This time around we will visit one of our favorite little Russian Geniuses, Sergei Prokofiev (OK fine he was technically Ukranian, but most music historians still consider him to largely be an important Russian composer), and talk about his most famous opera, “The Love of Three Oranges”. This work of art is charming as it is witty in making fun of the government officials without being outright scandalous.
Although the opera pokes fun at that powers that be in Russian it is important to make the distinction that this Opera was written originally in America for a Chicago audience. In 1918 Prokofiev was allowed to travel to the USA in hopes that he would spread the word about the success of Russian art in America. Needless to say this trip went swimmingly. After presenting a recital including the famous Piano Concerto No. 1, performed by the composer himself, Prokofiev caught the eye of Cleofonte Campanini(principal conductor and general manager of the Chicago Opera). He awarded Prokofiev a commission to compose a new opera for the company and thus the work in progress Prokofiev had in his repertoire was completed, “The Love of Three Oranges”. Although this opera does have a Russian libretto, it would have been quite inappropriate to present a Bolshevik themed opera in the Russian language to an American audience, thus the libretto was translated and premiered in French.
The plot of this opera by nature makes little sense and is more importantly meant to entertain through the use of satire. Just FYI, it is based on an old Italian Fairy Tale. Well here goes…
The King of Clubs and his adviser Pantalone are worried about the health of the Prince, a hypochondriac whose symptoms have been brought on by an indulgence in tragic poetry. Apparently his ailment can only be cured with laughter, so Pantalone summons the jester Truffaldino to arrange a grand entertainment, together with the (secretly inimical) prime minister, Leandro.
The magician Tchelio, who supports the King, and the witch Fata Morgana, who supports Leandro and Clarice (niece of the King, lover of Leandro), play cards to see who will be successful. Tchelio loses three times in succession to Fata Morgana, who brandishes the King of Spades, alias of Leandro.
Leandro and Clarice plot to kill the Prince so that Clarice can succeed to the throne. The supporters of Tragedy are delighted at this turn of events. The servant Smeraldina reveals that she is also in the service of Fata Morgana, who will support Leandro.
All efforts to make the Prince laugh fail, despite the urgings of the supporters of Comedy, until Fata Morgana is knocked over by Truffaldino and falls down, revealing her underclothes — the Prince laughs, as do all the others except for Leandro and Clarice. Fata Morgana curses him: henceforth, he will be obsessed by a “love for three oranges.” At once, the Prince and Truffaldino march off to seek them. Yeah really…
Tchelio tells the Prince and Truffaldino where the three oranges are, but warns them that they must have water available when the oranges are opened. He also gives Truffaldino a magic ribbon with which to seduce the giant (female) Cook (a bass voice!) who guards the oranges in the palace of the witch Creonte.
They are blown to the palace with the aid of winds created by the demon Farfarello, who has been summoned by Tchelio. Using the ribbon to distract the Cook, they grab the oranges and carry them off into the surrounding desert.
While the Prince sleeps, Truffaldino opens two of the oranges. Fairy princesses emerge but quickly die of thirst. The Ridicules (Cranks) give the Prince water to save the third princess, Ninette. The Prince and Ninette fall in love. A body of soldiers conveniently turns up and the Prince orders them to bury the two dead princesses. He leaves to seek clothing for Ninette so he can take her home to marry her, but, while he is gone, Fata Morgana transforms Ninette into a giant rat and substitutes Smeraldina in disguise.
Everyone returns to the King’s palace, where the Prince is now forced to prepare to marry Smeraldina. Tchelio and Fata Morgana meet, each accusing the other of cheating, but the Ridicules intervene and spirit the witch away, leaving the field clear for Tchelio. He restores Ninette to her natural form. The plotters are sentenced to die but Fata Morgana helps them escape, through a trapdoor and the opera ends with everyone praising the Prince and his bride
I warned you…
Anyways Below is a recording of one of my personal all time favorite compositions, the “March” from “The Love of Three Oranges”!
I always love an opportunity to present the great Dimitri Shostakovich as the mastermind he is. His Symphony No. 9 is most def. a case in point!
Educated music historians are aware of the so-called composer’s curse. Beginning with the late Ludwig Van Beethoven, it seemingly became a pattern that upon the completion of his ninth symphonic masterpiece a composer would croak. This is evidenced in the death of Schubert, Bruckner, Dvorak, Mahler, and Vaughan Williams who all died within weeks of reaching this ill fated number in their composition repertoire… ok so maybe this is a bit of an over simplification but the point is that #9 is a significant number to the “greats” who followed in their predecessor’s footsteps.
When it came time for Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 9, the Russia music community was practically teeming with excitement over the possibilities Shosty would explore in his music. Many expected him to pull out the big guns and write a symphony to include choir like the massive Beethoven counterpart. These suspicions were bolstered by the composer’s declaration in October 1943 that the symphony would be a large composition for orchestra, soloists and chorus which the context would be “about the greatness of the Russian people, about our red army liberating our native land from the enemy (the Nazi’s)”. The government who had their fingers in all matters of art (because government officials surely know everything about everything when it comes to evaluating music) expected a nationalistic wonder full of serious sentiment and dignity. Of course they were all woefully disappointed…
Despite initial sketches presented by Shostakovich in April of 1944, he ultimately lost inspiration for his originally intended work. Following a long break, during which he dropped the project completely, he resumed working and finished the real Symphony No. 9 on August 30th, 1945. This symphony turned out to be a completely different work from the one he had originally planned, with neither soloists nor chorus and a much lighter mood than expected. He forewarned listeners, “In character, the Ninth Symphony differs sharply from my preceding symphonies, the 7th and the 8th. If the Seventh and the Eighth symphonies bore a tragic-heroic character, then in the Ninth a transparent, pellucid, and bright mood predominates.”
As predicted by Shostakovich himself, many of his colleagues praised the symphony as charming and overall successful, whereas the government critics believed it to be “Ideologically weak” and “misrepresenting of the Soviet attitude”. Surprisingly the West reacted unfavorably as well, believing it to be a childish celebration over the defeat of Hitler. This was a very tender time for the world so certain considerations for their error in judgment can be excused… Symphony No. 9 was nominated for the Stalin Prize in 1946, but failed to win it. By order of Glavrertkom, the central censorship board, the work was banned on 14 February 1948 in his second denunciation together with some other works by the composer. It was removed from the list in the summer of 1955 when the symphony was performed and broadcasted.
In Beethoven-like fashion, the entirety of the work spans 5 mvts (note: the Beethoven 9th Symphony is technically four movements but the nature of the fourth movement lends itself to being broken in two parts making it seem as if it were five movements) . On a personal note I have recently performed this Symphony and have found it to be delightful. It is sweet and joyful while still retaining that creepy tombstone quality that is found in all music of Shosty (he dedicated the entirety of his works to the thousands who were killed in Stalin’s purges). My favorite moment would certainly be the theme in the first mvt. played as a violin solo (In my performance our concertmaster/violin soloist was a tall blond Russian guy by the name of Igor Kalnin so I couldn’t help but bask in the awesomeness)!
Below I am including a video of said 1st Mvt:
Most incorrectly, many people regard Russian Music pre-westernized to be just about non-existent. If you review my past post on the “History of Early Russian Music” you will surely realize the error of your ways and be enlightened. However, I can recognize a clean revolution in Russian music history at the beginning of the 19th century when the east met the west. For the purposes of this blog, I will introduce you to the composer that many music historians refer to as “the first important Russian composer”, Mikhail Glinka.
The early life of Glinka was, well, privileged. Born (June 1st, 1804) to a high-ranking military family in service of the Tsar, Glinka enjoyed an easy childhood of sweets, furs, and a doting babushka. He was so coddled that indeed he developed a fragile disposition and remained in frail health throughout his life. Glinka was often exposed to Russian Folk music via traveling musicians. He heard the church bells tuned to dissonant chords, thus shaping his early understanding of harmony. Glinka was lucky enough to have had a private teacher who introduced him to Russian, German, and French language as well as their respective geographies. This also put him in touch with the popular western style music that he studied as a pianist and violinist. At 13 Glinka was sent to St. Petersberg to study under the piano professor Charles Meyer and it was not long before the young Glinka was recognized as a virtuoso. In 1830 he was even taken on a meandering tour through Italy where he took lessons at the conservatory in Milan (this was the thing to do if you were an up and coming composer in Russia because even its own people disregarded their own music for some misguided reason). Obviously this trip had a profound effect on the development of Mikhail’s musicality; however, Glinka fast became disenchanted with the Italian ways as he recognized that his duty was to his homeland in Russia and Russia’s own music culture.
In 1834, when Glinka was in Berlin, he received a fateful message that his father had died. This prompted him to return to his hometown in Novospasskoye. While in Berlin, Glinka had become enamored with a beautiful and talented singer, (for whom he composed Six Studies for Contralto). He contrived a plan to return to her, but when his sister’s German maid turned up without the necessary paperwork to cross to the border with him, he abandoned his plan as well as his love and turned north for Saint Petersburg. There he reunited with his mother, and made the acquaintance of Maria Petrovna Ivanova. After courting her for a brief period, the two married. The marriage was short-lived, as Maria proved to be utterly without tact and uninterested in his music. The silver lining here is that Glinka used his nagging ex-wife as inspiration for his most famous opera “A Life for a Tsar”.
The significance of “Ivan Susanin” (the original title for “A Life for a Tsar”) lies in the fact that this was the first Russian Opera sung in Russian Language. The work was premiered on December 9, 1836, under the direction of Catterino Cavos, who had written an opera on the same subject in Italy. Although it still retained a plethora of characteristics distinctly European, Glinka’s work was a grand success. In essence, he paved the way for future Russian composers (including of course the “Russian Five”) who would dedicate their lives as composers to writing Russian nationalist music in the traditional style.
Glinka lived his last years in Berlin. He died suddenly on 15 February 1857, following a cold. Glinka was buried in Berlin but a few months later his body was taken to Saint Petersburg and reinterred in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.
Below I am including a recording of Glinka’s Grand Sextet for piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. You’re welcome 🙂
*I did not include my bibliography nor are my sources cited in this online posting!
Despite Russia’s rich musical life (demonstrated in the volumes of folk-songs that date back hundreds of years), Russia is a country whose music history is largely abandoned before the 18th century. In fairness, the separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian adopted Eastern Orthodox Church can be largely to blame for the gap in time before Russian music arrived on the western radar. Unlike the extensive rise of the Mass that catapulted change in Europe, the Eastern Orthodox Church imposed strict restrictions on its music rituals, thus thwarting development such as the kind observed in the west. Towards the end of the 18th century, however, Russia began to see great changes in its political atmosphere. The Tsars, particularly Tsarist Catherine the Great, suddenly adopted a sincere interested in the affairs of their European neighbors. The opening up of this previously isolationist society naturally led to a demand for western art and all its modern trappings in opera, dance, and instrumental music. Under these circumstances, it was to be that Russian music would finally escape obscurity and eventually (in the 19th century) begin its own historically significant developments as a unique nation. Success was mainly achieved through the prevailing musical movement of the time, “nationalism”. This paper aims to examine the events of late 18th century and 19th century Russian music history, including its historical context, the construction of a new music society, and the rise of Russia’s first significant composer (in western terms) Mikhail Glinka.
In order to understand Russian composers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the “romantic era” in terms of music, one must first understand what was happening in the surrounding world at the time.
Following the Napoleonic wars, Europe (including Russia) became a region of great instability due to its disruption of previously established borders. In order to assist in the reduction of tensions, the leaders of all the major states of the time convened to Vienna for the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815).
The goals of the Congress of Vienna were to mainly restore the status quo of powers before 1792 without punishing France. This was in order to prevent revenge and hostility from the French people. The main powers to convene included Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and later France. Although the meeting did accomplish its immediate goals to scale back France’s conquests and return to its 1792 borders, it tragically failed to address the cultural borders of the individual states. For example, Russia’s prized acquisition as a result of the meeting included the Duchy of Poland, regardless of Poland’s clear cultural distinction from Russia. Such violations prompted an attitude of rebellion by the people that would ultimately lead to World War 1.
The important consequences of these tensions in art were the rise of nationalism. The basic sentiment was that a citizen owed his/her loyalties to his/her nation before government, creed, dynasty, etc. In music the folk music was considered higher than all other national music as it is most closely related to the people. An important thing to note is that while the beginning of the nationalist movement began as people who identified themselves as citizens of a larger world, it later turned into a much more aggressive and almost competitive attitude of people aligning themselves with specific identities. Also important to mention is that although nationalism in theory refers to all classes of people within a society, the movement was entirely a movement of the bourgeois in order to establish their patriotism. Although nationalism affected different regions in different ways, Russia is unique in that its revolution during the 19th century failed to displace the Tsar and lead to democracy. The music lends itself to more themes of monarchy and the other popular practice of nationalism including exoticism. In reference to the Tsar’s power over nations in central Asia, many Russian composers wrote their music
with exotic Asiatic themes that distinguish their works as uniquely Russian.
As many of the Romantic composers turned to folk music as a center piece of their compositions, it became necessary that the music change to accommodate the flavor to such old tunes. Since folk music is largely monodic and does not fit cleanly into the harmonic structures defined during the classical era, composers were forced to explore new tonalities and move away from the traditions that had dominated in Italy, France, and Germany, for centuries. For example, most Russian folk music contains a dubious tonic and employs generous amounts of parallel 5ths, octaves, and other dissonant parallel intervals. Whereas music previously imitated earlier works, and borrowed from previous success, it was now considered inauthentic to engage in such practices and composers were pressured to conceive of entirely new and unique ideas. As previously mentioned, the nationalist movement was largely identified by the more educated bourgeois and ironically, its authenticity and folk characteristics were generally lost on the less sophisticated audiences from which they supposedly drew their inspiration.
Specifically, the Russian nationalist music began the process of unearthing its roots in its first printed collection of Russian folk songs by Chulkov. With appearances of his work beginning to appear from 1770-1774 under the title of “Sobraine Raznukh Pesen”, the entirety of Chuklov’s collection was organized in four volumes. Unfortunately, however, the collection was primitive and made little to no attempt in dividing the mass of folk songs by genre. Nonetheless, the 800 pages of text containing over 400 peasant songs either from existing manuscripts or indeed written out by Chuklov himself, established a pattern for future Russian folk-song collections into the 19th century. Finally a more organized and systematic collection was realized in the “Collection of Russian Folk Songs” assembled by Nikolai Lvov and written out by Ivan Prach in 1790. Unlike the collection of Chuklov, the Lvov-Prach collections was perhaps the first collection to extensively divide and classify folk songs into the categories “protracted songs, dance songs, wedding songs, Khorovods, Christmas carols, and Ukranian songs”. Main contributions of this anthology also demonstrate features of the peasant chant including “shifting tones and uneven rhythms that would become prominent features of Russian musical style from Mussorgsky to Stravinsky”; however, the songs are adapted to western musical traditions in order to be more pleasing to the ears of Russia’s “piano-owning classes”. “Despite its inaccuracy, Lvov-Prach’s work provides many important insights into transcription methods, classification criteria, and theories that explain what exactly separates Russian music from its western counterparts”. As a result many of the “original folk tunes” used in nationalistic repertory are taken from the Lvov-Prach collection. In essence it paved the way for more skilled arrangers (for example, Balakirev and Rimsky- Korsakov) to revive their rich musical heritage.
Before diving into the significant literature of the 19th century, it is necessary to examine one more significant historical development, the appearance of Italian Opera from 1731 and onward. Like all Russian music, once again the tradition dates back to encounters with the all-encompassing western art of opera, derived from Italy. In 1736, St. Petersburg was presented her first fully staged production of Francesco Araja’s “The Power of Love and Hate”. The theatrics combined with the western musical style that was becoming increasingly popular in Russia dazzled its audience with its grandness. The opera was naturally sung its original Italian. It was not until 1755 that an opera was finally translated to the Russian mother tongue and acted out by young Russian native performers. The first opera “Cephalus and Procris”, translated by Sumarkov, was merely rearranged by its original Italian composer, Araja, and thus failed to change fundamentally to include Russian national themes to match its changed Russian libretto. Well into the 18th century, Russian opera continued to be written by foreign composers, though in in the last year folk elements finally began to appear in the material. Seaman reports that “of about 100 operas written in the course of the last years of the 18th century, 30 survived 15 of which make use of Russian or Ukrainian Folk music”. More specifically these operas employ a total of about “55 clearly identifiable folksongs”. Evidence suggests that the first Russian
opera written by a native composer on a native topic was “Anyuta”. Musicologists speculate that a man by the name of Pashkevich composed the opera, though the music itself is tragically lost and thus it is difficult to determine definitively. Important to note, despite all attempts to produce authentically Russian opera of high quality, efforts were largely hindered by a lack of trained native musicians capable of delivering technically challenging performances.
Perhaps more notable include the accomplishments in Russian opera by Catterino Cavos. In the beginning of his career Cavos was enthusiastically dedicated to promoting Russian opera’s with Russian subjects. This evidenced in his first opera in his “early national opera, “The Invisible Prince” (1805)”. Such a work, however, pales in comparison to the success of his opera “Ivan Susanin” and is the only one of his opera to clearly employ Russian folk music. This particular opera is not only important in that it tells the patriotic story of a Russian man who offers his life for the sake of his Tsar, but also it would later be virtually the same plot Glinka uses for his first operatic masterpiece “A Life for a Tsar”.
The death of Empress Catherine II marks the next significant transition between the 18th century and 19th century. Under the reign on Paul I, the next Tsar, the citizens of St. Petersburg were suddenly placed under a series of strict new laws intended to “curb the moral laxity of the Russian population”. As a result art and the fledgling attempts at Russian opera came effectively to a halt due to censorship and the reduction of private ensembles. In 1801, Paul I was assassinated and rule was passed to the much more liberal Tsar Alexander. His appreciation for art and literature proved a much more nurturing environment for development in Russia and new works in all forms of art began to appear at increasing speed with “marked national coloring”. Unfortunately, it was not long before Alexander also made himself unpopular among his people and political organizations began to prepare a reaction. Ultimately the tensions led to the Decembrist risings of 1825. Despite the inevitable suppression of these rebellions by Tsar Nicholas I, the effects on artists were represented in contemplation of issues including “suppression, the world of bureaucracy, the growth of merchant middle classes, and the desire for reform and the abolition of serfdom”. These ideas resulted in a realism that dominated the Russian art for the duration of the 19th century.
With the inspiration and the expanding ideas of realism and nationalism it fast became necessary for music education institutions to train Russian musicians. Music schools were based almost exclusively in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as were the large theaters and concert performance series. Foreign teachers continued to be brought into Russia’s borders and in fact made up the majority of the faculty. According to Seaman, among these visitors were such names as “Clara Schumann, Liszt, and later Hummel (a man who had considerable influence on the development of Glinka)”. Many of the greatest musicians in the world indeed moved to Russia permanently or for large periods of their career in anticipation of Russia’s growing potential. Important pedagogues include John Field who was largely responsible for his creation of a new school of piano playing in Moscow. Again, his music would go on to have great influence on the music of Glinka.
Between Moscow and St. Petersburg it can be fairly argued that St. Petersburg was the larger of the two music spheres in Russia. To begin St. Petersburg in during the 19th century represented the capital of the country and thus had front row seats to exposure from the west via the Tsar. Ridenour sums up the political climate by stating that “as with virtually all public activities in Tsarist Russia, the dominate force directing all activity was the government, in this case the Imperial Theater Directorate”. This department controlled two of the largest opera companies in the state, the St. Petersburg ballet and drama theaters, and from afar the Imperial ballet in Moscow. Furthermore, all public performances were to be approved by the department, with the exception of Lent “when the imperial theaters closed and private organizations and individuals could arrange concerts”. The Theater Directorate as a government department had access to large sums of money and was able to ensure that St. Petersburg’s opera company had the best of all stage equipment, producers, and performers in Europe. In 1862, “Giuseppe Verdi was paid 20,000 rubles for a production of his opera “La Forza del Destino” and the leads of the cast purportedly earned 10,000 rubles”. These figures were astronomical for this time. Important to note here is that the Italian opera company in St. Petersburg was considerably more respected than its Russian rival on the other side of town. Ridenour writes that indeed the “while the Italian company occupied the Grand Theater, St. Petersburg’s best Russian Troupe was relegated a building originally constructed for a circus”. Interestingly, the building burned down in 1859 and in 1860 the building was reconstructed as the now famous Mariinsky Theater.
Now that a suitable music environment had been established in Russia, and despite the popular view that Russian produced music was substandard to the west, a few Russian composers began to arrive on the scene. Perhaps the clearest example of the first significant composer is in Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka.
If Pushkin “formulated the Russian Tongue”, Glinka comparably is said to have “formulated the Russian Musical Language”. Glinka primarily is celebrated for his innovations in harmonic and orchestral writing as well as his extensive knowledge of Russian folk music. Born to a retired captain of the Imperial army, Glinka grew up in privilege but also in a village where he was exposed to much folk-song and folk-life. Glinka’s home was also located “near the Smolensk road” and as the scene in 1812 was that “of intense military operations and the invasion of the French”. Observation of such a political scene had a profound effect on young Glinka and instilled in him a great sense of patriotism. He was particularly fond of the serf orchestra directed by his Uncle, Afanasiy Andreevich, and through his encounters with these musicians he first became “acquainted with the European music in the form of opera overtures”. By 1822 Glinka had chosen to devote the entirety of his career to music and he thrived under the advice of famous pedagogue Charles Mayer. Although Glinka had studied Violin in his formative years he himself claimed “Passion for composition decisively distracted me from practice in performance”. In 1823 Glinka spent a brief time in Caucasus and drew inspiration from the Northern Caucasian people, his reflection of which is portrayed “later in his opera Ruslan and Lydmila”. Finally Glinka’s period of exploration culminated in a five year study abroad during which he travelled throughout the great cities of Italy (Milan, Rome, Venice, etc.). The result of this trip drove Glinka to deeply miss his own country. In his memoirs Glinka writes “I did not compose but thought a great deal… I was convinced that I was not following my own path and that sincerely I could not be Italian… I was led constantly to the idea of writing something in Russian”. This excerpt marks a turning point in Glinka’s career when he realizes that in order to fulfill his music career he music find his own distinctively Russian voice.
Upon his return to Russia in 1834, Glinka immediately began work on the masterpiece that would realize his vision for the revival of the Russian music traditions so near to him. He planned to prepare a large-scale national opera on the legend of Ivan Susanin (note this is the same plot as that of Cavos). When the opera was completed in 1836, the opera was indeed conducted by Cavos. Tsar Nicholas I himself took great interest in this opera by Glinka and suggested the title of the work to be changed to “A Life for a Tsar”. It came as little surprise that when the opera premiered on November 27th it was largely a success. As one of Glinka’s critics remarked, “it was a wonderful beginning to the approaching era of Russian music”.
Indeed with the success and continued life of Glinka a new era appeared to be on the horizon for Russia. Following his efforts towards a truly native opera, Glinka ushered in such Russian musical nationalists as the Russian Five and later Tchaikovsky. In conclusion, the period of time from the end of the 18th century and through the mid-19th century represents a transformation of the Russian Music traditions from its obscure roots in folk to a culture that could rival or even surpass those of the west. In a changing world and a changing government it was about time the west began to take notice of their massive eastern neighbor.
For musicians in love with all things Russian, nothing represents Tchaikovsky greatness like his most famous ballet “Swan Lake”.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this “Russian” tale (it’s actually German but who cares) it tells the story of Princess Odette, a beautiful maiden who is cursed by an evil sorcerer,Von Rothbart, to live her days in the form of a swan amongst his other imprisoned swan maidens. Only in the light of the moon does she return to human… that is unless she finds true love in a man who will agree to marry her. Thats where Prince Siegfried comes in. The ballet opens with the scene of his birthday bash, during which Mother announces that she desires her son to marry soon. Armed with his sweet new crossbow, Siegfried decides to take his usual hunting trip when low and behold, just as he’s about to shoot a swan the bird transforms before him into the unfortunate Odette! After she shares with him her tragic plight, he dramatically exclaims his love for her and promises that he will take her to be his bride. This did not please Von Rothbart. When the Prince returns to his palace in the second act, to announce that he has chosen a bride, the audience is treated to a series of beautiful dances during which many of the members of the court display their best moves in celebration. None, however, compare to that of the brilliant performance of an Odette look alike (actually Von Rothbart’s evil daughter Odile) appearing with a mysterious guest (Von Rothbart in disguise) who purports to be the king of some obscure palace. Ecstatic to see who appears to be his fiancée, Siegfried impulsively tells Mommy the Queen that this girl is the one he has chosen. Psyche! Von Rothbart reveals Odile’s true identity, effectively meaning that the Prince is betrothed to the wrong girl and now Odette will be trapped in her curse for eternity. Heartbroken, Siegfried retreats to the forest to beg his lover’s forgiveness for his betrayal. She grants him pardon and in the original production they realize the hopelessness of their situation, drowning themselves in order to be together in death (that’s Tchaikovsky for you… see my previous blog entry to see how his own life ended). A few ballet houses these days choose a more optimistic route, ending with the Price slaying Von Rothbart and freeing Odette along with her flock of maidens from the spell, but personally I feel that some of the effect is lost in these interpretations…
After several years and multiple collaborations with various librettists (the people in charge of the story) and choreographers (the people in charge of dances), Tchaikovsky completed the necessary preparations and the ballet had its premiere on January 15th, 1895. Pierina Legnani danced Odette/Odile, with Pavel Gerdtas as Prince Siegfried, and Alexei Bulgakov as Von Rothbart.
Below I have attached the video of a super famous and super gorgeous Pas de Deux (dance for two) between Prince Sigfried and Odette. This particular performance is that of Natalia Makarova as Odette and Ivan Nagy as Siegfried with the American Ballet Theater. The visual and auditory effects of this scene are, in a word, sublime!
Having been introduced to the theory of tonally transitional composers of music, I figured it would be all the more appropriate to dedicate this blog entry to one of my favorite Russian Composers, Maestro Igor Stravinsky!
Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский, born in 1882, grew up in the famous city of Saint Petersburg. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a Bass Singer at the Mariinsky Theater, thus young Igor was exposed to classical music in all it’s various forms from a young age. As a child he took up lessons in piano and composition and by the age of fourteen he had mastered the infamously difficult Mendelssohn Concerto for Piano in g minor. Despite his early love for music, however, his parents chose for him what they believed would lead to a more fruitful living, law school. Ill- fitted for this line of work, Stravinsky dragged his feet in his studies from 1901-1905. When the school was closed in the Spring of 1905 (due to Bloody Sunday) and Stravinsky was prevented from taking his finals it became clear to him that he was to follow his ambitions in music after all. From 1905-1908, he began to take twice-weekly private lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov, who at the time was the most renowned of all composers in Russia. It also was during this time that he married his cousin Katerina Nossenko (whom he had been betrothed to since childhood) and by 1908 she bore him his first two children Fyodor and Ludmilla. In 1909 Stravinsky premiered his first major work, Fireworks, and was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes in Paris, to further develop his ideas into a larger production. It was this encouragement that led to his immigration to Switzerland and yielded one of the most famous ballet’s of the 20th century, The Firebird. Although, Stravinsky would briefly return to his homeland in the summer of 1914, the following decades of war and hostilities meant that he would not return to Russia for fifty years. In 1920 Stravinsky, with his family (two more children in tow), immigrated to France where he was to form a significant partnership with the French piano manufacturer Pleyel. Pleyel collected relatively minimal royalties that in return would allow Stravinsky to afford a studio. Stravinsky also arranged many of his works for Pleyals brand of player piano that utilized all of its 88 keys and were considered to be nearly inaccessible for most musicians. Such major compositions spun from these roles include but are not limited to the Rite of Spring, Petrushka, Firebird, Les Noces, and Song of the Nightingale. Tragically, in 1934, Katerina’s tuberculosis infected his eldest daughter Ludmila, and Stravinsky himself. Ludmila died in 1938 and Katerina died in the following year (actually from cancer). Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital. During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky formed key relationships with American music bigwigs and in 1939 (at the outbreak of the second world war) he moved to America where he would live the remainder of his career. Vera de Bosset, the true love of his life, followed him and they were married in Massachusetts on March 9th, 1940. The couple settled in LA California, the city where he ultimately spent the most years of his life. Although he was already an old man at the ripe age of 58, Stravinsky thrived in his new environment of movers and shakers, taking great interest in the cultural advances of American artists such as Otto Klemplerer and Arthur Rubinstein. It was in the States that Stravinsky explored some of his most revolutionary ideas. Always one to be unconventional, Stravinsky was arrested by the Boston police in 1940 for violating a federal law that strictly prohibits the re harmonization of America’s national anthem. Despite such trivial blunders, he was nonetheless quite successful. Post humorously he earned a Grammy for Lifetime achievement and a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Two years after his move to New York City in 1969, Stravinsky died at the age of 88. He was Buried in Venice near the island of San Michele. In the end he was buried near Sergei Diaghilev who had given him the opportunity to explore outside of Russia’s borders as a fresh young composer so many decades ago.
Musicians who experience Stravinsky’s music will most likely identify Stravinsky’s works as complicated, complex, and at times hard to swallow. Stravinsky was certainly a composer for neoclassicism and discovery of techniques never before used such as bitonality, often leading to sounds strange enough to invoke passionate reaction. One infamous example of a case where he shook the auditoriums was the premier of The Rite of Spring. The dissonant sounds, not to mention the semi-nude dancers on the Paris stage proved so shocking that a riot broke out during the show. Indeed he did not live the majority of his life in Russia (Stravinsky was fortunate enough to avoid the atrocities committed against his fellow composers who were trapped behind his homeland’s borders); however, through works that portray traditional Russian Folk tales as beautiful as that of The Firebird Stravinsky’s heritage is ever omnipresent.
Below I have attached a video from The Firebird. In this scene, the prince who has fallen into this magical land comes across the enchanting Firebird. During their Pas de Deux (dance for two) he captures the trembling bird. In exchange for letting her go, the Firebird grants him one of her golden feathers with the promise that she would come to his aid should he wave the feather over his head.
I’ll keep things short sweet and too the point! I’d like to share a work by the famous Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov entitled Scheherazade (Шехерезада ), or his Symphonic Suite Op. 35. Written during the winter of 1887, Scheherazade is considered one of Nikolai’s most popular works with it’s rich colors and clear sense of line. In my own orchestral experiences I was taught by my professor (who grew up in the soviet union) that this idea of musical fairytale is exactly what makes the composition so Russian in nature. For all the famine and suffering the peasants of Russia faced, the tradition of storytelling is what kept their culture alive through the rough patches. That, to me, is what makes Scheherazade beautiful.
About the story, Scheherazade comes from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (A.K..A The Arabian Nights). Korsakov begins began his program notes in the premier with the opening lines:
“The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatum, for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.
In a nutshell this is the story. A barbaric and woman-hating Sultan has decided that each night he will take a new wife to bed and in the morning he will give the order for her to be beheaded. Scheherazade hears this story and decides that she will offer herself as the Sultan’s next bride to put an end to the slaying. She ignores her father’s very understandably desperate pleas to stay home. When she arrives she commences the marriage but as they prepare for bed Scheherazade stages a conversation with one of the servants in which she reveals that she is a world renowned storyteller. Eavesdropping, the sultan demands to hear one of her so called stories and so she obliges him. The Sultan becomes so enthralled by her abilities that he allows her to live one more night on the condition that she will share another story. One thousand and one stories later, the Sultan is a changed man who has seen the error of his ways. He proclaims his true love for his beloved Sultana, Scheherazade.
To play the role of Scheherazade, Korskov casts the orchestra’s concertmaster (solo violinist) with each movement containing the same winding and ethereal solo. Occasionally the violinist is accompanied by a counter melody in the solo cello or solo woodwind. Each movement is presented as one of the stories Scheherazade would tell. The first movement, The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, is an introduction in which the lugubrious theme of the Sultan is contrasted by the violin solo. The orchestra plays a broad fanfare than begins to paint the picture of the orient that Korsakov was trying to achieve. The second movement, The Kalendar Prince, is a fantastic narrative where a kaleidoscope of ideas are explored. The third movement, The Young Prince and The Young Princess, is a love story with a dance presented first by the strings and then expanded/embellished by solos throughout the orchestra. Finally the last movement entitled Festival At Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman offers a triumphant conclusion and finally a peaceful decent into sleep by the star of the show, the narrator Scheherazade. Below I have included recordings of this lovely work of art. Please listen and enjoy!