Masterworks 4: As Fate Would Have It
Scott Seaton | Conductor
Tchaikovsky poured his soul into each of his symphonies, expressing passion and pathos as no other composer has. Join us as Scott Seaton leads Tchaikovsky’s searing Fifth Symphony. On the first half of the program, cellist Evan Kahn tugs at the very depths of your soul with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, one of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful concerti ever written.
Free pre-concert talk one hour before each performance.
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Mikhail Glinka began writing Ruslan and Ludmila in 1837 and premiered it in 1842 in St. Petersburg. The opera itself is rarely performed today, although the spirited Overture has endured to become one of the best known of Glinka’s works. These irresistible melodies come mostly from the final portion of the opera and jubilantly express the happy ending of a love story. Glinka had a respectable day-job as Assistant Secretary of the Department of Public Highways, and was able to devote his free time to music. His big break came when he wrote A Life for the Tsar, in which he incorporated Russian folk tales and tunes into the first Russian language opera. The Tsar loved it, and Glinka became simultaneously famous and wealthy as a seminal figure in the nationalist movement of Russian classical music. Glinka’s influence was significant and can be heard in the Russian “Big Five” composers in addition to Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. His next opera, Ruslan and Ludmila was based on a fairy tale poem by Alexander Pushkin, whom Glinka also recruited to adapt a libretto. However, the poet’s untimely death in a duel left his work incomplete - a reason some attribute to the opera’s initial lukewarm reception.
Drink in Glinka's orchestration and imagine a banquet din of silverware and glass whirling with the music. His inspiration arose from a dinner party; he wrote that he “was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them in the prelude to Ruslan. I later did so, with fair success.” Written in a classic sonata-allegro form, the first theme is lively and the second is lyric. The lyrical theme represents the amorous hero Ruslan, and is heard in the violas, cellos and bassoons. The end of the Overture is famous for its whole-tone scale that represents the antagonist. Glinka was among the first to employ this tonally androgynous scale in the classical music genre. The Overture was written over a span of only a day or two and runs about four minutes in performance. The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.
Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor is known for its intense emotive expression, albeit melancholic and moody. While not especially “showy,” it is considered to rank among the finest works in the cello repertoire. Cellist Felix Salmond premiered the Concerto in 1919, with Elgar conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in the opening concert of the first post-war season. Like many first performances, the reception was highly variable. Some historians attribute the poor reception to the “new sound” that Elgar had adopted, but he, himself, blamed the rehearsal schedule and the conductor. But at least one critic noted “a profound wisdom and beauty underlying its simplicity." Conductor Adrian Boult noted that the Cello Concerto “struck a new kind of music, with a more economical line, terser in every way.” Aside from the rocky premiere, a recording was undertaken that led to establishing the Concerto firmly in the literature. In the 1970’s, cellist Jacqueline du Pre brought the Concerto back to the stage and into the modern repertoire. Empathy is the required skill for the soloist.
Elgar was of humble origin, poor and Catholic, self-taught as a composer, and not a likely icon of London high society; but as fate would have it, his music became synonymous with Edwardian pomp and grandeur. Distraught by the First World War and the unravelling of the Imperial order in which he had come of age, he withdrew from his creative life and wrote little in that era. When his fame began to fade and illness crept on him, he left London for a cottage in Sussex where he composed a few chamber pieces in addition to his last major work to be completed - the Cello Concerto. The scoring is thin, often with only a simple line or a delicate accent to form the accompaniment. It is deeply affective and somewhat minimal - aside from the grandiose last movement, the tunes are simply repeated without development. Scholars speculate on the source of Elgar’s inspiration. At the time, he perhaps had a fancy for a young cellist named Guilhermina Suggia whom he had heard at Queen’s Hall early in 1919. Others consider the Concerto as Elgar’s “war requiem,” while still others simply hear the influence of Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. Curiously, the total duration of these four movements is less than the typical three movement form. The orchestra includes: 2 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.
The first movement begins with a bold statement from the soloist that leads to a gentle triple-meter Moderato in the violas, then the cellos, and finally the soloist. This iconic opening was something Elgar worked at extensively, and the theme of the Moderato was the one with which the composer most closely identified. It is said that on his deathbed he whistled the tune and asked his friend to think of him whenever he heard it, saying “Don’t be frightened. It’s only me.” After several repetitions by soloist and orchestra, the mood turns warmer and lighter with the flowing melody. The first theme eventually returns as the movement ends on a somber vibe with the cello persisting through to the next movement without pause. The second movement starts with another solo cello flourish that develops into a delightfully kinetic dance. The orchestra mostly stays out of the way, with their accompaniment delicate and sparse, interjecting occasional harmonic tension. The melodic material taken from the first-movement with a flighty dialogue between soloist and orchestra. This perpetual motion challenges the soloist at every turn, singing a passionate song while navigating dramatic climaxes. The Scherzo is the window for virtuosic displays. The third movement features a beautiful emotive solo accompanied mainly by the strings alone. Wait to be touched by the intimacy and simplicity of the music. The finale follows immediately, again opening with the soloist alone. The energy builds, but as the momentum starts to wane, the tears come flooding out. Eventually we hear the opening flourish of the concerto again, with just one difference – this time it is punctuated by two harsh blows from the orchestra.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor is characteristically evocative with large, emotive contrasts blended together with brilliantly nuanced timbres and swept along in a graceful, perpetual motion. Who would have known of his crippling depression and self-doubt? Composing was not easy for him. In 1888, just prior to composing the symphony, he confided to his brother that he had lost all interest in composing, and he described "...getting a symphony out of my dulled brain, with difficulty." The premiere in St. Petersburg with the composer conducting garnered mixed reviews, causing him to lament that "I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some exaggerated color, some insincerity of construction, which the public instinctively recognizes. It was clear to me that the applause and ovations were not for this but for other works of mine, and that the Symphony itself will never please the public."
The mood of the entire composition is cast by the introduction, a somber theme in the clarinets recurs throughout the work and based on a quote from Glinka's opera, A Life for the Tsar, on the words "Turn not into sorrow." Biographers suggest that the theme reflects the melancholy and self-doubt Tchaikovsky experienced before composing the symphony; like a pestilence, it seems to cast a shadow on whatever it touches. Some writers identify it with the unrelentingly pessimistic “fate motive” that Tchaikovsky used throughout the Fourth Symphony. A significant difference between the two works is the positive resolution that he funds in the Fifth Symphony. Notice how the theme recurs at significant moments as the symphony progresses, giving a sense of structure and coherence.
The theme is first introduced by low register clarinets and strings as the symphony wallow in dark sounds. The slow opening evolves into a dotted rhythm pattern first heard from the clarinets and bassoons that provides forward momentum. As the theme starts to scatter, a great climax synchronizes our attention again with the driving rhythm. Then, just as we are poised for a powerful coda, Tchaikovsky dims the energy and darkens the room taking us back into his brooding psyche. The Andante begins with another variation on the melancholic opening, and contains an iconic horn solo, followed by a more animated theme for solo oboe. You may recognize the amorous horn melody from the 1939 Tin Pan Alley hit song "Moon Love." About midway through, the dark fate theme reappears, this time packing power from the brass. That intrusive little theme will not let the serenity continue unfettered. In the third movement, Tchaikovsky wrote a dreamy waltz in place of a proper scherzo. The tune also has an undertone of sadness and was based on a street melody that he heard in Florence some years before. Enjoy it while you can, because the somber fate theme returns to dull the mood again near the very end, where, against the dance of the plucked strings, it appears in low, dark colors as it spills over into the Finale. The brevity of the movement underscores the fleeting nature of this mood. The Finale has the same form as the first movement, with a slow introduction leading to the main movement, although now the "anticlimactic" ending is reversed by a triumphant ending. The fate theme is again the focal point of a final struggle symbolized by the conflict between the minor and major tonality. The timpani take us into an Allegro vivace of unbounded energy for a spirited Russian folkdance, and after a "false" ending, the music rushes full-bore ahead with joyful abandon. A majestic coda includes a final trumpet blast of a major-key version of first movement march. In the very last measures, Tchaikovsky revives the main theme of the first movement, but adds a rhetorical punch to underscore "That’s All Folks!” The orchestra includes 3 flutes (piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.