Sunday, July 22, 2018

Summermusic 2018: The Russians Have Landed - Tchaikovsky & Taneyev, Together Again

What: Summermusic 2018's 3rd Concert with an All-Russian program with works by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Taneyev
When: Wednesday evening at 7:30 (note the slightly earlier start time, here)
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg
Who: Violinists Peter Sirotin & Leonid Ferents; Violists Blanka Bednarz & Michael Stepniak; Cellists Cheung Chau & Fiona Thompson

With any luck, I can make it through this post about works by two Russian composers without alluding to current events. It is times like this I find this quote helpful: “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” 

While politics may have little to endear itself between the United States and Russia over the past century or so, it is good to remember Russian literature and music, art and architecture, theater and dance which are sometimes difficult to disconnect from Russia's usually dark and often disturbing history.

And yet the Art survives – and flourishes – leading us quite often to glimpse what we think of as “The Russian Soul.”

And so the third concert of Summermusic 2018 includes two works by connected composers, both 19th Century Romantics in style (though the one was completed in 1901, it is hardly a “20th Century” work in anything else), one the teacher and mentor of the other.

Tchaikovsky, 1888
Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to gain international fame and he is, to most Americans, the first name that comes to mind when someone says “Russian music.” His symphonies, ballets, and operas – or at least some of them – are popular mainstays in this country, and where would American concerts be without his “1812 Overture” or “The Nutcracker Suite”? Chamber music, on the other hand, was a small part of his musical interests and it's little known and not often heard in this country – except for the string sextet, the Souvenir of Florence, on Wednesday's program.

Sergei Taneyev, on the other hand, will leave most American concert-goers scratching their heads. His name occasionally appears in program notes about Tchaikovsky's music, but otherwise... who? Chamber music is a large part of his output and we heard his 1911 Piano Quintet at last year's Summermusic.

Not that hearing the first of his two string quintets this summer is (as far as I know) part of a larger Taneyev Festival or the start of a Taneyev Revival (one has to have a “vival” before one can have a “re”vival), but it gives us an opportunity to hear a different aspect of Russian music beyond what we're already familiar with.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

To enjoy some of the connections between this program and the other two concerts in this year's Summermusic series, I'll mention that Brahms' String Quintet from Sunday's concert was composed in the summer of 1890 following a holiday in Italy, and that Tchaikovsky's String Sextet on Wednesday's concert was composed in June of 1890, following a three-month stay in Florence, Italy.

While Sergei Taneyev's String Quintet was completed in 1901, the composer graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1875 – the same year Dvořák wrote the piano quartet we heard on the first program earlier this month – as a student of Tchaikovsky, in fact giving the first Moscow performance of his teacher's recent Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor that December when he was 19. And in 1878, when Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory to compose full-time (thanks to a generous stipend from his patron, Nadezhda von Meck) – when Gabriel Fauré was working on his 1st Piano Quartet – Taneyev became a member of the conservatory's theory faculty where he continued to teach until 1905.

Oh, and I'll tell you about the dinner Tchaikovsky attended in Leipzig while “traveling abroad” in 1888, where Johannes Brahms was one of the other guests – but first, let's hear this string sextet he called “Souvenir of Florence.”

Tchaikovsky in front of his hotel in Florence, 1890
He'd already written three string quartets but in 1887 had tried getting a string sextet off the ground. It didn't fly. Once it finally took off, he wrote it in a matter of 18 days (talk about “flying”) and the work we have is his most popular piece of chamber music. It's in the standard four movements: a spirited Allegro with an ear-grabbing opening – ready or not – followed by one of Tchaikovsky's wistful adagios, a pas de deux suitable for choreography, complete with a brief interruption by some scurrying winds in the middle section. The third movement isn't so much a scherzo or minuet as an Intermezzo built around an elegiac folk-song with some contrasting dance elements – it was typical that Tchaikovsky would be criticized for writing symphonies that were too much like ballet and for writing ballets that were too symphonic – but then he does it one better in the finale, a rousing Allegro vivace, with his most Russian theme yet for this supposed Italian souvenir, and then, of all things, turns it into that most German of academic exercises – a fugue!

Here is a live performance from a recent Utrecht Festival with violinists Janine Jansen & Vilde Frang, violists Lawrence Power & Julian Rachlin, and cellists Nicolas Altstaedt & Jens Peter Maintz:
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

And if you were wondering how Tchaikovsky – master of the epic finale with an orchestra blasting away at full force – was going to end a chamber work for six players, there you have a perfect example of the tried-and-true formula for “how to end a concert” – “fast and loud” which then becomes “faster and louder.”

But this music didn't come about quite so effortlessly as it sounds.

In June, 1887, while staying in Borzhom, a town in the Caucasus not far from the provincial capital of Tiflis (or Tblisi), the composer noted in his diary: "Composed a little (start of a sextet)" and then four days later wrote to fellow-composer Ippolitov-Ivanov, "I jotted down sketches for a string sextet, but with little enthusiasm... I haven't the slightest inclination to work. ...Because I have only a passing desire to compose, I'm beginning to fear that I am losing my powers of composition, and becoming angry with myself." 

The previous autumn, he had promised friends of his in the St. Petersburg Chamber Music Society he would write them some piece of chamber music as a way of thanking them for selecting him as a member, but meanwhile he was preoccupied with other things. When he did start what would become this sextet, it was a difficult process and several times, he laid it aside. In 1888, writing to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, he was “thinking of a new symphony [his 5th] and a string sextet,” but otherwise, it is not mentioned again until the spring of 1890 when he is staying at his home in Frolovskoye near Moscow, beginning work on it on June 12th and finishing the rough draft on June 30th, though he admits he wrote it “with great difficulty” – not for lack of ideas, he pointed out, but because of the “novelty” of writing for six stringed instruments – but in the end he wrote he was “quite pleased with myself.”

(It intrigues me he decided to write a sextet and then had difficulty coming up with solutions “how to write a sextet” rather than start writing something – a 4th String Quartet, say – before realizing, “no, this material really needs more players” and add a viola or a cello or both.)

Now, the sextet is usually called the “Souvenir of Florence” (usually in French) and, depending on where you read about it, you will discover it was written in Florence, it was inspired by Florence, it is a collection of his impressions of Florence – in other words, “Holiday Snaps from my Vacation in Florence, Italy” captured in music – yet he had begun it in the Caucasus so it could have become “Caucasian Sketches” (oh wait, that was used by Ippolitov-Ivanov a few years later) and most of the sextet was composed the summer after he returned home to Russia and staying at Frolovskoye, not far from Moscow.

Tchaikovsky (center), Dec. 1890
The trip to Florence, however, was over a span of three wintry months in early 1890 where he went to focus on his new opera based on one of Pushkin's tales, The Queen of Spades (or, as it's usually known in French, Pique Dame because English-speakers are too chicken to refer to it as Pikovaya Dama). The photograph, here, with the composer in the center and two of the opera's lead singers, was taken in St. Petersburg, December of 1890, before the opera's premiere and around the time his String Sextet was given its first, private read-through at the hotel where he was staying.

One of the stories I'd grown up with was, while staying in Florence, every tune Tchaikovsky jotted down that couldn't fit into the opera was set aside in a special notebook. When he returned from Italy, he used these themes and ideas for the Sextet – thus, they are “souvenirs” of his creative time spent in Florence. While his Capriccio italien captures many musical reminiscences of his stay in Rome, there is nothing so literally programmatic in the Souvenir of Florence.

As “Russian-sounding” as this piece is, it's interesting to note that at least we know (from one of his letters) the basic idea of the violin and cello duet in the 2nd Movement was originally intended for The Queen of Spades (a Russian story set in 18th Century Imperial Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great) but didn't fit, so, yes, it was written in Florence. The first movement was largely outlined in 1887, incidentally. And while Tchaikovsky was “pleased” with the finale after he'd completed it, he was so depressed after the first read-through that December in Petersburg he completely rewrote the Fugue in the finale and the middle section of the third movement, touching up other spots as well. And then he made one last round of revisions which he completed in January, 1892, while in Paris (he would bring back a souvenir from Paris: the celeste he would use in the Nutcracker's Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). Only then would he allow the sextet to be published in December, 1892.

Tchaikovsky at his summer home in Frolovskoye, 2 weeks after completing the Sextet there

Tchaikovsky was never a fan of Brahms. He referred to him – “that scoundrel Brahms” – in his dairies in disparaging terms and even refused the nickname “Tragic Symphony” for his 6th because Brahms had written a “Tragic Overture” and that will never do. (Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Georges Bizet's Carmen which premiered in 1875.)

Brahms had little interest in Tchaikovsky's music though he never took him seriously enough to consider him “a rival” as he did Wagner and Liszt or Anton Bruckner. (Brahms was a big fan of Johann Strauss whose Die Fledermaus premiered in 1874.)

As it happened, both composers were in Leipzig at the same time in January of 1888, Brahms to conduct his Double Concerto and play the C Minor Piano Trio; Tchaikovsky to conduct a concert of his works and attend a program of his chamber music (the Op.11 Quartet and the Piano Trio). The concertmaster of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra decided to throw a dinner for them which was also attended by Edvard Grieg and his wife (Grieg's Peer Gynt premiered in 1875; his Holberg Suite would be completed in 1888).

Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modeste about the performance of the Double Concerto the night before – “What I suffered during the evening cannot be described” – but that he and Brahms were thrown together quite a lot during the past few days. “We are ill at ease because we do not really like each other, but he takes great pains to be kind to me. Grieg is charming.”

That said, Mrs Grieg ended up being seated between Brahms and Tchaikovsky. At one point, she jumped up and said “I can't sit between these two any longer, it makes me so nervous!” Her husband gallantly (and quickly) slipped around the table to take her place: “I have the nerve!” 

That photo of Tchaikovsky at the head of this post? Check the autograph: it's inscribed to Frau Grieg, 3rd Jan. 1888 Leipzig.

Tchaikovsky later described Brahms in his diary as “that self-inflated mediocrity.”

Clearly there would be no collusion between them when, two years later, they each wrote the two pieces you'll hear during this year's Summermusic series...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Sergei Taneyev
Once Tchaikovsky's “star pupil” and a close friend till his mentor's death in 1893, Sergei Taneyev divided his career between being a soloist, a teacher, a theorist and scholar (famous for his treatises on counterpoint and fugue), and also a composer.

Composition came slowly to him and he described how he would take his ideas, explore their potential with all manner of possibilities, and only then begin putting them into a piece.

Using the less frequent “two-cello” set-up compared to Mozart's and Brahms' preference for the “two-viola” set-up (even though, perhaps, the most famous or at least most frequently performed string quintet is Schubert's C Major with two cellos), Taneyev began his first string quintet in 1900 and completed it the following year. 

It's in three movements, with an opening gesture that seems to look in different directions (much as one might think about with the beginning of a new century). There are times it's masquerading as Mozart or Mendelssohn which then contrasts with more Romantic-sounding textures and thematic turns. I would say the Development Section looks forward to the future – or at least acknowledges Wagner's music might indeed be the eventual path the 20th Century would take. Curiously, the sound of the Mozart-like “Classical” style, especially in the Recapitulation, brings to mind what Richard Strauss would begin to sound like with his Post-Salome, “neo-classical” style a decade down the road.

The scherzo, brief as it is, Vivace con fuoco (“very fast, with fire”), returns to pure 19th Century romanticism and the interplay of musical gestures (and yes, fugal writing is one way of prolonging the “development” of these ideas). It is not without its surprises – two of them coming very near the end of the movement, with an unexpected resolution after the harmonic build-up followed by a dash off stage as if, oh well, I'm running out of time...
= = = = = = =

= = = = = = =

The finale is a set of variations, each one self-contained like little character pieces in contrasting moods or natures. Given Taneyev's skills in counterpoint – that most German of techniques – it's not surprising one of them becomes a fugue (at 14:00). Like his teacher – and Tchaikovsky loved to write variations (check out the last movements of the 3rd Orchestral Suite or the Piano Trio and of course, in relation to Taneyev's style here, his “Rococo Variations”) – Taneyev enjoyed exploring the possibilities, like the rather stern one beginning at 7:38, dominated initially by pairs of cellos and violas. A sizable 20-minute movement (well, part light-hearted intermezzo, part finale), it could, conceivably, go on a lot longer, the way he keeps spinning them out. Yet it's all of the same fabric we've heard in the first two movements and a testament to what he is best remembered for: his craftsmanship.
= = = = = = =

(These performances are taken from a recording by the Taneyev Quartet with cellist Beynus Morozov.)
= = = = = = =

The second string quintet, his Op. 16, might make you think he then went on immediately to compose a companion piece, but it actually dates from three years later. Like I said, composition came slow for him and, like any teacher and scholar, there were other things frequently getting in the way of his creative time.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Taneyev, like Glazunov, is one of those “between-the-generations” composers, taught by their teachers like Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, and famous for their pupils, like Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, and later the two giants of the Soviet Era, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. This whole generation is overshadowed by the past and the future, ironically, but in Taneyev's connection with Tchaikovsky, let me examine one aspect of this connection with the past.

Taneyev playing Tolstoy's piano (c.1895)
Once Taneyev rescued Tchaikovsky's 1st Piano Concerto from a potentially disastrous Moscow premiere by replacing the original soloist, Tchaikovsky was so impressed, he dedicated his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini, inspired by Dante, to Taneyev in 1876. When the intended soloist of his 2nd Piano Concerto died before the premiere, Taneyev again gave the work its Moscow premiere in 1882. Then, when Tchaikovsky himself died before realizing what to do with his one-movement 3rd Piano Concerto – it had started out as his 7th Symphony – Taneyev edited two other works to create a full three-movement 3rd Concerto which is even less often heard than the 2nd.

During this friendship, Taneyev was one of the few people Tchaikovsky could turn to for musical advice and, being notoriously thin-skinned when it came to criticism, often regretted it but realized it was intended honestly and often true to the mark. Taneyev could get away with making comments that none of Tchaikovsky's other friends would dare consider, leading to a kind of “fear” the older composer had when he did ask for it (and which often resulted in the response, “well, he asked for it...”).

One of Taneyev's later students wrote about this aspect of his relationship with Tchaikovsky: “I think [Tchaikovsky] was unnerved by the overt frankness with which Taneyev reacted to [his] works: Taneyev believed that one must indicate precisely what one finds to be 'faults,' while strong points would make themselves evident. He was hardly fully justified in his conviction: composers are a nervous lot and they are often particularly dissatisfied with themselves. Tchaikovsky was just such a person: he worried himself almost sick over each work and often tried even to destroy them...”

Yet the younger man had his humorous side and wrote a little ballet for Tchaikovsky's birthday, once, something with an absurd scenario and music that was “a contrapuntal pot-pourri” of themes from Tchaikovsky's works. There were also several parodies (like “Quartets of Government Officials”), comic fugues and variations as well as “toy symphonies”!

While it could be mentioned that Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Glazunov were “Homeric drinkers,” surpassed only by the unfortunate Mussorgsky, Taneyev was uncharacteristically a teetotaler. Not surprising.

If anything, however, today we might wonder if perhaps that isn't what's missing from his music...

- Dick Strawser

= = = = = = =
To read more about Taneyev, check the second half of last summer's blog-post regarding Taneyev and Borodin's Piano Quintets.

No comments:

Post a Comment