PROGRAM NOTES | Thu July 9, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Fri July 10, 2020 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
Night on Bald Mountain
(Born March 21, 1839, in Karevo; died March 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg)
Although both Mussorgsky’s talent and inspiration were sizable, his technique and craftsmanship were often criticized because many people thought his music was extreme. It was felt that as a result of his independent ideas, he defied musical convention to his compositions’ detriment. Mussorgsky wrote Night on Bald Mountain, dedicated to the composer Mily Balakirev, in several different forms, displayed dissatisfaction with some of them, and received comment and pressure from his friends to continue to rewrite and improve the work. Around 1886, a Russian publisher issued the score of Night on Bald Mountain as a “posthumous work completed and orchestrated by N. Rimsky-Korsakov,” and for around eighty years, until a version of Mussorgsky’s original was published, it was the only known version of this popular, short tone poem.
Mussorgsky was twenty-one when he received a commission to write Night on Bald Mountain, in which he set music to one act of the drama, The Witch by Baron Mengden, after Nicolai Gogol’s story, Saint John’s Eve. In Russian folklore, the legendary Witches’ Sabbath and Black Mass are held annually on Mount Triglav near Kiev in the Ukraine, the “bald mountain” on June 23rd, the night before the Feast of St. John the Baptist. On this night, the black god Chernobog, or perhaps the Devil in the form of a black goat, supervises the revelry of devils, witches, sorcerers, and other malevolent spirits. Mussorgsky had some early ideas for this commission, but did not mention the commission for six years when he finished an orchestral work he called Saint John’s Night on Bald Mountain, which he said he had planned in 1866 and completed on June 23, 1867.
A letter to Rimsky-Korsakov, written about ten days after he finished the work, shows that Mussorgsky consciously used special techniques to achieve his effects, from the “witches glorifying Satan … stark naked, barbarous and filthy” to “funny, fiery and brisk.” He mentions having finished a “tone picture” and he confides that the “plan and form of the composition is rather original.” He also seems confident about what he has written: “In my opinion, St. John’s Night is something new and is bound to impress a thoughtful musician.” Later in another letter, he wrote, “My music is Russian and independent in form and character, fiery and disorderly in tone.”
The original falls into four main sections, which the composer described:
1) Assembly of the witches, their talk and gossip; 2) Satan’s journey to the mountain; 3) The Black Mass, with witches circling Satan’s throne and singing his praise; and 4) the Sabbath, in which Satan takes as partners the witches who have caught his fancy.
Rimsky-Korsakov thought that Night on Bald Mountain needed considerable work to smooth out its irregularities. After Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov improved the orchestration and adjusted the harmonies although in the process he made so many changes from the original score that his version of the piece is distinctly different from the original. Although the original Mussorgsky version is very occasionally still performed, the more well-known of the two is the Rimsky-Korsakov emendation.
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23, TH55
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk; died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg)
Nicholas Rubinstein, the Director of the Conservatory in Moscow, became the young Tchaikovsky’s mentor when the composer began teaching there. Tchaikovsky was usually eager for Rubinstein’s advice on his works in progress, but when Tchaikovsky played him his Piano Concerto No. 1, Rubinstein was surprisingly negative and presented his opinion in harsh terms. Three years later, Tchaikovsky could still recount them vividly in a letter to a friend (here abridged):
A torrent then poured from his mouth, gentle at first, then bursting out with the force of a thundering Jupiter. My Concerto was worthless, unplayable; the passagework fragmented and clumsy beyond salvation; the music trivial and vulgar; stolen, in places, from others. Perhaps one or two pages were salvageable; the rest was to be thrown away or completely rewritten. An impartial witness would have concluded that I was an untalented idiot, a hack who had submitted his rubbish to a great man. “I shall not change a single note,” I answered. “I shall publish it just as it is,” and I did.
The bold complexity of the concerto initially shocked Rubinstein, but he eventually admitted his error and began to play the work as part of his repertory. Before that, with determination and resilience, Tchaikovsky sent his new concerto to the brilliant German pianist and conductor, Hans von Bülow, who gave the world premiere in Boston on October 25, 1875. “Think what appetite for music the Americans have,” Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov. “After each performance, [von] Bülow had to repeat the entire finale. That could never happen here.” When Tchaikovsky went to New York in 1891 for the opening of Carnegie Hall, he conducted a performance of the concerto at one of the gala inaugural concerts.
This concerto is now so familiar that listeners often overlook its several interesting features. The first of these is the broadly paced opening section, Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, which is not just an introductory flourish. The movement itself is a protracted and brilliant discussion between piano and orchestra. Each theme becomes so thoroughly developed that Tchaikovsky never recapitulates it. The composer adapted the principal theme of the Allegro con spirito section of the first movement from a beggar’s street song. In 1879, he wrote to his benefactress Mme. von Meck, “It is curious that in Little Russia every blind beggar sings exactly the same tune with the same refrain. I have used part of it in my Piano Concerto.” The second movement, Andantino semplice and Prestissimo, combines a slow movement and the scherzo, whose waltzing theme Tchaikovsky derived from a French popular song. The finale, Allegro con fuoco, contrasts lyrical and boisterous Slavic elements before arriving at its imposing close.
The score calls for an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings.
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
(Born April 23, 1891, in Sontzovka; died March 5, 1953, in Moscow)
Sergei Prokofiev was born in a remote Ukrainian village where his agronomist father managed a large estate. His mother, an excellent pianist and teacher, gave him his first music lessons. Prokofiev began to compose when he was only five years old, and by the end of his student years had already written around one hundred compositions, but the great majority of his early works were never published. He studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg where he became a brilliant and successful pianist, winning the concerto competition in his final year there. After the Revolution, he came to America and then settled in Paris where he was an influential figure until his return to Russia in 1933.
Symphony No. 5 was a product of the time Prokofiev spent in a “rest home”; in actuality, it was an artists’ colony environment where composers, considered valued citizens of the USSR during the years of the Second World War, were moved from dangerous parts of the country. The intent was that in this setting they could compose in a relatively secure place, creating works to help keep public morale high. The town of Ivanovo, where this symphony was composed, had as its denizens Shostakovich, Glière, Kabalevsky, Khachaturian, and many other less well-known Soviet composers.
A decade and a half passed between Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 5, but when he completed Symphony No. 5, Prokofiev told the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times that he had worked on it for several years, developing material for it in a special notebook. Prokofiev said, “The Fifth Symphony was written out in a month during the summer of 1944. It took another month to orchestrate it, and in between I wrote the score for Eisenstein’s film, Ivan the Terrible.” He explained that the score was “very important to [him], since it marked [his] return to the symphonic form after a long interval.” In that government sponsored environment, many of the composers produced programmatic works, but Prokofiev’s symphony’s programmatic content was minimal. Prokofiev went so far as to say that it is “a symphony about the freedom and happiness of mankind, a hymn to its mighty powers, its pure and noble spirit. I cannot say that I chose this theme. It was born in me and clamored for expression. The music grew within me and filled my spirit.”
Almost immediately, it was hailed as a celebration of victory because of its optimistic character. Perhaps contributing to this assessment was that just before Prokofiev conducted the premiere of Symphony No. 5 on January 13, 1945, in Moscow, at a festive concert celebrating his one-hundredth composition, the victory of the Red Army was announced. The premiere was a total success for Prokofiev, but sadly marked his last appearance as a conductor. Three weeks later, he fell down a flight of stairs and suffered both a heart attack and a concussion. For the last eight years of his life, his physical activities were curtailed, although he went on to produce two more powerful symphonies.
The work is an epic in the Russian symphonic tradition, using classical structures in all four of its movements, bound together into a whole by subtle musical references from one movement to another. The first movement, Andante, in sonata form, has large proportions and includes three long subjects. Although this movement has a relatively broad tempo, it has a very lyrical dance-like feel. Prokofiev did not shun counterpoint in its composition, but the piece is so lyrical that critics called the memorable melodies “singable.” The second movement, a scherzo, Allegro marcato, has an energetic rhythmic pulse, accentuated by a generous use of percussion. In the central trio section, a melodic subject with syncopation breaks the relentless meter of the movement. This lively scherzo is both light-hearted and wry and concludes stridently. The third is a three-part slow movement, Adagio, again melodic, beginning with an elegant clarinet melody. It continues with great, long themes that build in intensity. The symphony ends with another sonata-form movement, a brilliant Allegro giocoso. It not only quotes the main subject of the first movement in its introduction, but also has rhythms much like those of the second movement that are more march-like in feel in this context. The cumulative driving intensity is similar to that of the third movement, but here Prokofiev shows his grotesque and mocking side as well, with its energetic sound dazzling the listener.
The score calls for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contra-bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, kettledrums, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, bass drum, military drum, woodblock, piano, harp, and strings.