Masterworks #3 (Romantic Symphony) Program Notes

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a

Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake (1877) was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premiere, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score. The ballet itself was dropped from the repertoire after 1883 and was only revived in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, and even then in modified form.

By 1888, with his reputation firmly established, such shabby treatment would have been unthinkable. The Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg commissioned Sleeping Beauty, promising the composer a lavish staging paid for through the personal patronage of Tsar Alexander III.

The story, based on a French seventeenth century tale, was the work of the director of the Imperial Theaters. The famous choreographer and ballet master, Marius Petipa, specified the details of the individual numbers, including tempo, meter and duration.

Through Tchaikovsky’s imaginative orchestration and Petipa’s spectacular staging and choreography Sleeping Beauty became the model for the Russian imperial style. The story was definitely secondary or, as Tchaikovsky commented: “Going to the Ballet for the plot is like going to the opera for the recitatives.” Sleeping Beauty was premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in January, 1890. The Tsar, who was at the premiere, was less than enthusiastic: “Very nice” was his tepid comment. However the rest of the audience – and the rest of the world – thought otherwise.

As in many suites derived from ballets, the sequence of numbers in this suite does not follow the sequence in the ballet. The order emanates, rather, from the musical sensibility and taste of the compiler of the suite. The Suite, Op.66a opens with the original introduction but concludes with the celebrated “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” from the middle of Act I, as courtiers celebrate Princess Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. Nevertheless, this Suite includes signature moments from the Ballet, despite the non-chronological rearrangement of the dances.

The Introduction foreshadows the curse of the evil fairy Carabosse,

immediately followed by the mitigating blessing of the Lilac Fairy.

The “Rose” Adagio is one of the most famous moments in the Ballet during which the Princess Aurora is courted by four suitors, each bearing a rose; she remains on pointe as she is slowly handed off from one to the other.

Le chat botte et la chatte blanche” (Puss in Boots and the White Cat) appear on stage scrapping, among the fairytale characters invited to Aurora’s wedding in Act 3.

The “Panorama” is the opening number to Act 2, showing the forest around Aurora’s castle where everyone has been asleep for a hundred years. And finally comes the so-called “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” from Act 1.

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1946)

Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a middle-class musical family, but under strained economic conditions. His father, a gambler and an alcoholic, squandered the family’s fortune to the point that eventually his mother and father separated, and she had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been entrusted to a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision.

His schooling suffered as a result. Although he showed early promise as a pianist and obtained a scholarship to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the administration threatened to expel him for failing to attend classes. He subsequently transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where his mentor, Nicolay Zverev discouraged his initial attempts at composing. Nevertheless, Rachmaninov continued to march to his own drummer, defying his teacher and transferring to classes in counterpoint and composition.

Clearly, his sense of his own worth was more accurate than that of his professors. While still a student, he produced a string of successful works, including the tone poem Prince Rostislav, his First Piano Trio, and a flood songs and piano pieces. For his graduation in 1892 he composed the opera Aleko, which won him the highest distinction, the Great Gold Medal. The same year he also composed the Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work whose inordinate fame haunted him all his life because audiences always expected – and demanded – it as an encore at his performances as one of history’s greatest pianists.

By 1895 Rachmaninov felt confident enough to compose a symphony. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in 1897 but was a dismal failure, in large part because to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov who was under “the influence.” Whereas earlier defeats had produced in the young composer creative defiance, this disappointment brought on a severe depression. For three years he was unable to do any significant composing. After consulting numerous physicians and advisors, even asking old Leo Tolstoy for help, he finally went for therapy and hypnosis in 1900 to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, an internist who had studied hypnosis and rudimentary psychiatry in Paris. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Although the composer was able to return to creative work, relapses into depression dogged him for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions are in minor keys, and one of the melodic themes recurring in many of his compositions is theDies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead reminding mourners of the terrors of the day of judgment.

Rachmaninov expressed his gratitude to Dr. Dahl by dedicating the Second Piano Concerto to him. The first performance of the complete work took place in November 1901 with the composer at the piano and was an instant success. It is Rachmaninov’s most frequently performed and recorded orchestral work and its popularity has never waned. It even found its way into Hollywood as background music to the World War II movie Brief Encounter.

The first movement, moderato, opens with dark unaccompanied chords on the piano, which increase in intensity and are gradually joined by the orchestra, leading to the first theme. The effect is like the tolling of the giant low-pitched bells common in Russian churches. The piano introduces the sensuous second theme, one of the composer’s signature melodies.

About halfway through the movement as the development continues, a new rhythmic figure makes its appearance

first as a barely audible accompaniment figure in the flute, then taken up in the piano and timpani as an accompaniment to the second theme.

Increasingly, it crops up all over the orchestra until the piano pounds it out, letting the rest of the orchestra carry the recapitulation of the main theme.

A long rhapsodic coda concludes the movement with a final dramatic burst of energy.

The second movement opens with muted strings, following with hesitant piano arpeggios in left hand.

As the piano remains in the background joined by a solo flute the clarinet finally brings out the theme in its entirety. Example 7 The middle section of this ABA form centers on a second theme, which is built on the first and belongs to the piano.

Typically of the middle sections of slow movements, it is more intense and passionate than the A section. It builds in speed and energy in a brief cadenza, after which the gentle atmosphere of the beginning return with variations of the first theme.

The brilliant third movement is characterized by abrupt changes in mood, all based on two themes. It opens deceptively quietly in the lower range of the orchestra, breaking into a sudden sparkling, drivingly rhythmic piano cadenza and finally the main theme. Example 9 The second theme, introduced by the violas and oboes, is intensely passionate, and another of the melodies that have made this Concerto so popular.

To conform to this new romantic mood, Rachmaninov rhythmically transforms his first theme.

Suddenly, the tempo increases to presto and we’re in a whirlwind development of the first theme, including a little truncated fugue.

Then it’s back to romantic second theme, more mood swings until after a short cadenza the second romantic theme is taken up by the highest instruments in the orchestra, culminating in a glittering climax.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981)

Symphony No. 2, Op. 30, “Romantic”

An American composer, conductor and teacher, Howard Hanson was an unabashed romantic who always cited Grieg and Sibelius as the most powerful influences on his style. His colorful orchestration resulted from studies with Respighi during a three-year stay in Rome as the recipient of the prestigious Prix de Rome. He used his long-time (1924-1964) position as first director of the Eastman School of Music and conductor of its orchestra to further the cause of American music.

Hanson wrote his Second Symphony in 1930 on a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, to help celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary. Koussevitzky was generous: In addition to Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, he commissioned for the occasion Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony, Roussel’s Third, Honegger’s First, Respighi’s Metamorphoseon modi XII and Copland’s Symphonic Ode.

To fully appreciate Hanson’s Symphony No 2, it pays to learn the themes before the concert; the entire fabric of the music is built on a few themes that recur throughout the piece. Unconventionally, the first and second movements are both slow, without the tempo contrasts one expects in a classical symphony – perhaps because of the composer’s openly romantic intentions. Even the Finale – which begins allegro – settles down to the pace of the preceding movements. And all the themes have a similar rhythmic shape. For the premiere, Hanson wrote in the program notes: “My aim in this symphony has been to create a work young in spirit, Romantic in temperament, and simple and direct in expression.”

The first movement is composed in classical sonata form, consisting of a slow introduction and three principal themes. The introduction consists of a three-note motive that serves later as an accompanying figure for the first of the main themes.

The introduction builds to a dramatic climax by adding more instruments and transposing the range of the motive to higher pitches before subsiding. A horn fanfare introduces the Symphony’s first theme on the brass, which, uncharacteristically, proceeds in the same slow tempo, rather than with an allegro.

The second theme, introduced by the solo oboe, is gentle and sentimental.

A third theme, played by the solo horn and strings, is unashamedly cinematic, conjuring images of countless love scenes of the 40s and 50s.

All three themes are elaborately recast in different orchestrations and moods, using increase in tempo as a device for building to a climax. And they all come back later on.

The second movement, Andante con tenerezza (with tenderness), is a gentle song without words that has contributed making the symphony Hanson’s best-known work. It also has been used as background music in a number of radio and TV programs. In most ways, it proceeds along the same lines as all three themes from the first movement.

Once again, it is classical in form, the ABA of a standard slow movement, although the “B” section is more like a development section for a sonata form. As it progresses, it incorporates and builds on the three-note motive from the Symphony’s introduction.

Once again, it is classical in form, the ABA of a standard slow movement, although the “B” section is more like a development section for a sonata form. As it progresses, it incorporates and builds on the three-note motive from the Symphony’s introduction.

The Finale, Allegro con brio, is also in sonata form and opens with two new contrasting themes,

the second of which returns to the more moderate tempo of the Symphony as a whole.

Hanson then goes on to reintroduce the themes from the previous movements in further transformations, as here where the second movement theme is stated in the minor mode.

In the middle, a fanfare recalling Respighi’s Pines of Rome pays homage to Hanson’s orchestration teacher, using the new militaristic mood to transform themes from the first movement.

At the end, even the gentle second movement theme is transformed into a ringing statement of triumph.

The piece is a terrific showpiece for an orchestra’s principal horn player.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016 |