The Peninsula Music Festival - 59th Season 2011 - Program Notes
Program 7 - Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - All Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Composed in 1878.
Premiered on December 4, 1881 in Vienna, conducted by Hans Richter with Adolf Brodsky as soloist.
First performed at PMF in 1965 with Charles Treger, soloist, and Thor Johnson conducting. Most recently performed at PMF in 2002 with James Ehnes, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
In the summer of 1877, Tchaikovsky undertook the disastrous marriage that lasted less than three weeks and resulted in his emotional collapse and attempted suicide. He fled from Moscow to his brother Modeste in St. Petersburg, where he recovered his wits and discovered that he could find solace in his work. He spent the late fall and winter completing his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onégin. The brothers decided that travel outside of Russia would be an additional balm to the composer’s spirit, and they duly installed themselves at Clarens on Lake Geneva in Switzerland soon after the first of the year.
In Clarens, Tchaikovsky had already begun work on a piano sonata when he was visited by Joseph Kotek, a talented young violinist who had been a student in one of his composition classes at the Moscow Conservatory, who brought with him a score for the recent Symphonie Espagnole for Violin and Orchestra by the French composer Edouard Lalo. They read through the piece, and Tchaikovsky was so excited by the possibilities of a work for solo violin and orchestra that he set aside the gestating piano sonata and immediately began a concerto of his own. He worked quickly, completing the present slow movement in a single day when he decided to discard an earlier attempt. (This abandoned piece ended up as the first of the three Meditations for Violin and Piano, Op. 42.) By the end of April, the Concerto was finished. Tchaikovsky sent the manuscript to Leopold Auer, a friend who headed the violin department at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and who was also Court Violinist to the Czar, hoping to have him premiere the work. Much to the composer’s regret, Auer returned the piece as “unplayable,” and apparently spread that word with such authority to other violinists that it was more than three years before the Violin Concerto was heard in public.
It was Adolf Brodsky, a former colleague of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, who first accepted the challenge of this Concerto. After having “taken it up and put it down,” in his words, for two years, he finally felt secure enough to give the work a try, and he convinced Hans Richter to include it on the concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic in 1881. Brodsky must have felt that he was on something of a crusade during the preparations for the performance. There was only a single full rehearsal allotted for the new work, and most of that was taken up with correcting the parts, which were awash with copyist’s errors. Richter wanted to make cuts. The orchestra did not like the music, and at the performance played very quietly so as not to enter with a crashing miscue. Brodsky deserves the appreciation of the music world for standing pat in his belief in the Concerto amid all these adversities. When the performance was done, the audience felt that way as well, and applauded him. The piece itself, however, was roundly hissed. The critical barrage was led by that powerful doyen of Viennese conservatism, Eduard Hanslick, whose tasteless summation (“Music that stinks in the ear”) irritated Tchaikovsky until the day he died. Despite its initial reception, Brodsky remained devoted to the Concerto, and he played it throughout Europe. The work soon began to gain in popularity, as did the music of Tchaikovsky generally, and it has become one of the most famous concertos in the literature. It is a revealing side-note that Leopold Auer, who had initially shunned the work, eventually came to include it in his repertory, and even taught it to his students, some of whom — Seidel, Zimbalist, Elman, Heifetz, Milstein — became its greatest exponents in the 20th century.
The Concerto opens quietly with a tentative introductory tune. A foretaste of the main theme soon appears in the violins, around which a quick crescendo is mounted to usher in the soloist. After a few unaccompanied measures, the violin presents the movement’s lovely main theme above a simple string background. After an elaborated repetition of this melody, a transition follows that eventually involves the entire orchestra and gives the soloist the first of many opportunities for pyrotechnical display. The second theme is the beginning of a long dynamic and rhythmic buildup that leads into the development with a sweeping, balletic presentation of the main theme by the full orchestra. The soloist soon steals back the attention with breathtaking leaps and double stops. The grand balletic mood returns, giving way to a brilliant cadenza as a link to the recapitulation. The flute sings the main theme for four measures before the violin takes it over, and all then follows the order of the exposition. An exhilarating coda asks for no fewer than four tempo increases, and the movement ends in a brilliant whirl of rhythmic energy.
The slow middle movement begins with a chorale for woodwinds that is heard again at the end of the movement to serve as a frame around the musical picture inside. On the canvas of this scene is displayed a soulful melody intoned by the violin with the plaintive suggestion of a Gypsy fiddler. The finale is joined to the slow movement without a break. With the propulsive spirit of a dashing Cossack trepak, the finale flies by amid the soloist’s dizzying show of agility and speed. Like the first movement, this one also races toward its final climax, almost daring listeners to try to sit still in their seats. After playing the Concerto’s premiere, Adolf Brodsky wrote to Tchaikovsky that the work was “wonderfully beautiful.” He was right.
Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Composed in 1888.
Premiered on November 17, 1888 in St. Petersburg, conducted by the composer.
The only previous PMF performance was in 2000 with Victor Yampolsky conducting.
Tchaikovsky was never able to maintain his self-confidence for long, and his opinion of a new work frequently fluctuated between the extremes of satisfaction and denigration. The unjustly neglected Manfred Symphony of 1885, for example, left his pen as “the best I have ever written,” but the work failed to make a good impression at its premiere, and Tchaikovsky’s estimation of it tumbled. The lack of success of Manfred was particularly painful because he had not produced a major orchestral work since the Violin Concerto of 1878, and the score’s failure left him with the gnawing worry that he might be “written out.” The three years after Manfred were devoid of creative work.
It was not until May 1888 that Tchaikovsky again took up the challenge of the blank page. On May 27th he wrote to his brother Modeste, “To speak frankly, I feel as yet no impulse for creative work. What does this mean? Have I written myself out? No ideas, no inclination! Still, I am hoping to collect, little by little, material for a symphony.” Though he was unusually secretive about the progress of this new piece, he must have begun it as soon as this letter was written, since the sketch of the complete score was finished just six weeks later. “I am exceedingly anxious to prove to myself, as to others,” he wrote to his benefactress, Nazedha von Meck, “that I am not played out as a composer.” He worked doggedly on the symphony, ignoring illness, the premature encroachment of old age (he was only 48, but suffered from continual exhaustion and loss of vision), and his troubling self-doubts, and when it was completed, by the end of August, he allowed, “I have not blundered; it has turned out well.”
Tchaikovsky’s satisfaction was soon mitigated, however, by the work’s premiere in St. Petersburg on November 17, 1888. Though the Fifth Symphony was applauded by the public, he felt that it was a failure, that the ovation was for his earlier pieces rather than for this new one, and that the whole affair was cause for “a deep dissatisfaction with myself.” His brother Modeste was convinced that any negative reaction to the Fifth Symphony — and the critics had some — could be traced to an inadequate performance, but Tchaikovsky could not be persuaded of the work’s value until a performance in Hamburg early in 1889, when musicians, critics and audience alike received it enthusiastically. Even the venerable Johannes Brahms, who was not strongly drawn to the music of his Russian colleague, made a special effort to attend the performance on a visit to his hometown. Tchaikovsky was buoyed by his reception in Hamburg, and his estimation of the Fifth Symphony (and of himself) shot up once again. The work has remained among the staples of the concert repertory.
Tchaikovsky never gave any indication that the Symphony No. 5, unlike the Fourth Symphony, had a program, though he may well have had one in mind. Years after its composition, some rough sketches that apparently refer to the Symphony No. 5 were discovered in his notebooks: “Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro (1) Murmurs, doubts, plaints against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself into the embrace of faith???” The “XXX” probably referred to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, the only matter he concealed behind secret signs in his notes and diary. If that is so, the Fifth Symphony represents Tchaikovsky’s resignation to his fate in the way he could best command — music. The workings of fate were an obsessive theme with him, and the program of the earlier Fourth Symphony portrays man’s happiness crushed at every turn by that intractable power. In their biography of the composer, Lawrence and Elisabeth Hanson reckoned Tchaikovsky’s view of fate as the motivating force in the Symphony No. 5, though they distinguished its interpretation from that in the Fourth Symphony. “In the Fourth Symphony,” the Hansons wrote, “the Fate theme is earthy and militant, as if the composer visualizes the implacable enemy in the form, say, of a Greek god. In the Fifth, the majestic Fate theme has been elevated far above earth, and man is seen, not as fighting a force that thinks on its own terms, of revenge, hate or spite, but as a wholly spiritual power which subjects him to checks and agonies for the betterment of his soul.”
The structure of the Fifth Symphony reflects this process of “betterment.” It progresses from minor to major, from darkness to light, from melancholy to joy — or at least to acceptance and stoic resignation. It is the same path Beethoven blazed in his Fifth Symphony, and the power of such a musico-philosophical construction was not lost on Tchaikovsky, or on any other 19th-century musician. The sense of a perilous obstacle surmounted through struggle energizes both works, and is the substance of any “message” that Tchaikovsky may have embedded in this Symphony.
The Symphony’s four movements are linked together through the use of a recurring “Fate” motto theme, given immediately at the beginning by unison clarinets as the brooding introduction to the first movement. The sonata form proper starts with a melancholy melody intoned by bassoon and clarinet over a stark string accompaniment. The woodwinds enter with wave-form scale patterns followed by a stentorian passage for the brass that leads to a climax. Several themes are presented to round out the exposition: a romantic tune, filled with emotional swells, for the strings; an aggressive strain given as a dialogue between winds and strings; and a languorous, sighing string melody. Again, the brasses are brought forth to climax this section. All of the themes are treated in the development section. The solo bassoon ushers in the recapitulation, and the themes from the exposition are heard again, though with changes of key and instrumentation. After a final climax in the coda, the movement fades, softer and slower, and sinks, finally, to the lowest reaches of the orchestra.
At the head of the manuscript of the second movement Tchaikovsky is said to have written, “Oh, how I love ... if you love me …,” a sentiment that calls to mind an operatic love scene. (Tchaikovsky, it should be remembered, was a master of the musical stage who composed more operas than he did symphonies.) The expressiveness of the opening theme, hauntingly played by the solo horn, is heightened as the movement proceeds through enriched contrapuntal lines and instrumental sonorities. Twice, the imperious Fate motto intrudes upon the starlit mood of this romanza.
If the second movement derives from opera, the third grows from ballet. A flowing waltz melody (inspired by a street song Tchaikovsky had heard in Italy a decade earlier) dominates much of the movement. The central trio section exhibits a scurrying figure in the strings which shows the influence of Léo Delibes, the French master of ballet music whom Tchaikovsky deeply admired. Quietly and briefly, the Fate motto returns in the movement’s closing pages.
The finale begins with a long introduction based on the Fate theme cast in a heroic rather than a sinister or melancholy mood. A vigorous exposition, a concentrated development and an intense recapitulation follow. The long coda uses the motto theme in a major-key, victory-won setting. This stirring work ends with a final statement from the trumpets and horns, and closing chords from the full orchestra.
The Hansons characterized Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in the following manner: “The Fifth Symphony is splendid music, grand and dignified, and its form expresses the content more satisfactorily than in any other of Tchaikovsky’s large works for orchestra. But the final thought must be, as with so many of this composer’s works, a thought transcending the obvious pleasure of tunefulness, superb orchestration, and passionate self-questioning; it is from first note to last noble. Never querulous, never playing to the gallery, it exposes the soul of a man which all must feel the better for knowing.”
©2011 Dr. Richard E. Rodda