One story to the tune of another
One of the glories of music is its ability to convey emotions, pictures and stories as we absorb its melodies, harmonies and rhythms. We are all unique, however, so that even within a homogenous cultural community people react differently to the same sounds – unless a piece of music becomes indelibly bound up with some other image, story or time. And, of course, composers have always borrowed other narratives and tunes to provoke their own creativity, just as other artists – film makers, for example – have returned the favour by ‘borrowing’ music to enhance their own craft.
So it is with tonight’s concert. Audience members of a certain age may well associate the beautiful love adagio from the ballet Spartacus with a tall-masted ship cleaving the waves from the opening titles of the TV series ‘The Onedin Line’. Similarly, we will bring everything we know about the heartbreaking tragedy of Romeo and Juliet to bear on our appreciation of one of the greatest ballet scores of all time. And, if we did but know it, the symphony we are going to hear is shot through with borrowed Ukrainian folk tunes. But there is a different way of receiving this music, too: just let it flow over and through us to create our own stories and pictures.
The three composers whose work is included in tonight’s programme are all, in some sense at least, Russian from both before and during the Soviet era (the latter an extraordinarily creative period in compositional history). They were all composers of some of the most beautiful and outstanding ballet music ever written. But above all they use their craft to provoke the deepest emotions: love, joy, excitement, drama, pathos and sadness in equal measure. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Spartacus suite no. 2 Aram Khachaturian (1903–1978)
I Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia
II Entrance of the Merchants, Dance of a Roman Courtesan, General Dance
III Entrance of Spartacus, Quarrel, Harmodius’ Treachery
IV Dance of the Pirates
A country of barely three million inhabitants, nestling in the South Caucasus, Armenia boasts the first ever established Christian church, its own unique language and a much greater population spread all over the world, notably in Russia, Iran, the USA and throughout the region. Notoriously – and buried deep in the psyche of all Armenians – more than a million Armenians were massacred in one of the twentieth century’s most egregious acts of genocide (1915–17), a fact still denied by the current Turkish state.
In front of the opera theatre in Yerevan, the capital, stands the imposing statue of one of Armenia’s most famous sons, the composer Khachaturian. Except, of course, that like so many Armenians in the diaspora he was actually born and brought up somewhere else – in Tbilisi, Georgia – and lived for most of his life in Russia. There he learned his craft and became one of the most famous Soviet musicians, regularly cited along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich as one of the three greatest composers of post-war Soviet music. That didn’t shield him from the absurdly dogmatic machinations of Andrei Zhdanov, tasked by Stalin with overseeing Soviet cultural policy. Alongside his companions, he was denounced in 1948 as a leading figure of the formalistic direction in music “and that direction is fundamentally incorrect”. What bureaucratic rubbish! Like Shostakovich, however, he was eventually reinstated to ‘re-enjoy’ his fame. He remained an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet revolution to the end of his life. But in his heart (like so many of his fellow countrymen from the diaspora) he was always Armenian, and the glory of his music is the fusion of Armenian melodies and folk tunes with the creative traditions of the Soviet empire of which his country became a part.
Whilst Khachaturian is famous for three concertos (for cello, piano and violin), three symphonies and countless film scores, it is for his ballets Gayane and especially Spartacus that he is perhaps best known around the world. Spartacus appealed to this Soviet composer with its tale of Roman slaves rebelling against their oppressive masters, and the authorities responded with enthusiasm to Khachaturian’s choice, which won the Lenin Prize in 1959. But it would be a mistake to see the ballet as some kind of propagandist vehicle. With themes of rebellion, love and betrayal all blended into a joyous whirl of dance and emotion, this is one of the most amenable ballet scores ever written.
After unwittingly killing his best friend in a blindfold gladiatorial contest, the Roman slave Spartacus (the captured Thracian king) incites fellow slaves to rebellion. He rescues his beloved wife Phrygia from her enforced concubinage and the couple express their love in the famous adagio (forget that ship!). The slaves had previously disrupted the Roman bacchanal (movement 2 of the suite) but later the rebels start fighting amongst themselves and there is treachery (movement 3). And then the pirates start dancing (movement 4), who knows why, but when tonight’s orchestra played through the suite for the first time the players’ enthusiasm for this and the other movements of the suite was instantly discernible. And that is the enthusiasm which they and their conductor hope to convey in this wonderful music.
Symphony no. 2 (Little Russian) Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
I Andante sostenuto – Allegro vivo
II Andante marziale
III Scherzo: allegro molto vivace
IV Finale: moderato assai
Tchaikovsky may have been one of the most successful composers the world of classical music has ever known, but his life was tinged with tragedy and strangeness. He married, disastrously, a woman whose family he despised (they fought viciously amongst themselves) and whom he never would or could desire. Did she know of his homosexuality when she married? On the answer to that rests our view of the whole sorry procedure, which ended almost immediately. Nevertheless, and despite his brother Modest’s description of Antonina Miliukova as a stupid madwoman, Tchaikovsky never divorced her and continued to support her until his death. As for her, she never remarried but appears to have had three children (all handed over to foundling hospitals) by different fathers.
Then there was his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. She and the composer never met, but her support for him was crucial in his increasing success.
And finally there is the matter of his enigmatic death, by which time the cheerfulness of his earlier music had given way to morbid presentiments of fate and the amazing last three symphonies with their profound introspection and beauty. Did he die from drinking cholera-infected water (as his doctor brother Modest said)? If he did, was it deliberate or accidental? Or perhaps (as one recent theory has it) he took arsenic as a result of pressure from the St Petersburg Conservatory, scandalised by his affair with the nephew of a noble at the Tsar’s court? Whatever really happened, he was given the grandest state funeral Russia had ever seen, and his incredible music (operas, ballets, overtures, symphonies, choral and chamber music) is as popular today as it has ever been.
Tchaikovsky’s second symphony was written before the ‘marriage’ and before the doom and gloom set in. It comes from a period when his music was still full of optimism and is arguably one of the happiest pieces of music he ever wrote. It was called ‘Little Russian’ by the music critic Nikolay Kashkin, since in Tsarist times that was the name people gave the Ukraine. Tchaikovsky was staying with his sister there (in Kamianka) when he wrote the symphony. Three of its movements work around Ukrainian folk tunes which he was hearing as he wrote – indeed, the fourth movement is based on a melody, ‘The Crane’, that one of his sister’s household retainers would sing endlessly around the house. Although he had recently used a Ukrainian folk tune in the extremely popular and moving andante cantabile of his first string quartet, he would never use folk material so exclusively and enthusiastically again.
The symphony was premièred to great success in 1873 but for some reason the original score was subsequently lost. This pleased the composer, who was very unhappy with what he had written. He made many changes and the revised edition was published in 1879.
After a single brisk chord, a solo horn (later joined by the bassoon) starts the first movement by playing the tune of ‘Down the Mother Volga’ (Russia’s great river). A woodwind second theme leads to the allegro vivo of a more animated subject. There’s a restatement and development of the original theme in a satisfying blend of folk tradition and symphonic cheerfulness.
The second movement, unchanged from the first edition, is an adaptation of a wedding march which Tchaikovsky wrote for his opera Undine (but withheld). This fairytale rondo has a march, a characteristically singing second theme and a third element which quotes the folk tune ‘Spin, O my Spinner’.
The third movement is somewhat fleeting and rushed. Was it modelled, as some have suggested, on the ‘Queen Mab’ scherzo in Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, which that composer had recently presented in St Petersburg and Moscow? Conversations between woodwind and strings skitter around the pages in a folk-like conversation which nevertheless has no identifiable folk basis.
Tchaikovsky cut 150 bars from the original version of the fourth movement for his 1879 version, and perhaps that accounts for its rumbustious energy and cheerfulness. It starts rather like ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ from Pictures at an Exhibition (appropriately enough – this is the Little Russian, after all!) but then offers us a version of that song ‘The Crane’, proclaimed by the brass choir. Then the orchestra takes it up, running around, before a second theme gets all lyrical, and the movement (and the symphony) gallop towards the end in a typically Tchaikovskian blaze of accelerated glory.
Romeo and Juliet suite no. 1 Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953)
I Folk dance
II Tableau: the street awakens
IV Minuet: the arrival of the guests
VI Romeo and Juliet
VII Death of Tybalt
If a public figure’s fame can be judged by the reaction to the news of their death, then Prokofiev wasn’t that famous. He died on the same day as Josef Stalin, and the streets were so full of parades and crowds commemorating the demise of that most destructive dictator (discuss!) that for three days his body couldn’t be collected from his house for burial. How ironic, then, that it is Prokofiev who – alongside other Russian composers – most successfully conveys the upside of Soviet culture from those days to an international audience and will continue to do so, it seems, as long as music is played.
Like most Soviet composers, Prokofiev had a troubled relationship with the artistic authorities. Come to that, he had an equivocal relationship with Russia itself. Following the days of early success (studying with Glière and then moving to St Petersburg, aged only 12, at the suggestion of Glazunov) he travelled to Paris, where he worked, as Stravinksy so memorably did, with Diaghilev. He sought fame and success in the USA, with somewhat disappointing results, and spent time moving between the USA and Europe before finally returning to Soviet Russia in 1936, for reasons that are still unexplained.
Romeo and Juliet was commissioned by the Kirov Ballet in 1934 (while the composer was still dividing his time between Paris and Moscow). Then the Kirov backed out, perhaps for political reasons – because the ballet was too avant-garde for the current climate. The Bolshoi was next on the scene, but they pulled out too, possibly because Prokofiev wanted to write a happy ending: as he wrote, “living people can dance, the dying cannot”. But by the time of the ballet’s quiet première in Brno he had been persuaded that the tragic ending could indeed be “expressed in dance”. After a difficult relationship with the choreographer Lavrosky back at the Kirov, Romeo and Juliet had its Russian première in 1940 and was an instant hit.
Prokofiev made several suites from the completed ballet, of which this is one. A cheerful folk dance heralds a street scene in which rhythmic string chords accompany a conversation between bassoons, first violins and oboe. ‘Madrigal’ and the minuet are gorgeously rich music but already, along with ‘Masks’, carry beneath their surface a hint of the tragedy to come. They are followed by the enthralling beauty of the lovers together reaching an ecstatic climax. In the stunning finale, the demonic pace of Tybalt’s violent death gives way to a heartfelt funeral march that brings the suite to a dramatic end.
It seemed that things had gone right for Prokofiev, but then came Zhdanov’s 1948 attack on formalism. Prokofiev apologised to the authorities for his errors, hoping that works such as Alexander Nevsky and the fifth symphony would be his defence. Then he went further and thanked the Party “for the clear guidelines laid down by the resolution”. He seems never to have got over this surrender. He wrote two more symphonies and some cello works for Mstislav Rostropovich, as well as some unsuccessful works which seemed designed to appease Zhdanov and his other critics, but nothing was ever quite the same again.
For us, though, the politics and arguments fade away and we are left with a musical legacy of almost unrivalled beauty.