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Mussorgsky, Prelude to Khovanshchina
(“Dawn on the Moscow River”)
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was the genius member of “The Five,” the group of composers who dedicated themselves to Russian nationalism during the 1860s and ’70s. Although now famous for his Pictures at an Exhibition (originally for piano, later orchestrated by Ravel and others), Mussorgsky spent many years composing operas. His best known is Boris Godunov. Even before Boris was produced, however, the composer was developing ideas for another historical opera, Khovanshchina, which he worked on from 1872 to 1880. Unfortunately, Mussorgsky died before he could finish Khovanshchina. In 1883, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (another member of “The Five”) organized Mussorgsky’s piano-vocal manuscripts of the opera, completed the fifth act, and orchestrated the opera.
The story of Khovanshchina deals with the turbulent times during Peter the Great’s childhood, when Russia was evolving from medieval to modern ways of life. Opposing Peter’s progressiveness was Prince Ivan Khovanstky, commander of the Streltsy, royal archers who struck terror in the hearts of the entire community. The Khovanstky Uprising, or Khovanshchina, is the subject of the story.
The opera opens with an orchestral Prelude portraying a winter dawn on the Moscow River. The scene is the Kremlin and the square. The somber music depicts the quiet and cold. A folk-like melody appears in the woodwinds between snippets of purely pictorial material. Mussorgsky develops the movement using variations on the melody, clothing it in unusual harmonies and textures. Finally, the music returns to the simplicity of the opening, where fragments of the melody bring the Prelude to a quiet close.
Tchaikovsky, Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
On Christmas Eve of 1874, Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) experienced a spiritual blow so devastating that it took three years before he could even mention it. It concerned his informal playing of his First Piano Concerto in the home of a friend for Nicolai Rubinstein, his superior at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky was seeking some friendly technical advice about the piano part. Instead, this is what happened:
I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single comment! . . . Say something, if only to tear it to pieces with constructive criticism. . . . It was as though he was saying to me: AMy friend, can I talk about details when the very essence of the thing disgusts me?@ I fortified my patience and played on to the end. Again silence. I got up and asked, AWell?@ It was then that there began to flow from [Rubinstein=s] mouth a stream of words . . . . It appeared that my concerto was worthless, that it was unplayable, that passages were trite, awkward, and so clumsy that it was impossible to put them right, that as a composition it was bad and tawdry, that I had filched this bit from here and that bit from there, and that there were only two or three pages that could be retained, and that the rest would have to be scrapped or completely revised.
Tchaikovsky left the room and went upstairs. Rubinstein soon followed.
There he told me again that my concerto was impossible, and after pointing out to me a lot of places that required radical change, he said that if by such-and-such a date I would revise the concerto in accordance with his demands, then he would bestow upon me the honor of playing my piece in a concert of his. AI won=t change a single note,@ I replied, Aand I=ll publish it just as it is now!@ And so I did! [translation by David Brown]
What to listen for: The high point of Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto is the melody that comes right after the piano’s introductory chords. The orchestra plays this melody, and the piano accompanies. Listen closely, because (oddly) this wonderful tune never returns! The rest of the first movement is colored delightfully by Russian folk music. In the second movement, listen for the contrast between slow and fast musical speeds in alternating sections. The finale is quick and dance-like for the most part. However, listen for a beautiful lyrical melody, which the composer emphasizes from time to time, especially near the end.
Shostakovich, Symphony No. 10, Op. 93
According to Soviet doctrine of the Stalinist era, symphonies were supposed to “mean” something. Authorities expected composers to take part in expressing “social realism” and to project through their music the spirit of Soviet optimism. This was how Soviet critics judged the symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and it was one reason he had to pay the price of censure. The Eighth Symphony was viewed as a tragic expression and was branded “counter-revolutionary.” The Ninth, coming immediately after the close of World War II in 1945, was Shostakovich’s personal dance of victory. It, too, disappointed those who would have preferred to hear a tribute to Stalin. However, the composer could not bring himself to do that, as he declared in Testimony, his memoirs,
I couldn’t write an apotheosis to Stalin, I simply couldn’t. I knew what I was in for when I wrote the Ninth. But I did depict Stalin in music in my next symphony, the Tenth. I wrote it right after Stalin’s death, and no one has yet guessed what the symphony is about. It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of Stalin, roughly speaking. Of course, there are many other things in it, but that=s the basis.
Stalin died in the spring of 1953, and by July of that year Shostakovich was busy at work on his Tenth Symphony. Judging by the speed of its completion (in October), this large essay must have been pent up within the composer for a very long time. The symphony premiered in December 1953 to a broadly mixed reception. In fact, so controversial was the work that a three-day conference of the Soviet Composers’ Union met in Moscow the following March to debate its merits as “optimistic” Soviet music. One young composer offered a compromise description: “optimistic tragedy.” However, Aram Khachaturian offered a more lofty tribute when he stated,
First of all, this is a true symphony, i.e., a work of life-affirming idea and of deep emotional and philosophical content. . . . As a composer, I cannot tire of admiring the dramaturgic mastery of D. Shostakovich. . . .
The first movement exemplifies that mastery. There is a dramatic build from the quiet, brooding beginning, compiling and transforming theme on theme, until arrival at a series of powerful climaxes. Then, arch-like, the movement subsides gradually, and the opening material reappears in a mood similar to the beginning.
The shorter middle two movements form a pair of quick-tempo scherzos, the first diabolical and the second wistful. Analyst Roy Blokker describes the “Stalin” scherzo as “a whirling fireball of a movement, filled with malevolent fury. As a vision of concentrated diabolical venom it is unique.” With the graceful second scherzo, the personality of Stalin disappears. Soon, Shostakovich’s own liberated personality comes through, as the high woodwinds delicately introduce his personal musical motto: DSCH (in German, D Es C H, or in English, D E-flat C B-natural).
Following a tragically tinged slow introduction, the finale proper opens abruptly to a mood split between joy and unrest. A diabolical march element enters, becoming more and more intense until a climactic crisis in which the DSCH motive re-asserts itself in a giant orchestral unison. Quiet is restored, though the march continues to threaten. Finally, DSCH pounds out repeatedly in the timpani while the rest of the orchestra emblazons the final victorious measures of the symphony.
Program Notes by Dr. Michael Fink
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.