Program Notes: Prokofiev 5 + Gabriela Montero Plays Tchaikovsky

June 13, 2022

Night on Bald Mountain

Modest Mussorgsky, (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov)
Born March 21, 1839, in Karevo; died March 28, 1881, in St. Petersburg

Mussorgsky wrote his A Night on Bald Mountain, dedicated to the composer Mili Balakirev, in several different forms. Around 1886, a Russian publisher issued the score of A 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 A 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 is 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. 

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.” Later in another letter, he writes, “My music is Russian and independent in form and character, fiery and disorderly in tone.” 

Rimsky-Korsakov improved the orchestration and adjusted the harmonies after Mussorgsky’s death, 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. The original Mussorgsky version is very occasionally still performed, but the more well-known of the two is the Rimsky-Korsakov emendation. 

Mussorgsky described the four main sections: 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.


Piano Concerto No. 1, in B-flat Minor, Op. 23

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia; died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the great works of Russian Romanticism, distinguished for its melodiousness, colorful instrumentation, and brilliant writing. It is difficult to imagine the composer as the young man he was at the time of his composition of this work: generally unknown and trying desperately to make a living writing music. In 1874, he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory and writing music criticism for a local journal, earning only a very modest income. His real desire was to write music, but he lacked the time necessary to produce a sizeable body of work. At year’s end, he began a piano concerto in the hope of having great enough success with it to enable him to leave his teaching post at the Conservatory.

Nicholas Rubinstein, the Director of the Conservatory, had become 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 newly completed Piano Concerto No. 1, Rubinstein was surprisingly negative and presented his opinion in harsh terms. Rubenstein’s reaction has become legendary, as a result of Tchaikovsky’s willingness to share information about it. Three years after Rubenstein’s comments, Tchaikovsky could still narrate 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 even, eventually, 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 work its world premiere in Boston on October 25, 1875, and became the work’s dedicatee. “Think what appetite for music the Americans have,” Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov. “After each performance, 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, stunning opening section, Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso, which is not just an introductory flourish common in so many concertos of the time. The movement itself is a protracted and brilliant discussion between piano and orchestra. Each theme becomes so thoroughly developed that Tchaikovsky never gives them a recapitulation. The composer adapted the principal theme of the Allegro con spirito section of the first movement from a beggar’s street song. 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

Sergei Prokofiev
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. By the end of his student years, he had already written almost 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,” an artists’ colony environment where composers, considered valued citizens of the U.S.S.R. during the Second World War, were moved from dangerous parts of the country. The intent was for them to compose in a relatively secure place, creating works to help keep public morale high. 

A decade and a half passed between Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 4 and his Symphony No. 5. 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.” Prokofiev explained that the score was “very important to [him], since it marked [his] return to the symphonic form after a long interval.” 

Prokofiev said that he had written “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, the symphony was hailed as a celebration of victory because of its optimistic character. Just before Prokofiev conducted the first performance of his Symphony No. 5 on January 13, 1945, in Moscow, at a festive concert celebrating his 100th published 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 a heart attack and brain concussion. For the last eight years of his life, his physical activities were curtailed, although he went on to produce more powerful symphonies. 

Symphony No. 5 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, is 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. Although Prokofiev did not shun counterpoint in its composition, he wrote a piece 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 yet it concludes stridently. The third is a three-part slow movement, Adagio, again lyrical, 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, that not only quotes the main subject of the first movement in its introduction, but has rhythms much like those of the second movement but 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. The movement is full of energy, 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.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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