April 21, 2017
Russian and Russian-influenced music including piano trios by Rachmaninov and Shostakovich
Notes on the Program
Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Trio Elegiaque No. 1 (1892)
A little over a decade after Rachmaninoff’s death, the 1954 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians unenthusiastically summed up his music as “monotonous in texture” and opined that it “consists mainly of artificial and gushing tunes”. Somewhat sniffily, it noted Rachmaninoff’s popular success but predicted that this was “not likely to last”. Hmm.
Born in 1873, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a near contemporary of two of the great Modernist composers of the first half of the 20th century, Charles Ives and Arnold Schoenberg (both born in 1874) -- also of Maurice Ravel (1875). By comparison with any of these, Rachmaninoff was intensely conservative. Firmly rooted from the outset in 19th century Russian Romanticism (he was, after all, a student of Arensky and looked both to Tchaikovsky and Taneyev as mentors) his music remained that way to the end of his life. As one of the last prominent examples of a musician known to audiences equally as an instrumental performer and a composer, Rachmaninoff was also far more a creature of the old 19th century tradition than of the new 20th.
All this may have been partly the result of a certain compositional precocity. By the time he was 20 and had graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, he had not only been awarded the school’s Great Gold Medal for his one-act opera, Aleko (later programmed by the Bolshoi Theater and performed by Chaliapin), but had also written what was to remain one of his signature pieces throughout his life: the famous Prelude in C# Minor. He was perhaps, in a certain sense, ‘formed’ early as a composer. The well-known story of his First Symphony’s disastrous premiere and his subsequent three-year period of depression and inactivity, finally alleviated by a course of combined hypno- and psychotherapy, may always have seemed just a little too pat but, beyond that: in a different composer, such an experience might have been expected to lead to some species of radical change -- or at least a striking out in a dramatic new direction -- rather than what could be (indeed, has been) viewed as a kind of failure to develop. Whatever doubts and insecurities he may have suffered, he seems ultimately to have questioned neither the value nor the durability of the tradition he had inherited.
The second great upheaval in his life came with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. As the descendant of a long line of land-owning aristocrats, he saw a very uncertain future for himself and his family under a new regime (both his family’s and his own estates were seized). Taking advantage of the offer of some concerts in Sweden and Denmark, he left Russia with his wife and daughters and never returned. With that, his innate conservatism appears to have settled into something more like the nostalgia of the enforced emigre. Influenced by the continuing World War and the uncertain international situation that would follow, he made the decision to settle in the United States, arriving in New York City a day or two after the Armistice. He had previously made a successful, though unhappy, extended tour of North America, and knew that he disliked it (amongst other things, he had turned down an offer to become the conductor of the Boston Symphony), but also knew that he could make money here as a soloist as well as a conductor. Almost immediately upon his arrival he was offered the position in Boston again -- and again refused it -- but was soon engaged in a busy schedule of performances that would continue season after season for the next twenty-five years. Summers in France, and later in Switzerland (where he built a house on Lake Lucerne), intended in part to create an opportunity to compose, yielded significant results only occasionally: between 1918 and 1943 he completed only a handful of notable works. Despite international popularity as both pianist and composer, he came to see himself as a failure.
As he neared the age of 70 his health began to deteriorate; on the advice of his doctor, he relocated to the warmer, drier climate of southern California in 1942. Persistent illness was finally diagnosed as advanced melanoma, but this diagnosis was kept from him and he continued concertizing until the last weeks of his life.
The Trio Elegiaque in G minor is an early work, dating from the same year (1892) as Aleko and the Prelude in C# Minor. It seems to have been written in the course of a few days and was given its first public performance less than two weeks later. It is the first of two piano trios that Rachmaninoff wrote, both of which bear the title “trio elegiaque”. The second, Op. 9 in D minor was written late in 1893 in tribute to Tchaikovsky after that composer’s death from cholera. The significance of the title to the first trio is unclear; although Tchaikovsky was alive and well at the time it was written and first performed, many musicians find significance in the fact that its single movement concludes (like the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s own piano trio) with a funeral march, and that the first four notes of the main theme are those, in reverse and in minor, of the theme of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.
Passage, for violin and piano, was commissioned by a friend of the composer’s to celebrate her 40th wedding anniversary with her husband. Concerning its inspiration, the composer has remarked: “Wedding anniversaries are all about going through life together -- journeys intertwined. That was the starting point of my thinking about Passage. Then the piece took over.” It is written in a large ternary form, each section of which, in turn, also consists of three parts. In the first, a restless theme wanders through dynamic extremes, ending with a dramatic exclamation. The second introduces a dance-like theme of Hungarian flavor which contrasts with a whispering waltz. In the concluding section, all themes return and are combined, reaching a climactic moment after which the piece ends in a mood of melancholy. Composed in 2013, it was premiered in the same year by Ms. Zaretsky with violinist Daniel Phillips of the Orion Quartet on the Mannes College of Music’s faculty concert series.
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Myths: Three Poems for Violin and Piano, Op. 30
Like Rachmaninoff, Karol Szymanowski came from a landed aristocratic background and, much like Rachmaninoff, he was dispossessed in the early stages of the Bolshevik revolution. His Polish family’s estate, in present-day Ukraine, was overrun and destroyed; their grand piano was thrown in a lake.
Prior to all that, from 1905, Szymanowski spent a number of years in Berlin, founding the Young Polish Composers Publishing Company to promote works by his contemporaries; the movement known as ‘Young Poland’ came into being as a result. Enduring friendships with Artur Rubinstein and, especially, the extraordinary violinist Pawel Kochanski (who was concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic at age 14) resulted in performances and concert tours that helped to introduce his music to audiences throughout Europe. By 1912 he had moved to Vienna and signed a ten-year contract with the publishers, Universal Edition. The outbreak of war in 1914 caused him to retreat to his family’s home where, except for brief visits to Kiev, Moscow, and St. Petersburg, he immersed himself in composition, the study of Islamic culture and Greek drama until (as mentioned above) revolution drove his family to Warsaw.
The establishment of an independent Polish state in the aftermath of World War I saw a renewal of nationalist enthusiasm, and Szymanowski became interested in developing a national style based on elements and idioms of Polish folk music. In the early 1920s he travelled to Paris for concerts of his works and made a tour of the United States with Rubinstein and Kochanski. By 1926 he had accepted a position as Director of the Warsaw Conservatory. He fell seriously ill two years later; a diagnosis of tuberculosis sent him to clinics in Austria and Switzerland for treatment, returning to Warsaw in 1930 to resume his duties. In 1932 the conservatory was reorganized and his position eliminated; he retired to the countryside to devote himself to composition. Despite steadily worsening health over the following three years, he made several trips to France to promote his music. The end of this period found him seeking treatment at a sanatorium in Grasse, on the French Riviera, but it did not do much good. Early in 1937 he moved to another sanatorium in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died at the end of March.
Szymanowski called his Myths, written in 1915, “my favorite works, very original timbrally and technically and, apart from that, good music.” Elsewhere and many years later, he wrote: “Together with Pawelek [Kochanski] we created, in Myths….. a new style, a new form of expression in violin-playing, epoch-making in that respect.” Three traditional Greek myths are represented impressionistically. In the first, The Fountain of Arethusa, the nymph Aretusa, pursued by the river-god Alpheius, is turned into a spring by the goddess Artemis. Narcissus presents the familiar story of the beautiful youth who falls in love with his own reflection and, unable to relinquish the gaze of his own eyes, dies. Finally, in Dryads and Pan, the lascivious forest god pursues nymphs through the woods. It is in this third and last movement that timbral and technical innovations are most evident, including a variety of glissandos, left-hand pizzicato, natural and artificial harmonics, tremolo and quarter tones.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67
Though a pianist of considerable ability -- he scraped an ‘Honorable Mention’ at the first International Chopin Piano Competition in 1927 -- Shostakovich never achieved the sort of worldwide acclaim at the keyboard that Rachmaninoff enjoyed. Like many a competitor before and since, he attributed his failure to bring off a top prize in Poland to the effects of illness, combined with the prejudice of the all-Polish jury. Given the resurgence of nationalist fervor in 1920s Poland and the fact that he had his appendix removed shortly after the competition, he may have been right on both counts. (Incidentally, Karol Szymanowski was invited to be a member of the jury for this competition, but declined to participate.)
Possibly there is some slight irony in all of this, as Shostakovich was a descendant of Poles, residing in Belarus, who were sent into internal imperial exile in Siberia in the 19th century. Shortly after moving to St. Petersburg to take up a position at the Bureau of Weights and Measures, Shostakovich’s father married another Siberian transplant; Dmitri Shostakovich was born in 1906. He began studying the piano with his mother and displayed unusual musical talent from the beginning. At age 13 he entered the Petrograd Conservatory. His lack of Revolutionary zeal was noticed and deplored there (he failed his exam in Marxist Methodology on the first try) but, by the time he was competing in Warsaw seven years later, his graduation piece-- the First Symphony -- had already been premiered to acclaim and was attracting enthusiastic international attention. (It was introduced by Bruno Walter in Berlin the same year, and the following year the Philadelphia Orchestra gave its American premiere and recorded it for the first time, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.)
Following this initial triumph, a lengthy period of experimentation culminated in his second opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, which initially scored a significant critical and popular success, though most of the notices praised it primarily as “the result of the general success of Socialist Construction, of the correct policy of the Party” and hailed Shostakovich as “a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture” -- all of which was probably a bad sign of things to come. The story of Josef Stalin’s attendance at a performance of Lady Macbeth, in 1936, in the company of members of his Politburo, of Stalin’s evident distaste for the music (apparently he particularly disliked some raucous and abrasive percussion and brass effects), and Shostakovich’s subsequent denunciation in Pravda, is a familiar one. In somewhat Orwellian fashion, the work that had formerly been acclaimed as emerging out of “the best tradition of Soviet culture” was now called “coarse, primitive and vulgar” ( as well as, inevitably, “formalist”) and critics who had previously praised the opera in print were obliged to state publicly that they had “failed to detect the shortcomings of Lady Macbeth, as pointed out by Pravda”. A similar denunciation (though on different grounds) of Shostakovich’s ballet, The Limpid Stream, followed almost immediately.
It is important to understand that these highly public indications of official disfavor occurred around the time of the beginning of what is variously known as the “Yezhov Phenomenon”, “the Great Terror”, or “the Great Purge” -- principally of the Communist Party, agencies of government, and the Red Army, but also extending to academic, intellectual and artistic circles and even to peasant farmers. At a conservative estimate, half a million people were executed or died in penal labor camps. Shostakovich lost some near relations and many friends, and lived in genuine fear. Lady Macbeth was taken down and his recently completed Fourth Symphony was withdrawn (whether voluntarily or as part of an official ban is not entirely clear; in any case, it remained unperformed until 1961). In its place he offered his Fifth Symphony, one of his most enduringly popular works, at least as much on account of its dramatically simplified style as for its expressive directness. Identified in the official press as “a Soviet artist’s creative response to just criticism”, it restored Shostakovich, for a time, to favor -- or, at least, acceptability.
The desire for a somewhat less conspicuous medium in which to express musical ideas that might turn out to be ‘unacceptable’ may have been partly responsible for Shostakovich’s turning to chamber music around this time. (Of his mature chamber works, only one -- the Cello Sonata, Op. 40 -- dates from before his first period of official disfavor.) The Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67, is certainly among his most notable musical achievements in any form. Begun in 1943, it was completed in 1944 and had its premiere near the end of that year, in Leningrad, only months after the lengthy siege of that city by the Germans had been lifted.
The piece is cast in four movements. In the first, a fugato introduction begins with the cello alone playing an austere theme in a high register: muted, artificial harmonics. Where one might expect the usual tenor or baritone richness of the cello, the effect is one of utter disembodiment; equally, as the other instruments enter, of a world turned upside down, as the violin begins in its low register and, eventually, the piano makes its first appearance in the depths of the bass. A sudden change of texture and tempo introduces a theme that takes the distinctive rhythmic head of the fugato subject as its point of departure; thereafter the movement develops freely through changes of tempo and meter, gradually taking on the character of a sinfonia/overture to the remainder of the piece.
The second movement is a scherzo in the standard A-B-A form inherited from the 19th century but with none of the traditional lightness of texture or mood; a melody of almost cartoonishly idiotic simplicity, in the neon-bright key of F# Major, is played in strident character accompanied by brutal, thumping chords in the piano. The ‘joke’ is a decidedly dark and, above all, ironic one, the music full of deliberately harsh rhythmic ostinatos and vulgar phrasings. The trio section, though superficially lighter, ultimately offers no relief from the prevailing, manic hysteria and, with the return of the scherzo proper, the movement ends as brutally as it began.
The largo movement that follows is a chaconne or passacaglia (the terms are more less interchangeable): a progression of eight massive chords is played by the piano alone; failing to find a resolution, it is repeated several times, underpinning a sorrowful dialogue between the strings whose subject is assembled out of fragments of the preceding scherzo tune. This largo also serves as an introduction to the fourth and final movement which begins with a kind of wry simplicity but builds steadily, in a manner reminiscent of the first movement, through increases of tempo and changes of meter until it achieves a pitch of manic hysteria similar in intensity to that of the scherzo but of a much more serious nature. Finally, when it has reached a point nearly past bearing, the material from the introduction of the first movement returns, but now in fortissimo, with the roles of the violin and the cello reversed, the eerie harmonics transformed into a soaring (though still muted) violin line while the piano indulges in crazy melismas. The chaconne chords from the largo make a final appearance, with the strings this time doubling the descending top line of the progression with weirdly vibrated harmonics; it finally finds resolution in E major, which brings the piece to a close with quietly strummed pizzicato chords in the strings.
Program Notes © Robert La Rue, 2017