Classics 10: The Heart of Russia
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka 1804-1857
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

Fantasy for Orchestra on Themes of Wedding Songs and Dances

Mikhail Glinka was the true founder of Russian national music. Until his appearance, Russian musical life, including opera, was dominated by Italian such composers as Cimarosa and Paisiello, who had spent part of their careers in St. Petersburg. The indigenous music culture of the under-class of serfs was totally ignored. That being said, the rich trove of folk music infiltrated aristocratic palaces and middle-class salons via the nursery, where local nannies dried the tears brought on by strict French governesses.

Glinka, a product of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century, tapped traditional resources with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar. It was the first opera to use a Russian subject and to invoke Russian folk music; it quickly became a great success.

In 1844 Glinka had traveled to France and Spain, remaining there until the summer of 1847 when he returned to Russia. The fruits of his investigation of Spanish folk music were Jota aragonesa and Souvenir d’une nuit d’été à Madrid. These two works suggest the composer’s delight in the vitality and color of Spanish folklore, as well as broadening his sensitivity to popular music in general. They also display his mastery of orchestration, enhanced by his contact in Paris with innovative composer and orchestrator, Hector Berlioz.

Glinka set off again for Paris in 1848 but lacking a passport could go no further than Warsaw, where he stayed for nine months. During his stay he composed Kamarinskaya, which ingeniously draws together two Russian tunes. In a letter, he wrote: “At the time I discovered by chance a relationship between the wedding song ‘From behind the mountains, high mountains,’ which I had heard in the country, and the well-known dance tune, Kamarinskaya. And suddenly my fantasy ran high, and instead of a piano piece I wrote a piece called Wedding Tune and Dance Tune for Orchestra.” Forty years later, Tchaikovsky noted in his diary “All of the Russian symphonic school is contained in Kamarinskaya, just as the whole oak tree is in the acorn.”

After a few pompous introductory measures, Glinka presents the slow first song in its simplest form, Example 1 after which he proceeds with a short set of variations. Suddenly speeding up into the dance, he introduces Kamarinskaya with an ironic bit of complicated counterpoint. Example 2 Listeners will notice that both tunes are melodically similar and harmonically identical, Glinka cleverly interweaves the two throughout the piece. Example 3
Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergey Rachmaninov
Sergey Rachmaninov
Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 1

Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a musical family, middle-class but under strained economic conditions. His ne’er-do-well father squandered the family’s fortune to the point that his parents eventually separated. His mother had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been left to the supervision of a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision at all.

By age 19 he was already established as a performer, but he always wanted to compose and considered himself a composer first, pianist second. He gained instant fame as a composer with his Prelude in c-sharp minor, a work that haunted him all his life because audiences always expected (and demanded) it as an encore at his concerts.

A conservative and traditionalist, Rachmaninov viewed the Russian Revolution with horror. He left the country with his family in 1917, never to return, eventually settling in the United States. His sources of income having dried up, he became a full-time pianist for the rest of his life, leaving him little time to compose.

In 1889 Rachmaninov started work on a piano concerto but abandoned it, leaving only some sketches. But he returned to the genre in the following year, finishing the f-sharp minor Concerto in 1891 as a graduation project from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. It was a sensational success at its premiere, lauded by fellow pianists and public alike for its brilliant dramatic contrasts, sensuous slow movement and fiery, driving finale that required dazzling virtuosity from the soloist. Rachmaninov performed it on a number of occasions but was dissatisfied with it and revised it extensively, especially the orchestration, shortly before his departure from Russia in December 1917. The revision is the version generally performed today, although there exist historic recreations of the original on CD.

The overall structure of the first movement bears what was to become Rachmaninov’s unmistakable signature, repeated in the subsequent three concertos. It opens with a brass fanfare, followed by the piano in descending octaves and ominous chords, Example 1 after which the orchestra introduces the main theme. Example 2 A sparkling piano transition leads to the gentler cantabile second. Example 3 The development involves much flashy finger work and in places recalls Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. A lengthy cadenza leads to the end of the movement.

Although the second movement conforms to the conventional ternary form, the quality of the themes, unusual harmonic progressions and languid figuration by the piano give it the quality of an endless melody. The movement opens with a plaintive horn call. Example 4 After a lingering buildup, the piano introduces the main theme, which becomes increasingly embellished as it goes along. Example 5 A brief secondary theme, a duet for the piano and solo bassoon, constitutes a middle section that is actually one long melody. Example 6 Repeating the horn call, Example 7 the bassoon then leads back to a variation of the first theme. The movement has been compared to a Chopin étude.

The Finale is particularly noteworthy for its surprising harmonic wanderings and showy pianistic display – sometimes at the expense of coherent melodies. In all of his concertos, however, Rachmaninov’s finales alternate flashy writing for piano with a contrasting slower and more lyric middle section combining his skills as a melodist with romantic expressiveness. The startling Allegro vivace opening is a sparkling burst of energy with hints of a mazurka rhythm. Example 8 The second theme seems at first to be going in a more lyrical direction, but it, too, dashes off in a whirl of chromatic harmonies. Example 9 Even in the contrasting Andante ma non troppo middle section the composer appears more interested in harmony than melody. Example 10 Rachmaninov returns to the opening Allegro vivace, repeating the two themes but adding even more fireworks and an even faster coda. Example 11
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13, “Winter Dreams”

Tchaikovsky was an ardent nationalist whose tremendous melodic gift enabled him to develop his own themes, rather than utilize authentic peasant melodies. Despite the many folk elements in most of his symphonies he only occasionally used borrowed melodies. He also did not espouse the nationalist movement in music, passionately promoted by such composers as Modest Musorgsky, Aleksander Borodin, Mily Balakirev and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Instead he usually used his symphonies as a vehicle to express his personal anguish and depressive moods.

Tchaikovsky began work on the Symphony No. 1 in 1866, when he was fresh out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and just starting out as teacher of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. According to his brother, Modest, he felt driven, working day and night on the Symphony leading to “nervous exhaustion.” The response of his former teachers in St. Petersburg to the finished score could hardly have been conducive to his recovery; they called the work not worthy of performance. Fortunately, his colleagues in Moscow were more encouraging. Although the Symphony premiered in Moscow in 1868, Tchaikovsky made numerous revisions, refusing to relinquish the final version to the publisher until 1874.

Tchaikovsky himself gave the Symphony its title “Winter Daydreams,” as well as titles for the first two movements. The opening of the first movement, “Reveries During a Winter Journey,” features a flute solo, one of many opportunities for the upper woodwinds. Example 1 The second theme belongs to the clarinet. Example 2 The cadential theme of the exposition brings in the whole orchestra, finally giving the movement its symphonic flavor. Example 3

In an unexpected move, Tchaikovsky recycled the love theme from a student composition, The Storm, for the opening and closing of the slow movement, subtitled “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists.” After the long introduction, Example 4 a lonely oboe introduces a melancholy tune – one of those that sounds authentically ethnic, but isn’t. It suggests the desolation and emptiness of the fog-shrouded snowy scene. Example 5 For virtually the entire movement, Tchaikovsky repeats the oboe melody with slight variations in harmony and orchestration, and a final buildup for the last moments. The weak attempt of the flute to introduce another tune soon slips back into the movement’s sole true theme. Example 6

For the lilting Scherzo, Example 7 Tchaikovsky used the equivalent movement from an early piano sonata (published posthumously as Op. 80) minus its trio, for which he substituted a waltz. Example 8 There are certain musical signatures, or fingerprints, that remain with a composer throughout his or her career. In this movement, the motives, harmonic progressions and even orchestral colors show up years later in the two great ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

The Finale opens with a lengthy slow introduction, Andante lugubre, which anticipates a theme based on an authentic Russian folk song Example 9 that soon emerges as a proper theme. Example 10 A cymbal crash announces the Allegro section, a patriotic-sounding melody for full orchestra that foreshadows the tsarist climaxes of the 1812 Overture and the conclusion of The Sleeping Beauty. Example 11 The folk melody from the introduction reappears transformed as a fast dance, Example 12 which with the “patriotic” theme become the subjects of a clumsy attempt at a double fugue actually, in this case, two consecutive little fugatos). Example 13 Never much of a contrapuntist, Tchaikovsky must have struggled mightily with this device, which he may have included as an obligatory element in a classical finale. Despite the Symphony’s initial failure, and the composer’s mental collapse, he must have emerged with enough self-confidence to retain a version of the theme for the horn solo that begins his next symphony, the “Little Russian.” Example 14
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017