Program Notes By Eric Bromberger
Piano Trio in G Minor “Trio élégiaque”
Born April 1, 1873, Oneg, Russia
Died March 28, 1943, Beverly Hills
Sometimes musical nicknames can be needlessly confusing, and that is certainly the case with Rachmaninoff’s two piano trios. He composed both of them very early in his career and nicknamed both of them Trio élégiaque.
Rachmaninoff had entered the Moscow Conservatory at age 12, studying piano and composition, and he proved a brilliant success at both: he graduated with honors in piano in June 1891 and won the gold medal–the highest possible award–in composition a year later. It was while he was still a student at the Conservatory that the young composer scheduled his first formal concert for January 30, 1892. On this program Rachmaninoff played piano works by other composers, and he also introduced several new works of his own, including the present one-movement piano trio. But he barely got the trio done in time–he composed it in four days (January 18-21), leaving just a week to get the parts copied and the music rehearsed.
Rachmaninoff’s second Trio élégiaque would be written in memory of Tchaikovsky, but his intention in the first was not so specific–that title suggests a general atmosphere rather than commemorating a particular event or loss. The music is marked Lento lugubre, which suggests its character perfectly, and listeners will discover that at age 18 Rachmaninoff already had command of that vein of somber lyricism that marks his mature music. Over subtly-shifting string accompaniment, the piano in octaves lays out the trio’s main idea before the strings are allowed to take it up. The violin has the second subject, which preserves the trio’s somber character, and the development–while active–remains at the measured opening tempo. Rachmaninoff closes out the trio by recalling the main theme in the strings above a darkly-tolling piano accompaniment.
String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Opus 35
Born July 12, 1861, Novgorod, Russia
Died February 25, 1906, Terijoki, Finland
The death of Tchaikovsky in November 1893 at the age of only 53 devastated a generation of young Russian composers, for he had been a generous colleague and champion. In particular he had befriended Rachmaninoff (whose music he planned to conduct) and Anton Arensky, and both young men registered their grief at Tchaikovsky’s death in music: Rachmaninoff wrote a piano trio in his memory in 1893, and the following year Arensky–then a professor at the Moscow Conservatory–wrote his String Quartet No. 2, which he dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky. Several things about this quartet make it unusual.
The first of these is Arensky’s decision to write not for the standard string quartet, but for one made up of violin, viola, and two cellos, which gives the work an unusually deep and dark sonority (Arensky also made an arrangement for standard string quartet). The second is Arensky’s decision to honor his friend by making the middle movement of the quartet a set of variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky. For this theme, Arensky turned to a song Tchaikovsky had written ten years earlier, in the fall of 1883, and which had become famous on its own: “Legend” (also known as “When Jesus Christ Was But a Little Child”), which Tchaikovsky had published as the fifth of his Sixteen Children’s Songs, Opus 54. In the song, Jesus as a boy plants a tree in his garden, and that tree eventually furnishes the thorns with which he is crowned at his crucifixion. The song became so popular that Tchaikovsky himself made arrangements of it for orchestra and for a capella chorus. Arensky’s set of variations on this theme in turn proved so attractive that he arranged it for string orchestra as his Variations on a Theme of Tchaikovsky, Opus 35a. Tchaikovsky’s somber little tune is heard immediately, and there follow seven variations. Listeners may not recognize the theme in the seventh variation, for here Arensky plays it backwards–he claimed that this was in imitation of military funerals, where guns are held upside down. A brief coda draws the movement to a quiet close.
Arensky frames the set of variations with two quite different movements, yet each of these incorporates traditional Russian funeral music. The quartet opens with a moderately-paced movement and concludes with a finale that quotes the famous Slava! tune used by Mussorgsky in the coronation scene of Boris Godunov and by many other Russian composers. Beethoven also used this theme: it was one of the “Russian” themes given him by Count Razumovsky, and it appears in the trio section of the third movement of his String Quartet in E Minor, Opus 59, No. 2.
Selections from The Nutcracker, Opus 71 (arr. for piano four-hands by Eduard Langer)
PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
The music from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is so familiar–and so loved–that it hardly needs introduction, but the story of its creation remains a very interesting one. Early in 1891, the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg approached Tchaikovsky with a commission for a new ballet. They caught him at a bad moment. At age 50, Tchaikovsky was assailed by worries that he had written himself out as a composer, and–to make matters worse–they proposed a story-line that the composer found unappealing: they wanted to create a ballet on the old E.T.A. Hoffmann tale Nussknacker und Mausekönig, but in a version that had been retold by Alexandre Dumas as Histoire d’un casse-noisette and then furthered modified by the choreographer Marius Petipa. This sort of fairy-tale full of imaginary creatures set in a confectionary dream-world of childhood fantasies left Tchaikovsky cold, but he accepted the commission and grudgingly began work.
Then things got worse. He had to interrupt work on the score to go on tour in America, and just as he was leaving his sister Alexandra died. The agonized Tchaikovsky considered abandoning the tour but went ahead, then returned to Russia in May and tried to resume work on the ballet. He hated it, and–probably more to the point–he hated the feeling that he had written himself out as a composer. To his brother, he wrote grimly: “The ballet is infinitely worse than The Sleeping Beauty–so much is certain.” The score was complete in the spring of 1892, and The Nutcracker was produced in at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg that December, only eleven months before the composer’s death at 53. At first, it had only a modest success, but then a strange thing happened–that success grew so steadily that in the months before his death Tchaikovsky had to reassess what he had created: “It is curious that all the time I was writing the ballet I thought it was rather poor, and that when I began my opera [Iolanthe] I would really do my best. But now it seems to me that the ballet is good, and the opera is mediocre.”
This program offers five selections from the ballet score in an arrangement for piano four-hands by Eduard Langer (1835-1905). Langer, a professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory, was a friend of Tchaikovsky and arranged a number of his works for piano. The crisp little March is the music that accompanies the arrival of the guests at the house of President Silberhaus in Act I. The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy takes place very near the end of the ballet; in its orchestral version, this music had a prominent role for the celesta, an instrument almost unknown until Tchaikovsky used it here. The next two dances are from the divertissement in Act II. The vigorous Russian Dance (also known as Trepak) is danced by candy canes, while Dance of the Reed Flutes (also known as Dance of the Mirlitons) featured three brilliant flutes in Tchaikovsky’s original orchestration. This selection concludes with the famous Waltz of the Flowers, danced just after the conclusion of the divertissement in Act II.
Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 57
Born September 25, 1906, St. Petersburg
Died August 9, 1975, Moscow
Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet, one of his most appealing and straightforward works, has come in for a hard time from certain critics, and perhaps for strange reasons. Written in 1940, several years after the Pravda attack on Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District–an attack that nearly destroyed his career–the Piano Quintet received the Stalin Prize. That fact alone has been enough to destroy it for some Western critics, who feel that any music associated–however remotely–with Stalin’s name and the approval of the Soviet government must be without merit, must represent a capitulation to inferior artistic ideals.
A very different sort of criticism came from another source. Sergei Prokofiev said of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet: “What astonishes me about the Quintet is that so young a composer, at the height of his powers, should be so very much on his guard, and so carefully calculate every note. He never takes a single risk. One looks in vain for an impetus, a venture.” One might note here that a composer who regarded the young Shostakovich as a rival may not be the most impartial of critics and also that a composer whose career had nearly been iced might well be “very much on his guard.”
Whatever the critical reactions to it, the Piano Quintet has proven quite popular with one important faction of musical life: audiences. While it is true that the Piano Quintet is conservative in its musical language, it is also unfailingly melodic, fresh, and good-natured, and–despite the reaction of some of its critics–it remains one of Shostakovich’s most frequently performed and recorded works.
Some have claimed to hear the influence of Bach in the first two movements: a Prelude and a Fugue. The piano alone plays the broad-ranging Prelude theme and is soon joined by the strings. The Poco più mosso second theme is also first heard in the piano, which has a very prominent role throughout the Quintet (Shostakovich himself played the piano at the first performance, on November 23, 1940, in Moscow). The beginning of the Fugue, however, belongs to the strings, which introduce the muted and somber main subject. The music rises to a great climax, then falls back to end very quietly. By contrast, the Scherzo explodes with life. In a hard-driving 3/4, this music powers furiously ahead, its rhythm pounding into one’s consciousness. The movement is also full of brilliant color: glissandos, pizzicatos, left-hand pizzicatos, instruments playing in their highest registers. Particularly effective is the ending, which rushes ahead without the slightest relaxation of tempo to the sudden, surprising cadence.
The final two movements are connected. The Intermezzo opens with a pizzicato line over which the first violin sings a long cantilena of unusual beauty. Gradually the other instruments enter, the music rises to a dramatic climax, then subsides, and out of that calm emerges the Finale. The last movement is the gentlest of the five. Far from storming the heavens, this music remains sunlit and rhapsodic. It is based on two themes–the piano’s gentle opening melody and an angular second theme first heard in the piano over the strings’ powerful triplets. Shostakovich develops both these ideas before bringing the Quintet to a conclusion that is pleasing precisely for its understatement: the music grows quiet and suddenly vanishes on three quiet strokes of sound derived from the Finale’s opening theme.