GBS Program Notes : May 13, 2017
Waltz of the Flowers from Suite “The Nutcracker” P.I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Words like famous or legendary often fall short in description of certain works of art, so far and complete are their reach. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker was just such a creation. Like Handel’s Messiah, it has long enjoyed a place of de facto holiday tradition throughout the Western world. Nutcracker was based on the Alexandre Dumas translation of a Hoffmann tale, in which a little girl comes to the aid of her Christmas gift (a magical nutcracker in the costume of a soldier) in his battle with an army of mice. Her assistance is rewarded when her toy transforms into a prince and takes her into his kingdom of sweets and other colorful delights. The subjects of that kingdom each dance for their guest in a series of amazing set-pieces that comprise some of the most gorgeously evocative music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The “Waltz of the Flowers” occurs late in the second act and serves as the final movement of the suite Tchaikovsky extracted for concert performance in March of 1892.
Marche Slave, op.31, TH 45 P.I. Tchaikovsky
Marche Slave, Op. 31, orchestral composition by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, first performed in Moscow in November 1876. It is a rousing patriotic work based on Serbian and Russian folk themes. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the piece specifically for a concert to benefit Serb soldiers wounded while fighting (with help from Russian volunteers) against the Ottoman Empire. Hence the title declared it a march for all Slavs rather than simply for Russians. The piece, though relatively brief, includes a number of distinct moods; bright, festive passages contrast with ominous ones. At several moments, different sections of the orchestra carry their own melodies at the same time, creating a layered effect. As the march progresses toward its triumphant conclusion, the intensity of the music builds, and the main theme is gradually shifted from the woodwinds and strings to the brass and percussion.
Night on Bald Mountain (arr. Rimsky-Korsakov) M. Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
According to Slavic folk legends, Midsummer Night has seen quite some carrying-on. The pre-Christian Ukrainians celebrated it as a fertility festival that would assure a good harvest. When the Christian Church arrived, it tried to eradicate pagan festivals. But the Christians allowed the solstice frolics to be subsumed into another feast they were trying to promote, the Feast of the Nativity of Saint John (Ivan) the Baptist. On that night (June 23-24), water nymphs tried to lure the unwary to their deaths in lakes and rivers, and frightening supernatural beings cavorted about the forests. Much of this activity centered on the so-called Bald Mountain, where demons, witches, and sorcerers gathered in orgiastic frenzy, with their leader (the satanic Chernobog) often taking the form of a black goat. On Sept 25, 1860, the twenty-one-year-old Modest Mussorgsky wrote to his mentor, the composer Mily Balakirev: “I have received an extremely interesting commission, which I must prepare for next summer. It is this: a whole act to take place on Bald Mountain (from Mengden’s drama The Witch), a witches’ Sabbath, separate episodes of sorcerers, a solemn march for all in this nastiness, a finale—the glorification of the sabbath in which Mengden introduces the commander of the whole festival on Bald Mountain. I already have some material for it; it may turn out to be a very good thing.” For all his enthusiasm, Mussorgsky never tried very hard to get the piece played. It was not heard until 1886, five years after the composer’s death, when it was given in a new orchestral revision prepared by Rimsky-Korsakov, who claimed to have worked not only from the known Mussorgsky versions but also from now-lost materials that (he said) related to an early version for piano and orchestra.
San Francisco Symphony
Dance of the Knights from Suite “Romeo and Juliet” S. Prokofiev (1891-1953)
The centerpiece of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet”, musically, must be The Dance of the Knights, music that has possibly not been matched for sheer drama since it was written. There’s no denying that The Dance of the Knights is definitely an emotionally charged piece of music. Prokofiev’s dark and brooding passages can send chills up your spine and set your heart racing. You may recognize this piece from its use during the 2008 Doctor Who Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. It has also been used as a walk-on song for bands such as Tears for Fears, Muse, The Smiths and Iron Maiden. Dance of the Knights has also been featured in The Simpsons chapter “The Falcon and the D’ohman”, and as the closing piece for the Season 1 finale of Gotham.
Andante Cantabile TH 63 P.I. Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet, Op. 11 was one of the composer’s first major successes. He wrote it for a special concert of his music organized by Anton Rubenstein in order to support the financially struggling composer, and it was wonderfully received. Indeed, it received the highest praise for which a 19th-century Russian could ever dream ; its second movement, marked Andante Cantabile, reportedly brought tears to the eyes of Leo Tolstoy. This movement was repeated across Europe, and arranged, and rearranged ; the young Tchaikovsky wondered aloud if he would ever hear requests for anything else. The opening melody heard in the cello is actually a Russian folk song which Tchaikovsky had copied down several years earlier when he heard it sung by a Russian gardener while visiting his sister.
Frobisher Bay J. Gordon (1955-) Canadian
Frobisher Bay is a song by James Gordon about whaling in the Canadian arctic. It has been recorded by many artists in Canada and the US, and was used as an audition song on Canadian Idol.
Selected Polovtsian Dances A. Borodine (1833-1887)
Alexander Borodine started in a non-musical profession. An eminent chemist, musically he merely dabbled as a composer until Balakirev persuaded him to take the hobby seriously in 1862. Just as his foundation of a School of Medicine for Women was his greatest professional achievement, so his opera Prince Igor was his musical masterpiece. The Polovtsian Dances form an exotic scene at the end of Act II. The Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens and the Polovtsian Dance with Chorus are rarely performed on their own. The work remained unfinished when the composer died in 1887, although he had worked on it for more than a decade. Following his death, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov took on the job of completing it, though not without coming under scrutiny for what some believed opposed the integrity of what Borodine had begun to create. Borodine’s music is noted for its strong melodies and rich, sometimes unusual, harmonies. His music is undeniably Russian in flavour.