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ClassicsOnline Home » GREAT RUSSIAN SYMPHONIES (10-CD Box Set)
The word ‘symphony’ is used to describe an extended orchestral composition in Western classical music. By the eighteenth century the Italianate opera sinfonia—musical interludes between operas or concertos—had assumed the structure of three contrasting movements, and it is this form that is often considered as the direct forerunner of the orchestral symphony. With the rise of established professional orchestras, the symphony assumed a more prominent place in concert life between 1790 and 1820 until it eventually came to be regarded by many as the yardstick by which one would measure a composer’s achievement.
The symphony came late to Russia. The first attempts at a Russian Nationalist symphony were made in the late nineteenth-century by Balakirev and his acolytes, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov as well as by Tchaikovsky, whose symphonies (despite his European leanings) have a distinctly Russian flavour. In their wake followed numerous composers, from Glazunov to Myaskovsky, similarly instilling their music with the melodies of their homeland. In the years that followed Russian politics had an unmistakable impact on the Russian symphonists, as Rachmaninov and Prokofiev (among others) went into exile whilst composers such as Shostakovich vented their political frustrations through the medium of music—his Leningrad Symphony being a prime example.
GREAT RUSSIAN SYMPHONIES
Tchaikovsky • Borodin • Prokofiev • Myaskovsky • Shostakovich • Rimsky-Korsakov • Rachmaninov • Scriabin • Glazunov • Kalinnikov
The mid-nineteenth century brought increasing awareness of national identities throughout Europe and not least in Russia. Led by Balakirev, a group of five nationalist Russian composers, described by the polymath Vladimir Stasov as Mogushka, the Mighty Handful, and otherwise known as The Five, worked intermittently together to create music that was truly Russian. The group included the naval cadet Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, an army officer, Modest Mussorgsky, the army expert on military fortification César Cui, and the analytical chemist Alexander Borodin. At the same time under royal patronage a conservatory had been established in St Petersburg by the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, with a parallel institution in Moscow under his brother, Nikolay. The relationship between these two elements in Russian music, the amateur composers of the Mighty Handful and the professionalism of the Rubinsteins was not good. For the nationalists the music of the conservatories was ‘German’; their own aim was to establish truly Russian music, while retaining a concomitant interest in the more exotic regions of the Russian Empire.
Tchaikovsky went some way to bridging the gap. Trained at the School of Jurisprudence and destined for a career in government service, he decided to study at the St Petersburg Conservatory and followed this by taking up a teaching appointment at the Moscow Conservatory. Bullied, as were others, by Balakirev, who had his own very firm ideas on the course Russian music should take, Tchaikovsky was able to combine his technical professional abilities with the aims of Balakirev. In his six symphonies he tackled a form that had had no real place in Russian music. Rimsky-Korsakov acquired a high degree of musical expertise, helped by leaving the navy and taking up a position as inspector of naval bands. He remained the most fully professional of the Five, with particular skill in orchestration. In the nature of things Borodin, Mussorgsky and Cui had to combine their careers with composition. Cui, a harsh critic, excelled in shorter, genre pieces, while the first two left much unfinished at their deaths, works to be revised and completed by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Russian composers who followed were able to benefit both from the teaching of the Conservatories and from the ideals of the nationalists, but later generations were greatly affected by the course of Russian politics. The first Russian revolution of 1905 had found Rimsky-Korsakov siding with the students in a political disturbance that, for the time being, lost him his position at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The resulting constitutional settlement lasted until the final victory of the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution of 1917. The establishment of a socialist régime in Russia changed the course of Russian music and the lives of Russian musicians. Some left Russia. These émigrés included Rachmaninov, who went on to use his great gifts as a pianist to support himself and his family in exile. Stravinsky chose to follow a similar course, settling first in France and then in the United States. Glazunov, who had come to early prominence in the closing decades of the preceding century as a disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov, continued nominally as director of the Petrograd Conservatory, but soon found a final home for himself in France. Of the younger generation Sergey Prokofiev took official leave from Russia in 1917. As a student at the St Petersburg Conservatory he had shocked Glazunov with his modernism and been strongly influenced by his older friend and mentor Nikolay Myaskovsky, composer of 27 symphonies. Prokofiev at first sought a career in America and then in France, finally, in 1936 to return to Russia. The younger composer Dmitry Shostakovich, born in 1906, a year after the earlier revolutionary disturbances, had his musical training under the new régime.
While there were opportunities for performers within the Soviet Union, composers faced a number of problems. Official policy saw the arts as of the greatest importance and divisions in the practical application of the principles of Socialist Realism to music soon arose. Composers at first enjoyed a degree of freedom and earlier achievements in Russian music were followed by supporters of the Association for Contemporary Music, whose works were closely associated with contemporary trends in Western Europe. Against this was the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians, with its populist political motivation. These two associations were replaced by 1932 by a decree which insisted that new music should be intelligible to the people and that it should express the decay of the old order and the rise of the proletariat. The following years brought two important events. The first was the condemnation in 1936, apparently by Stalin himself, of Shostakovich’s thitherto successful opera, A Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Prokofiev’s definitive return to Russia in the same year was particularly ill-timed. Even more devastating was the decree of 1948 which condemned ‘formalism’, naming Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Myaskovsky and others and accusing them of writing music that was anti-democratic. The decree, promulgated by the Stalinist Andrey Zhdanov, made it quite clear what kind of music was acceptable, to all intents and purposes drawing a line between the music of the Soviet Union and music elsewhere. The Zhdanov Decree had a profound effect on the composers named, on their lives and careers, and on the kind of music that they could write with any hope of public performance. The death of Stalin in 1953, on the same day as Prokofiev, brought a partial relaxation, from which Shostakovich at least was able to benefit, and by 1958 the earlier decree had been disowned, although under Brezhnev there were hints, at least, of a possible reversion to earlier restrictive policies. The end of the Soviet Union brought to an end to state control of Russian music and a normalisation of musical life, no longer isolated from the mainstream of European music and that of the world outside.
Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36
Tchaikovsky was one of the earlier students of the St Petersburg Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein, completing his studies there to become a member of the teaching staff at the similar institution established in Moscow by Anton Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolay. He was able to withdraw from teaching when a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, offered him financial support; assistance that continued for much of his life, although, according to the original conditions of the pension, they never met. Tchaikovsky was a man of neurotic diffidence, his self-doubt increased by his homosexuality. It has been suggested by some that an impending scandal caused him to take his own life at a time when he was at the height of his powers as a composer, although others have found this improbable. His music is thoroughly Russian in character, but, although he was influenced by Balakirev and the ideals of the Russian nationalist composers ‘The Five’, he may be seen as belonging rather to the more international school of composition fostered by the Conservatories that Balakirev, leader of ‘The Five’, so much deplored. Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies. The First Symphony, sometimes known as ‘Winter Daydreams’, was completed in its first version in 1866 but later revised. No 2, the so-called ‘Little Russian’, was composed in 1872 but revised eight years later. Of the other symphonies No 5, with its motto theme and waltz movement in the place of a scherzo, was written in 1888, while the last completed symphony, known as the ‘Pathétique’, was first performed under Tchaikovsky’s direction shortly before his death in 1893.
The fourth of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies was completed in early January 1878, and given its first performance in Moscow six weeks later. In May and early June 1877 he had completed sketches of the whole symphony. On 1 June he had met his future wife for the first time and had proposed to her a few days later. Meanwhile he was occupied too with the composition of his opera Eugene Onegin. On 18 July he married; by 7 August he had left for his brother-in-law’s estate at Kamenka to escape from a wife to whom he had taken an invincible aversion. By the end of September, after attempted suicide, his marriage was at an end, and in October he left Russia to find solace in travel. Work on the symphony continued, even in these extraordinary circumstances, and its first performance was given in his absence.
In a letter to Nadezhda von Meck Tchaikovsky suggested, with various reservations, a programme for the Fourth Symphony. The seed of the whole symphony lay in the opening theme, representing Fate, a threatening sword of Damocles, to which you may reconcile yourself and languish in vain, shown in the falling melody after the introduction to the first movement. As despair grows, there may be refuge in day-dreams, suggested by the clarinet melody of the second subject, immediately followed by a shining human image of joy. Reality and Fate intervene to shatter the illusion. The second movement, Tchaikovsky suggests, shows the sad weariness of evening, in which past happiness may be remembered and past trouble, a sense of bitter sweetness, epitomized in the opening oboe melody. The Scherzo, with its plucked strings, suggests fleeting images that hurry past, drunken peasants, a street song and a distant band of soldiers passing. The last movement proposes an answer to depression in the company of others and in their enjoyment. Fate is a reminder of subjective reality. Melancholy can disappear in the happiness of others.
The Fourth Symphony echoes to some extent the emotions that Tchaikovsky experienced at this most difficult period of his life, however difficult he found it to express the ideas behind his music verbally. It was criticized by some for what seemed a balletic element in the score, a charge the composer rebutted indignantly. Nevertheless it won general popular favour and made an excellent impression abroad that served to spread Tchaikovsky’s reputation.
Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin (1833–1887)
Symphony No 2 in B minor
Alexander Porfir’yevich Borodin was born in 1833, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, assuming, according to custom, the surname and patronymic of one of his father’s serfs. His mother later married a retired army doctor and he was brought up at home in cultured and privileged surroundings. Here he was able to develop his early interests in music, in the course of a general education that won him entry in 1850 to the Medico-Surgical Academy in St Petersburg. His public career was as a scientist, from 1864 as a professor of chemistry at the Medico-Surgical Academy, and involved him in teaching and in research. In common with a number of contemporaries, he was only able to indulge his interest in music in his spare time, a fact that delayed his progress and left, at his death in 1887, a number of incompleted projects, to be assembled and finished by his friend Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who had resigned his commission in the navy to devote himself entirely to music, and by Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Alexander Glazunov.
The nineteenth century saw the development of nationalism throughout Europe. In Russia there was an intellectual reaction to the westernizing tendencies initiated by Peter the Great a century before, and in all the arts a move towards the creation of something specifically Russian. In music opinions were divided between a group of nationalist composers, the so-called Mighty Five, led by Mily Balakirev, who had enjoyed a measure of professional training, and including, in addition to Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, the expert on military fortification César Cui and the ex-army officer turned civil servant Modest Mussorgsky. These nationalist composers gloried in their own relative amateurism, opposing strongly the establishment of professional conservatories in St Petersburg and Moscow by the Rubinstein brothers, whom they regarded as representative of “German” music. The succeeding generation was able to provide a synthesis between these two rival movements, joining the professional training of the conservatories to Russian sources of inspiration.
Borodin attempted three symphonies, the last of which he never finished. The Second Symphony was started in 1869 and completed seven years later, the period of its composition coinciding very largely with Borodin’s intermittent attention to work on his opera Prince Igor. The music is thoroughly Russian in mood and the composer himself suggested in conversation with Stasov, the polymath mentor of the group of the Mighty Five, that the first movement represented some gathering of Russian warriors, the slow movement a Bajan and the last a crowd in festive mood. The opening movement is dominated by its forceful and ominous first theme. The Scherzo, slightly altered in its opening on the suggestion of Balakirev, who was always ready with advice, however inconsistent, shifts a semi-tone higher; the repeated note C on the horns serves as the introduction of the new key of F major, much as the G flat chord that opens the Andante, with its moving horn solo, shifts the tonality to D flat, changing to C sharp minor at the start of the colourful B major finale. The symphony, in fact, is remarkable in its technical novelty, within the traditional symphonic framework, and constitutes an orchestral counterpart of Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances notwithstanding.
Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op 64
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was written in 1888, and regarded by Tchaikovsky with his usual critical diffidence. “Having played my symphony twice in St Petersburg and once in Prague, I have decided it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated colour, some insincerity of invention, which the public instinctively recognises”, he wrote, in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck. The work was first performed in St Petersburg under the composer’s direction on 17 November 1888, and repeated a week later. It achieved considerable success, in spite of the reservations of some critics, and was to form part of the programme to be conducted by the composer in Moscow and on a tour of Europe. While the Fifth Symphony has no declared programme, Tchaikovsky’s own notes suggest that some personal extramusical ideas were in his mind: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable decrees of Providence. Allegro (I) Murmurs, doubts, lamentations, reproaches against XXX. (II) Shall I throw myself into the arms of Faith??” A “Providence” or “Fate” theme introduces the symphony and re-appears, in one form or another, in all four movements.
The first movement begins with a long and slow introduction. The first subject is announced gently with the repetitive brevity of a Russian dance, building in intensity. The second subject, brought in by the strings, contains at least four distinct themes, reaching a climax in a soaring lyrical melody for violins. The development section is quite short and concentrated, and the recapitulation creeps in on bassoons. The slow movement includes the famous horn theme, based on five-note phrases and countered by a similarly structured theme in four-note phrases. The third movement Valse: Allegro moderato is in simple ternary form. A lilting waltz is interspersed with a contrasting central vivacious passage. The Finale is launched with stately solemnity. The first subject, with three themes, is full of frenetic activity. It spills into the march of the second subject, building into a climax at which the exultant motto turns into an epic development section. There is one pause for breath before the music swirls dizzily into a recapitulation. The movement ends with an echo of the first subject from the first movement in the trumpets and horns.
Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Romeo and Juliet
In 1868 Tchaikovsky had written a symphonic poem Fatum and this had elicited from Balakirev, in St Petersburg, harsh and detailed criticism. Balakirev was the leader of the group of nationalist composers, Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. He had taken over the direction of the Russian Music Society concerts in St Petersburg after the resignation of their founder, Anton Rubinstein in 1867. In 1869 he was dismissed by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, and Tchaikovsky gallantly published an article deploring this. Tchaikovsky’s defence of Balakirev and his ready acceptance of the criticism of Fatum led to the renewal of Balakirev’s influence over him, and it was from him that the idea of writing an orchestral work on the subject of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet came. Balakirev was always ready to offer criticism of the music of his contemporaries, but was equally generous with ideas.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is too well known to need repetition. Tchaikovsky makes no attempt to follow the events as they occur in Shakespeare’s play. There is the solemnity of Friar Laurence, whose well-intentioned intervention is the indirect cause of the tragedy, a theme re-creating the traditional enmity of the houses of Montague and Capulet and a sensuous melody expressing the love of Romeo and Juliet. The overture is in traditional sonata-form, the exposition, with its principal thematic material, followed by a central development and a final recapitulation, in which love ends in death. The original Overture was revised in 1870, on the suggestion of Balakirev, and underwent further revision in 1880, when it became an Overture-Fantasy.
Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 ‘Pathétique’
Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, called, at the prompting of his brother Modest, the Pathétique, rather than simply “Programme Symphony”, as the composer had originally intended, was first performed in St Petersburg under Tchaikovsky’s direction on 16 October (28 October on the Western calendar), 1893. The programme of the work, which had been sketched earlier in the year and orchestrated during the summer, was autobiographical. He had jotted down a rough plan in 1892: The essence of the plan is ‘Life’. First movement—all impulsive, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale–Death—result of collapse). Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short). In a letter to his nephew Bob Davidov he had suggested that the programme of the symphony was to be a secret, but subjective to the core. This it remained, although the details of the original scheme were to be modified.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction, in which the bassoon, over divided double basses, prefigures the first theme of the following Allegro. Here there is conflict for life, leading to the tenderness of the second subject, a love theme. This in turn fades into a whispered bassoon fragment, marked, with characteristic exaggeration, pppppp, in a symphony that is later to reach the other dynamic extreme of ffff. Compressed in its use of traditional symphonic form, the movement interrupts the surge of life with the presence of death and with overt references to elements of the Russian Orthodox Requiem. The second movement is in unconventional 5/4 time, something that Hanslick, in his hostile review of the first performance in Vienna in 1895, found loathsome. The melody, however, must seem a particularly fine example of Tchaikovsky’s powers of invention, a gift allowed such apt expression in his ballet scores. The middle section of the movement admits the intrusion of an ominous element of mortality, with its descending scale of death. There follows a scherzo, its first subject leading to a march in which triumph is tinged with irony. In the succeeding final movement there is a stark confrontation with death, as the music, entrusted as at the beginning to the darker toned lower instruments of the orchestra, fades to nothing. Tchaikovsky conducted his sixth and final symphony in St Petersburg nine days before his death.
Peter Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
About the 1812 Overture Tchaikovsky was diffident, describing it, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, as “without any serious merits”. The overture was written in response to an official commission from Nikolay Rubinstein and was to celebrate the opening of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, an event timed to coincide with the Moscow Exhibition of Industry and the Arts and the silver jubilee of the Tsar. Since the building of the Cathedral was designed to commemorate the events of 1812, when the armies of Napoleon had been forced to retreat from Moscow, Tchaikovsky chose to make his overture a graphic description of the conflict, with the French represented by the Marseillaise and Russia by an Orthodox chant and a folk-song, and, in final victory, by “God save the Tsar”. The piece, therefore, aptly honoured a royal occasion as well as a religious and patriotic one. The inclusion of cannon in the scoring has made the overture a popular spectacle.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Symphony No 5 in B flat major, Op 100
Sergey Prokofiev, precocious as a child, entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1904, by which time he had already written a great deal of music. At the Conservatory he shocked the more conservative director, Glazunov, but learned much from an older fellow student, the composer Myaskovsky. After the Revolution he was given permission to travel abroad and remained intermittently out of Russia, in America and then in Paris, until his final return to Russia in 1936. At home, though in touch again with the root of his inspiration, he found himself out of favour with the authorities and in 1948 the subject of particular and direct censure. His death in 1953, on the same day as Stalin, deprived him of the enjoyment of the subsequent relaxation in musical censorship that then took place. In style Prokofiev is ironic, writing in a musical language that is often acerbic.
As a composer Prokofiev was prolific. His operas include the remarkable The Fiery Angel, first performed in its entirety in Paris the year after his death, with ballet-scores in Russia for Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella. The last of his seven symphonies was completed in 1952, the year of his unfinished sixth piano concerto. His piano sonatas form an important addition to the repertoire, in addition to his songs and chamber music, film-scores and much else, some works overtly serving the purposes of the state. In style his music is often astringent in harmony, but with a characteristically Russian turn of melody and, whatever Shostakovich may have thought of it, a certain idiosyncratic gift for orchestration that gives his instrumental music a particular piquancy.
The fifth of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies was written in 1944, culminating, as he suggested, a long period in his creative life. The Fourth Symphony, which uses material from the ballet The Prodigal Son, had been completed in 1930. The new work, which bears some resemblance in thematic material to the Flute Sonata of the previous year, is in four movements, grandiose and unified in conception. It is scored for the usual pairs of woodwind instruments, to which piccolo, cor anglais, piccolo clarinet and bass clarinet, with contra-bassoon, are added. There is a conventional bass section of three trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba and a percussion section that includes timpani, triangle, cymbals, wood-blocks, snare-drum, tambourine, bass drum and gong. Piano and harp are used and there is the usual string section. The first movement couples considerable strength with unexpected twists of melody that are highly characteristic of the composer. The strong principal theme is heard at once, entrusted to flutes and bassoons, before passing top the strings and swelling gradually in importance, with a second theme announced by flute and oboe. This grandiose opening to a symphony that has no extra-musical programme to it is followed by a scherzo that has an equally characteristic first melody played by the clarinet over a constant accompanying pattern provided initially by the first violins, material at one time intended for the ballet Romeo and Juliet. The trio section has a touch of that other condemned formalist Khachaturian about it, while the scherzo material returns in more sinister form, now a danse macabre. The Adagio is a movement of sustained lyricism, with a fiercely dramatic middle section, followed by a return to the opening serenity of the movement. The finale, with its initial tranquil reminiscence of the opening of the symphony in its introduction, proceeds to an overtly cheerful principal theme, ushered in by a viola accompaniment figure, with a more lyrical second subject. There is a strong Russian element, particularly in a new melody in the basses. The re-appearance of the principal thematic material brings the work to an ebullient and triumphant close.
Nikolay Yakovlevich Myaskovsky (1881–1950)
Symphony No 25 in D flat major, Op 69
Myaskovsky was born in 1881 in a fortress, Novo-Georgiyevsk near Warsaw, where his father served as an officer. He joined a cadet school, and he was already a lieutenant when he began his studies at the St Petersburg Conservatory at the age of 25. His main teachers were Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, which guaranteed him the most solid composition technique imaginable. One of his fellow students was Prokofiev, ten years his junior, and their compositional débuts took place at the same concert; they were very good friends, and Myaskovsky even invented numerous titles for Prokofiev’s works. Myaskovsky graduated in 1911, but in the middle of a promising musical career he had to join the army again at the outbreak of the First World War. After recovering from shell-shock he soon moved to Moscow where he was to spend the rest of his life. In 1921 he became a Professor of Composition at the Moscow Conservatory. Myaskovsky’s musical style was never ultra-modern, but may rather be placed somewhere between the great Russian Romantics and that of his fellow student Prokofiev. He wrote 27 symphonies, and stands out as one of the truly great symphonists of the last century, and he was also very prolific in most other musical areas, opera and ballet being the main exceptions.
The Symphony No 25 in D flat major, Op 69, is Myaskovsky’s first large postwar orchestral work. He did not begin composing it until a year after the armistice, the reason being that his health had deteriorated severely. The initial sketches were written in the summer of 1946, and on 6 March 1947, Alexander Gauk conducted the State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR at the first performance, which took place with considerable success in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory. The dedicatee of the work was Levon Atovmian, a fellow composer of Armenian descent, who was later to have disastrous problems with the régime and was saved only by Shostakovich’s intervention. In 1949 Myaskovsky undertook minor revisions to the work. In 1946 the general climate for Soviet composers was comparatively good. During the war they had been allowed a fair amount of artistic liberty, and the Party had not yet fully resumed its pre-war efforts to control the arts. It is, however, not very likely that Myaskovsky would have composed the symphony differently after the year of conflict 1948: as it is, it does not differ much from the standards accepted by the leadership.
The greatest difference, as compared with most other symphonies, is that this work begins with a slow movement, Adagio. Instead of the sonata form traditionally used for the first movement of a symphony, this work begins with a set of variations on a typically Russian theme, which Soviet commentators regarded as an epic portrayal of the Fatherland. The second movement, Moderato, is also rather lyrical, though not quite as slow, and its comparatively light-hearted spirit is characterized by the sudden appearance of a waltz theme. All the drama of this three-movement work is concentrated in the finale, Allegro impetuoso, which introduces a sudden and vigorous forward drive towards the impressive conclusion, crowned by the reappearance of the theme from the first movement.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op 47
Dmitry Shostakovich belongs to the generation of Russian composers trained principally after the Communist Revolution of 1917. He graduated from the Petrograd Conservatory as a pianist and composer, his First Symphony winning immediate favour. His subsequent career in Russia varied with the political climate. The initial success of his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, based on Leskov, and later revised as Katerina Ismailova, was followed by official condemnation, emanating apparently from Stalin himself. The composer’s Fifth Symphony, in 1937, brought partial rehabilitation, while the war years offered a propaganda coup in the Leningrad Symphony, performed in the city under German siege. In 1948 he fell foul of the official musical establishment with a Ninth Symphony thought to be frivolous, but enjoyed the relative freedom following the death of Stalin in 1953. Outwardly and inevitably conforming to official policy, posthumous information suggests that Shostakovich remained very critical of Stalinist dictates, particularly with regard to music and the arts. He occupies a significant position in the twentieth century as a symphonist and as a composer of chamber music, writing in a style that is sometimes spare in texture but always accessible, couched as it is in an extension of traditional tonal musical language. A third of a century after his death and the symphonies of Dmitry Shostakovich have moved to the absolute centre of the repertoire: along with those of Mahler, they represent ‘modern’ music to the non-specialist concertgoer. Yet they differ from any comparable cycle since that of Beethoven in the absence (intended or otherwise) of a logical progression that might have endowed their career-spanning inclusiveness with a parallel evolution from aspiration to fulfillment.
The première of the Fifth Symphony took place in Leningrad on 21 November 1937, the little-known Yevgeny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic. Response was overwhelmingly positive—to an extent that officials attributed this success to the hall being planted with the composer’s admirers, though the success of its Moscow première on 29 January 1938, with Alexander Gauk conducting the USSR State Symphony, confirmed its public acceptance. Beginning with Mravinsky in 1938 and Leopold Stokowski the following year, it soon became among the most recorded of contemporary works and, at Shostakovich’s death, had amassed more performances than any twentieth-century symphony other than the Second Symphony of Sibelius (completed 36 years earlier).
Critical response immediately stressed its defining in music of the principles of Socialist Realism, Alexey Tolstoy coining the phrase “the formation of a personality” that the composer himself picked up on soon after. The latter also approved the description “the practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism”—one that was to assume the status of a bona fide subtitle in the West, for all that its provenance remains obscure and was possibly even invented by Shostakovich to conceal any deeper intentions. In particular, the close of the Finale as expressing triumphal optimism or stark resignation has dogged the work’s reception from the outset: yet, in its bringing the relationship between the individual and the state to a head, this ending can be heard to resolve those issues whose musical embodiment are central to the symphony as a whole.
The Fifth Symphony is scored for woodwind in threes (though only two oboes), four horns, three each of trumpets and trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (four players), celesta, two harps, piano and strings. Its four movements follow the standard classical trajectory (with the scherzo placed second), but Shostakovich’s rethink of first movement sonata-form was to have profound consequences for his later symphonies, while the finale’s radical overhaul of the Beethovenian ‘tragedy to triumph’ model is fully in keeping with the spirit of its times.
The first movement opens with a commanding downward gesture on strings, thrice repeated in the course of a first theme that unfolds hesitantly and with great pathos. Initially on upper strings, it belatedly migrates to woodwind and brass on the way to its nobly wrought apex. Various of its components now emerge as the music gains in energy, taking in a martial transformation of the theme on brass and percussion, before the reprise is launched at the point of maximum intensity with the first theme in rhythmic unison across the orchestra. It subsides into an idyllic version of the second theme for woodwind and horn, but this is short-lived as the coda enters with a haunted recollection of the first theme. The second movement is a scherzo whose bluff initial repartee for the strings is complemented by a sardonic theme on woodwind with its portentous rejoinder on horns. This makes way for a trio section where violin then flute unfold a capricious melody, offset by strutting upper strings and woodwind. The third movement (in which brass are silent) begins with a heartfelt melody on strings that, unfolding at length, ushers in an evocative, folk-like idea and a rapt theme for divided strings in its wake. Another theme, on flute and harp, eases the tension before a version of the opening melody leads to a brief climax; this dies away to leave muted strings, against which woodwind (oboe, clarinet then flutes) muse on the first theme, interspersed with atmospheric chords for strings. The fourth movement now bursts in with a strident theme on brass and timpani, its components excitedly discussed as the tempo increases. In the process, another (directly related) theme emerges on the trumpets over skirling strings, triumphantly sounded out by the whole orchestra before the pounding opening music returns. Fanfaring brass wind down to an expressive transformation of the second theme on horns over shimmering strings. This latter is reduced to an oscillating phrase that takes in a subdued version of the first theme on strings, before opening onto a plateau of gentle radiance. From this point, the first theme builds steadily to the final climax, capped by a transformation of the first theme (its initial four notes confirmed as an upward reversal of the work’s opening gesture) whose pivoting between affirmation and uncertainty is carried through to the fateful conclusion.
Sergey Prokofiev (1891–1953)
Symphony No 1 in D major, Op 25, ‘Classical’
In his Classical Symphony Prokofiev deliberately attempted a modern approximation of the style of Haydn, at the same time experimenting with composition away from the piano. The result was a work of idiosyncratic charm, clear in its neo-classical outline and demanding all the meticulous attention to detail that the eighteenth century was able to give. The first performance took place in St Petersburg in the early months of 1918, when it was heard by the new People’s Commissar for Education, a representative of the Bolsheviks, who had seized power the preceding November. It was in part the success of the work that enabled Prokofiev to carry out his intention of leaving Russia with official permission. The Classical Symphony re-interprets the eighteenth century with wit and elegance. The lyrical slow movement is followed by a wayward Gavotte, its principal melody with a strange twist in the tail, and a final movement of great brilliance.
Dmitry Shostakovich (1906–1975)
Symphony No 7 in C Major, Op 60 ‘Leningrad’
Few symphonies since Beethoven’s Fifth have attracted the degree of extra-musical speculation accorded Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. Although ideas for a Seventh Symphony had begun coming to mind the previous year, the work that emerged has been regarded as an uninhibited response to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941—the ensuing siege of Leningrad lasting for 870 days and costing over a million lives. Shostakovich began working on the new symphony in the besieged city that July, completing the first three movements by the end of September. In early October he and his wife and children were evacuated, first to Moscow and then to the city of Kuibyshev (later Samara). He finished the whole work towards the end of December.
The first movement begins confidently, the striding opening theme on strings in strong contrast with the pastoral theme, featuring delicate contributions from woodwind, preceding it. This fades out, to be replaced by an idea on pizzicato violins over a quietly insistent side drum rhythm. Thus begins the notorious ‘war machine’ crescendo, which replaces the expected development section. Pizzicato violins are succeeded in turn by flute and cellos, upper woodwind and strings, alternating oboe and bassoon, muted brass, intertwining woodwind; then violins, full strings, horns and violins, brass and strings, upper strings and brass with percussion, finally the full orchestral panoply, assisted by three side-drummers. A new martial theme suddenly breaks in, driving the movement to a dramatic apex where its opening theme sounds out in baleful, brutalised terms. The music calms to a wistful recall of the second theme, presaging a stoical recall of the first theme by bassoon over detached piano chords. Sombre brass motifs frame an achingly nostalgic transformation of this theme, then pizzicato strings and distant side drum quizzically recall the ‘war theme’ to round off the movement.
The second movement is a rare example in Shostakovich of a symphonic intermezzo, evocative but essentially abstract in nature. The violin’s elegant opening idea is followed by a plaintive melody for oboe, accompanied then succeeded by strings. The shrill woodwind and vaunting brass of the central section lead to a martial theme which echoes that of the preceding movement. The opening theme is recalled, then the plaintive melody on bass clarinet, imaginatively accompanied by harp and flute. The first theme makes a hesitant final appearance, and the movement ends in uneasy repose.
Plangent woodwind open the third movement with a Stravinskian chorale (the Symphony of Psalms was a work Shostakovich studied intensively both before and during the symphony’s composition), answered by an impassioned threnody for upper strings. The contrast is reiterated, followed by a bassoon rejoinder. Over pizzicato strings, flutes sound out a pensive melody to which other woodwind add their counterpoints. Strings gently take over the theme, bringing it to an avowedly Mahlerian resting-point. The agitated central section now bursts in, goaded on by strident brass and a raucous side drum. At its peak, the initial chorale reappears on full brass, tailing off into a heartfelt recall of the strings’ threnody. The flute theme cautiously re-emerges, transferred to lower strings, before a recall of the threnody and its bassoon rejoinder bring the movement to a sombre close.
Without pause, the finale opens with a fragmented theme sounding uncertainly on upper strings and icy woodwind. A tramping rhythm for lower strings sets off the first main portion of the movement, an energetic allegro building to a powerful, martial climax on full orchestra. A trenchant rhythmic episode, which makes prominent use of col legno strings, slows activity, the central section bringing elegiac exchanges between upper and lower strings, pointed up by solo woodwind interjections. The music dies down to a hushed recall of the movement’s opening idea, emerging from the shadows as, propelled by a revolving rhythmic motif on lower strings, it gradually gains intensity and momentum. Various ideas from earlier in the movement are alluded to as the music drives forward, eventually arriving at a resplendent transformation of the work’s opening theme. From here the symphony presses on to a combative and determined, but by no means optimistic or triumphal conclusion. Reaction to the Seventh Symphony has been one of extremes.
The first performance, in Kubiyshev on 5 March 1942, and the Moscow première three years later were broadcast nation-wide. Microfilmed and flown, via Tehran, to London, the work was broadcast by the BBC on 22 June heard at the Royal Albert Hall a week later, then given a studio performance in New York under Toscanini on 19 July.
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
Symphony No 2, Op 9 (Symphonic Suite), ‘Antar’
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov showed some musical ability even as a very small child, but at the age of fourteen he entered the Naval Cadet College in St Petersburg in pursuit of a more immediately attractive ambition. The city, in any case, offered musical opportunities. He continued piano lessons, but, more important than this, he was able to enjoy the opera and attend his first concerts. It was in 1861, the year before he completed his course at the Naval College, that he met Balakirev, a musician who was to become an important influence on him, as he himself was on the young army officers Mussorgsky and Cui, who already formed part of his circle. The meeting had a far-reaching effect on Rimsky-Korsakov’s career, although in 1862 he set sail as a midshipman on a cruise that was to keep him away from Russia for the next two and a half years. On his return in 1865 Rimsky-Korsakov fell again under the influence of Balakirev. In 1871 he took a position as professor of instrumentation and composition at St Petersburg Conservatory and the following year he resigned his commission in the navy, to become a civilian Inspector of Naval Bands, a position created for him through personal and family influence.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s subsequent career was a distinguished one. At the same time he accepted the duty of completing and often orchestrating works left unfinished by other composers of the new Russian school. As early as 1869 Dargomizhsky had left him the task of completing the opera The Stone Guest. Twenty years later he was to perform similar tasks for the music of Mussorgsky and for Borodin, both of whom had left much undone at the time of their deaths. There were other influences on his composition, particularly with his first hearing of Wagner’s Ring in 1889 and consequent renewed attention to opera, after a brief period of depression and silence, the result of illness and death in his family. Rimsky-Korsakov was involved in the disturbances of 1905, when he sided with the Conservatory students, joining with some colleagues in a public demand for political reform, an action that brought his dismissal from the institution, to which he was able to return when his pupil and friend Glazunov became director the following year. He died in 1908.
Rimsky-Korsakov later preferred the title ‘Symphonic Suite’ for what had at first been his Second Symphony, Antar. The first and fourth movements were written in the winter of 1867–68 and the rest of the work was completed during the summer. The composer took as his subject a story by the pseudonymous Baron Brambeus, Osip Ivanovich Senkovsky. The first movement depicts the desert of Sham and the ruins of Palmyra. Here Antar has sought solitude and a refuge from those who have returned evil for good, expressing his hatred for humanity that has betrayed him. Antar himself is represented by a recurrent theme that appears in each of the four movements and first introduced by the violas. In the desert a graceful gazelle appears and Antar is tempted to pursue it. At this moment a terrible noise is heard and a great bird is seen, threatening the gazelle. Antar seizes his lance and the bird is put to flight, while the gazelle makes off. He falls asleep and dreams that he is in a great palace, attended by slaves and entertained by beautiful music. This is the palace of the Queen of Palmyra, Gül-Nazar, who was herself the gazelle that he has rescued. She offers him the greatest joys of life. Antar wakens to find himself again in the ruins of Palmyra. The second movement offers Antar the joy of vengeance, as Gül-Nazar had promised. The third movement brings the joy of power, and the fourth the joy of love. Here Antar is again the ruins of Palmyra and now he tastes the joy of love in the arms of Gül-Nazar, a delight that brings death. The music identifies clearly enough Antar himself and Gül-Nazar and makes use of a collection of Algerian Arab melodies collected by Salvador Daniel, a copy of which was in Borodin’s possession. The principal Arab subject introduced by the cor anglais in the last movement was provided by Dargomizhsky from another collection. Antar was first performed at a Russian Musical Society concert in March 1869 under the direction of Balakirev and was extensively revised by the composer in 1897.
Nikolay Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)
The symphonic suite Sheherazade was composed by Rimsky-Korsakov in the winter of 1887–1888, taking as its literary inspiration excerpts from Tales of the Arabian Nights, the fascinating series of stories told by the beautiful Sheherazade in an effort to postpone her execution at the orders of her royal master. The choice of subject exemplifies the attraction that the neighbouring cultures of Islam has had over Russian composers in search of exotic material. In his own description of Sheherazade Rimsky-Korsakov rebuts the notion that his themes are, in general, connected solely to particular events in the Arabian Nights, although the sinuous oriental solo violin melody is associated with the story-teller herself. The thematic material, however, appears in different forms to convey differing moods and pictures. Other ideas had been suggested by the sea, Sinbad’s ship, Prince Kalender, the Prince and Princess, the Festival in Baghdad and the ship dashed against the rock with the bronze rider on it. The composer himself described the suite as a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character. The musical material, whatever its narrative significance, is, in any case, worked out symphonically. His original intention had been to give the movements the uninformative titles Prelude, Ballade, Adagio and Finale. He was later persuaded to add programmatic titles, which he later regretted and withdrew.
Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)
Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27 Fantaisie, Op 7, ‘The Rock’
Composer and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father’s improvidence, however, led to a change in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and his own failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to the Moscow, where he was accepted as a pupil of Nikolay Zverev, a pupil of John Field’s pupil, Dubucque, and of Adolf von Henselt. Rachmaninov lodged in Zverev’s house, where the necessary discipline was instilled, providing him with the basis of a subsequently formidable technique. In 1888 he entered the Conservatory as a pupil of his cousin Alexander Ziloti, a former pupil of Zverev and later of Liszt. Rachmaninov’s other teachers at the Conservatory were Sergey Taneyev, a former pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, with whom he studied counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s former pupil Anton Arensky, Rachmaninov’s teacher for fugue, harmony and free composition. In Moscow, as time went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as a composer, after graduating in the piano class of the Conservatory in 1891 and in composition the following year.
The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad. Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family, at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences. Concert tours in America proved lucrative and he established a publishing enterprise in Paris, where he lived for some time, before having a house built for himself and his family at Hertenstein, near Lucerne. In 1939 he left Europe, finally settling at Beverly Hills, where he died in 1943.
The first of Rachmaninov’s three symphonies, written in 1895, had proved a great disappointment. His second attempt at the form, it was given its first performance two years later in St Petersburg, with the encouragement of the publisher and now most effective patron of Russian music, Belyayev. The work was conducted badly by Glazunov, allegedly drunk at the time, and was savagely reviewed by César Cui, who described it as a student attempt to depict in music the seven plagues of Egypt. This public failure, after earlier success, diverted Rachmaninov from composition and he took a position as conductor with the Mamontov Opera, apparently unable to return to composition. It was a successful course of hypnotherapy with Dr Nikolay Dahl in the first months of 1900 that brought a measure of relief and his first work on a second piano concerto, dedicated to Dr Dahl and completed and performed the following year. A new symphony had been promised Alexander Ziloti, now conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Society concerts, as early as 1902. In October 1906 Rachmaninov settled in Dresden, returning for the summer to Ivanovka, an estate belonging to his wife’s family that he was later to buy. The symphony was sketched out in rough by 1907 and during the summer he set to work on the orchestration. The work went slowly and the symphony was only completed in January 1908, to be performed successfully in St Petersburg under the composer’s direction towards the end of the same month, as part of a concert season under Ziloti. The symphony was dedicated to Sergey Taneyev.
Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 in E minor, Op 27, is an extended work, dominated by strong lyrical feeling that has brought it a high degree of popularity. Underlying the work is the composer’s recurrent idée fixe, the Dies irae, the sequence of the Latin Requiem Mass, a musical allusion to death at least since its use by Berlioz in 1830. The symphony starts with a slow introduction and a motto motif heard first in the lower strings. The step-wise outline of the motif suggests the melodic outline of much of the material that is to follow. A cor anglais leads to the main body of the movement, a sonata-allegro in which the first subject, in E minor, expanded in the central development, leads to a more lyrical G major second subject, which, in turn, forms the substance of the recapitulation. The C major second movement Scherzo, skilfully orchestrated, has a molto cantabile secondary theme and a central fugato introduced by the second violins, followed by the first and then the violas, developed before the recapitulation. The A major third movement, the epitome of romantic longing, is introduced by a violin theme that leads to an extended clarinet melody. This last is to return with the first violins and an accompanying use of the first theme, which finally triumphs, followed by an allusion to the opening motif of the symphony. The last movement starts with a vigorous dance, leading to a secondary theme that suggests and then directly quotes the opening of the slow movement. The first theme is developed in a more sinister dance, with accompanying hints of the Dies irae and references to the opening motif. The second theme is heard again before the emphatic closing section.
Rachmaninov completed his Fantaisie, Op 7, generally known as ‘The Rock’ in the summer of 1893, which he spent on the estate of new acquaintances at Lebedin, near Kharkov, able to work undisturbed in a summer-house built for his benefit. A note on the score declares that The Rock was written under the influence of Lermontov’s poem of that name, following this with a motto taken from the poem:
On the bosom of a giant rock
Slept the night a little golden cloud.
On the bosom of a giant rock
Slept the night a little golden cloud.
It was later revealed by the composer that he had relied principally on a story by Chekhov, On the Road, which uses the same quotation from Lermontov as an epigraph and deals with the substance of the poem in terms of humanity. Two travellers meet at a lonely inn on Christmas Eve, a sympathetic and beautiful young woman and a middle-aged man, dogged by life’s failures. She listens to his troubles and leaves in the morning, while the man, left alone with his regrets, stands, covered by the snow that falls around him, the rock of Lermontov’s poem. Rachmaninov introduces the work with a theme for cellos and double basses, joined by a recurrent descending interval of a semitone for the bassoon, representing the man, followed by the brighter sound of the flute, depicting the girl. The flute introduces a further motif which is to return throughout the work, a symbol of the man’s troubles. These elements are intermingled, leading to a climax, as the girl leaves, while the man watches her sleigh disappearing into the distance, leaving him to his cares.
Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915)
Symphony No 3 in C Minor, Op 43 ‘Le Poème Divin’ Le Poème de L’extase, Op 54
The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin is an isolated figure, eventually separated from the mainstream of Russian music by his own peculiar brand of mysticism, in which he saw himself in a Messianic light. Nevertheless his quest for a means of bringing together colour and music, the visual and the aural, technically impossible with the means at his disposal, has now been to some extent realised, while his harmonic and melodic innovations took place at a time when others too were seeking new means of musical expression. His relatively early death led to a subsequent under valuation of his achievement, which itself in some ways foreshadowed important subsequent changes in Western music.
Scriabin was born in Moscow in 1872 and after his mother’s death and his father’s decision to serve in the consular service abroad and to remarry, he spent his childhood in the care of his paternal grandmother and of an unmarried aunt who pandered to his every whim and was able to encourage his obvious interest in the piano and in music. Following an uncle’s example and that of his father’s family, Scriabin joined the Moscow Military Academy, excused, for reasons of health, any participation in more rigorous training. Meanwhile he studied the piano with Georgy Konyus, then a Conservatory student, following this with lessons from Rachmaninov’s strict teacher, Zverev, and participation in Safonov’s piano class at the Conservatory, theory lessons from Sergey Taneyev and lessons in counterpoint and fugue with Arensky. Completion of his studies at the Military Academy in 1889 allowed him to pay exclusive attention to music, graduating as a pianist at the Conservatory in 1892, when he took second prize to Rachmaninov’s first. He found formal instruction in the techniques of composition uncongenial, but was skilled at improvisation, modelling his style here on that of his adored Chopin.
After somewhat reluctant publication of earlier compositions by Jurgenson, Scriabin found enthusiastic support in Belyayev, who published his work and promoted his concert appearances. In 1897 he married a young pianist, Vera Ivanovna Isakovich, in spite of his aunt Lyubov’s attempts to discourage a match of this kind. It was again with the help of Safonov, who had arranged for the first performance of his Piano Concerto, that in 1898 Scriabin found employment as a member of the teaching staff of Moscow Conservatory. The next five years were spent in Moscow, until, in 1904, the help of a rich pupil enabled him, like Tchaikovsky before him, to resign from the Conservatory. Now increasingly influenced first by Nietzsche and then by Madame Blavatsky and theosophy, he settled for a time in Switzerland, where he wrote his Third Symphony, Le divin poème, first performed in Paris early in 1905. Scriabin was now accompanied by a former pupil, Tatyana Fyodorovna Schloezer, a niece of Paul Schloezer, who taught the piano at the Conservatory, and his wife Vera was finally able to return to Moscow with their children. Belyayev himself had died in 1904 and a reduction and withdrawal of Scriabin’s income from the Belyayev foundation was followed by an agreement with Koussevitzky for publication of his music, performances and an income, and Scriabin’s return to Russia. A short period abroad again, in Brussels, led to the writing of Prometheus, completed in 1910, and a concentration on the great Mysterium, intended as the culmination of his work, towards which his last five piano sonatas now tended. This, however, was to remain unwritten, although texts and musical sketches were made for the introduction to the work. Scriabin died of septicemia in 1915.
The Divine Poem, as a symphony, breaks away entirely from the traditional organization of such works. Instead there are three movements, extravagantly scored and of considerable length. The work opens with a Prologue that in sixteen bars includes three leading motifs, Divine Grandeur, Summons to Man and Fear to approach, suggesting Flight. The Allegro, Struggles, presents the conflict between Man-God and Slave-Man in a sonata form movement in which these contrary elements win their way to freedom as the spirit soars. The slow movement, Delights or Sensual Pleasures, has a subject related to the second subject of the first movement, intensifying in passion moving towards a motif suggesting Divine Aspiration. The first subject of the last movement, Divine Play or Divine Activities, includes an element of the opening of the work and there is a second subject marked avec ravissement et transport, the so-called Ego theme. The detailed directions on the original score make the symbolism of the work clear, but it is possible, as always, to hear The Divine Poem as pure music.
The Poem of Ecstasy, a fourth symphony, occupied Scriabin intermittently from 1905 until 1908. Originally conceived as a Poème orgiaque, a work that was to be orgasmic as much as orgiastic, the music served as a counterpart to a poem. The work itself was first performed in New York in December 1908 and in St Petersburg the following January. Prokofiev, who was present at the latter performance, claimed that it was impossible to make the work out, adding, in a note to his friend Myaskovsky, that it gave him headaches. The Poem of Ecstasy is in a single movement, broadly in sonata form, after an introduction in which two important motifs are announced, the first, heard almost at once, suggesting human striving for the ideal and the second, marked Lento, Soavemente, the so-called Ego Theme. The body of the movement, marked Allegro volando, states a first subject, the flight of the spirit. The slower second subject, marked carezzando, representing human love, is followed by a more emphatic third theme, summoning up the human will. The material is developed and returns in recapitulation in a mood of rising ecstasy culminating in the union of the male divine principle with the woman-world.
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865–1936)
Symphony No 6 in C minor, Op 58
Alexander Konstantinovich Glazunov, a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, received encouragement also from Belyayev, an influential patron and publisher, whose activities succeeded and largely replaced the earlier efforts of Balakirev to inspire the creation of national Russian music. He joined the teaching staff of the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1899 and after the student protests and turmoil of 1905 was elected director, a position he retained until 1930, although from 1928 he had remained abroad, chiefly in Paris, where he died in 1936. His music represents a synthesis between the Russian and the so-called German, the technical assurance introduced by the Rubinstein brothers in the Conservatories of St Petersburg and of Moscow in the middle of the century. In addition to his nine symphonies, the first completed at the age of sixteen, and a variety of other orchestral works, Glazunov wrote a Violin Concerto, completed in 1904, when he was at the height of his powers as a composer. The symphonies have won less popularity, but the symphonic poem Stenka Razin, written in 1885, retains a place in national repertoire. Glazunov’s ballet-scores have remained important elements of repertoire and his piano music includes, among more serious works, a number of pleasing enough examples of salon music, for which there was always a ready public.
Glazunov’s Symphony No 6 in C minor, Op 58, was completed in 1896, during a period in which he shared the duties of conductor of the Russian Symphony Concerts with Rimsky-Korsakov. The new work was dedicated to Sigismund Blumenfeld, brother of the composer Felix Blumenfeld and described by Rimsky-Korsakov as a talented singer, accompanist and composer of songs. It had its first performance in the Hall of the Nobility on 8 February 1897, welcomed by Rimsky-Korsakov as the highest point at that time in the composer’s development and a sign of a new era in Russian music. The first movement starts with a slow introduction that reaches a brief climax before the brass momentarily renews the tension and the lower strings, subdued again, lead to the stormy opening of the Allegro appassionato, the theme of which has already been heard in the introduction. The second subject is marked Più tranquillo, succeeded by the development of the first subject. The secondary theme too returns, before the material is combined in a final coda. The second movement is in the form of a theme and seven variations. The G major theme itself is presented by the strings. The wind instruments make their appearance in the second variation, marked Più mosso, Allegro moderato, the theme heard first from the flutes against the descending line of the accompaniment. This is followed by a change of metre from 2/4 to 3/8, the altered theme now entrusted to the oboe. The third variation, an E major Allegro in 6/8, is a Scherzo, the flutes at first accompanied by plucked strings. A Fugato follows, in 4/4 and marked Andante mistico, leading in turn to a fifth variation, a B major Nocturne. The sixth version of the material, in G major, is marked Allegro moderato and in triple metre, the treatment of the theme principally heard in the wind. The movement ends with a Finale introduced by the brass. The third movement is an E flat major Intermezzo, marked Allegretto, with a central section that shifts through various keys before the return of the opening. The Finale of the symphony has an Andante maestoso introduction foreshadowing the principal triumphantly Russian C major theme stated by the full orchestra. The following subsidiary material, in G major, is marked Scherzando, to be followed by the return of the principal theme, now marked Allegro pesante. A pastoral episode intervenes before the final return of the main theme and the coda with its fugal textures.
Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov (1866–1901)
Symphony No 1 in G minor
Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov was born in 1866 at Voina, in the Oryol District, where Turgenev, Henry James’s “beautiful genius”, had been born in 1818. The son of a police official, he was allowed, through the ecclesiastical connections of the family, to study at the seminary in Oryol, where he took charge of the choir at the age of fourteen. In 1884 he went to Moscow as a scholarship student at the Philharmonic Society School, taking lessons on the bassoon and in composition with Alexander Il’yinsky and the self-taught Pavel Blaramberg, a statistician by profession. The poverty of his family which had made it impossible for him to study at the Conservatory forced him to earn a living playing the bassoon, timpani or violin in theatre orchestras and further weakened his health, already affected by childhood privations. He was able to profit, however, from the friendship and teaching of SN Kruglikov. In 1892 Kalinnikov’s fortunes seemed about to take a turn for the better, with his appointment, on the recommendation of Tchaikovsky, as conductor at the Maliy Theatre in Moscow and the following year by a similar appointment at the Moscow Italian Theatre, but a few months later his deteriorating health compelled him to resign in order to seek in the relative warmth of the South Crimea a cure for the tuberculosis from which he suffered. He was to remain in Yalta for the rest of his short life, completing there his two symphonies, and, among other instrumental works, incidental music for the play Tsar Boris by Alexey Tolstoy, staged at the Maliy Theatre in 1899.
Towards the end of his life Kalinnikov received some financial relief through the good offices of Sergey Rachmaninov, who had visited him in Yalta and been appalled at the conditions in which he found him living. The latter’s intervention with the publisher Jurgensen brought an immediate sum of 120 roubles for three songs and an offer to publish the score, parts and piano-duet transcription of the Second Symphony, which had its first performance in Kiev in 1898, a year after the first performance of the First Symphony, which was also heard in Moscow, Vienna and Berlin. Rachmaninov also arranged payment for a piano arrangement of the earlier symphony, but Kalinnikov did not live to benefit from his new agreement with Jurgensen. He died early in January 1901, before his 35th birthday. His death induced Jurgensen to offer Kalinnikov’s widow an unexpectedly high sum for the rest of her husband’s manuscripts, with the remark that he paid because the composer’s death had multiplied the value of his works by ten, a sad reflection on commercial reality.
Kalinnikov’s Symphony No1 in G minor, written in 1894 and 1895, was first performed at a Russian Music Society concert in Kiev in 1897 under the direction of Vinogradsky. It was dedicated to Kruglikov and is generally regarded as representative of the best of his achievement as a composer, although Rimsky-Korsakov was critical of the work on technical grounds not apparent from the later published score. Its first movement, marked Allegro moderato, has an attractive and lyrical principal theme of obvious Russian character. This is developed in colourful orchestration, with contrasting material related to it and with fugal treatment of the main theme. The slow movement, Andante commodamente, provides an immediate contrast in texture and colour, with orchestration that, as so often with Kalinnikov, suggests Tchaikovsky’s skin in the art. A poignant oboe melody emerges, answered by the strings, swelling to a climax before proceeding to a more lyrical section, in which again the woodwind assumes prominence. The plaintive oboe melody is heard again, before the movement ends with the serenity with which it had begun. The following Scherzo, even more Russian in its melodic language; changes the mood of introspection, now a peasant dance, contrasted with the melancholy of the trio section. The final movement opens with a reminiscence of what has passed, before proceeding to a forthright principal theme, to which thematic material from the first movement and new material offer a contrast. The symphony ends in massive and positive triumph.
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