This week’s music is the 3rd movement of Alexander Borodin’s second string quartet, performed by the aptly-named Borodin String Quartet.
Russian classical music changed in the late 19th century. Rather than attempting to copy the Italian masters, it began to focus on sharing Russian folk music with the world. Tchaikovsky was one of the early leaders of this movement, and he inspired a generation of young Russian composers that eventually came to be known as “The Russian Five”: Balakirev, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov (Flight of the Bumblebee, anyone?), Mussorgsky, and – last but not least – Alexander Borodin. Borodin only wrote 21 pieces of music, and most of them were symphonies or operas. In fact, the other four members of “The Russian Five” despised chamber music and criticized Borodin for composing works for string quartet.
The third movement of Quartet No. 2 is Borodin’s most famous composition. It is titled “Nocturne,” and it’s sweet melody has captured the imaginations of listeners around the world. Written as an anniversary gift for Borodin’s wife, the Nocturne evokes a beautiful atmosphere of serenity and meditation. Listen as the main theme, which begins in the cello, gets passed around the entire quartet.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The “Rite of Spring” was a complete scandal when it was first performed. Stravinsky wrote it as the score for a French ballet in 1929, and the audience was horrified by Stravinsky’s disregard for conventional harmonic structures. When combined with Russian Ballet director Serge Diaghilev’s jolting choreography, the dissonant sounds of Stravinsky’s music were anything but “spring”-like. However, this notoriety ended up serving “The Rite of Spring” well. It is now performed just as often in orchestral settings as it is in ballet settings. The music has come to define an era of music.
“The Rite of Spring” is based on a representation of Russian rituals and culture that Stravinsky had been wanting to compose for many years. The themes are simple and dark, depicting furious storms and violent struggles. Stravinsky described it as “a musical-choreographic work . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” There is no specific storyline that unifies “The Rite of Spring,” just a serious of separately choreographed scenes that represent moments in time.
We are breaking into twentieth-century music for the first time in the Top 25! Our music for today is Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky, transcribed for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
When Russian artist and architect Victor Hartmann died, he left behind a lifetime of imaginative drawings, paintings, and designs. At an exhibition in honor of Hartmann’s work, his good friend, the composer Modest Mussorgsky, was inspired to make a musical representation of Hartmann’s images. He therefore composed a set of piano pieces that represented his walk through the exhibition of Hartmann’s works. He wrote eleven short pieces that depicted himself “roving through the exhibition, now leisurely, now briskly, in order to come closer to a picture that had attracted his attention, and at times sadly, thinking of his departed friend.” The pieces were never performed in Mussorgsky’s lifetime.
After Mussorgsky died, his friend and fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the administrator of Mussorgsky’s estate, discovered the piano pieces and began musing about the possibility of putting them to full orchestration. However, it was the French composer Maurice Ravel who finally transcribed Pictures at an Exhibition for full orchestra in 1922. In keeping with his incredibly bright and colorful style, Ravel added a flair and imagination to the piano pieces that is unforgettable. However, Ravel was also very familiar with Mussorgsky’s compositional style and made sure to remain as faithful as possible to the original score.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Pictures at an Exhibition is its orchestration. The orchestra consists of the usual winds, brass, strings, and timpani, but it also includes English horn, alto saxophone, glockenspiel, bells, tam-tam, rattle, whip, and celesta. This unconventional arrangement is in line with Mussorgsky’s tendencies. He is reported to have detested symphonies and operas as overly conventional and boring.
Here’s a quick summary of what you’ll hear:
The piece opens with a Promenade. This depicts the moment that Mussorgsky walks into the exhibition. The tempo is relatively slow and heavy, which may reflect Mussorgsky’s considerable girth and slow gait.
The first movement is the Gnomus, which represents Hartmann’s Christmas-time depiction of a gnome eating chestnuts. Listen for the disjointed, awkward leaps in the music, which represent what Mussorgsky thought of as the gnome’s “droll movements.”
Second, you’ll hear The Old Castle. This movement features the alto saxophone and represents the two medieval castles that Hartmann was fond of visiting.
Third, there is Tuileries, which represents Hartmann’s drawing of his favorite park in Paris.
Fourth, you’ll hear Bydlo. In this movement, Mussorgsky is describing Hartmann’s picture of a Polish wagon called a “bydlo” that is being drawn by a team of oxen. Listen for the hoofbeats!
Fifth, there is the Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells. This movement represents Hartmann’s picture of a group of young boys and girls playing together.
Sixth, you’ll hear Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle. This movement is in reference to two of Hartmann’s paintings that Mussorgsky himself owned. Goldenberg, a renowned merchant, is represented by the authoritative opening salvo, while Schmuyle (or “the poor one”) carries a grating, unsteady character.
Seventh, there is The Market Place. Hartmann painted over 150 watercolors of the marketplace at Limoges, France, and this movement depicts the hustle and bustle of the market.
Eighth, you will hear Catacombs. Hartmann was very fond of wandering the lamp-lit passageways underneath the city of Paris, and this movement depicts his journeys therein. If you listen carefully, you will hear a mournful and somber version of the opening Promenade at the end of this movement.
Ninth – and perhaps most famously – there is The Hut on Chicken’s Legs, or Baba-Yaga. One of Hartmann’s most famous sketches was a picture of the mythical witch Baba-Yaga. Russian folklore told stories of her lair deep in the forest, which was apparently perched on chicken’s legs.
Finally, there is The Great Gate of Kiev. Hartmann was not only an artist. He was also an architect, and he entered a national competition to determine who the architect would be for the Great Gate of Kiev. Mussorgsky had always been impressed by his friend’s plan for the gate, and this movement reflects the grandeur of the structure. Ravel’s masterful and colorful orchestration creates an incredible finale.
Our music for this week is the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F Major by
Ludwig van Beethoven. It is performed by Oleg Kagan on the violin and
Sviatoslav Richter on the piano.
As you listen to more and more classical music, you’ll begin to
see patterns in how certain types of pieces are structured. For instance, most
symphonies have four movements, most string quartets also have four, most
concertos have three, and most sonatas also have three. Beethoven’s sonatas,
however, broke this mold, featuring a pseudo-symphonic format that includes
four movements. Just like most symphonies, the movements are Allegro (an
expository opening), Adagio (a slow middle movement to put the audience to
sleep), Scherzo (a fast middle movement to wake the audience up), and
Rondo/Allegro (an intense finale).
A word about the musicians: in my opinion, this may be one of the
greatest “superstar lineups” to ever perform. Kagan, who we have heard before, was destined to become the greatest
of all time but for his tragic early death as a result of cancer. Richter very
well may be the greatest pianist to ever live, and we devoted an entire series on him! Together, they are as good a duo as
you will ever hear – perfectly together, uniquely individual, and masterfully
stylistic. Notice Kagan’s period-correct vibrato – not too narrow (as he might
do for a Mozart sonata) and not too wide (as he might do when playing Brahms).
Notice Richter’s impeccable phrasing – not too stark (like Shostakovich), but
certainly not subtle (as in Bach).
The opening melody of this sonata is beautiful in a way I’m not sure I can describe. It is delightfully sad, wonderfully sad, warmly sad. It is sad in a way that only makes sense when viewed in light of the fact that Beethoven was, at this time, simultaneously soaring to the top of the musical world while also losing the ability to hear his own music. I remember listening to audio cassettes in my childhood that dramatized the lives of famous composers through a child’s eyes, and this was the sonata that played when Beethoven walked alone at night through the streets of Vienna, remembering his youth and fighting back the tears that welled up whenever his silent existence became too much to bear. I’m not sure whether that particular scene ever happened in Beethoven’s life, but I know that it perfectly portrays the atmosphere of this sonata. Perhaps that is the wonderfully ironic miracle of its nickname “Spring” – a glimmer of hope at the end of a dark journey.
Today marks the 100th installment in the This Week’s Music tradition! For those of you who have been with us since the email days, this is more like #200, but we have now reached the 100 mark here on the website. To celebrate the occasion, our music this week will be one of the very first pieces we ever listened to: Overture on a Hebrew Theme by Prokofiev.
Overture on a Hebrew Theme was written in 1919 while Prokofiev was visiting friends in the United States. It was written for a very rare combination of instruments – clarinet, piano, and a string quartet (2 violins, viola, and cello). Prokofiev apparently wrote the work in response to a commission from the Zimro Ensemble, a Russian group with the combination of instruments noted above. He grudgingly agreed to write them a composition and remained stolidly disapproving of the work for the rest of his life. His dislike of the piece, however, is surprising given the positive response it elicited from the public.
The work carries a distinctively Russian flavor, due largely to the efforts of the clarinetist. It features melancholy lines that are meditative and reflective in nature, interspersed with multiple sections of lively transition. The most memorable and beautiful theme comes in at 2:37. This melody is one of those rare gems that feels like you’ve always known it.
Our music for today is the second movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony #11, which carries the subtitle “The Year 1905.” The symphony was written in 1957. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs in the recording you will hear.
The subtitle refers to the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution of 1905. At the time he wrote the eleventh symphony, Shostakovich was in hot water with the Soviet administration for statements he had made several years earlier. After writing this symphony – which effectively glorified the Soviets’ military might – he was quickly accepted back into the regime’s good graces. Soon afterward, he was awarded the Lenin Prize and an official apology was issued regarding his previous mistreatment.
This second movement is one of the wildest pieces of music you’ll ever hear. It is completely out of control. It carries the subtitle “The 9th of January,” which refers to the violent events of Bloody Sunday at the Winter Palace. On that date, a group of peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by the Imperial Guard in an occurrence that is now regarded as the catalyst for the Russian Revolution of 1905.
The eerie opening theme (which is based on a folk song from Shostakovich’s childhood) represents the group of protestors walking to the Winter Palace to complain about the government’s corruption. The distant brass foreshadow the military might that is soon to confront them. Midway through the movement (at 11:18), a sudden crescendo builds into a series of explosions from the snare drum (gunfire) and strings (the footsteps of the marching soldiers). This part of the music can only be described as absolute insanity. The amount of sound that Shostakovich unleashes is overwhelming. Pounding bass drums, searing cymbals, relentless snare drum, and overwhelming brass create a mechanical and horrifying picture of the massacre. The main theme – which in my opinion is the most “Shostakovich-ian” melody of all time – comes roaring in at 13:29.
Our music for this week is the Suite No. 1 from Mikail Ippolitov-Ivanov’s
Caucasion Sketches. I’m willing to
bet that none of you – even the most veteran musicians – have heard of this
piece. However, one of the many goals of This Week’s Music is to popularize
music that no one knows about!
Ippolitov-Ivanov was a Russian composer in the early 20th century who studied with the famous Rimsky-Korsakov. One of his first jobs was as a conductor in the region of Russia that is now Georgia. During his eleven years there, he fell in love with the soaring mountain peaks and rich folk heritage of the region. The Caucasion Sketches are his musical depiction of the rural Caucasus Mountains of Georgia, which, as a result of their position along a major trade route from the Black Sea to Moscow, were filled with an incredible amount of cultural diversity.
There are four movements in the Caucasion
In a Mountain Pass
In a Village – listen for the English horn’s solo in this movement. It is supposedly a representation of an instrument native to the Caucasus Mountains region called the zurna.
In a Mosque
Procession of the Sardar – the Sardar was the leader or regional commander, and this movement depicts the pomp and circumstance that surround his arrival in the village.