Overture to Russlan and Ludmilla
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) is considered the father of the 19th century Russian Nationalist school of composition. In the 1830’s, while living in Italy and composing in the Italian manner, he wrote “I could not sincerely be an Italian. A longing for my own country led me gradually to writing in a Russian manner.” After more years of study, he emerged with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar in 1837. Encouraged by its success he soon began working on an opera based on Pushkin’s poem Ruslan and Ludmilla. He wanted the poet to write the libretto, but Pushkin died of an infection after participating in a duel. Work on Ruslan continued for several years and was finally presented to the world on December 9, 1842. It was not well received: dramatically it’s a disaster. But the rollicking, effervescent, brilliantly scored overture has remained a concert favorite from the beginning.
Piano Concerto No. 2
On the title page of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, there is a dedication to Dr. N. Dahl, which puzzled people for many years. In his Recollections, the composer relates the story: in 1897, his first symphony was performed in St. Petersburg and met with such failure (thanks to the conducting of the drunken Glazunov) that the composer fell into a state of depression that he couldn’t rouse himself out of.
He resolved to give up composing completely. “I did nothing at all, and found no pleasure in anything. Half my days were spent sighing over my ruined life.” This depression persisted for over a year when friends suggested he see Dr. Nickolai Dahl in Moscow who was then experimenting with the new field of autosuggestion. For four months he spent hours with Dr. Dahl, growing better day by day. “Dahl had inquired what kind of composition was desired of me, and he was informed 'a concerto for pianoforte'…In consequence, I heard repeated, day after day, the same hypnotic formula…'You will start to compose a concerto – You will work the greatest of ease – The composition will be of excellent quality' … Although it may seem impossible to believe, this treatment really helped me.”
The work was finished in 1901 with the first complete performance in London in 1902 with the composer as the soloist. It was a sensation and won Rachmaninoff the Glinka prize, establishing him as a composer of distinction. The concerto is second in popularity only to Tchaikovsky’s First, and has been a staple of the repertoire since it was written. The concerto has provided rich fodder for others to borrow themes from, nowhere more blatantly than Frank Sinatra's 1945 "Full Moon and Empty Arms”.
Night on Bald Mountain
Modest Mussorgsky didn’t have thorough training in the technique of composition; much of his music was incomplete, unedited and in disarray when he died. His orchestration was crude, unpolished and ineffective. Much of his music was rescued by his great friend Rimsky-Korsakov. Such was the fate of Night on Bald Mountain. Originally titled The Witches, Mussorgsky had a difficult time writing it. After two attempts, and weathering blistering criticism from his mentor Mily Balakirev, he gave up. After his death, Rimsky put the work into the shape we know it and orchestrated it. The closing section was not Mussorgsky’s idea at all; Rimsky took the music from another unfinished work, Sorochinsky Fair. Rimsky wrote a description of the work:
“Subterranean sounds of unearthly voices; appearance of the spirits of darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog; Chernobog’s glorification and the Black Mass; the revels; at the height of the orgies there is heard from afar the bell of a little church, which causes the spirits to disperse; dawn.”
The composer of the infamous Sabre Dance, Aram Khachaturian (1903 - 1978) was one of music’s ultimate late starters. Born in Tiflis, Armenia, he showed an early interest in music, particularly in the folk songs and dances of his native land. But it wasn’t until he was age twenty that he had any instruction in music. He entered the Gnesin School of Music in 1923 knowing almost nothing about music theory or the standard repertoire. He took up the cello and progressed at an astonishing rate. In 1929 he entered the Moscow Conservatory emerging in 1934 as one of the most important and popular composers in the Soviet Union. His folk song-inspired music won him fame and awards, including the coveted Stalin Prize and the Order of Lenin. Yet this didn’t shield him from the notorious denunciation by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in its wholesale condemnation of Soviet composers on February 10, 1948 for either “anti-popular trends” or “bourgeois formalism”. The attack on Khachaturian was astonishing given the wide, universal appeal of his music which is easily appreciated even on first hearing.
In Masquerade, Khachaturian abandoned the styles and sounds of Armenia for the brilliant, lush traditions of the Imperial Russia of Tchaikovsky and Glinka. It is the Russia of the great early nineteenth poet and playwright Mikhail Lermontov and the sumptuous, vacuous and costly masquerades of Czarist society. The brooding melodrama Masquerade is about jealousy, ending in the murder of an innocent wife by a husband disgusted with the coarseness and hypocrisy of society. But it was too much for Russian censors, and the play didn’t appear until 1862, twenty-one years after Lermontov’s death. Khachaturian wrote incidental music for a Moscow production which premiered on June 21, 1941 in Moscow’s Vakhtangov Theatre. From the score he assembled the well-known five movement suite.