Friday, November 6, 2015

Canellakis & Brown: The Adventure Continues, Rachmaninoff Edition

Michael Brown & Nicholas Canellakis
If you're just tuning in to these posts about the Canellakis-Brown Duo's performance Saturday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, I've also written about the first half of the program in this earlier post. Since I didn't want to turn that one into a marathon, I kept the Rachmaninoff Sonata that's on the second half of the program for... well, I guess last – second, anyway.

It's a good year for lovers of Russian music in Harrisburg – there was Rachmaninoff's rarely heard 1st Piano Sonata and Scriabin's Op. 11 Preludes with Peter Orth last month (read about that program of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff here), Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto in the opening concert of the season with the Harrisburg Symphony, continuing in January with Market Square Concerts' Artist Director and Harrisburg Symphony's Concertmaster, Peter Sirotin, playing the Glazunov Violin Concerto, with Stravinsky's Petrushka in February, Zuill Bailley returning in March for Shostakovich's 1st Cello Concerto, and to end the season in May, an all-Russian program with Shostakovich's 1st Symphony, Kabalevsky's suite “The Comedians,” and Ann Schein returning for Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto!

When I was teaching a course in “Russian and East European Art and Folk Music with a Historical and Cultural Perspective” (or “Russian Music” as it appeared in the curriculum) back in the late-1970s, a guest of the University of Connecticut's Slavic Center was one of the foremost anthropologists of the then Soviet Union and I asked her the question I most often get asked by Americans about Russian music: “Why is Russian music so sad?” thinking “finally, I can ask a real Russian this question!” I awaited the definitive answer like someone hoping for the latest news from the Kardashians.

She thought a while and said, “I don't really know – perhaps it's the long winters?”

Having spent three years of my life living in Rochester NY where locals say they have two seasons, Winter and the 4th of July, this, oddly enough, resonated with me.

Of course, if you figure how much time you have to spend indoors during a Russian winter between the cold and the snow and how you have to entertain yourself during that time, no wonder they write long gloomy novels and sad or wistful melodies, almost exclusively in dark minor keys with those tonal inflections that make it sound “uniquely Russian” with a soulfulness that examines what's left after the wind has stripped away everything else.

Nicholas Canellakis, cello; Hsin-Bei Lee, piano: Rachmaninoff Sonata in G Minor for Cello & Piano – Andante

The slow movement of Rachmaninoff's Cello Sonata is a case-in-point even if the very opening of the first movement may seem more like someone facing up to an impending winter. (Not that I want to point out that, despite summer-like temperatures at the beginning of November, winter, whatever it may bring, is lurking just around some not-too-distant corner...)

When we think of Rachmaninoff the composer, we see a man whose face looks like it was carved in granite (Stravinsky famously described him as a six-and-a-half-foot scowl). One of the little musical motives that keeps cropping up in so many of his pieces is the infamous Dies irae from the Latin Mass for the Dead, the “Day of Judgment.” He wrote a symphonic poem called “The Isle of the Dead.” I mean, this man must have been a laugh-riot to hang out with.

The one thing that saddens me even more is realizing that Nick Canellakis will never be able to film one of his conversations with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

But keep in mind that we're lucky to have this music at all, following the nuclear winter of his 1st Symphony's disastrous premiere when he had recently graduated from the conservatory. The dramatic failure of this work which he'd spent so much time and love on sent him into a period of depression – understandably, he was reluctant to compose anything – and then he went to see one of those new-fangled psychiatrists, Nikolai Dahl, who, through some imaginative and supportive therapy that reportedly included a bit of confidence-building hypnosis, managed to bring him out of these creative doldrums to compose his 2nd Piano Concerto which became one of those Greatest Hits. Its melodies even became the stuff of pop songs and the style would permeate the Hollywood Sound.

That symphony – originally inscribed with a biblical quote shared with Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay, saith the Lord” – was composed in 1895 and premiered the following year (and never performed again in Rachmaninoff's lifetime).

The 2nd Piano Concerto was begun late in the summer of 1900 and completed the following spring, then premiered that November with the composer as the soloist. It was then published as his Op. 18.

The Cello Sonata was completed shortly after the concerto's premiere and itself performed on December 2nd, 1901, again with the composer at the piano. And published as his Op. 19.

So while the 2nd Piano Concerto was the break-through piece following four years of creative and personal depression, the Sonata was the work that proved he had fully recuperated. Given the works he would go on to compose, one might call that the “best vengeance.”

Keep in mind, when Rachmaninoff wrote this sonata, he was 28 years old.

Here is the legendary Russian cellist Natalia Gutman and pianist Viacheslav Poprugin

(Why Rachmaninoff practically stopped composing after leaving Russia in 1917 is beyond the scope of this post: not only is it another post, it could easily be another book...)

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Rachmaninoff also didn't like to refer to it as a “Cello Sonata.” To him, it should be the “Sonata for Cello and Piano” because he felt both instruments were equal, the piano not being just an accompaniment. And considering he wrote the piano part for himself, it is not something pianists who aren't confident being soloists tackle lightly.

Here's something to keep in mind, listening to this program: Robert Schumann was a pianist (and married to one of the greatest pianists of the 19th Century, Clara Schumann); Felix Mendelssohn was a pianist; Rachmaninoff was one of the greatest pianists of the first half of the 20th Century; Janáček was, perhaps, an indifferent pianist who never tried making a career of it but he was an organist and a teacher of organ in his local conservatory in Brno, Moravia.

And Michael Brown, whose “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is on the first half of the program, is also, obviously, a pianist.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that none of these composers were cellists...

Anyway, the role of an instrumental performer (one of those terms that seems to imply pianos are not instruments) usually requires the presence of a piano to make something more or less complete, as it were. You know, the “solo instrument” plays the melody while the accompanist thubs away boom-chucking the harmony.

And I hate to bust all those great violinists who play Beethoven Violin Sonatas with “an accompanist.” In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, the common description of such works was “Sonata for Piano and Violin” – even though it boggles the minds of listeners today, they were considered piano sonatas with the accompaniment of a violin. Go figure...

While I should point out you're going to be listening to the Canellakis-Brown Duo and not “Nicholas Canellakis, cellist (and we had to be pay extra so he could bring along his pianist),” here's another of those tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek Conversations with Nick Canellakis and the great pianist Emanuel Ax – who, by the way, recorded the Rachmaninoff Sonata with the equally great but incredibly better known Yo-Yo Ma which still remains one of the best recordings of the work out there.

There was a friend of mine, a pianist, from my days in New York City where I attempted to spend two years as a free-lance starving musician – let's call her Dora Matte – who had a totally obsequious view of her role as a pianist collaborating with other musicians. She saw herself as what they might call today a “Pianist with Benefits,” I guess – you know, “I get his coffee, I pick up his dry-cleaning before the concert, I walk the dog while he practices,” that kind of thing. And of course “I do whatever he tells me to do about interpretation, dynamics, tempo – the works.”

Listen to the old Heifetz recordings of the Beethoven sonatas with pianist Brooks Smith and hear violin noodlings during those “accompanimental passages” in the audio foreground while the piano playing the melody sounds like it's off somewhere in the wings, its sound being picked up only by the “soloist's” mike.

Now, Brooks Smith was an incredible pianist and teacher – he taught “accompanying” as a degree program at the Eastman School of Music when I was there, and friends of mine raved about the insights he would drop during a lesson (nothing about dry-cleaning, however).

When I say someone is a “fine accompanist,” I usually mean the pianist has the ability of a mind-reader to anticipate what the instrumentalist or vocalist is going to do (especially vocalists) – making those fine nuances of phrasing, quick turns in the tempo, matching dynamics in the build of a crescendo or the sudden change of a dramatic subito piano.

And, ironically, this is a real challenge even when playing the simplest of accompaniments, those boom-chucky mechanical harmonizations where you could just go along [boom-chuckboom-chuckboom-chuck] once you've set up the pattern, but that would put the “soloist” in a straight-jacket when, really, they just want to wallow in rubato, that stretching and pulling of the beat for emotion's sake, giving them time to toss the head back and roll their eyes.

A child could play some of those accompaniments – it's unfortunate that a lot of pianists sound like children when they're playing them, but I digress...

And that's not going to fly in something like the Rachmaninoff Cello Sonata - I mean, the Sonata for Cello and Piano.

Today, most pianists who play sonatas with other musicians prefer to be called “collaborative artists” which some other instrumental musicians like to think of as another of those “politically correct” terms (“imagine, next they'll be wanting equal pay!”).

Rachmaninoff rarely ever “accompanied” another musician – he was primarily a soloist either playing concertos with orchestra or solo piano recitals. He did, on numerous occasions, play with the great violinist, Fritz Kreisler, who was a phenomenal musician if a little care-free in his practicing. One wonders how the stone-faced Russian Rachmaninoff and the ebullient Viennese Kreisler ever got along.

One famous story has it that, in the midst of one of those Beethoven sonatas, Kreisler had a memory slip and forgot where he was. He sidled up to Rachmaninoff, leaned over and whispered “where are we?”

Rachmaninoff, without missing a beat, said “Carnegie Hall.”

So, don't forget - the Canellakis-Brown Duo with cellist Nicholas Canellakis and pianist Michael Brown live at Market Square Church, Saturday Nov. 7th at 8pm, playing not only the Rachmaninoff Sonata but works by Schumann, Mendelssohn, Janáček and also Michael Brown as well as a Bulgarian Folk Dance (dancers not included).

- Dick Strawser

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Canellakis-Brown Duo: Nick and Michael's Excellent Adventure

Canellakis-Brown Duo (Serious Pose) credit, Beowulf Sheehan
[tap tap tap] Testing - One. Two. Three. Is this thing on? [tap tap]

Okay. So, I'm really excited to get a chance to hear these guys Nick Canellakis and Michael Brown on Saturday night at Market Square Church because they're really great musicians for one thing – plus they'll be playing some great Romantic music by SchumMendelRacháček, some Bulgarian Folk Music and even something written by the pianist himself – but they're also, like, web celebrities!

And having spent too many years in radio arguing about how somebody's name should be pronounced, I know how important it is to be right-ish. So here's it is, straight from the cellist's mouth:

Their program is really eclectic which is a word commentators like me resort to using when they can't figure out why these pieces belong on the same program except there's a lot of variety, it's all great music and I bet they probably have a lot of fun playing it.

This post is about the works on the first half of the program. You can read the Rachmaninoff post, here.

Robert Schumann wrote most of his chamber music during 1842, his very busy “Year of Chamber Music,” but the “Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” wasn't one of them. He wrote this one a few years later, after all those string quartets, the piano quintet and quartet and some other things that don't get played as much (do they?) and besides, he originally wrote it for horn and piano, by the way. Apparently, Schumann's publisher didn't think it would sell very well, so he directed that the horn part could be played by either a violin or a cello (can you say “Brahms Viola Sonatas”?).

Schumann's Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70” with Mischa Maisky, cello, and Marta Argerich, piano:

The year was 1849 – picture it, Dresden (where Schumann and his family were living) was in flames and composer Richard Wagner was one of the rabble-rousers and I'm not talking about his music (he would later be charged with treason once the revolution was put down). There's a story about how Schumann was composing a piano piece while you could hear gunfire down the street – this was for his “Album for the Young,” such innocent music! Finally, they decided they had to get out of town: walking out through the back garden gate, Schumann (leaving with Clara and their 7-year-old daughter) barely avoided being forcibly drafted. They caught a train and then walked several miles to a friend's house about 13 miles south of Dresden. But get this: while Schumann was composing the “Spring Song” from his “Album for the Young” that evening, Clara, with two other women, walked back to Dresden to retrieve the other three children (aged 6, 4 and 1) left behind with neighbors, then after arriving home at 3am, turned around and walked all the way back (this, while Clara was seven months pregnant).

Cool story, but it has nothing to do with the music of this “Adagio and Allegro” which was completed in four days in February, about ten weeks earlier.

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The next piece on the program is an old favorite of mine, one I accompanied my Eastman roommate in back in the early-'70s (before he found himself in the Cleveland Orchestra cello section) – Leoš Janáček's Pohádka.

Now, speaking of how-to-pronounce-things, let's start with the “funny marks” and the fact the á here is not a stress accent as most English-speakers would assume. In Czech, words are usually (if not always) accented on the first syllable, so it's LAY-ōsh YAH-nah-check (without the á, it would be YAH-nuh-check which could make a big difference to someone who's Czech), and the title of this little piece for cello and piano is pronounced “POH-hahd-kuh.” Literally, it means “A Tale” in the sense of a fairy tale which is how it's usually translated.

Leos Janacek: Pohadka (Fairy Tale), David Finckel and Wu Han from David Finckel and Wu Han on Vimeo.

Sometimes it's called a “Sonata for Cello and Piano” but that's not an appropriate use of the term. Yes, it's a three-movement piece and yes, there's a sonata-like balance to the movements which have some similarities of moods and motives. The first two are kind of like versions of the same ideas – both are marked “Andante” (a walking tempo) but the second one has a brighter mood and comes off more like a scherzo. The lively third movement is, one would imagine, the “happy ending,” even though at the end it sounds like the story-teller is trying not to wake the child who's finally fallen asleep.

If the composer hadn't given it a “figurative” title, he could also have called it “Three Pieces for Cello and Piano.” Bor-ing...

So, what's the fairy tale? It was inspired by some vast epic poem by the Russian poet Vasily Zhukovsky who died in 1852. I can't find any information about “The Tale of Tsar Berendey,” but it was apparently inspired by the same fairy tales that gave rise to a play about the Snow Maiden which inspired Rimsky-Korsakov's opera, Snegúrochka – and involves lots of magical transformations, mostly to avoid capture by somebody presumably evil. Somebody changes into a bee, a fish and, if I remember correctly, a church? Got me...

Whatever that has to do with this piece of music, I think it's best just to think of it as a “piece in the mood of a fairy tale.” Which may be why Janáček called it “A Tale” rather than “The Story of Tsar Berendey and the Princess Who Turned Right into a Church.” (ba dum bump).

So, what's it about? It's about 12 minutes or so.

Janáček was fascinated by the “tonal inflections” of the spoken voice and he often wrote down normal speaking – once, a minister's sermon – as if it were sung recitative (or "recitation") for an opera. This gave his “sung speech” a very natural flow and rhythm to it (and which must be hell for his translators). You can hear this, in a way, in the instrumental melodic lines here – they're not really tunes but doesn't it sound like someone talking to you, telling you a story? And then there's the opening's “Once upon a time” image and all the repetitions as if trying to get your attention before settling into the tale.

Curiously, for such a short piece, Janáček spent a lot of time finishing it. He wrote the “first version” in 1910 (he was 56) when it was intended to be part of a larger work. Then two years later he added a fourth movement which was supposed to represent the Tsarina singing a lullaby but in 1923 (he was now 68) he decided to delete this, return to the original three movements, and revise some spots along the way before it was premiered that spring.

It was also performed in London a few years later for his first appearance there: he wrote home to Kamila Stösslová (now there's a long story!), how his “nice music” was “just made for these calm Englishmen. They eat a lot here!”

Five days later, the concert at Wigmore Hall included his wind sextet “Mladi,” the 1st String Quartet (the one inspired by Tolstoy's short story, The Kreutzer Sonata), the Violin Sonata and Pohádka and it took place just after a General Strike was called so there was no publicity, no public transportation and the few people in the audience were those who could walk to the concert or who owned cars. There were also no reviews. (Been there, done that...)

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An even more lyrical interlude, next, with two pieces by Felix Mendelssohn, very short in the manner of those “character pieces” so popular in the mid-19th Century whether they have fanciful titles like the Romantic Schumann gave his (think "Blind Man's Bluff" or "Dream's Confusions") or abstract titles like the Neo-Classical Mendelssohn gave his. (By the way, Schumann dubbed his friend Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the 19th Century.”) You're probably not going to come up with stories to go along with something called “Assai tranquillo” (very tranquil) but you might wonder what the implied words could be to a “Song without Words.”

There are eight “books” of Songs without Words for solo piano that Mendelssohn published during his career, each book containing six “songs.” These were primarily geared to the amateur market and a big fan was Queen Victoria who enjoyed playing many of them. A few of them have fanciful titles like “Venetian Gondola Song” or the ever-popular “Spring Song,” but this one for cello and piano (which was published after Mendelssohn's death – apparently he didn't give it its title, either) is unrelated to the piano pieces. I just like telling you about those piano pieces.

Now, Mendelssohn was one of the great prodigies in music and perhaps one of its happiest, though that didn't keep him from dying at the age of 38 (Mozart only made it to 35). He was a brilliant pianist (his sister, Fanny, was considered by those who had a chance to hear her as more brilliant – she was also a very fine composer except in those days being a “woman composer” was more than just frowned upon, speaking of long stories...) and as a child Felix also played the violin. His brother Paul who decided to go into the family banking business (one of the reasons Felix could afford to be happy) was also a credible amateur cellist. It would be a good guess these pieces were originally composed for him to play at some family musicale.

Here's Steven Isserlis and Melvyn Tan (playing a piano from Mendelssohn's time)

and here's... well... somebody playing the Op. 109 Song without Words (perhaps the Sine Nomine Duo?)

And it probably took you longer to read all that than it did to listen to both pieces.

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So we could get all technical about that “eclectic” programming and say the program is beautifully shaped according to the key scheme, for all you theory geeks, starting with Schumann in A-flat, Janáček in a whole lot of flats (like six of them) but sounding more like he's in D-flat Major at the beginning (making the Schumann's A-flat the dominant of the Janáček's opening) though he never really settles down in any one key for very long but ends up finally in G-flat Major. Then there's Mendelssohn in B Minor (which if the Janáček were in F-sharp Major instead of G-flat would be another dominant-to-tonic relationship) and then to the D Major of the second Mendelssohn piece, the relative major of B Minor.

If you didn't get that, it'll just sound really nice, one after the other. Trust me.

Now, next on the program is a work by the pianist, Michael Brown, who, obviously, must also be a composer. He might not be great with titles because I think you could come up with something more interesting than “Two Movements for Cello and Piano.” Of course, lots of composers like Schubert and also Schoenberg wrote piano pieces called “Klavierstücke” which means “Piano Pieces.” Not very imaginative, but hey...

But the first movement of Brown's “Two Movements” is titled “Improvisation” and the second one is called “Dance.” So, what's wrong with “Improvisation and Dance”? Anyway, it got a pretty good review in the New York Times when it was premiered in late-August last year:

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'Michael Brown’s impressive “Two Movements for Cello and Piano” is the product of a confident young composer with a talent for precision. The first, “Improvisation,” is deliberately free of structure, and leaves the cellist (Nicholas Canellakis) to struggle fruitlessly. “Dance” was inspired by Bach’s gigues, and if it drops their characteristic rhythms, it keeps and develops a keen propulsion, despite quirky interruptions. Mr. Brown’s music looked forward, while David Del Tredici's “The Last Violin,” written for Bargemusic’s director, Mark Peskanov, was charmingly Schumannesque.'
(David Allen, New York Times, Aug. 28th, 2014)
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Here's an earlier piece Michael Brown wrote in 2009 called “5 AM (after Allen Ginsburg)” with the composer at the piano and cellist Nick Canellakis:

And here's the first of those “Conversations with Nick Canellakis” with guest Michael Brown, talking about his also being a composer:

I suspect leaving "the cellist to struggle fruitlessly" is the composer's pay-back for being second banana in all these videos.

By the way, in all seriousness, Michael Brown won a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant which is a big deal for a young classical artist. Check out this post from 2012 when he first appeared on the Market Square Concerts series as a solo pianist, playing Beethoven and Schubert sonatas. I usually don't do reviews, but I was just so amazed by his performance (and since no one in this town bothers to review classical music programs other than the symphony), I just had to do it.

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That brings us to – wait, how many pieces are we talking about on this program? Anyway, this one ends the first half of the program. Don't worry, many of them are pretty short, so it's not a marathon.

Classical music is generally considered “concert music,” what “cultured people” listen to dressed up in their evening finery in big fancy concert halls listening to music performed by people dressed like penguins. We talk of edification, spiritual enlightenment and sometimes, peripherally, enjoyment and even, running the risk of losing our elitist credentials, entertainment.

Folk music is what the peasants come up with to amuse themselves.

When a classical composer like Mikhail Glinka introduced some Russian folk songs into his operas, the good people of St. Petersburg said that was stuff their coachmen would listen to, not them. It was not considered “nice.”

But then, by the mid-19th Century, composers who were not German, French or Italian began trying to figure out how to sound different from the Germans, French or Italians who dominated the concert halls, people like Smetana and Dvořák in what is now the Czech Republic, Rimsky-Korsakoff and friends in Russia, and eventually Bartók and Kodály in Hungary in the early-20th Century. They “discovered” the folk music of their own ethnic heritage and gradually moved from arranging it for classical instruments to incorporating it into their own “serious” music, eventually moving on from actual quotations of it to writing original melodies imitating it.

You could call this the “Let Me Sing You the Song of My People” Movement.

Granted, there have not been a lot of composers from Bulgaria who've made it big in modern concert halls, but the Hungarian Bela Bartók was one composer who found its folk music fascinating. Compared to almost any other European folk culture, it has easily the most complex metric (or rhythmic) structure: instead of being able to march to something in 4/4 or waltz to something in 3/4, Bulgarians dance to something in seemingly ever-shifting groups of 2s and 3s, like the folk dance that Nick Canellakis arranged for him and Michael to perform in concert. Called “Gankino Horo,” the “Horo” is the type of dance and it basically means “Ganka's Dance” and Ganka can dance to something in 2+2+3+2+2 which is really 11/8 divided into 5 not always equal beats, right? Yeah, easy for you...

It's real toe-tapping music if you don't dislocate your toe in the process of trying to figure out where the beat is.

If you don't believe me, here's a dance group from Northern Bulgaria dancing... Gankino Horo!

Now, you try it!

(Disclaimer: I used to play those Nonesuch “Explorer Series” recordings of Bulgarian folk music for my percussionist roommate when I was teaching at UConn in the mid-'70s and enjoyed watching him respond to the beat but then go nuts trying to figure it out only to have it change to something completely different by the time he thought he got it. And he called himself a rock drummer...)

Here's another one they've posted on YouTube which I'll include just because it so fu... darn cool: another Horo, this is labeled simply “Wild Bulgarian Folk Dance.” Yeah.

And then there's Rachmaninoff on the second half.

Since this post is becoming a marathon, I'm going to save that for another one, so check back in, soon.

Again, the concert is this Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church on the Square in downtown Harrisburg.

Come get your chamber groove on!

No? Well, how would you say it, then...?

Oh, okay...

(aaaand fade...)

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- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Opening the Season with Peter Orth: Scriabin & Rachmaninoff, Together Again

Peter Orth
34 years ago, Peter Orth gave the very first recital in a new concert series founded by Lucy Miller Murray being given at Market Square Presbyterian Church – and for want of a name, they decided to call it Market Square Concerts. 

Peter Orth, who's come back several times since then, returns to open our 34th Season on Saturday, October 10th, at Market Square Presbyterian Church with an all-Russian program of romantic masters – actually, a program consisting of two giants of the Russian piano world: Alexander Scriabin with his 24 Preludes, Op. 11; and Sergei Rachmaninoff with his rarely heard Piano Sonata No. 1 in D Minor.

Writing in The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini spoke about the tenderness and fervor of Orth's playing, describing it as “one long arc of inspiration.” In The New York Sun, Fred Kirshnit commented that “the experience seemed like one continuous essay in profundity... a commanding presence... for sheer excitement, he is difficult to surpass.”

The concert begins at 8:00 but Dr. Truman Bullard will be giving a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15.

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When he was 10, Alexander Scriabin began to study with a well-known piano teacher in Moscow, Nikolai Zverev, who also taught at the Moscow Conservatory.

When he was 12, Sergei Rachmaninoff left St. Petersburg to study with Zverev as well, upon the advice of his mother's cousin Alexander Siloti, a pianist who had studied with the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai, but at the time was in Weimar, Germany, studying with Franz Liszt.

Not that Zverev is “Ground Zero” for Peter Orth's program, but he is certainly a common denominator. Zverev himself, growing up in an aristocratic family, began his career as a civil servant which bored him and so he continued to study the piano and make it something of a career, even though he was never well-known as a performer. He took on students by audition, took no money from them, and they all lived in his house where their lessons as well as their practicing went according to strict schedules (you did not quit practicing until your three hours were up, or else). Rachmaninoff said he learned Brahms' immense set of “24 Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel” in three days.

Zverev had studied with Anton von Henselt, a German pianist who had settled in St. Petersburg in 1838 where he became Imperial Court Pianist. After studying with Johann Nepomuck Hummel (who in turn, to follow the begats, had studied with Mozart), Henselt was recognized as a specialist in the music of Chopin. Franz Liszt thought enough of his legato playing technique that he told his students to “learn the secrets of Henselt's hands,” adding later, “I could have had velvet paws like Henselt if I wanted to.”

Henselt is basically the founder of what became known as the “Russian School of Piano Playing,” and even though he had ceased to play in public after the late-1840s – supposedly a victim of extreme stage-fright – his sound was a major influence on the young Rachmaninoff.

Professor Zverev & his Students
In this photograph from the late-1880s, Nikolai Zverev sits in the center of several of his students. In the front row, first on the left in the cadet uniform, is Alexander Scriabin; the tall guy standing behind his teacher, second from the right in the back row, is Sergei Rachmaninoff.

At the time, neither student had serious thoughts of becoming anything other than a pianist, yet there was a guest at one of Zverev's weekly Sunday open-houses who was also a major influence on Rachmaninoff. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was, of course, one of the great names of Russian music and in the 1880s one of the major figures in Moscow (most of the Nationalists of the Mighty Handful or Russian Five lived in St. Petersburg). And so when, like any would-be concert pianist who was expected to write his own music, Rachmaninoff's early efforts won supportive praise from Tchaikovsky, he began to take his creative side more seriously.

In the late-1880s, Scriabin was already composing numerous short pieces under the influence of Chopin – preludes, etudes primarily but also mazurkas, waltzes, and impromptus, all titles found in Chopin's output. The 4th Prelude of the set Op. 11 was composed in 1888 when he was 16. The rest of them would be added later, most of them in 1896, 24 in all, one in each major and minor key – just like the set of 24 Preludes that Chopin wrote between 1835 and 1839.

Scriabin, 1892
For Scriabin, continuing his studies at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied piano with Vasily Safonov, theory and composition with Anton Arensky and counterpoint with Sergei Taneyev (these last two, major names in the generation after Tchaikovsky), it was something different that made him take composition seriously. Arenksy considered him a “scatterbrain” (consequently, Scriabin did not complete his composition degree) but when challenged by an even better pianist, Josef Lhevinne (who graduated at the top of their class, ahead of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin), intense practicing to improve his technique resulted in Scriabin injuring his right hand – the doctors said he would never be able to play again.

So, like Robert Schumann before him, Scriabin decided he had better work more seriously on his composing and completed his first large-scale work, a piano sonata he said was “a cry against God, against Fate” with its devastating funeral march of a finale.

He also composed a few short pieces specifically for the left hand and worked assiduously at improving his left-hand technique, much in evidence in his later music, often the bane of many a pianist trying to master his style. Eventually, he regained use of his right hand and gave a debut recital in 1894, including some of his own works. The publisher Belyayev, an advocate for Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov among others, heard this program and offered to publish Scriabin's music, taking him on a concert tour of Russia and Western Europe.

Because of Scriabin's slight frame and fragile health, more than one critic in Paris was reminded of Chopin physically, not just musically. Another critic wrote he had “an exquisite nature equally great as composer and pianist, an enlightened philosopher, all nerve and holy flame.”

By 1895, Scriabin completed a set of 12 Etudes, Op. 8, and the following year, the last thirteen preludes to make up a set of twenty-four which became his Op. 11. These were not written in “key order” the way they are published (the way Chopin organized his own Preludes, Op. 28). Spanning eight years' time, they range in mood, tempo and technical difficulty to create a great variety.

Here are two of these preludes – No. 13 in G-flat Major (composed in Moscow, 1896) performed by Scriabin himself from a Welte piano-roll recorded in 1910; and No. 8 in F-sharp Minor (composed in Paris, 1896) performed by Rachmaninoff recorded in 1929.

Of these YouTube clips, you could listen to either Mikhail Pletnev or to Evgenny Zarafiants whose playing I'm not familiar with, play all 24 preludes – the second has the benefit of showing you the score.

Rachmaninoff, meanwhile, graduated from the Conservatory in 1892, winning the “great gold medal” in composition for his opera, Aleko which was deemed such a success, the Bolshoi Opera agreed to produce it with Fyodor Chaliapin.

At 19, he was now a “free artist.”

On September 26th that year, he played a prelude of his own, a little something called the “Prelude in C-sharp Minor” (perhaps you've heard of it?). Its popularity would haunt him the rest of his life.

Rachmaninoff at Ivanovka, 1897
By the time Scriabin was putting the finishing touches on his Op. 11 Preludes in 1896, Rachmaninoff had been working on his first symphony over the past two years. Premiered in 1897, its reception – “If there were a conservatory in Hell,” Cesar Cui's review leading the attack – must be one of the most painful debuts in the history of music, as far as any composer who would go on to be regarded eventually as a great composer.

How bad was it? Well, Rachmaninoff needed to undergo psychoanalysis to regain his confidence so that by 1900 he was finally composing again – and not just any piece, but his Second Piano Concerto, perhaps one of the most beloved piano concertos out there, one so full of gorgeous tunes and incredible writing, it's hard to imagine three years earlier, its composer was ready to give up.

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Since Scriabin had already written the piece we're going to hear on this program, it's unnecessary for this post to go into detail about music he wrote later. While some listeners unfamiliar with his history – and what an unusual history it is – might be put off by the reputation his later music would earn, there is a mystical, spiritual quality that is only hinted at in this music composed before he was in his mid-20s. That he died at the age of 43 is another one of those tragedies, considering the direction his music was headed in could easily have changed the course of 20th Century music as much as Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Bartok were to do.

But all that – and the revolutions that overthrew the world that nurtured both composers – was in the future.

Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto began making a name for him in The West where, curiously, Tchaikovsky's music had paved the way as “what Russian music should sound like,” “an art in tonal purples and blacks,” an impression also helped by the reputation of great Russian novelists of the late-19th Century, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It appeared, now, that young Rachmaninoff would follow in these same tragic footsteps.

As revolution began to fester in Russia – 1905 was an especially bad year for strikes and riots (not to mention the humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War) – Rachmaninoff tried to avoid politics yet, as a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow where everyone from the orchestra, the choir, the ballet dancers to the stage-hands were embroiled in the hot topics of the day concerning social and political reform, he could not be unaffected by it. Several theaters were closed for fear of bombs and someone shouting “down with the monarchy” in the midst of a performance of Glinka's classic opera, A Life for the Tsar was enough to turn everything “into a battlefield with hats, coats, umbrellas and galoshes flying through the air.”

Rachmaninoff, 1910
Unhappy with the situation at work, its distractions on his time to compose, and concerned for the safety of his new family, Rachmaninoff decided to leave Russia temporarily in 1906 and, like Tchaikovsky before him when the going got personally rough, went to Italy. Considering the impact leaving Russia behind in 1917 would later have on him, how did this separation from his homeland affect him?

Despite his physical appearance and stoic expression, Rachmaninoff was a mask in many ways (Stravinsky would later describe him as "a six-and-a-half-foot scowl"). He made a rare confession to a friend: “I am a most ordinary and uninteresting man” - “there is no critic in the world who is more doubtful about me than myself” - “if ever I had faith in myself, that was a long time ago, in my youth.” In a letter from 1912 he wrote, “I am afraid of everything – mice, rats, beetles, oxen, murderers. I am frightened when a strong wind blows and howls in the chimney, when I hear raindrops on the window pain; I am afraid of the darkness...”

Suddenly, in Italy he was faced with decisions about what to do when an offer for an American concert tour arrived. He wrote, you “could not possibly understand what tortures I live through when I realize that this question has to be answered by me and me alone. The trouble is that I am just incapable of making any decision by myself. My hands tremble!”

Instead, he decided to go to Dresden and stayed there for the next three winters, going back to Russia to spend the summers at his family's beloved country estate, Ivanovka.

Scriabin, 1903
Scriabin, too, had left Russia for a variety of reasons in 1903, after resigning his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and because his interest in religious and philosophical mysticism drove him to seek new lands and ideas while he was writing his Third Symphony, The Divine Poem. He took his family to Switzerland but there he decided to leave his wife and four children and go to Paris with his mistress, Tatiana Schlözer. In 1906, Scriabin went to America for a concert tour where The Divine Poem was performed in New York by his old teacher, Safonov. But with the news of Scriabin's treatment of his wife and the arrival of Tatiana not long after, there was a scandal about his “traveling with a woman who was not his wife!” Warned in the middle of the night that “serious unpleasantness” was imminent, Scriabin and Tatiana fled New York on a steamer for Paris the next day though there was never any indication the Department of Immigration was seriously going to arrest them for “moral turpitude.”

Scriabin & Tatiana, Brussels 1909
Back in Paris with only 30 francs left in his pocket, Scriabin set about writing The Poem of Ecstasy and played it for Diaghilev and the visiting Rimsky-Korsakov who felt the “unhealthy eroticism” meant Scriabin was “half out of his mind already.”

In 1909, then, he decided to return to Moscow where he found himself and his music at the center of controversy with “unrestrained agitation and enthusiasm.” He was being hailed as a leader of the avant-garde – curiously, Rachmaninoff was now being regarded as an old-fashioned conservative after Moscow, once a traditionalist cultural back-water compared to the cosmopolitan Window on Europe of St. Petersburg, had become the center for everything new.

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So here is Rachmaninoff in Dresden finding intellectual stimulation as well as sufficient isolation to compose – as he wrote to a friend, “We live here like hermits: we see nobody, we know nobody, and we go nowhere. I work a great deal” – and it was here he composed his 2nd Symphony, the symphonic poem The Isle of the Dead (inspired by a painting of the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin he saw during a side-trip to Paris in 1907), an opera he eventually abandoned, the 3rd Piano Concerto which he would premiere in New York City in 1909 – and his 1st Piano Sonata, the one on Peter Orth's program with Market Square Concerts.

Keep in mind the context of the time – separation from Russia, uncertainty of the future, and his own dark fears. Though there is no published program behind the music of this piano sonata, it began as sketches for a setting of Faust, Goethe's drama about the man who sells his soul to the devil in return for earthly success and happiness. (How could that not resonate with an artist like Rachmaninoff?) Like Liszt's “Faust Symphony,” the work was intended to be three movements, one for each of the main characters – Faust himself in the first movement, Gretchen in the slow movement, and Mephistopheles the Devil in the finale. However, shortly after he began writing the sonata, he abandoned the program though it would be difficult for listeners to ignore the natures of each movement's character in the final work.

Composing the sonata was not an easy task: he had doubts about using the form (though you might think writing a symphony at the same time, essentially a “sonata for orchestra,” would be more formidable); he even had doubts about the length. By the time he went to Paris in May of 1907 – he agreed to play the concerts organized there by Diaghilev (who hated his music) only because he needed the money – he had finished just the 2nd movement of the sonata. After the Paris concert, he returned briefly to Ivanovka, stopping in Moscow to play through a rough draft of the sonata for friends who did not particularly care for it. One of them, however, Konstantin Igumnov, said he would be interested in playing it.

Rachmaninoff completed the sonata in April, 1908 – all 45 minutes of it – and Igumnov premiered it in Moscow that October where it was not a success. Unfortunately, Rimsky-Korsakov had just died in June and suddenly all eyes were on Rachmaninoff as the “Next Great Hope” for Russian Music. It was a little more of a burden than Rachmaninoff or his music needed at the time and the sonata in particular, found “dry” and “repetitive,” failed to please. Even though Rachmaninoff cut 110 measures from the score, shortening it to a more manageable 35 minutes or so, the work has never caught on and is still one of his less-heard large-scale works.

If you've heard any of Rachmaninoff's music, you're probably aware of his fixation with the Dies irae motive from the ancient chant for the Catholic Mass for the Dead's “Day of Wrath.” Not only does he use it to chilling effect outright in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini where it seems to have no thematic relevance, as well as numerous other works where its appearance brings with it a chill of the memento mori, an ever-present reminder of death, it's also a major feature of The Isle of the Dead where it makes perfect programmatic sense. This sonata, written around the same time as the tone poem, also employs the Dies Irae motive but only in outline, suggesting it more than using it as a theme. In fact, the finale of the sonata has no significant “thematic profile” as such, even with its reminiscences of the first movement, but is a furious toccata permeated with this very dark yet simple fragment from the 13th Century laden with centuries of anxiety and dread.

In this version (with original Gregorian chant notation) you need only listen to the first ten seconds:

You could listen to either of these YouTube clips depending on whether you want to watch a pianist perform in concert or, again, follow along with the score while listening to a transfer from an LP. The first is Boris Berezovsky; the second is the legendary John Ogdon.

Even though Rachmaninoff didn't stay in town for the premiere, he eventually returned to his estate at Ivanovka where in late-September, 1909, he completed the Third Piano Concerto, performing it for the first time himself in New York City a month later, part of the American tour he finally decided to accept – because, he told friends, he needed money to buy a new car.

(By the way, Ann Schein returns to Harrisburg in May, 2016, to play Rachmaninoff's 3rd Piano Concerto with Stuart Malina and the Harrisburg Symphony.)

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While we'll never know what music lost with the death of Alexander Scriabin one hundred years ago, it is quite possible, given the evolution of his musical style, he might have become a leading voice in the development of 20th Century Music, especially atonal music, whether or not he would have pursued a path similar to Schoenberg's. But in 1909 when he returned to Moscow and when Rachmaninoff, his old school friend, also returned to Moscow the following year and became conductor of the Moscow Philharmonic Concerts, the rivalry between New Music and the Old Romanticism was inevitable, largely due to the press and the former bassist-turned-conductor Sergei Koussevitsky who championed the new style with his own rival orchestra. Rachmaninoff, who tried to remain aloof from the hoped-for fray, however performed Scriabin's music – his earlier music, I would imagine. Following Scriabin's death in 1915, Rachmaninoff gave a concert tour through Russia where he played only music by Scriabin despite requests for him to play some of his own works.

Then came the Revolutions – first, the February Revolution which overthrew the Tsar to form a provisional government with democratic reforms which was in turn overthrown by the Bolsheviks in November, 1917. With that, the country that Rachmaninoff and Scriabin had grown up in disappeared and with it the culture that had nourished them and their art. Many of his compatriots, especially those among the landed gentry, fled to Paris or Berlin, eventually London or America. Hurriedly arranging a quick concert appearance in Stockholm, Rachmaninoff took his family by train to the Finnish border and left with very little of his worldly belongings, never to return.

But that is a chapter for another program.

Dick Strawser

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Love & Sextets: Summermusic 2015 Concludes at the Civic Club

The final program of this season's Summermusic with Market Square Concerts takes place Wednesday evening at 6:00 (that's SIX o'clock) at the Civic Club in downtown Harrisburg – for the unfamiliar, check out this link to last summer's directions and information about downtown parking but note that the program is different – with string players from the resident artists' ensemble playing sextets by Johannes Brahms and Arnold Schoenberg.

In both of them love (in one form or another) plays an inspiring role: in Brahms' case, the memory of a girlfriend from years past; in Schoenberg's, telling the tale of a man and woman who find their love transfigured by the revelation of a secret.

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One of the two works on this program had been rejected by the composer's usual publisher and "sunk" by another one who found it "vile music that one should suppress." Shades of reviews of an earlier work that some critics called "mathematical music."

Are we talking about Schoenberg, a composer too many people associate with the contemptible aspects of contemporary music?

No. This is the G Major String Sextet that Johannes Brahms had completed in 1865.

Here are the four movements of Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36
1st Movement (at 2:30 – the “Agathe Ade!” Motive) w/members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet

2nd Movement Scherzo w/ChamberFest Cleveland 2013

3rd Movement – Slow Movement w/The Shanghai Quartet & Friends in Tokyo

4th Movement w/Amadeus Quartet + Cecil Aronowitz & William Pleeth

A couple of years before he had started composing the 1st String Sextet, Brahms (right) was still living in his hometown of Hamburg in 1858 when a friend invited him to come check out Göttingen, a college town about 170 miles south. This friend, Julius Otto Grimm, composer, teacher and music director of the local choral society, the Cäcilienverein (Cecelia Club), wrote to him, “If it would please you to have a few good voices lodged in very lovely girls, sing for you, they will take pleasure in being at your disposal. Come quickly!” Odd that Brahms had hesitated, at first.

So, in the midst of working on a serenade originally for a small group of strings and winds, he did so reluctantly, even if it was part of a holiday with Clara Schumann, her five youngest children, her half-brother, composer Woldemar Bargiel and violinist Joseph Joachim. It didn’t, however, take Brahms long to succumb to the charms of the town and especially some of the young ladies in town – one soprano named Agathe von Siebold, in particular.

In addition to having long dark hair, a lush figure, a fondness for practical jokes and a voice that Joachim likened to an Amati violin, Agathe (left) was also studying composition with Julius Grimm who once berated her for some sloppy counterpoint exercises. When Brahms agreed to play a trick on his friend, he wrote out her assignment himself which she duly handed in as her own. Grimm exploded over this “swinish mess” and when Agathe asked “well, what if Johannes had written it,” he said it would be even worse. Here, Brahms had actually screwed it up on purpose, playing a joke on both of them.

Oh, those wild and crazy musicians… such larks…

At the end of this extended vacation, Brahms returned to Detmold, about 30 miles to the northwest as the crow flies, where he was employed part of the year as a “court musician,” performing with the orchestra there and teaching music to the family of Prince Leopold III. In addition to organizing chamber music concerts, he also conducted a women’s choir for whom he wrote numerous short choral works.

In addition to playing concertos by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin (I’m trying to imagine Brahms playing Chopin, but hey…), he also conducted his first Bach (the cantata, “Christ lag in Todesbanden”) and was known to accompany Mozart violin sonatas by starting them in the wrong key to “test” his colleague’s transposition skills. As a composer, his B Major Piano Trio (the original version of Op. 8) and the G Minor Piano Quartet were received coolly.

Visiting Göttingen again in 1859, he and Agathe continued their friendship and apparently became secretly engaged. According to his friends, they seemed perfectly happy with each other.

Then he left for two performances of his finally completed D Minor Piano Concerto which was neither a success nor a failure in Hannover but which was frostily received in Leipzig five days later. After a long silence, perhaps three pairs of hands bothered to applaud before the hissing began. Critics called it “banal and horrid.”

By then, returning to see Agathe, Brahms suffered what today would be called “a fear of commitment.” When he wrote to her, "I love you! I must see you again! But I cannot wear fetters! Write me whether I may come back to fold you in my arms, to kiss you, to tell you that I love you!" she responded by breaking off the engagement.

To his friends, Brahms would admit to “playing the scoundrel” to Agathe. Over a decade later, he recalled those days, how he would like to have married but when his music was hissed in the concert hall and so icily received, he realized while this was something he himself could tolerate, returning alone to his room,

“...if, in such moments, I had had to meet the anxious, questioning eyes of a wife with the words ‘another failure’ – I could not have borne that! For a woman may love an artist… ever so much… and if she had wanted to comfort me – a wife to pity her husband for his lack of success – ach! I can’t stand to think what a hell that would have been.”

During the first months in Göttingen , he wrote several songs for Agathe to sing, many of them using a musical motif based on her name spelled out in certain available notes

using the old German notation where B = B-flat and H = B-natural, and where S (or Es) = E-flat and “As” = A-flat.

In the months following his break-up with Agathe, Brahms composed more songs, still occasionally employing the “Agathe Motive” but setting it to words about parting and lost love.

Brahms would use this “Agathe Motive” again in the 2nd String Sextet which he completed a few years after he and Agathe von Siebold parted ways.

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Moving ahead a few years, Brahms had completed two new piano quartets and three versions of his Piano Quintet, before writing to his Göttingen friend Julius Grimm once again, asking how things were “in all the houses where one used to go so happily… of that house and gate – ” which he didn’t need to explain was the house where Agathe von Siebold lived with her father.

Grimm told him “the old Professor had died three years ago” and Agathe had taken a job the past year as a governess in Ireland where she teaches music and German to the daughters of a rich young English family. She had to get away, he said, from “the shadowed pages of her life… what a gloomy lot is that of a girl alone.”

Brahms returned to Göttingen and stood by that ruined gate, looking at the empty house (such images typical of the lovelorn poetry of the Romantic Age). In September, he composed the devastated and exalted songs of Op. 32 which included the lines “I would like to stop living, to perish instantly, and yet I would like to live for you, with you, and never die.”

That same month, he began the first movement of the 2nd String Sextet. The second movement was based on a Baroque-like gavotte he’d written (part of a collection of tongue-in-cheek dances in the early-1850s) contrasting with a jocose middle section. The original sketch of the slow movement’s variations was written in 1855 and the overall sound is basically “wandering, empty, tragic.” The finale sounds like it might be a proper scherzo with a warm contrasting section with a bit of a dance to it: perhaps a “last dance, at the end of an affair,” as Swafford describes it.

The opening is a gem of a motive – an oscillating G-F# connecting first a G Major triad and then, unexpectedly, an E-flat triad (the G being a common pitch). It would be possible to analyze this music in terms of these two sounds (the oscillation and the G—D , E-flat—B-flat) but the most striking element, considering the theme of this post, is a motive that appears in the transition between the 1st and 2nd themes of the Sonata’s exposition:

This is Agathe’s Motive - and at its most obvious, climactic point, it is repeated five times. Yet this time, there is another note inserted within the motive – a D (see above) – which helps spell out the word “adé” or “Adieux, Farewell” in the inner voices. One could even sing "Agathe, adé" to this fragment of a melody.

Brahms is certainly saying farewell to Agathe, taking his leave, musically if not emotionally. Yet in the very first song he wrote for her – Op.14 No. 1 of 1858 – this “adé” motive appears when the night-watchman sounds his horn as the lovers part.

We may think of this as purely abstract music with no literary allusions or suggestions of telling a story, the sort of thing Liszt and the New German School espoused. But even Brahms must have had something on his mind, here, when he was writing this – a young girl who used to sing his songs for him and with whom he once contemplated marriage.

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Here's a review from the first Viennese performance of one of the two works on this program: is it regarding the Brahms Sextet or Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht?

"We are always seized with a kind of oppression when [this composer] announces himself. [He] makes us quite disconsolate with his impalpable, vertiginous tone-vexations that have neither body nor soul and can only be products of the most desperate effort."

Which composer do you think was the subject of this review?

This was by an anonymous critic writing for the Wiener Zeitung (Viennese Newspaper) following the February 3rd, 1867 performance of Johannes Brahms' String Sextet No. 2 in G!

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Schoenberg in 1903
I love this quote about Schoenberg's music from the introduction in Allen Shawn's wonderfully readable book, Arnold Schoenberg's Journey. Given that Schoenberg is a composer frequently cast as the Boogey-Man of Modern Music, the “inventor” of serial music (therefore the killer of all that is considered good in music whom theorists analyze by slathering technical jargon on by the ladle-full until we are knee-deep in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook in ways they would never write about Beethoven, Shawn writes,

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“...perhaps Schoenberg's work deserves a more superficial treatment than it has hitherto received.”
= = = = =

We don't need to get into atonality or serial music (or the difference between them) because that will be years into the future from the work you can hear on Wednesday's program. For those who feel "Oh, I don't like Schoenberg" as some people have told me why they're not coming to this performance, I say "But this is not that Schoenberg."

Verklärte Nacht was composed in 1899 so it is honestly a 19th-Century piece even though it had to wait until 1902 for its first performance. It begins darkly in D Minor and ends luminously in D Major and while it may go far afield in between, one could say the same of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde (completed forty years earlier) not to mention the middle bits from the finale of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (completed on July 25th, 1788), but I digress...

Basically, it is a tone-poem for six string players, though we normally expect story-telling “tone-poems” from orchestral music, not chamber music (which tends to be a fairly abstract world). This may be one reason Schoenberg later arranged it for the full string section of your typical symphony orchestra.

It's based on a poem by Richard Dehmel about love that is perhaps a little more up-to-date than the love-plots of Wagner's operas which are more about “redemption through love” which usually involves having to die to attain it. Here, a man accepts the fact the woman he loves is already pregnant with a child by a man she doesn't love: he tells her he will love her and will love the unborn child as if it were his own, that their love will make the child his own – and at that moment, walking in the moonlit woods, the child, the man, the woman and the night itself are all transfigured from darkness into light.

(You can read a translation of the original poem here. Cary Burkett, whose voice will be familiar to listeners of WITF-FM, will read the poem before the performance.)

Poster for Verklärte Nacht
This unattributed image with trees, a path and moonlight (also available as an iPhone skin) evokes Dehmel's poem but could also serve for Schoenberg's later Erwartung where a woman wanders through similar woods at night believing she has killed her lover (and possibly just tripped over his body)... The cliché of being lost in the woods predates Freud – think any number of fairly tales but especially “Hansel and Gretel” (not to mention Stephen Sondheim's fairy-tale-inspired Into the Woods). It was certainly common enough during the end of the 19th Century: think, also, of Pelleas and Melisande, Maeterlinck's play which inspired both the opera by Debussy and Schoenberg's orchestral tone poem. That makes three works by Schoenberg dealing with the imagery of seeking identity while wandering lost through the woods at night.

Talk about mystery and psychological subtext...

Here is a recording with the Juilliard Quartet plus violist Walter Trampler and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, complete with score:

Victorian England and the (shocking!) not-so-private lives of various composers like Liszt and Wagner aside, there were some things you just didn't talk about in polite society in late-19th Century Vienna, despite the erotic goings-on not very far beneath that respectable surface. Clearly the “secret sex life” of Vienna was enough to fuel the work of numerous artists (think Gustav Klimt, whose “Beethoven Frieze” from 1902 contains this famous detail; the most famous paintings of his Golden Period dates from 1907) as well as Sigmund Freud whose first writings on sexuality appeared in 1898, though his more significant works on the subject were still shocking people when they appeared in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Richard Dehmel in 1905
Richard Dehmel published his “Verklärte Nacht” in 1895, a year before a volume of poems, Weib und Welt (Woman and World) triggered such a scandal he eventually landed in court charged with obscenity and blasphemy. Though he was acquitted on technical grounds, the court still condemned the volume and ordered it to be burned! Later on, Dehmel would again be prosecuted for obscenity and blasphemy, but would again be acquitted.

In his defense, Dehmel wrote “I believe that anyone who helps the human soul open its eyes to the bestial urges serves true morality better than many a moralistic accuser.” Many of these poems were inspired by his affair with Ida Auerbach for whom he eventually left his wife (I know, shocking, right?).

All this unleashed a creative surge in Schoenberg, then in his mid-20s and two years away from marrying Mathilde Zemlinsky, the sister of his friend and “teacher,” Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Schoenberg as cellist, July 8, 1900
He and Zemlinsky met in the amateur orchestra Zemlinsky conducted. Schoenberg played the cello - in the photo (left), he is the sad-sack in the midst of these Merry Musicians which also includes a mustachioed violinist named Fritz Kreisler.

He had begun to write music only recently without ever having had any instruction. Zemlinsky, only two years older than Schoenberg, said he was never really Schoenberg's teacher: they used to show each other their music and, with more experience, Zemlinsky took on the role of “coach,” making suggestions, loaning him scores – attending concerts was basically outside Schoenberg's budget – and engaging in long hours of “shop talk.”

One of his first finished works was a String Quartet in D Major from 1897 which some think sounds very much like Brahms – and Brahms had just died on April 3rd that year. Personally, I think it sounds more like Dvořák-imitating-Brahms but it's clearly a student work full of this-and-that. 

The change in two years between this quartet and the sextet, Verklärte Nacht, is almost as shocking as the shift between it and the 2nd String Quartet of 1907 which includes, in its last two movements, his first attempts to put tonality completely aside.

The classical old-fashioned clarity of this early quartet was soon overwhelmed by a few lessons in counterpoint from Zemlinsky and apparently Dehmel's poetry which unleashed Schoenberg's Wagnerian side in a late-19th Century dichotomy: what are you, a classicist (Brahmsian) or a romanticist (Wagnerian)? By this time, now 25, Schoenberg was trying to figure out how he could manage the best of both worlds. One of the critics at the premiere of Verklärte Nacht complained it sounded like the “pages of Tristan freshly smeared over.”

Curiously, once past the dense post-Wagnerian textures and harmonic activity of things like the very Romantic oratorio Gurrelieder and the atonal drama of his one-character opera Erwartung, Schoenberg began to re-examine the music of Brahms, calling him “Brahms the Progressive” (something Brahms or his contemporaries would never have considered) and eventually devising a new organizational language he called “composing with 12 tones”. But again, that's for the future...

It is often said that the first performance of Verklärte Nacht in Vienna in March of 1902 was “loudly hissed” by both audience and critics. True, there were disruptions, even fisticuffs (please, no fisticuffs at the Civic Club: there will be students present).

But there were these comments, as well:

A critic for the German newspaper Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that the sextet was “rich in invention, powerful in inspiration, genuine in feeling and captivating in its sonorities, despite the wrong notes” (which might have been performance issues or perhaps his perception of what should've been the right notes). A friend of Brahms' greeted the arrival of “an authentic and admirably gifted musician” who was “serious and profound” despite some “deliberately confused and ugly music.”

Gustav Mahler's sister had been there and wrote to him appreciatively about the concert he'd missed while guest conducting in Russia. Mahler (who would finish his 5th Symphony that summer) replied that “would have been of great interest to me.” Even though Mahler found Schoenberg's later music – the increasingly chromatic and eventually atonal works of the new century – difficult to understand if not completely incomprehensible, they remained acquaintances until Mahler's death in 1910, a relationship often tested by Schoenberg's own antipathy for Mahler's style which sometimes led him, for instance, to refuse the older composer's invitations to dinner or to hear his newest symphonies.

In 1910, Schoenberg (who had yet to develop his “12-tone system”) began writing a theory book he called Harmonielehre which is less a traditional textbook than a philosophical way of looking at harmony. In it, for instance, he wrote,

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“It has never been the purpose and effect of new art to suppress the old, its predecessor, certainly not to destroy it. ...The appearance of the new can far better be compared with the flowering of a tree: it is the natural growth of the tree of life. But if there were trees that had an interest in preventing the flowering, then they would surely call it revolution. And conservatives of winter would fight against each spring. ...Short memory and meager insight suffice to confuse growth with overthrow.”
(quoted in Allan Shawn: Arnold Schoenberg's Journey.)
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If you listen to Verklärte Nacht as the product of a 25-year-old who is only two years out from having produced a derivative piece of juvenalia in that Brahms/Dvořák-inspired string quartet, the self-assurance as well as the musical flowering is amazing. 

Whatever he did in the rest of his creative life began, essentially, here – and whatever the rest of the world may collectively think of his legacy, the tree that began here had a deep and long-ranging impact on the new century, whatever those who followed his path may have done with it.

Dick Strawser

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio: In Memory of a Friend and Mentor

Tchaikovsky in 1880
This Sunday afternoon's program with Market Square Concerts' Summermusic 2015 – beginning at 4:00 in the air-conditioned Market Square Church – includes two works, both very different if not diametrically opposed in nature: the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio and the Dvořák Piano Quintet. The Tchaikovsky will be performed by the Mendelssohn Piano Trio – Peter Sirotin, violin; Fiona Thompson, cello; Ya-Ting Chang, piano. The Dvořák will be performed on the second half by Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak, viola; Cheng-Hou Lee, cello and Stuart Malina, piano.

Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A Minor was written in commemorate his friend and mentor, Nikolai Rubinstein – and he dedicated it “to the memory of a great artist.”

This is a work I find difficult to find a definitive performance of. Of two that Peter Sirotin prefers, and two that have their own personal significance for me, none are really good recordings, and however powerful and intense their performances may be, they are, as live performances are susceptible to the whims of the day, not flawless. It is, however, that intensity, that giving oneself over to the magic and risk-taking of a live performance that make recordings like these more valuable, perhaps, than the perfection one can achieve in a studio with retakes and editing.

Even though this is a vast work, and time is short, I'm going to include two of these performances. Peter's choices included a video made in 1987 with legendary Russian performers filmed in concert: pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist Oleg Kagan, and cellist Natalia Gutman.

My own choice is one I've only just discovered while researching this article, a recording made in 1990 by a friend and former colleague of mine (we both taught at the University of Connecticut in the mid-1970s), pianist Joseph Villa, performing here with violinist William Preucil (also of the Cleveland Quartet) and cellist John Sharp, a recording that exists only because Joe, who died in 1995, had given a friend of his a cassette copy of it to listen to.

The trio is basically in two movements: the opening "Pezzo elegiaco" (Elegiac Piece), about 18 minutes long, followed by a set of eleven variations and a finale (with coda) that can last about a half-hour. While the first movement is a very Germanic sonata form, the variations are based on a much simpler folk-like theme that gives the movement a Russian tone and offer the contrasts of both slow movement, scherzo as well as finale. Some of these variations are "character pieces" that might have stepped out of Schumann's Carnaval - there's a music box; a salon waltz; a fugue, among others - and the finale would seem to be headed toward a brilliant finale when the first movement's opening theme comes back as if reality suddenly intrudes upon these pleasant memories. The piece ends with an emotional funeral march that dissolves into a slowly fading pulse.

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Ellen Hughes in 2007 (*)
There is a special significance in this weekend's performance which will be dedicated “to the memory of a great friend and colleague,” Ellen Hughes who died this past June 9th. She had been, in addition to her associations with local radio stations and the Patriot-News, an indefatigable supporter and promoter of the arts (and all the arts) in Central Pennsylvania, but in this particular instance, Executive Director of Market Square Concerts between 2008 and 2011 inheriting the post from long-time director and founder Lucy Miller Murray and then passing it on to our current directors, Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang. She is one who is greatly missed.

However, in this post, let's look at the personal history behind Tchaikovsky's trio and how friendship and mentoring brought it into being.

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Instead of just going back to Tchaikovsky's beginnings (“Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th, 1840 in...”), why not go back to the very roots of Russian music – or at least Russian music in the 19th Century? For the sake of understanding Tchaikovsky in context, it's important to realize that anyone who wanted to study music in Russia before 1860, roughly, would have to study with some visiting foreigner or go to Germany. The story is that Mikhail Glinka, considered the “Father of Russian Music,” traveled through Europe in the 1830s as a young man, listening to performances everywhere, meeting composers when he could and then spent five months in Berlin studying composition with a fellow named Siegfried Dehn. When Glinka had to return to Russia because of his father's health, he had to end his studies. Later, his friend, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, unable to travel, basically learned composition more or less by borrowing Glinka's notes.

It wasn't until the Russian Musical Society was founded in 1859 by pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein who had also studied in Germany, in fact could count Felix Mendelssohn as a mentor. Three years later, with financial support from an aunt of Tsar Alexander II, Rubinstein opened a music school in her palace, the first music school in Russia, intent on fostering native talent. This would later become the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, much to the amusement of at least one fashionable lady who thought the very idea of teaching music “in” Russian rather than in French or German was an “original idea” (insert appropriate emoticon for ironical-tone-of-voice here).

One of its first students was a low-ranking civil servant in the Department of Justice named Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky who studied composition with Rubinstein and theory with Nikolai Zaremba and who graduated in 1865, three years later.

Nikolai & Anton Rubinstein
The following year, the indefatigable Anton Rubinstein sent his brother Nikolai off to Moscow to do likewise where he founded his own music school and hired the freshly minted Tchaikovsky as a professor of harmony, though the young man (now 26 years old) found himself “barely one page ahead of his students.”

Anton wrote that Nikolai, if he'd worked a little harder, could have been the better pianist. Nikolai, when asked why he didn't compose more music, said Anton “wrote enough for three.”

And yet as pianists they were very different performers: Anton was fiery, and was part of the Franz Liszt school of Romantic Virtuoso; Nikolai, on the other hand, was a more restrained performer, more in the line of Clara Schumann, generally regarded as the opposite (or antidote) to Liszt.

Emil von Sauer, one of Nikolai's students (he also later studied with Liszt), said Anton Rubinstein was the more impetuous performer but he could be inconsistent in his playing; however, “Nikolai never varied,” always the same in public or in private, always maintaining “the same standard of excellence.”

Though Tchaikovsky studied composition with Anton, it is brother Nikolai who became the leading creative force in Tchaikovsky's life.

There is an anecdote I remember hearing back in the '60s though I'm not sure if it's based on fact or is merely one of those legends that grow up to fill in the blanks of composers' lives, but apparently Nikolai had suggested a simple theme to Tchaikovsky as the subject for a few variations, asking him to bring what he'd written a few days later. Supposedly, Tchaikovsky came back with not five variations or even fifteen, but apparently fifty variations – all written within a few days.

Certainly, the “variation procedure” is one of Tchaikovsky's favorites – he seems to spin them, one after the other, almost effortlessly. Actually, it's a trait shared by many Russian composers, especially those of the Nationalist School (like the Mighty Handful or Russian Five) who based their musical style of folk-songs which do not lend themselves to development in the traditional Western European way of creating “musical mileage” as Beethoven or Brahms might do. But Tchaikovsky is much more adept at spinning out variants of his themes, folk-songs or not, with the same innate love of melodic embellishment one might find in works by Mozart or Schubert, a practice that was looked down upon by the Nationalists.

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Anton Rubinstein was something of an exotic artist in his day, a German-trained Russian musician with an international reputation: as he put it, “too German for the Russians, too Russian for the Germans, and to everyone a Jew.” Tchaikovsky, as his student, learned too much about German musical procedures rather than learning it, as the Nationalists did on their own, by studying the folk music of the Russian people, thus developing a truly Russian style. Curiously, Russian culture is a mash-up of folk-inspired art and old history focused on Moscow with a European surface, courtesy of Peter the Great and his new Imperial city of St. Petersburg, his “window on Europe.” Tchaikovsky could just as easily write a Germanic theme and develop it “Germanically” as he could use a Russian folk-song and spin endless variations on it: not enough to impress the Nationalists; still, European and American audiences would hear the last movement of his 1st Piano Concerto, say, and swear vodka-swilling Cossacks were breathing down their very backs. Tchaikovsky was constantly caught in the middle of this cultural tug-of-war between the Nationalists like Rimksy-Korsakov and the Cosmopolitans like the Rubinsteins.

And so Anton's idea of sending brother Nikolai and one of his best students off to Moscow was not just opening a branch office in the Old Capital: it was as much an effort to bring Cosmopolitan music and training into the very heart of a culture that looked toward the past.

It was not, however, all things rosy between Nikolai Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, and one particular event would challenge their relationship greatly.

Shortly after he'd completed his new piano concerto – the famous (if not overly-famous) Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor – Tchaikovsky visited Rubinstein and played it for him. Rubinstein, however, savaged it so badly, Tchaikovsky felt wounded not just by the criticism but by the vehemence in which it was delivered. The fact it was Christmas Eve may have had something to do with it, but it was clear, writing to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck about it three years later, the criticism still hurt.

Regardless, Tchaikovsky vowed to change not a note of his concerto – though he would later revise it three times – and he found another pianist to premiere it: Hans von Bülow took it on, gave it its world premiere in, rather unusually, Boston that October where problems in the performance (the trombones apparently came in wrong in the middle of the 1st movement and the audience could hear the pianist sing out quite audibly “the brass may go to hell”) did not deter the audience who called for the finale to be repeated (the critical reaction, on the other hand, was quite different).

When performed for the first time in Russia – in St. Petersburg – the pianist was a former student of Anton Rubinstein's and a professor at the Conservatory named Gustav Kross. According to Tchaikovsky, his performance was “an atrocious cacophony.” Small wonder one of the critics likened the new concerto to “the first pancake – a flop.” Were these critics reacting to the piece or to the performance? If nothing else, Tchaikovsky was getting a crash course in how to deal with critics.

As it turned out, Bülow soon dropped it from his repertoire. The Moscow premiere took place with one of Tchaikovsky's composition students, Sergei Taneyev, an excellent pianist who'd studied with Nikolai Rubinstein as the soloist, and none other than Nikolai Rubinstein himself on the podium. He had eventually changed his mind about the piece and subsequently played it often himself, especially while touring in Europe, helping to spread Tchaikovsky's fame.

Nikolai Rubinstein
In fact, Nikolai had such a change of heart about it, he even asked his friend to write a second concerto specifically for him to premiere. (It is one of those things that most classical music lovers who dote on Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto don't realize he actually wrote a 2nd – and in fact, a 3rd – piano concerto.)

But by the time the 2nd Piano Concerto was finished in March of 1880, Tchaikovsky was concerned about what Rubinstein's reaction might be this time. Even though he still made suggestions (and, in hindsight, many of them probably justified), Rubinstein was looking forward to playing it.

Unfortunately, before that could be finalized, Nikolai Rubinstein, while on tour in Paris, became ill with tuberculosis – and died on March 23rd, 1881.

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Tchaikovsky had been vacationing in Italy and had moved on to southern France when he received two telegrams, as he wrote to his brother Modeste on March 25th, 1881. The first informed him Nikolai Rubinstein was quite ill, his condition hopeless; the second one told him Rubinstein had died. Tchaikovsky left at once for Paris.

On the 28th, he wrote a long letter to his patron, Mme Nadezhda von Meck in which he described how his thoughts, following the funeral that morning, have turned to religious matters. He was now preparing to return to Moscow, accompanying the body of his friend.

Nadezhda von Meck
The following day, he writes again to Modeste, that he is on his way home and will tell him more about Rubinstein's death when he arrives but also about the news of Mme von Meck's impending bankruptcy. It has been her fortune and her love of his music that supported the composer with a generous stipend that should free him from the need to earn money, so he could dedicate all his time to composing – on the one odd condition that they never meet. This led to many new works like the 4th Symphony completed in 1878 which, when he wrote to her about it, he called “our symphony.” What this news of bankruptcy means is at the moment uncertain, but he thinks he may need to return to teaching (which he loathes) in order to make ends meet. This uncertainty, on top of the loss of his friend...

After returning to Moscow, he writes to Mme von Meck that he has declined the Directorship of the Moscow Conservatory, having been asked to replace Nikolai Rubinstein in the post. It would have been the best income he could imagine as a teacher, but it would also be the end of his creative life.

Shortly afterward, he left for his sister's country estate in Ukraine, his beloved Kamenka. She was ill and her husband was taking her to Switzerland for her health and so Tchaikovsky found himself, despite his concern for his sister's health, in a more enjoyable role – playing Uncle Petya to her children. He writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, “I have no inclination to compose. I wish you would commission something. Is there really nothing that you want? Some external impulse might reawaken my suspended activity. Perhaps I am getting old and all my songs are sung.”

Tchaikovsky had just observed his 41st birthday.

A few days later he writes again to both Mme von Meck and to Jurgenson that in his current frame of mind, his thoughts have turned to religious music and he has begun studying the old church music of the Russian Orthodox faith (which is actually more complicated than it would seem). He asks Jurgenson to send him certain collections and books that will help him. He describes himself as “gray, without inspiration or joy” but then recalls he'd been through similar periods “equally devoid of creative impulse” and survived.

In the meantime, he writes to Modeste about the difficulties he's finding in setting the Vespers service, how even the priests he talks to do not understand how the changeable parts of a given day's service are to be chosen. Jurgenson sends him a project – editing the liturgical works of Russian composer Dmitri Bortnyansky (1751-1825) whose 7th setting of the Cherubic Hymn is the one work of his best known in the West. Tchaikovsky thought a “complete edition,” while imposing, was “out of place in connection with a man of no great talent who has written a lot of rubbish and only about a dozen good things.” But, realizing his situation, he also noted “on the other hand there is nothing derogatory in my editing this rubbish for the sake of what I can earn. My pride, however, suffers from it.” It would prove, however, a difficult task to complete.

At the same time, he writes to the conductor Eduard Napravnik trying to arrange for the first performance of his new Festival Overture 1812, written in the fall of 1880, a work initially suggested by Nikolai Rubinstein. The original project was abandoned in the days following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II only 10 days before Rubinstein's death, and so now Tchaikovsky was looking for another occasion for his “occasional” piece. He described the work – and this, to the conductor he hoped would premiere it – as “of no great value and I shall not be at all surprised or hurt if you consider the style of the music unsuitable to a symphony concert.” It would eventually be premiered in the summer of 1882.

Rubinstein had called Tchaikovsky “a composer of genius” but still didn't care for some of the more modernist tendencies in his harmony and form (keep in mind, even as a pianist, he was more of a classicist than his wildly romantic brother, Anton). One of the few works that Rubinstein could totally endorse was the Serenade for Strings, composed in 1880, and one of Tchaikovsky's more neo-classical works, certainly by comparison to the next work he wrote, the 1812 Overture.

This often contradictory history between them did not keep Tchaikovsky from missing Rubinstein terribly, valuing him also as “one of the greatest virtuosi of the day” and one of the main props of his own creative life. Rubinstein had always been the best interpreter of his music, either as pianist or as conductor. In fact, one time, Rubinstein played Tchaikovsky's G Major Piano Sonata so well that even the composer “did not recognize it.” He knew that, with his music in Rubinstein's hands, he would experience “no disappointment.”

And now this champion was gone forever.

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In late summer, Tchaikovsky wrote to Taneyev that “I believe I might never write anything good again.” Taneyev was still hoping to convince him to come back to the Conservatory but Tchaikovsky declined (at least for now) and told him, “You, on the contrary, seem made to carry out Rubinstein's work.”

From the 1812 Overture in the fall of 1880 until September of 1881, he'd composed nothing. Even the atmosphere at Kamenka could not inspire him because he was constantly worried about the health of his absent sister. He struggled with his Bortnyansky edition – this “wishy-washy music” which made him “burn with rage.” Yet he eventually finished his setting of the liturgy (not to be confused with an earlier setting of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom of 1878) – excerpts from the Vespers or All-Night Vigil – only to have it forbidden by the ecclesiastical authorities in Moscow where an archbishop described it “to be a Catholic service!”

The next day after informing Mme von Meck about this news, he left for Rome (did he see the irony, there?) where he attended a concert celebrating the 70th birthday of Franz Liszt whose music “leaves me cold. [His works] have more poetical intention than actual creative power, more color than form – despite external effectiveness, they are lacking in the deeper qualities.” Unlike Schumann, he continued, whose works, though they may have had their problems, Tchaikovsky preferred immensely.

Meanwhile, his new Violin Concerto – composed and published in 1878 and, like the 1st Piano Concerto, likewise on a rocky road trying to find a performer who'd play it – was finally given its first performance in Vienna on December 4th, 1881, a premiere which prompted Brahms' championing critic, Eduard Hanslick, to famously exclaim this was music that “stinks in the ear.”

As his patron, Nadezhda von Meck had hoped Tchaikovsky would provide her with a piano trio – for her “house trio,” musicians she's hired to play regularly for her and her guests and to teach her children their music lessons. This included a young pianist she'd picked up in Paris on her travels, a teen-ager named Claude Debussy who had just written her a piano trio of his own.

At the time – this would be October 26th, 1880, some five months after he'd completed his 2nd Piano Concerto – he'd told her that

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“I would do anything to give you pleasure, but this is beyond me. My acoustic apparatus [!] is such that I simply cannot endure the combination of piano with violin or cello. To my mind the timbre of these instruments will not blend... it is torture for me to have to listen to a string trio or a sonata of any kind for piano and strings. I cannot explain this physiological peculiarity; I simply state it as a fact. Piano and orchestra – that is quite another matter but... here we are dealing with two equal opponents. ...On the other hand, how unnatural is the union of three such individualities as the piano, the violin and the 'cello! Each loses something of its value. The warm and singing tone of the [strings] sounds limited beside that king of instruments, the piano [which] strives in vain to prove it can sing like its rivals. To my mind, the piano can be effective in only three situations: alone, in context with the orchestra, or as accompaniment, as the background of a picture. But a trio implies equality and a relationship and do these exist between stringed solo instruments and the piano? They do not; and this is the reason why there is always something artificial about a piano trio...”
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Now, almost 14 months later, Tchaikovsky writes in December 1881 to tell her “the beginning of [my new piano] trio is finished.”

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It might come as less of a surprise for those familiar with the new piano concerto he'd written for Nikolai Rubinstein since the slow movement contains long solo and duet passages for the concertmaster and principal cellist – this becomes a mini-piano-trio (or at times “triple concerto”) within the concerto when the pianist enters. (Listen here, with L'Orchestre de Paris conducted by Paavo Järvi [not Putin] and pianist Denis Matsuev, beginning at 7:23 to 12:46)

“In spite of this antipathy,” as he'd described it in his earlier letter, “I made up my mind to experiment with this combination which so far I have never attempted,” Tchaikovsky wrote from Rome with the surprising news. “Whether I shall carry it through, whether it will sound well, I do not know, but I should like to bring it to a happy termination.” He adds, after telling her he is only trying this to bring her some pleasure – since no one specifically asked him to write it, not even his publisher – that “I will not conceal from you that I have had to do some violence to my feelings before I could bring myself to express my musical ideas in a new and unaccustomed form,” this combination of piano with strings.

At the same time, he writes to his publisher, Jurgenson, shortly after the new year that things are going badly for him, musically: his two latest operas (The Maid of Orleans and Eugene Onyegin) have not achieved any new productions, the violinist he'd asked to play his Violin Concerto, Leopold Auer, is apparently warning other Russian violinists not to play the work, and his 2nd Concerto is not being taken up by any pianist (since Nikolai Rubinstein's death postponed the premiere). “But what makes me furious and hurts and mortifies me most” is that the Mariinsky Opera “which would not spend a penny on The Maid of Orleans has granted 30,000 rubles to mount Rimksy-Korsakov's [new opera], Snegourochka [“The Snow Maiden”]. Is it not equally unpleasant to you that 'our subject' has been taken away from us...? It is as though someone has forcibly torn away a piece of myself and offered it to the public in a new and brilliant setting. I could cry with mortification.”

Ten years earlier, he had written incidental music for Ostrovsky's play and had long hoped to write an opera based on it. Now, this dream would be impossible. It was a new wrinkle in an old rivalry.

His next letter, January 25th, nine days later, informed Mme von Meck that “the trio is finished... Now I can say with some conviction that the work is not bad.” Having written orchestral music all his creative life, the idea of writing chamber music (despite his earlier string quartets) was unfamiliar territory for him and he feared he may have “arranged music of a symphonic character as a trio instead of writing directly for my instruments.” He tried to avoid this, he adds, but wasn't sure he's succeeded.

One wonders what her young pianist, Claude Debussy, would have made of this work, had he seen it – or played it. He was employed by her only for the summers in 1880, 1881 and 1882, so it is quite likely he might have. Considering what Tchaikovsky thought of the 18-year-old Debussy's Danse bohemienne which she'd sent him in September, 1880 – “It is a very pretty piece, but it is much too short. Not a single idea is expressed fully, the form is terribly shriveled, and it lacks unity” – history has apparently not recorded young Monsieur Debussy's reaction to Tchaikovsky's Trio.

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Tchaikovsky had started the trio at some point in mid-December, 1881. By January 25th, 1882, he could tell her he'd completed it, and then, at the end of the month he sent a copy off to his publisher in Moscow.

In the accompanying letter, the composer explained “the Trio is dedicated to Nikolai Grigorievich Rubinstein.” (The official dedication is To the Memory of a Great Artist.) “It has a somewhat plaintive and funereal coloring” (to which I can only add, “ya think?). He also urged that Taneyev, who should be the pianist to first perform the work, “keep fairly accurately to my metronome markings.”

Tchaikovsky remained in Italy until April, returned to Moscow only briefly before moving on to Kamenka once again. In May, he wrote to Modeste how he was weeping because he had finished reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, now faced with tearing himself away from all these characters and then talks of a new opera he is to write, Mazeppa, based on the Ukrainian folk hero (the pull of the Cosmopolitan answered by the pull of the Nationalist). He remained at Kamenka except for a brief visit to Moscow which only aggravated his dislike of the city, its public life and the social politics there. It wasn't long before he'd returned to Italy.

The Trio was read through in a private performance at the Moscow Conservatory on the first anniversary of Nikolai Rubinstein's death with Sergei Taneyev at the piano. The cellist was Wilhelm Fitzenhagen for whom Tchaikovsky composed his Variations on a Rococo Theme in 1876. The first public performance was held on October 30th where it was well received by the audience, less so by the critics.

Sergei Taneyev
After the October premiere, Taneyev wrote to the composer that “I have studied your Trio for the past three weeks, working on it for six hours a day. I ought long since have written you about this glorious work. I have never had greater pleasure in studying a new composition. The majority of the musicians here [in Moscow] are enchanted with the Trio. It also pleased the public. [The Director of the Musical Society] has received a number of letters asking that it may be repeated,” a letter which greatly pleased the composer who responded “my artistic vanity is much flattered by your praise as it is insensible to the opinions of the press, for experience has taught me to regard them with philosophical indifference.”

Even if he hadn't died before then, Tchaikovsky would've been equally immune to yet another comment by Eduard Hanslick who heard the Trio the first time it was performed in Vienna: “the faces of the listeners almost expressed the wish that it should be also the last time… It belongs to the category of suicidal compositions, which kill themselves by their merciless length.”

The whole work is usually about 48-50 minutes long in performance, the second movement alone about a half-hour long. The composer sanctioned at least one substantial cut in the finale, itself one more variation, reducing the length by about 5 minutes.

It has been suggested that many of the second movement's variations – basically short “character pieces” – were inspired directly by pleasant memories of times spent with Rubinstein. Even the theme of the variations was supposedly something he'd heard while on a picnic with his mentor in the countryside, sung by nearby peasants. Tchaikovsky of course denied all these associations but given their often tumultuous history, his respect for Rubinstein the artist – the piano part is as challenging as any concerto – and the way his death affected him, any memories must surely have influenced so emotional a composer as Tchaikovsky, working at white heat.

Does it matter? No. Though it goes far to explain the unusually dramatic and elegiac nature of the music, considering its dedication.

Tchaikovsky in 1892
And then, eleven years later, the 20-year-old composer whom Tchaikovsky had thought so highly of, a young man named Sergei Rachmaninoff who'd written a symphonic poem Tchaikovsky was looking forward to conducting, composed a Trio élégiaque dedicated to the memory of Tchaikovsky who had just died at the age of 53. Certainly one of Rachmaninoff's emotions was the loss of someone who could've been an important mentor in his life – perhaps like Nikolai Rubinstein had been in Tchaikovsky's.

And while Rachmaninoff's work is clearly modeled on Tchaikovsky's trio, complete with a vast second movement set of variations, it is also... even longer...

It is interesting to contemplate, listening to Tchaikovsky's Trio, how music perpetuates itself, how Tchaikovsky, by championing Rachmaninoff, managed to carry on the role that one friend, one great artist, had had on his life.

It is just one of those magical connections we can find in this mystery we call Art.

- Dick Strawser

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(*) The photo of Ellen Hughes was taken in 2007 by Dan Gleiter of the Patriot-News.

All quotations from Tchaikovsky's letters taken from Modeste Tchaikovsky's edition, translated by Rosa Newmarch and published in 1973 by Vienna House (NY).