2022-2023 SEASON

Jonathan Carney & The Rite of Spring

Jim Rouse Theatre

Saturday, October 17, 2009 - 7:30 p.m.

Over 100 musicians take the stage as the orchestra brings you three of the most inspired pieces of music ever conceived! Beethoven was considered mad by his contemporaries…Tchaikovsky’s Concerto was deemed unplayable…The French police couldn’t stop the riot at Stravinsky’s premiere…But today these incredible works stand among the greatest of the Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth-Century masterpieces.

Ludwig van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto


VIOLIN CONCERTO in D Major, Op. 35

Composed: 1878
Premiered: Vienna, Austria, 1881

I: Allegro moderato
II: Canzonetta: Andante
III: Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

It’s often forgotten that Tchaikovsky was Russia’s one and only professional composer in the 1880s; all the others had day jobs, from Mussorgsky the customs official to Rimsky-Korsakov the naval officer. Others taught, but only Tchaikovsky made his living entirely as a composer. He did this, at least in his earlier years, by having a wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who paid his domestic bills and bankrolled his compositions. Weirdly, he only met her once, and that by accident. Tchaikovsky was placed on her payroll, however, by a young violinist, Iosif Kotek, who began as his lover but proved to be serially and publically unfaithful in ways that could have landed them both in prison (same-sex relationships were very illegal in Tsarist Russia). It was Kotek who asked Tchaikovsky to write a violin concerto, taking account of a mangled finger on his left hand (which explains some of the oddities surviving in the violin writing). The work was to have been dedicated to Kotek, but Kotek thought it beneath him by then, and died soon after in any case at 28. Tchaikovsky offered the dedication to the great Hungarian violinist Auer, obviously hoping for a high-profile premiere, but Auer, incredibly, also turned this down after a brief perusal – a judgment he soon came to regret. The final dedicatee was Adolph Brodsky, who played the premiere. The work was a huge success from then on.

The first movement is in a sonata form that seems to contain wreckage from an earlier version; the opening theme is an obvious candidate for first subject, but is never heard again once the violin enters with a near-cadenza followed by the now very famous actual first subject. This large expanse of undeveloped material is very unusual for the usually musically economical Tchaikovsky. The second subject is in a no-nonsense A major, and the rest of the movement follows the textbook, apart from a strangely Prokofiev-ish dip into C major (and even F) in the development. An oddity of the cadenza is that it contains three of the highest notes ever written down for the violin up to that time.

The second movement is actually a substitution for an earlier version that Tchaikovsky excised, but recycled as a chamber work. It lives up entirely to its title (Canzonetta = “little song”), built around an unassuming melody that wanders no further than E flat from its comfortable home in the unsurprising key of G minor. This makes the no-break crash into the finale all the more surprising. The finale is Tchaikovsky at his most self-consciously Russian, though he is careful to avoid the rough-hewn “excesses” of his more overtly Nationalist contemporaries: he settles for a drone accompaniment and steadily increasing tempo to state his cultural credentials, combined with a lyrical section that sounds like, but is not, a folksong. All that remains is the frantic dash to the finish line in grand Romantic D-major, terrifyingly-difficult style.

Igor Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring



Composed: 1912-13
Premiered: Paris, France, 1913

Part One: The Earth’s Kiss
Part Two: The Exalted Sacrifice

There are many who wish that Stravinsky had stuck to the musical language of Petrushka, rather than pushing music off the stylistic cliff of the Rite. It is odd, then, to realize that much – most, in fact – of the music of the Rite was written before Petrushka, and parts of it were composed while The Firebird was being orchestrated. But now, the (largely) genial repetitive processes of Petrushka have become the obsessive monsters of the Rite. This elegant Parisian dandy, Rimsky-Korsakov’s favorite student, has removed his mask to uncover the primeval, intensely Russian composer that was never far from the surface.

Stravinsky’s own title for the work is Vesna svyashchennaya (Holy Spring), which he preferred to render, rather freely, as The Coronation of Spring. The scenario for the ballet was originally suggested by the painter Nicholas Roerich, and involved the unappealing concept of a young girl dancing herself to death as part of a primeval cultic ritual. Stravinsky decided that these were Russian pagans when he had a nightmare after one of Claude Debussy’s terrifying dinner parties; Debussy would eventually play the lower end of the piano when he and Stravinsky played through the Rite as a piano duet for Diaghilev.

The musical landscape of the Rite is, above all, Russian. The famous, barely-playable bassoon solo that opens the work uses a folk song that Stravinsky found in Melodje ludowe litewskie, a book lent to him by Rimsky-Korsakov and never returned. Other melodies in the Rite are clearly identifiable from Rimsky’s own folksong collections. It is, however, a million miles from the average Percy Grainger folksong arrangement.

It is sometimes hard to believe, but this music is now over a hundred years old – part of history. We can now hear the Rite as part of the same process of the universalization of folk art that gave us jazz; the same reconciliation with the primitive that gave us Picasso and Henry Moore.

So, what is it all “about”? Famously, Stravinsky himself once said that music was incapable, in its very essence, of being “about” anything at all; he was very clear indeed that the Rite was certainly not about Walt Disney’s dinosaurs, and never forgave Leopold Stokowski for slashing the score to ribbons for Fantasia. It may be more helpful to think of Stravinsky’s early ballets as a series of nested Russian dolls – except that the last, innermost doll has been replaced with a bear.

Ludwig van Beethoven - Overture to Egmont


Howard County Center for the Arts
8510 High Ridge Road
Ellicott City, MD 21043
Phone: 410.465.8777
Email: info@columbiaorchestra.org

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