The Peninsula Music Festival - Season 2009 Program Notes
Program 5 - Thursday, August 13, 2009 - Beethoven's Piano Concerti & Ballet II
Song of the Volga Boatmen
Arranged by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Arranged in 1917.
Premiered on April 8, 1917 in Rome, conducted by
The Volga, Europe’s longest river, rises in the hills northwest of Moscow and flows 2,294 miles through western Russia before emptying into the Caspian Sea. The river has been a formative element in the country’s national identity — eleven of Russia’s twenty largest cities lie along its banks — and is the source of its best-known traditional melody: Song of the Volga Boatmen. The origin of the song, an authentic barge-haulers’ chantey, is unknown. The composer and musical ethnographer Mili Balakirev encountered it during a trip along the river in 1858 and published it in his 1865 collection of Russian folksongs; Tchaikovsky arranged it for piano duet in 1869 as one of his Fifty Russian Folk Songs and the gifted painter Ilya Repin made it the subject of his Burlaks [barge-haulers] on the Volga of 1870-1873, a potent visual emblem of the suffering of the people under the Tsars.
Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe was one of the most important ambassadors of Russian culture to western Europe in the years after its Paris debut in 1909, and the company customarily preceded its performances with an orchestral rendition of God Save the Tsar, the Russian national anthem most familiar from Tchaikovsky’s quotation of it in the 1812 Overture and Marche Slave. When Nicholas II was deposed by the Russian Revolution in March 1917 and Lenin returned to Russia from Switzerland early the following month, Diaghilev deemed the old imperial anthem inappropriate as a curtain-raiser, so he commissioned Igor Stravinsky, then essentially the resident composer of the Ballet Russe, to provide a replacement for a performance in Rome on April 8th. Stravinsky and Ernest Ansermet, the troupe’s conductor, cloistered themselves in the composer’s apartment and came up with an arrangement of Song of the Volga Boatmen, Stravinsky working out the orchestration at the piano and dictating it to Ansermet to write out in score. Pablo Picasso, then a designer for the Ballet Russe, painted a red circle on the cover of the manuscript as a symbol of the Revolution.
Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Composed in 1804-1806.
Premiered on March 5, 1807 in Vienna, with the composer as soloist.
Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto was last performed at the Peninsula Music Festival on August 23, 1986 with John Browning, soloist, and Victor Yampolsky conducting.
The Napoleonic juggernaut twice overran the city of Vienna. The first occupation began on November 13, 1805, less than a month after the Austrian armies had been soundly trounced by the French legions at the Battle of Ulm on October 20th. Though the entry into Vienna was peaceful, the Viennese had to pay dearly for the earlier defeat in punishing taxes, restricted freedoms and inadequate food supplies. On December 28th, following Napoleon’s fearsome victory at Austerlitz that forced the Austrian government into capitulation, the Little General left Vienna. He returned in May 1809, this time with cannon and cavalry sufficient to subdue the city by force, creating conditions that were worse than those during the previous occupation. As part of his booty and in an attempt to ally the royal houses of France and Austria, Napoleon married Marie Louise, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Austrian Emperor Franz. She became the successor to his first wife, Josephine, whom he divorced because she was unable to bear a child. It was to be five years — 1814 — before the Corsican was finally defeated and Emperor Franz returned to Vienna, riding triumphantly through the streets of the city on a huge, white Lippizaner.
Such soul-troubling times would seem to be antithetical to the production of great art, yet for Beethoven, that ferocious libertarian, those years were the most productive of his life. Hardly had he begun one work before another appeared on his desk, and his friends recalled that he labored on several scores simultaneously during this period. Sketches for many of the works appear intertwined in his notebooks, and an exact chronology for most of the works from 1805 to 1810 is impossible. So close were the dates of completion of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, for example, that their numbers were reversed when they were given their premieres on the same giant concert as the Fourth Concerto. Between Fidelio, which was in its last week of rehearsal when Napoleon entered Vienna in 1805, and the music for Egmont, finished shortly after the second invasion, Beethoven composed the following major works: the Sonata, Op. 57 (“Appassionata”); the Violin Concerto; the Fourth and Fifth Piano Concertos; the three Quartets of Op. 59; the Leonore Overture No. 3; the Coriolan Overture; the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies; two Piano Trios (Op. 70); the Sonata, Op. 81a (“Les Adieux”); and many smaller songs, chamber works, and piano compositions.
Because opportunities for public concerts were so few during those troubled times, Beethoven was unable to perform the Concerto in public until December 22, 1808, nearly two years after its private premiere. By that time he had finished enough works not yet heard in public (including the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, the Choral Fantasia, and three movements from the Mass in C major) that the concert, given in the frigid Theater-an-der-Wien, lasted four hours. Reports on the quality of Beethoven’s playing at the time differed. J.F. Reichardt wrote, “He truly sang on his instrument with a profound feeling of melancholy that pervaded me, too.” The composer and violinist Ludwig Spohr, however, commented, “It was by no means an enjoyment [to hear him], for, in the first place, the piano was woefully out of tune, which, however, troubled Beethoven little for he could hear nothing of it; and, secondly, of the former so-much-admired excellence of the virtuoso scarcely anything was left, in consequence of his total deafness.... I felt moved with the deepest sorrow at so hard a destiny.” The Fourth Concerto was consistently neglected in the years following its creation in favor of the Third and Fifth Concertos. After Beethoven’s two performances, it was not heard again until Felix Mendelssohn played and conducted it with his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on November 3, 1836.
The mood is established immediately at the outset of the Fourth Concerto by a hushed, prefatory phrase for the soloist. The form of the movement, vast yet intimate, begins to unfold with the ensuing orchestral introduction, which presents the rich thematic material: the pregnant main theme, with its small intervals and repeated notes; the secondary themes — a melancholy strain with an arch shape and a grand melody with wide leaps; and a closing theme of descending scales. The soloist re-enters to enrich the themes with elaborate figurations. The central development section is haunted by the rhythmic figuration of the main theme (three short notes and an accented note). The recapitulation returns the themes, and allows an opportunity for a cadenza (Beethoven composed two for this movement) before the coda, a series of glistening scales and chords that bring the movement to a joyous close.
The second movement starkly opposes two musical forces — the stern, unison summons of the strings and the gentle, touching replies of the piano. Franz Liszt compared this music to Orpheus taming the Furies, and the simile is warranted, since both Liszt and Beethoven traced their visions to the magnificent scene in Gluck’s Orfeo where Orpheus’ music charms the very fiends of Hell. In the Concerto, the strings are eventually subdued by the entreaties of the piano, which then gives forth a wistful little song filled with quivering trills. After only the briefest pause, a high-spirited rondo-finale is launched by the strings to bring this Concerto, one of Beethoven’s greatest compositions, to a stirring close.
The Fairy’s Kiss, Allegorical Ballet in Four Scenes
Composed in 1928.
Premiered on November 28, 1928 in Paris, conducted by the composer.
Serge Diaghilev liked to think that his Ballet Russe was the only show in town, at least as far as Stravinsky’s music was concerned. Every one of the glittering series of Stravinsky’s stage works from Firebird (1910) through The Rite of Spring (1913) and Pulcinella (1920) to Oedipus Rex (1927) — with the single exception of war-time The Soldier’s Tale (1917) — had been produced for the Russian impresario’s Paris company, and he regarded Stravinsky (rightly) as the mainstay of its repertory. By 1927, the relations between these two strong creative personalities had become strained, however, and Stravinsky saw no reason to refuse a commission for a ballet from another source. When he accepted one, however, their friendship split apart, and the two never worked together again.
In the mid-1920s, Ida Rubinstein, the wealthy actress and dancer, wanted to establish a ballet company but was having difficulty assembling a suitable repertory because of the exclusive rights that Diaghilev held to so many recent works for his Ballet Russe. Taking the bull by the horns late in 1927, she sent the artist Alexandre Benois to Stravinsky with his idea for a ballet called The Fairy’s Kiss based on the music of Tchaikovsky for the new company. Stravinsky, who admired Tchaikovsky as the greatest of all Russian composers, was responsive to the Rubinstein-Benois proposal, and he accepted the commission. He set to work as soon as possible so that the production could be ready to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death, in November 1928.
For the music of The Fairy’s Kiss, Stravinsky adapted several of Tchaikovsky’s songs and piano pieces, and, for the story, he turned to a tale of Hans Christian Andersen, The Ice Maiden. The story tells of a fairy’s magic kiss bestowed upon an infant on the day of his birth. Twenty years later, on his wedding day, the day of the young man’s greatest happiness, the fairy returns with a second kiss and bears the young man off to eternity. Stravinsky identified the young man with Tchaikovsky and the fairy with the Muse of music. Thus The Fairy’s Kiss became an allegory of “a mystic influence that bespeaks the whole world of this great artist,” wrote Stravinsky. He derived the musical accompaniment for this story from little-known songs and keyboard works of Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky did the orchestration, composed transitional material to join the many short pieces together, and added some original music. He made few changes in the substance of his predecessor’s works except for a general cleansing of some of the more saccharine harmonies. There is no sense of parody or distortion here, as there had been in Stravinsky’s insouciant treatment of the music of Pergolesi in Pulcinella. The Fairy’s Kiss is rather an affectionate review of the art of the first Russian composer to achieve international distinction. In the words of Stravinsky’s biographer Roman Vlad, “His fondness for Tchaikovsky led him to compose one of his most tenderly lyrical works, in which nostalgia for bygone days is expressed quite openly.”
Eric Walter White, in his study of Stravinsky, gave the following synopsis of the ballet’s plot: “Scene I (Prologue: The Lullaby in the Snowstorm). Pursued by spirits in a storm, a mother is separated from her child, who is found and kissed by a fairy. A group of villagers passing by discover the abandoned child and take him away.
“Scene II (A Village Féte). Eighteen years later the young man and his fiancée are taking part in a village fête. They join in the country dances. When his fiancée and the villagers have gone home, the young man is approached by the fairy disguised as a gypsy. After reading his hand and promising him great happiness in the future, she brings him to a mill.
“Scene III (By the Mill). There he finds his fiancée surrounded by her friends. The lovers dance together; but when his fiancée retires to put on her bridal dress, the fairy reappears disguised as the bride and carries him off to her everlasting dwelling-place.
“Scene IV (Epilogue: The Lullaby of the Land Beyond Time and Place). She then kisses him again, this time on the sole of his foot. ‘I kissed you when you were little,’ she says in Andersen’s original story. ‘Now I kiss your feet and you are mine altogether!’”
©2009 Dr. Richard E. Rodda