer, yet over 90% of Amish teens ultimately decide to return and remain in their traditional community.
Although this piece has a definite dark tone to it, the second movement is uplifting through its sheer beauty.
This concerto was written to accomplish a tone of simplicity, opening only with the solo violin. The unadorned theme slowly gets picked up by the woodwind section, growing into silence once a new lyric idea is introduced. The second and slow movement embraces the same chord progression but takes the theme into a beautiful, floating, tranquil state. The movement forces the solo instrument to soar up to the highest range of the violin before passing the melody back to the orchestra.
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Although the chords and melodies are full, they never deviate from a single simple reinstatement of the main theme.
Prokofiev composed this piece over time and in different locations. This led to different movements having completely different styles. For example, the first two movements were penned in Paris and have a different feel than the third movement as it builds in tempo to a motoring coda. The movement drives forward with a duet of the solo violin paired with a thudding bass drum. The third movement of the piece was composed in Madrid and contains a raucous dance theme outfitted with castanets. Each time the theme is reintroduced in the third movement it is always accompanied by the festive clicking of the castanets.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5
Composed in 1937
“Deep, meaningful, gripping music, classical in the integrity of its conception, perfect in form and the mastery of orchestral writing—music striking for its novelty and originality, but at the same time somehow hauntingly familiar, so truly and sincerely does it recount human feelings.” – Heinrich Neuhaus (1975)
Mr. Neuhaus had high praise for one of the most prolific composers of the 20th century. After attending the 1975 Moscow Philharmonic performance of Shostakovich’s 5th he had no doubt as to the genius of this Russian Master.
During the artistic purges under the reign of Joseph Stalin, many of the traditional composer’s works were declared decadent and outlawed. Shostakovich was at the center of these attacks and persecution after Stalin attended Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Stalin declared that the work corrupted the Soviet spirit.
Living in fear, Shostakovich was sleeping in a stairwell and even scrapped his fourth symphony while in rehearsal for fear that it was not “Soviet-embracing” enough.
Subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism,” the work was styled after Beethoven, one of the only composers approved by Stalin. The opening feels tentative and abrupt with a sense of repetition. He was able to integrate folk songs that many in the U.S.S.R. would recognize with stirring march sections that appealed to the heart of the republic.
Symphony No. 5 concludes with swift march themes that end abruptly, only to be resurrected in a triumphant ending composed in a minor scale, thus embodying a sadder tone. Many were unsure of the work after it premiered, but after Stalin heard the work he found the music acceptable.