Subscription Concert No.854 C Series

Rimsky-Korsakov:“Russian Easter Festival” Overture, op.36

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Born in Tikhvin, near Novgorod, March 18, 1844; died in Lyubensk, near St. Petersburg, June 21, 1908

In the Russian Easter Festival Overture, Rimsky-Korsakov combined elements of both solemn Christian ritual and extroverted pagan merrymaking in a score thoroughly infused with the splendid orchestral color for which the composer is renowned. This fifteen-minute work (a tone poem in all but name), justly one of Rimsky-Korsakov’ s most famous, celebrates the resurrection of Christ and the rebirth of nature, though, ironically, it was first performed at a time when nature was settling in for the long winter ahead, on December 15, 1888 in St. Petersburg.

The musical themes come from the Obikhod, an eighteenth-century collection of canticles of the Russian liturgical service. The composer felt that for a truly proper appreciation of his Overture, the listener must have attended at least once in his life an Easter Morning service in a great Orthodox cathedral, where the scene was “thronged with people from every walk of life, with several priests conducting the cathedral service.”

Rimsky-Korsakov prefaced the score with evocative passages drawn from the Old and New Testaments plus words of his own. The final portion reads: “‘Resurrexit!’sings the chorus of angels in Heaven to the sound of the archangels’ trumpets and the fluttering of the wings of the seraphim. ‘Resurrexit!’ sing the priests in the temples, in the midst of clouds of incense, by the light of innumerable candles, to the chiming of triumphant bells.”

Borodin:Dance of Polovtsian Maidens and
Polovtsian Dances from “Prince Igor”

Alexander Borodin: Born in St. Petersburg, November 12, 1833; died in St. Petersburg, February 27, 1887

Alexander Borodin is remembered today as one of the finest composers to come out of nineteenth-century Russia, yet his true profession was of an entirely different sort ̶ chemistry. In fact, he was one of the foremost research chemists and professors of his day, and wrote music only in his spare time. His catalogue of works is not large, and contains many unfinished works. Such is his epic and highly colorful opera Prince Igor, which was completed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov. (The latter recreated the overture from memory, having heard the composer play it on the piano!) Nevertheless, Prince Igor, composed fitfully over a period of twenty years and premiered in St. Petersburg in 1890, is regarded as one of the greatest operas in the Russian repertory.

The subject was suggested to Borodin in 1869 by Vladimir Stassov, a champion of the Russian (as opposed to the European) school of musical composition. The story is based on a twelfth-century Russian poem, and centers around the struggle between the Russians and the Polovtsians, a barbaric tribe of nomads from the Central Asian steppes. In 1185, Prince Igor of Novgorod set out on an expedition against the Polovtsians. In the course of the fighting he and his son Vladimir are captured by the Polovtsian leader, Khan Konchak. Konchak treats his captives with all the respect and honor befitting royalty and great warriors. A plot complication involves his daughter secretly falling in love with Vladimir, and while musing on her absence from him, she is entertained by singing and the Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens. Later in the story, Konchak arranges for his captive guests a lavish production that consists of an extended series of songs and dances by the Polovtsian tribes peoples, a concert hall favorite known as the Polovtsian Dances. The chorus plays an active role in the proceedings, but in the concert version its role is absorbed into the instrumental fabric. A brief introduction sets the exotic Oriental mood, after which comes a series of dances involving at various times young girls, men, female slaves and young boys, all singly and in combinations. The themes range from sinuously lyric to wildly barbaric. The dances culminate in a pitch of frenzied excitement as all hail Khan Konchak.

Tchaikovsky:Symphony No.3 in D major, op.29, "Polish"

I Introduzione e Allegro:

Moderato assai. (Tempo di marcia funebre) - Allegro brillante

II Alla tedesca: Allegro moderato e semplice

III Andante: Andante elegiaco

IV Scherzo: Allegro vivo

V Finale: Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di Polacca)

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Born in Votkinsk, May 7, 1840; died in St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893

Symphony No. 3 stands at the juncture in Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he was about to plunge into a nightmare of psychological and sexual turmoil. Much of the music he wrote from 1877 onwards, beginning with the Fourth Symphony is saturated with emotional traumas, personal grief and an almost perpetual state of crisis. The Third Symphony just precedes this period, and hence exudes a generally easy-going temperament and optimistic outlook. It is also the only one of his six numbered symphonies to bear a major-key tonality (D major) and the only one not cast in four movements (it has five). Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony in 1875 within the space of just a few weeks, from mid-June to mid-August while staying at the estates of various friends and relatives. The first performance was given in Moscow conducted by Nicolai Rubinstein on November 19, 1875.

The symphony’s subtitle, “Polish,” was appended in 1899 (six years after Tchaikovsky’s death) by an English conductor, Sir August Manns, who led a highly successful concert series at London’s the old Crystal Palace for many years. The only basis for this strange appellation might lie in the finale’s use of the polonaise rhythm, though in spirit it is still more Russian than Polish. One might just as well have named it the “German” Symphony after Tchaikovsky’s description of the second movement as “alla tedesca” (in the German style, whatever that was supposed to mean). When the symphony was tried out in a rehearsal by the Vienna Philharmonic, the composer reported that the Philharmonic directors found it “too Russian” and cancelled plans to perform it. Polish? German? Russian? Perhaps best to ignore regional influences – real or imagined – and just listen to the symphony as pure music!

The symphony opens with a somber, slow introduction “in the tempo of a funeral march” (Tchaikovsky writes) featuring the horn quartet. This eventually gives way to a sonata-form allegro brillante with two contrasting themes, the first in the manner of an exuberant march, the second a lyrical subject first presented by the oboe in B minor. While the exposition is compact, the development is lengthy and involved.

In the second movement a gentle waltz is set in motion by the woodwinds, reminding us once again of Tchaikovsky’s predilection for this dance form. The waltz is interrupted by a Trio passage – quicker, lighter and built from rapidly fluttering triplets played alternately in short bursts from the woodwinds and the strings. Although Tchaikovsky indicates this movement is “in the German style,”the waltz really evolved in Austria.

The central slow movement constitutes the emotional heart of the symphony. Although it is marked Andante elegiaco, the greater portion of it is warmly romantic and expressive, leading to a passionate climax.

The fourth movement is marked Scherzo, but here again the title is slightly askew, as the meter is duple (not triple, as are most scherzos). Nevertheless, it is infused with an elfin delicacy that brings to mind Mendelssohn’s scherzos. The central Trio section is notable for its repetition of the theme in seven different keys over a sustained D in the horns.

The finale is suitably boisterous and extroverted. Tchaikovsky seems intent on incorporating as much material as possible. There is even a fugue. As for the “polacca”element, James Lyons notes that “the designation connotes not so much a national flavor as the vital impulse and unrestrained vigor associated with the Polonaise.” The symphony culminates in a veritable riot of enthusiasm.

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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