Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
|Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka|
Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila
Mikhail Glinka was the founder of nationalist movement in Russian classical music. Until his appearance, Russian musical life, including opera, was dominated by such Italian composers as Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello, who had spent part of their careers in St. Petersburg. The rich indigenous folk music was totally ignored. Glinka changed all that with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar, a product of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. It was the first opera in Russian, on a Russian subject and incorporating Russian folk music.
Ruslan and Lyudmila, based on a fairy tale poem by Alexander Pushkin, was completed in 1842. Glinka had recruited Pushkin’s help in writing the libretto, but the poet’s untimely death in a duel left the text in a disjointed and confused state that contributed to the initial lukewarm reception of the opera.
The inspiration for the virtuosic overture came to Glinka during a court wedding dinner celebration, with a chorus and orchestra providing the entertainment: “I was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them in the prelude to Ruslan. I later did so, with fair success.”
Glinka's overture replaces the clatter of silverware with the glitter of instruments, playing at breakneck speed. Like most opera overtures of this period, this one is in classic sonata allegro form, the first theme, boisterous, the second more lyric.
Ludwig van Beethoven
|Ludwig van Beethoven|
Concerto in C major for Piano, Violin, Cello and Orchestra, Op. 56
By 1803-4, Beethoven had become Vienna’s favorite musician and felt confident enough to break away from the traditional Classical language so dear to the Viennese. He had shocked his admirers with the “Eroica” Symphony, as well as with some of his piano music of the period, especially the “Waldstein” (Op. 53) and “Appassionata” (Op. 57) Sonatas. The self-confidence also extended to his choice of libretto for his only opera, Fidelio – a story of governmental misdeeds – that was sure to run afoul of the ever-present censor.
Dedicated to “…his serene highness Prince Lobkowitz,” Beethoven’s Concerto for Piano, Violin, Cello & Orchestra was composed during those years. There is no record of commission or of the intended performers, but one theory states that it may have been composed for his 15-year-old pupil, Archduke Rudolph. As he aged, the Archduke was to become Beethoven’s staunchest supporters throughout the composer’s turbulent and troubled later years.
Another theory, in light of the Concerto’s difficult cello part, is that it was intended for Anton Kraft (1749-1820), a superb cellist for whom Haydn composed his D major Cello Concerto, and who had settled in Vienna.
The Concerto was published in 1807 and premiered in 1808, although there may have earlier private performances. Its form harks back to the sinfonia concertante (actually a concerto for more than one solo instrument) that was so popular in the second half of the eighteenth century, especially in France. Beethoven’s choice of instrumental combination, however, was unique, and he took special pains to balance the contrasting sonorities of the three soloists to avoid their overpowering one another. The public response, however, was cool at best.
The Triple Concerto is played less frequently than many of Beethoven’s other orchestral works in part because of the technical requirements for its performance and the cost of hiring three soloists. Although it is often performed by an established piano trio, it is important to recognize that it is not a concerto for trio and orchestra, but rather a work for three soloists. While neither the piano nor violin part offers unusual difficulties, Beethoven, with Olympian disregard, gave little consideration to the technical limitations of the cello, making it one of the most difficult parts in the repertoire.
The Concerto also does not have the emotional intensity or the momentum of Beethoven’s other concertos. This is especially true in the exposition and development sections of the first movement, where Beethoven repeats the themes in new keys on the different instruments and instrument combinations rather than developing them. This approach, while unusual for Beethoven, was largely dictated by the necessity of giving each solo instrument equal time to expand on all of the three main themes in its own particular way, an issue that does not arise in a solo concerto. Beethoven also forgoes formal cadenzas, which would have been unwieldy with three soloists.
The Concerto opens directly with the first theme as a section solo for the basses; only towards the cadence do the rest of the strings enter, suggesting the musical image of a sunrise. The image is completed as the entire orchestra chimes in on its way to the second theme. A third theme, based on a little rhythmic figure from the first theme completes the exposition. A third theme, based on a little rhythmic figure from the first theme completes the exposition.
The Largo is a short lyrical movement with a single theme, first presented by the orchestra, followed by beautiful solos for each of the instruments, each varying the theme in a slightly different way. With minimal orchestral accompaniment, the soloists go on to play variations on the theme more in the style of a piano trio. The movement is actually an intermezzo, or transition, linking directly to the Finale. The bridge, however, is very long, building up considerable tension before finally resolving in the Finale. Beethoven used this effect in the Fifth Piano Concerto as well; there, instead of creating anticipation with over a minute of empty calories, he used the bridge to gradually introduce the notes of the main theme of the finale.
The rhythm of the rondo theme is that of a polonaise, hence the designation Rondo alla polacca. The movement is shaped like an arch; Beethoven pours out several new themes for the episodes between the reappearances of the refrain, then repeats them before the coda. & & Its already vivacious theme becomes more boisterous in the coda through a sudden change in tempo and rhythm.
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”
Antonín Dvořák’s sojourn in the United States from 1892 to 1895 came about through the efforts of Mrs. Jeanette B. Thurber. A dedicated and idealistic proponent of an American national musical style, she underwrote and administered the first American music conservatory, the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Because of Dvořák’s popularity throughout Europe, he was Thurber’s first choice for a director. He, in turn, was probably lured to the big city so far from home by both a large salary and convictions regarding musical nationalism that paralleled Mrs. Thurber’s own.
Thirty years before his arrival in New York Dvořák had read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha in a Czech translation and was eager to learn more about the Native American and African American music, which he believed should be the basis of the American style of composition. He also shared with Mrs. Thurber the conviction that the National Conservatory should admit Negro students.
While his knowledge of authentic Native American music is questionable – his exposure came through samples transcribed for him by American friends and through Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – he became familiar with Negro spirituals through one of his students, as well as indirectly via the songs of Stephen Foster. He incorporated both of these styles into the Symphony No. 9, composed while he was in New York.
Just as Dvořák never quoted Bohemian folk music directly in his own nationalistic music, he did not use American themes in their entirety. Rather, he incorporated characteristic motives into his own unsurpassed gift for melody. Nevertheless, any listener with half an ear can discern fragments of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in the second theme of the first movement, as well as “Massa Dear” (also known as “Goin’ Home”) in the famous English horn solo in the second movement. We can deduce the importance of these musical motives from the fact that they appear as reminiscences in more than one movement, especially in the finale. The symphony, however, is hardly an American pastiche; the second motive in the largo movement is a phrase of wrenching musical longing that many listeners interpret as the composer’s nostalgia for his native Bohemia. Other melodies, such as the principal theme of the first movement, seem to have no particular origin beyond the composer's inspiration.
It is curious that Dvořák seemed to make no distinction between the folk music of American slaves and American Indians. While the second movement uses a theme from African America spirituals, the composer also claimed that it had been inspired by Longfellow’s epic, perhaps by Minnehaha’s forest funeral. The third movement as well, in its rhythmic thumping, its use of the pentatonic scale and the orchestration dominated by winds and percussion is meant to portray an Indian ceremonial dance described in Longfellow’s poem. Incidentally, Dvořák had also intended to compose an opera on Hiawatha, which never even approached completion. But his symphonic use of what he believed to be an authentic Native American musical idiom may have represented his initial ideas for the opera.
One of the most important features of the Symphony is its thematic coherence. Whatever the origin of the melodies, they all have a modular characteristic in that they can be mixed and matched in many different ways. In the finale Dvořák brings nearly all of the Symphony's themes together, sometimes as one long combined melody, sometimes in contrapuntal relationship to each other.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016|