As young men, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Piotr Tchaikovsky (born four years apart) represented opposite tendencies in Russian music. The former started his professional life as a naval officer, largely self-taught in music who, together with his colleagues in the Mighty Handful (also known as the ‟Russian Five”), regarded with a great deal of suspicion the newly-founded St. Petersburg Conservatory which they perceived as having an overly Western orientation. Piotr Tchaikovsky, one of the first graduates of the Conservatory, was steeped in the European classics and therefore seen by the ‟Five” as lacking authenticity as a Russian composer.
This was in the 1860s. Thirty years later, the situation was quite different: of the members of ‟Five,” Mussorgsky and Borodin had died, Balakirev had largely withdrawn from the musical scene, and Cui, never an important composer to begin with, was increasingly marginalized. Rimsky-Korsakov alone made the transition from talented amateur to consummate professional, and became the leading professor of composition at the very conservatory which he and his friends had previously disparaged. In the 1880s and ‛90s, he and Tchaikovksy entertained cordial relations, even though not untouched by professional jealousy. After Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Rimsky-Korsakov, now the undisputed dean of Russian composers, always cherished his colleague’s memory. By that time, whatever aesthetic differences had existed before between these two masters had receded into the past.
Together, they represent a classical tradition which is an inalienable part of the background of subsequent generations of composers from what used to be the Soviet Union—no matter how much those generations may have departed from the tradition or even rebelled against it.
Suite from Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1903-05)
by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Tikhvin, Russia, 1844 – Lyubensk, 1908)
THE WORLD IN 1905
When it first became known in the West (which was not that long ago), Rimsky-Korsakov’s penultimate opera, Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya, was dubbed as ‟the Russian Parsifal,” perhaps to give an indication of the importance of this long-neglected operatic gem. True, the opera has many Wagnerian parallels, and not only with Parsifal: the opening, for instance, is unmistakably modelled on the ‟Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried. The entire opera combines nature images, religion and, in particular, the motif of redemption in a way that inevitably evokes associations with Wagner. Yet there is also a strong Russian and Oriental folk element present, and the style on the whole can hardly be called Wagnerian. Through the marriage of the holy maiden Fevroniya, a child of nature, to Prince Vsevolod, the son of a ruler embattled by the invading Tartars, an unspoiled world of legends meets human society. The central event of the opera is when Fevroniya, by the power of her prayers, makes the city of Kitezh invisible so that the Tartars cannot find it. In the end, the two protagonists find safe haven in this invisible city, a place no longer of this earth, where they can reign in heavenly peace forever after.
The suite drawn from Kitezh touches upon all the different realms the opera inhabits. It opens with Fevroniya’s magical forest, complete with birdsong and a simple Russian melody to represent the idyll. With the colorfully orchestrated Bridal Procession, we meet Prince Vsevolod’s people; but the festivities are soon, and very audibly, interrupted by the attack of the Tartars. The agitated section that follows depicts the Battle of Kershenetz, in which the Russians defeat their enemy amidst glorious military fanfares. A moment of introspection follows the victory, before we take the final step into the otherwordly realm. The ‟forest murmurs” of the opening section return; the sounds of the vibraphone and celesta, together with a beguiling oboe solo, introduce the heavenly city where Fevroniya ascends with her prince. Gentle and lyrical at first, the music gradually becomes more ecstatic as we move from ‟Forest Murmurs” to a section that recalls the Magic Fire music from the closing scene of Die Walküre. The ending, however, is solemn and grandiose—a true ‟apotheosis,” or elevation to a divine state.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-75, rev. 1879, 1888)
by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, 1840 – St. Petersburg, 1893)
THE WORLD IN 1874-75
Russia’s First Great Piano Concerto
With Tchaikovsky’s arrival on the musical scene, Russia had finally produced a composer who had it all: brilliant technique, outstanding melodic gifts, and a strong Russian national identity. Before Tchaikovsky, the history of the Russian concerto consisted largely of four concertos by his teacher Anton Rubinstein (he added a fifth in 1874/75, concurrently with his former student’s First)—plus two unfinished works by Balakirev (the second of which was completed by Sergei Liapunov many years later). It was left to the young Tchaikovsky to turn the form of the concerto, which had been perceived as German in both style and origin, into something authentically Russian. Rubinstein’s combination of muscular technique and effusive lyricism was a great influence on the young composer, but Tchaikovsky had to find his own solution to the problem of form. In his monumental Tchaikovsky biography, musicologist David Brown noted: “Thematic development, which came so readily to the German symphonic composer, was thoroughly alien to Russian creative thought.” Brown describes that thought as “reflective rather than evolutionary.” This means, musically speaking, that the Russian composer can “conceive self-contained [and] often magnificently broad themes,” but encounters “problems when he wishes to evolve to the next stage of the piece.”
A Disastrous First Run-through
This “reflective” quality resulted in charges of formlessness against the concerto. Even some of Tchaikovsky’s closest friends found fault with its structure: on Christmas Eve 1874, Nikolai Rubinstein lashed out at Tchaikovsky in particularly harsh terms. Anton Rubinstein’s younger brother was himself a noted pianist, composer, conductor, and conservatory director who had invited Tchaikovsky to join the faculty of the Moscow school he had founded. Tchaikovsky related the incident (at which two other colleagues were also present) to his benefactress and confidante-by-correspondence, Mme von Meck:
I played the first movement. Not a single word, not a single comment! If only you could have known how foolish, how intolerable is the position of a man when he offers his friend food he has prepared, and his friend eats it and says nothing. Say something, if only to tear it to pieces with constructive criticism—but for God’s sake, just one kind word, even if not of praise! … Rubinstein’s eloquent silence had tremendous significance. It was as though he was saying to me: “My friend, can I talk about details when the very essence of the thing disgusts me?” I fortified my patience, and played on to the end. Again silence. I got up and asked, “Well?” It was then that there began to flow from Nikolay Grigoryevich’s mouth a stream of words, quiet at first, but subsequently assuming more and more the tone of Jove the Thunderer. It appeared that my concerto was worthless, that it was unplayable, that passages were trite, awkward, and so clumsy that it was impossible to put them right, that as composition it was bad and tawdry, that I had filched this bit from here and that bit from there, that there were only two or three pages that could be retained, and that the rest would have to be scrapped or completely revised. “Take this, for instance—whatever is it?” (at this he plays the passage concerned, caricaturing it). “And this? Is this really possible?”—and so on, and so on. I can’t convey to you the most significant thing—that is, the tone in which all this was delivered. In a word, any outsider who chanced to come into the room might have thought that I was an imbecile, an untalented scribbler who understood nothing, who had come to an eminent musician to pester him with his rubbish…
I was not only stunned, I was mortified by the whole scene….I left the room silently and went upstairs. I could say nothing because of my agitation and anger. Rubinstein soon appeared and, noticing my distraught state, drew me aside into a distant room. There he told me again that the concerto was impossible, and after pointing out to me a lot of places that required radical change, he said that if by such-and-such a date I would revise the concerto in accordance with his demands, then he would bestow upon me the honor of playing my piece in a concert of his. “I won’t change a single note,” I replied, “and I’ll publish it just as it is now!” And so I did!
Not So Bad After All?
Tchaikovsky had more immediate luck with his concerto outside Russia. It was taken on by no less an artist than Hans von Bülow, who, throughout his long career, had been closely associated with some of the greatest composers of the time, such as Liszt, Wagner, and Brahms. Bülow, who went on an American tour in 1875, gave the world premiere of the concerto in Boston in October of that year.
As far as revisions to the concerto were concerned, Tchaikovsky did not remain as adamant as he was at the beginning. Although he rejected Nikolai Rubinstein’s criticism, he later heeded the advice of Edward Dannreuther (who played the solo at the English premiere) and made emendations to the solo part in 1879. He revised the work again in 1889, and it was then that the opening D-flat major chords received the shape in which they became famous.
It is not clear what factors had been responsible for Rubinstein’s violent outburst at Christmas 1874. In any event, less than a year later, he conducted the Moscow premiere of the concerto, with Tchaikovsky’s student, the 18-year-old Sergei Taneyev at the piano. Rubinstein eventually recanted his earlier judgement completely, learned the solo part himself, and became one of the concerto’s most celebrated interpreters. He remained a staunch champion and friend of Tchaikovsky’s until his untimely death in 1881.
Secret Messages, Folksongs and Romantic Passions
At first hearing, this concerto did possess a few features that could perturb a professor of music in 1874. It opens with a lengthy passage outside the main key, in a 3/4 meter that will soon be replaced by 4/4, never to return. But David Brown has discovered some secret motivic links that connect this introduction to the main section of the first movement, and argued for the presence of a strong organic unity between the movement’s themes. Brown has also speculated that two of the motifs are ciphers for Tchaikovsky himself and Désirée Artôt, a Paris-born singer of international reputation, to whom the composer had once proposed marriage. (In fact, the second theme begins with the notes D-flat – A [in German “Des” – “A”], and that could very well stand for DESirée Artôt. If Brown’s hypothesis is true, Tchaikovsky’s procedure was similar to Schumann’s in his “Abegg” variations or in the “Lettres dansantes” movement of his Carnival.)
Each of the concerto’s three movements incorporates a folksong. The first movement includes a melody that Tchaikovsky had taken down at Kamenka, where his sister and her family had an estate, apparently from a Ukrainian kobzar, one of many blind itinerant singer-musicians. In the “Prestissimo” middle section of the second movement, we hear a French “chansonette,” “Il faut s’amuser and rire” [Let’s have fun and laugh] that was popular in Russia at the time (Brown writes: “It is said to have been a favourite in Artôt’s repertoire.”). Finally, the last movement begins with another Ukrainian tune. In different ways, all three movements are based on the contrast between these playful folk themes and the lyrical materials that surround them. It is perhaps this mixture of styles—now light, now sentimental, now “pathétique”—that is the most unique feature of the concerto. Although it may have seemed “disconcerting” at first (no pun intended), this very diversity, and the boldness with which Tchaikovsky leaps from one mood to the next, help make this work sound fresh and youthful, even after thousands and thousands of performances around the world.
Program notes written by Peter Laki, courtesy of UMS of the University of Michigan.