Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Festive Overture, Opus 96
Following a period from 1948 to 1953 when Shostakovich was almost exclusively involved with the creation of film scores and chamber music, he suddenly returned to orchestral composition with Symphony No. 10 and, in 1954, his brilliant Festive Overture. Allegedly written under great pressure of time, the overture was given its first performance on November 7, 1954 at a Moscow concert commemorating the thirty-seventh anniversary of the October Revolution (Soviet celebrations often went on for a long time).
Brass fanfares and responses lead the way through an opening Allegretto, based upon the “Birthday” piece in the composer’s 1945 piano suite, Children’s Notebook. The Presto main section of the work establishes a straightforward mood of celebration with a fabric of brisk martial patterns. A French horn solo initiates the songful middle section, that continues with the main theme in the strings. Touches of percussion hail the return of opening fanfares above a continuation of the lyric middle section melody. Building to a sonorous climax, the overture is capped by a blazing Presto coda.
Symphony No. 9, Opus 70
During the years of the Second World War, Shostakovich penned his Seventh and Eighth Symphonies; works echoing the tragedies and struggles of the Russian people in a wartime environment. At the conclusion of the conflict, it was expected that the composer’s next symphony would be a large, triumphant work celebrating victory and providing a massive capstone to a trilogy of “war symphonies.” Many were surprised upon the first hearing of the Symphony No. 9, with Eugene Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra on November 3, 1945, for instead of ponderous Soviet jubilation, the work exuded a fresh, neo-classic atmosphere.
Shostakovich wrote the symphony during six summer weeks of his stay at a Composers’ Rest Home near Ivanovo (about 150 miles northeast of Moscow). Daniel Zhitomirsky, a music critic and author who was staying at the same home, recalled that Shostakovich worked without piano for about three hours every morning. Each evening, Shostakovich would play compositions of Haydn, Mozart and early Beethoven in piano four-hand versions with fellow composer Dimitri Kabalevsky. Zhitomirsky surmises that these evening semi-recreations influenced Shostakovich’s creative processes.
Cast in five movements, the last three performed without pause, the work begins with a Haydn-like movement of sly humor, before continuing with a lyric romance. The third movement is a swiftly ironic scherzo. Fourth is a brief intermezzo, featuring solo bassoon, that ultimately links to the broad humor of an Allegretto finale.
Michail Ivanovitch Glinka (1803-1857)
Overture to the Opera, Russlan and Ludmilla
Hailed as the first great, truly Russian composer, Glinka’s most fervent admirers unflinchingly place him on a par with Mozart and Beethoven. Glinka’s most influential works were his two operas, A Life for the Czar (1836) and Russlan and Ludmilla (1842). With Russlan he abandoned the sure-fire Italian style and ventured into the uncharted realm of Russian nationalism. Basing his opera upon Pushkin’s poem of the same name, Glinka looked forward to collaborating with his important friend on the new project. Unfortunately, Pushkin was killed in a duel before any meetings had actually taken place. His hopes dashed and his personal life in a marital turmoil, Glinka tabled the opera.
Although the opera proved to be a storehouse of compositional device for generations of Russian musicians, the work itself is rarely heard. The Overture, on the other hand, is one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertoire. A brilliantly virtuosic introduction prefaces three melodies from the opera. Development and repetition in the classical style is capped by an energetic coda that contains one of the first symphonic uses of the whole-tone scale…nearly a half-century before Debussy made it a part of his Impressionistic sound!
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
March and Scherzo, from the Opera
“Love for Three Oranges,” Opus 33a
Amid the repressive artistic climate of post-revolutionary Russia, it was unwise for young Soviet artists to indulge in overt expressions of dissent. A number of these youthful artists found safe expression in the celebration of the satirical fabia (“fable-plays”) of the 18th-century Italian playwright, Carlo Gozzi. Among his Commedia dell’Arte works the young socialists were particularly drawn to the Fable of the Love of Three Oranges (1761), a tale in which the dramatist satirizes his rivals, Goldoni and Chiari, as an evil fairy and a magician.
Among the best-known instrumental excerpts from this opera are the ironic Scherzo and the March, a classic parody on pompous royal marches.
Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956)
Russian Sailor’s Dance
Characteristic of Gliere’s romantic harmonies and Russian-flavored melodies is his most popular work, a ballet entitled The Red Poppy. Composed in 1927, the ballet utilizes a regulation Soviet plot involving a Russian ship captain and his love for a Chinese girl. She is killed while trying to escape to Russia aboard her lover’s ship. As she dies, she urges the Chinese people to fight for freedom, pointing to a red poppy as the symbol of their quest. Perhaps the best known excerpt from the ballet is this whirling Russian Sailor’s Dance. Building upon a rustic folk tune in the low strings, the work progresses to an exciting climax through several variations.
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Waltz from the ballet, “The Sleeping Beauty,” Opus 66
More than a decade after the unfortunate first productions of The Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky was finally granted a second opportunity to write a ballet. Commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theaters at St. Petersburg to compose a ballet on Charles Perrault’s children’s tale, The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky set to work with enthusiasm and sketched the first four scenes by January of 1889. The composer’s brother recalled that in this period Peter Ilyitch was remarkably free from the despondency that weighed upon much of his mature life; he credited at least part of his improved mood to the enlivening presence of a servant’s three-year-old daughter. Completed and orchestrated during the summer of 1889, the ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa, was received enthusiastically at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on January 15, 1890.
For Tchaikovsky, the creation of a waltz seemed to stimulate his highest powers of melodic grace. A marvelous example is the present waltz, taken from Act II, where it prefaces the fateful scene in which the sixteen-year-old Princess pricks her finger and falls into a bewitched sleep.
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Capriccio Italien, Opus 45
Suffering from the collapse of his ill-fated marriage and a series of critical attacks on his music, Tchaikovsky embarked upon a European vacation in the latter part of 1879. Reaching the relative warmth of Rome in the second week of December the composer soon felt the stirring of his creative impulse. He felt himself drawn to Italian folk music in much the same way that the native materials of Russia appealed to him. In a letter of February 17, 1880, he wrote to his patron, Mme. von Meck: “I am working at the sketch of an Italian Fantasia based upon folksongs. Thanks to the charming themes, some of which I have taken from collections and some of which I have heard in the streets, this work will be effective.”
While in Rome, Tchaikovsky stayed at the Hotel Constanzi in a room overlooking the barracks yard of the Royal Cuirassiers. A nightly bugle call found its way into the introduction of his new composition. Returning to Russia with the sketch of his work, Tchaikovsky completed it during the following summer and decided to entitle it Capriccio Italien. The work was an enormous popular success when Nicholas Rubinstein conducted the first performance in Moscow on December 18, 1880; Capriccio Italien continues to be successful with audiences through the charm of its melodies and the brilliance of its orchestration.