Classics 8: The Russian Soul
Tomaso Albinoni 1671-1751
Tomaso Albinoni
Tomaso Albinoni
Adagio in G minor

Arr. By Remo Giazotto

In the fertile musical life of eighteenth-century Venice, violinist and composer Tomaso Albinoni produced some 80 operas and stage works, 40 cantatas, as well as many chamber and orchestral compositions. His operas are mostly forgotten, but his instrumental works have gradually regained popularity, especially his concertos for oboe and the trio sonatas. J. S. Bach, who admired these sonatas, developed themes from four of them into fugues (BWV 946, 950, 951, 951a).

Albinoni’s Adagio is his best know work, except for the fact that it is probably not by Albinoni! Remo Giazotto (1910-1998), an Italian musicologist and critic, claimed that the Adagio was based on a fragment of manuscript he had discovered in 1945 in the Dresden State Library while completing his biography of Albinoni and the catalogue of Albinoni's music. No one else recalls ever seeing the fragment, and Giazotto claimed that it was subsequently lost. According to Giazotto, the Adagio is built on six measures of melody and a figured bass (notes with numbers under them to indicate the keyboard harmonies), possibly from the slow movement of a Trio Sonata. Suggesting a piece to be played in church, he “recomposed” it in 1958 for strings and organ. It has since been transcribed for nearly every instrument and instrument combination. It was featured in a number of films (Gallipoli, The Trial and Rollerball) and also was played at Lady Diana Spencer's Funeral in 1997.

We do not know how extensive the “original” melodic fragment was, but its first few measures are well known. Example 1
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking... [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.

Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.

What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.

Then there’s the fact that there was no love lost between the two great nineteenth-century imperial behemoths, Russia and Austria-Hungary, who continued to slug it out until the end of World War I. That Tchaikovsky disliked Johannes Brahms, Hanslick’s favorite composer, probably also added fuel to the fire.

At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits and helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.

The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction with motivic germ of the main theme. Example 1 & Example 2 After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. Example 3 The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.

The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky's second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, no. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement. Example 4 The violin enters with an equally wistful counter-melody Example 5 that renders the seamless merge into the raucous Final such a surprise. Example 6 Hanslick’s appraisal of the movement: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”

It is the unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna's critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music. Another peculiar bit that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction Example 7 & Example 8 and leads right into the main theme. This quick-footed dance demands of the soloist enormous agility and rhythmic control. After a second dance that ramps up on speed like a typical Cossack trepak, Example 9 there follows another slower lyrical section introduced by solo oboe and taken up by clarinet, bassoon and finally the violin. Example 10 The Concerto concludes, of course, with flash and flamboyance.

Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975
Dmitry Shostakovich
Dmitry Shostakovich
Symphony No. 9 in E-flat major, Op. 70

Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often difficult to verify. What is clear is that the composer was a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late twenties he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare and apparently only survived the purges because Stalin liked the music he wrote for propaganda films.

Shostakovich's first – and worst – brush with Soviet authorities came in January 1936. An article appeared in Pravda severely criticizing his highly successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood taken away and his life put in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he used to sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family. He redeemed himself in the eyes of the authorities in 1937 with the Symphony No. 5, which gave him a conditional reprieve. The opera, however, was not performed again for 25 years.

World War II brought a breather and an upsurge of patriotism, with the horrors of the '30s temporarily forgotten. But in 1948 came a resurgence of purges, suppression and artists' disappearances, orchestrated by the cultural commissar Andrei Zhdanov, whose decrees stipulated that only cheerful, uplifting and folksy art were to be allowed.

However 1945, the year of the Ninth Symphony, was a year of victory and still a time of hope. The authorities decreed that artists should celebrate the victory with triumphal paeans and praises of Stalin. Shostakovich, however, saw things differently: tens of millions were dead, the world was in chaos, and the apparatchiks were still in control. Unsurprisingly, the authorities hated the Symphony for its thin unpretentious orchestration and lighthearted sarcasm.

The Symphony is a wind player’s showcase with one magnificent solo after another – including a killer piccolo part that frequently shows up on orchestra auditions. Written in five movements that follow the conventional structure of the classical symphony, it creates a musical arch, beginning and ending with sarcastic parodies of the victory celebration. The second and fourth movements are dirges, moving reminders of the horrendous toll in lives suffered by the Russian people. The scurrying central scherzo is a sarcastic parody of the weighty statement of the kind that usually serves as the keystone of a musical arch.

The Symphony opens with a playful circus-like theme Example 1  – and an even more mocking second theme for solo piccolo. Example 2 The development section renders both themes strident and frantic. Example 3 The opening mood returns, only to be cut off at the end of the movement. The movement contains some wonderful solos for the orchestra’s first chair players.

The second movement opens with a mournful clarinet solo, Example 4 each statement of the melody augmented and varied by the upper woodwinds in turn. The strings supply a creeping second theme with the clarinet, high in its range, distorting the opening melody. Example 5 A flute returns with the gentle opening theme and the movement gradually fades to a whisper.

The frantic, high-pitched Presto, opening with the clarinet  and once more followed by the other winds, building up to an intense climax as more and more instruments are added. Example 6 The melee gradually subsides into the tragic Largo, announced by the low brass. Example 7 A magnificent dirge for bassoon solo, follows in dialogue with the brass. Example 8 The bassoon solo finally picks up in tempo, introducing the main theme of the Finale. Example 9

The Finale is a rondo based on the bassoon theme, matching the circus quality of the opening movement. Although the tone seems more positive at first, there follows a whiningly dissonant duet for oboe and clarinet. Example 10 During the rondo refrain, the two return with their flute and piccolo "friends" for a bit of mocking laughter. Example 11  After the final episode chromatically ramps up the tension, the climax of the movement turns nasty, a brash, dissonant transformation of the main theme, obviating the joy of triumph. Example 12 The Symphony ends with a scurrying presto and a “left-handed” fanfare. Example 13 No wonder the commissars didn't like it.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017