Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36
The musical legacy of the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov reaches far beyond the lengthy list of works he produced. As professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1871 until his death in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the great teachers of his time and influenced the musical development of two generations of Russian composers. He was teacher and mentor to scores of students including Liadov, Glazunov, Miaskovsky, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev.
Although Rimsky-Korsakov’s greatest works are his fourteen operas, they are still relatively unknown outside of Russia. As a result, in most musical circles his reputation stands principally on three orchestral works written between 1887 and 1888: Capriccio espagnol, Scheherazade, and Russian Easter Overture.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s childhood memories of Russian Orthodox worship services found expression in his Russian Easter Overture. In his autobiography he stated the work portrayed both "the legendary and heathen side of Easter, the transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday, to the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking on Easter Sunday.” Rimsky-Korsakov assigned various instruments roles representing the worship service reader, the monks chanting Easter hymns, and the congregational responses. His memories of triumphantly chiming bells are recalled by the brilliance of orchestral bells, triangles, cymbals, tam-tam, and harp, and it is this coruscation of sound than brings the Overture to its joyous and resplendent conclusion.
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 73, "Emperor”
The year 1809 was hardly a calm one in Vienna. Austria was at war with France and in spring of that year, Napoleon’s artillery had bombarded the capital city. Supposedly even the great composer Beethoven took cover in a basement shelter to avoid the exploding shells. Shortly afterward, to escape the turmoil of military occupation, Beethoven moved to the countryside where he made great progress on several compositions. During that tumultuous year he managed to complete a piano sonata, a string quartet, and his Fifth Piano Concerto, nicknamed "Emperor” because of its dedication to Austria’s Archduke Rudolph.
As a pianist of formidable talent, Beethoven had presented each of his four previous piano concertos with himself as soloist. But by 1812 when the Fifth Concerto was finally scheduled for its first performance, Beethoven’s rapidly growing deafness made it sadly clear that he could no longer perform in public.
Choosing his pupil Carl Czerny as soloist, Beethoven arranged for the performance as part of a music evening sponsored by Vienna’s Society of Noble Ladies of Charity. Unfortunately, the audience’s attention was usurped by other lighter-hearted presentations on the same program, and Beethoven’s concerto was largely ignored. The indifferent response was apologetically described by an attending journalist: "Beethoven, full of proud confidence in himself, never writes for the multitude. He demands understanding and feeling, and because of the difficulties involved, can receive these only from the connoisseurs, who do not make up the majority on such occasions.”
Prior to writing the Fifth Concerto, Beethoven had followed a practice of only sketching out the solo piano part. Then, during the performance, he would fill in the rest of the music "on the fly.” This improvisatory style worked well for Beethoven but he certainly trusted no other pianist to follow his methods. So for the Fifth Concerto, he wrote out every note of the solo piano part, including even the cadenzas, which according to the practice of the day, were usually improvised on the spot by the soloist. By limiting the soloist to just the notes on the page, Beethoven took a self-serving step that prevented all future enterprising pianists from tinkering with the concerto’s musical concepts.
The concerto begins in a highly unorthodox manner. Where audiences of Beethoven’s day expected a lengthy orchestra introduction before the solo piano made its first statement, Beethoven jumps in at the very start with three short but bravura cadenzas for the piano, each built on a powerful chord from the orchestra. He then turns to the orchestra alone to make an extended statement of the movement’s two principal thematic ideas. The piano eventually makes its long-delayed entrance, and the movement proceeds with great energy and vitality to its end.
The second movement is one of Beethoven’s most lyrical and moving creations. In great contrast to the first movement’s drive and power, the second movement is filled with wistful repose. Muted strings accompany the piano in its free, rhapsodic melodic lines. Toward the end of the movement, the piano sinks down into silence. Over a long, sustained "pedal” note in the orchestra, the piano hesitatingly outlines the upcoming theme of the final movement. Then, without a break, the piano launches directly into the final movement, a rondo of both elegant and bravura music-making by soloist and orchestra alike.
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
In 1876 Peter Tchaikovsky was one of Russia’s most recognized composers. But to him, his frequent artistic successes barely compensated for his overwhelming personal insecurities and chronic depression. That year he received two unusual letters that would change his life. The first was from Madame Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who offered to support his career with an ongoing stipend.
Tchaikovsky accepted her offer and began a remarkable friendship that would last fourteen years.
Tchaikovsky’s second letter was from a stranger–a highly unstable young woman who declared her long and passionate love for him. For the private and homosexual Tchaikovsky, his bachelorhood had long been a source of public rumors and speculation that caused him endless distress. So within two months he rashly and desperately decided to marry this woman "to shut the mouths of despicable gossips.” The marriage was a nightmare from the beginning, and within weeks Tchaikovsky half-heartedly attempted suicide, fled from his wife forever, and suffered a violent nervous breakdown.
All during this time when his personal life was in a shambles, Tchaikovsky was surprisingly at work on two music projects: an opera and his Symphony No. 4. Recuperating in Switzerland and Italy, he completed the symphony and dedicated it to Madame von Meck. In a letter to her he explained the symphony’s programme or "storyline” as representing his own recent struggle and eventual acceptance of the workings of Fate.
The symphony begins with an introductory brass fanfare that presents the foreboding theme Tchaikovsky associated with Fate. The major portion of the movement is angrily rhythmic and driving, pausing only for brief lyrical interludes. The Fate theme reappears several times before the movement comes to a restless and dramatic end.
The two central movements are much more relaxed than the first. The second movement is filled with both lyrical and melancholy elements, while the third movement, a scherzo, is all lightness and swiftness. Its outer sections are played by plucked ("pizzicato”) strings only, while the contrasting middle section features woodwinds and brass alone.
The fourth movement erupts loudly and quickly on the heels of the third. Its great energy and drive alternates with a Russian folk song melody. Shortly before the end, the Fate theme breaks in for a brief appearance, only to be swept away in uninhibited abandon as Tchaikovsky decides that "life is indeed bearable after all.”
Program notes by Dennis Loftin