Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff
Saturday, December 1, 2012 - 7:30 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre
NKEIRU OKOYE (born 1972)
VOICES SHOUTING OUT
Premiered: Norfolk, Virginia, 2002
Born in New York to a Nigerian immigrant and his African-American wife, Nkeiru Okoye has brought an entirely new perspective to bear on American musical life. She is, in both the usual and a very literal sense, the musical voice of African America. While she is—of course—African-American, she is also an American African. This dual heritage has resulted in a musical personality of exceptional strength and directness, and an immediately recognizable sound like no other. Elements as diverse as Tamla Motown, hip-hop and traditional Yoruba music can be heard—and, more importantly, felt—in her music, along with an almost Sousa-like sense of pride. And it is that pride that forms the core of Voices Shouting Out, Okoye’s response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
Those who expect an outpouring of elegiac sorrow in a work written in the wake of 9/11 will be surprised. This piece is no Barber Adagio; it is a hymn of celebration—an affirmation of unity and positivity in the face of the ultimate negative. Okoye began by attempting to write the expected memorial work, but soon found herself grinding to a halt, forced to reconsider by a rebellion from within herself. Rather than mourning the lost, she realized, the music needed to rejoice in the living with the sort of ferocity that can only come to those who have stood in the ruins of their own world and seen the future through the smoke. As she herself writes:
“In the end, rather than ‘crying out,’ my official response was Voices Shouting Out in freedom, as it were, through the music. It was a march to acknowledge those fighting on behalf of our safety, and yet a sparkling celebration of life for those of us who continue living.”
SERGEI RACHMANINOFF (1873 – 1943)
SYMPHONIC DANCES, Op. 45
Premiered: Philadelphia, 1941
- Non allegro
- Andante con moto (Tempo di valse)
- Lento assai - Allegro vivace - Lento assai. Come prima - Allegro vivace.
At a dinner party in Bedford, Massachusetts in 1940, a horrible silence fell as the hostess realized that someone had seated her friend Igor Stravinsky next to the exiled Russian super-Romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff. Stravinsky had recently described his famously dour countryman as a “six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl” while giving his music the sort of anti-Romantic kicking that only Stravinsky could. Disaster loomed—what would they talk about? She need not have worried. Within minutes, the two were the best of friends, literally hugging each other while discussing their mutual favorite topic—money. Stravinsky later said that he had doubled his capital on the stock tips he received from Rachmaninoff that evening. He never criticized Rachmaninoff’s music again.
Across the Atlantic, Kaikhosru Sorabji, possibly the most virulent music critic ever to lift a pen, had recently written an encyclopedic diatribe on modern music with the alarming title Rachmaninoff and Rabies. This, however, was not what it seemed at first glance: Rachmaninoff was the only living composer, it emerged, for whom Sorabji had any time at all. He was the “master of that subtlest of the compositional arts, organic form, and modern in the most important sense.” Sorabji’s thoughts on Stravinsky, incidentally, are barely for family reading.
So, which is it? Was Rachmaninoff a post-Romantic relic, or an unsuspected modernist? He was both, of course—and we have in tonight’s work a supreme demonstration of this. The Symphonic Dances also offer a unique opportunity to see and hear what a composer thought of himself, as the piece was conceived from the start as a summation of the composer’s life’s work. A year earlier, Rachmaninoff had been startled to find his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini turned into a ballet within months of its premiere (which was at the Lyric Theatre, Baltimore, by the way); when he was asked for a new symphonic work by Eugene Ormandy, he decided to build this possibility not only into the music but into the title. Ironically, there are elements in the first movement that bear more than a passing resemblance to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a fact not lost on Stravinsky, who attributed Rachmaninoff’s death two years later to divine punishment. He may—may—not have been serious.
Rachmaninoff originally intended to call the three movements “Noon,” “Twilight” and “Midnight”—a gradual dimming of the light often interpreted as the composer having a premonition of his own demise, which followed two years after the work’s premiere. This is not impossible; his six-and-a-half-foot frame and legendarily gigantic hands were the result of Marfan’s Syndrome, a genetic defect that also affects the heart; the similarly gaunt English composer John Tavener is a modern example of the same affliction. Rachmaninoff’s condition was unmistakably deteriorating by 1940. He not only understood that the Symphonic Dances would be his last work; he planned it to be so, never attempting any further composition afterwards. He described the work as “my last spark”.
Quotations from Rachmaninoff’s earlier pieces are strewn throughout the Symphonic Dances, perhaps the most poignant being the unmistakable reference to his hapless First Symphony at the end of the first dance. The Symphony had long been his orphaned child, almost universally reviled since its premiere and even now barely in the repertoire. The prevailing influence on the movement, however is—strangely—jazz, an unlikely departure for a composer many thought to be Tchaikovsky’s visible representative on earth. The deeper truth of this is stranger still; the much-remarked-upon saxophone solo in the movement (the composer’s sole use of the instrument in his entire career) was originally intended for a contralto voice, and a specific one at that—Marian Anderson, the famed African-American singer whose career was taking off at the time. It seems that Rachmaninoff was seriously assessing not only his own past but his place in his adopted country; and that place was absolutely not where most would expect to find him.
The second movement, according to the composer, depicts Russia in the last years before the Bolshevik revolution; the music, a ghostly post-Tchaikovskian waltz, has a faded elegance redolent with the perfume of terminal decline—aided on its way by a handful of quotations from Rachmaninoff’s chamber and piano works.
It is the last movement that gives us a hint of what was really happening in Rachmaninoff’s soul—now returned to the unmistakable sound world of early Stravinsky, despite all its longings for a less conflicted (really?) past. A theme from his glorious Vespers (set to a text describing the Resurrection) is locked in a death struggle with the Dies Irae, the medieval sequence evoking the last day—the “day of wrath”. Rachmaninoff had quoted the Dies Irae in the Paganini Rhapsody only a year before; like many other composers before and since, he associated it with Death itself. The Resurrection wins in the end—at the point, in fact, where the composer writes “Hallelujah!” over the music in the manuscript.
At the end of the manuscript, after the last cataclysm, Rachmaninoff writes “Thanks be to Thee”. And so might we all. Seldom has an artist written finis to his career so definitively, though the underlying sense of “I can die now” is far from comforting. When asked by a journalist how he composed, Rachmaninoff glowered and said “I hear music in my head; I write it down.” The degree of craftsmanship and the underlying truth of the music both tell us that this may have been Rachmaninoff’s one and only joke. The journalist didn’t get it, of course.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
PIANO CONCERTO No. 1 in B flat minor
Premiered: Boston, Massachusetts, 1875
- Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito
- Andantino semplice – Prestissimo
- Allegro con fuoco
Yes, Boston, MA! The first Russian performance was three months later, after—see below—the dust had settled. If Rachmaninoff’s First Symphony was his despised, misunderstood wild child that somehow survived to adulthood, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto was very nearly strangled at birth. The composer intended the piece to be played by Nikolai Rubinstein, so he was, to say the least, put out when Rubinstein did all but set fire to it when Tchaikovsky played it for him a couple of days after its completion. Rubinstein was appalled to the point of apoplexy, and left no detail untouched (or undemolished) as he drove a steamroller over poor Pyotr Ilyich’s efforts. Some said that Tchaikovsky never really recovered. Interestingly, it is still easy to see what bothered Rubinstein so much. The first movement states its key in a couple of loudly stated chords, then veers off into entirely the wrong key (the relative major, D flat) with a huge tune that bears no obvious relation to anything that follows. Rubinstein considered this not only a crime against form (which it certainly is) but a crime against taste (discuss!). It is not even his own tune, by the way: the soaring opening melody, one of the most famous moments in the whole of music, is a Ukrainian folk tune.
However, closer analysis—much closer analysis—reveals an underlying pattern across the work relating to the despised “big tune”. Elements of it are to be found in every part of the work, but hardly ever in a readily identifiable form. Exactly the same technique was used in Borodin’s first symphony, premiered only months before Tchaikovsky began the concerto—and Rubinstein loathed Borodin, man and music. He called the concerto “clumsy and unplayable, when not vulgar and chaotic,” which was actually far kinder than some of the things he said about Borodin. And it is worth remembering that a composer as apparently unlike Tchaikovsky as Shostakovich would similarly surrender the first movement of his Seventh Symphony to a huge, structurally irrelevant melody—which is exactly what everybody remembers about it. The technique has psychology on its side, if not the musical grammarians.
The “real” first subject of the first movement is another Ukrainian folk tune. The occasionally alarming crudity of the piano part (Tchaikovsky was not really a pianist) may have us peering wistfully in Rubinstein’s direction, but the faint pre-echoes of Romeo and Juliet and the unforgettable climaxes of the movement sweep all before them. Strangely, the huge, crashing D-flat piano chords that accompany The Tune were added after Rubinstein’s diatribe; the original version has perfectly civilized arpeggios.
The slow movement begins with a rocking, lullaby-like melody over pizzicato strings, interrupted by—of all things—a French folk tune, Il faut s’amuser, danser et rire (“one must have fun, dance and laugh”) in a an eruption prefiguring similar unexpected prestissimo flights in two of Bartók’s piano concerti (and unlikely comparison, but true none the less).
Two more Ukrainian tunes form the A and B of a fairly conventional sonata-rondo structure for the finale. This was a time when the Ukraine was having one of its occasional fits of we’re-not-Russian nationalism, and the fiercely conservative Tchaikovsky would never have used such material without a subtext (again, something that may have troubled Rubinstein). We cannot listen to Shostakovich without asking what it all “really” means; perhaps we should pay Tchaikovsky the same compliment. Certainly, a strange and unexpected light is cast on his personal life by the recent discovery of the encoding of the name of his one-time fiancée Désirée Artôt, in two places in the score. He certainly never did the same for his hapless wife, or indeed anyone else. Tchaikovsky’s emotional landscape, it seems, was an even stranger place than we thought.
About the Concert
Rachmaninoff’s final masterpiece is his crowning achievement for orchestra, combining high energy and romantic lyricism with the sparkling colors of the symphony. Virtuoso Anne Koscielny brings her profound interpretive skills to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and Nkeiru Okoye’s work, written in the wake of September 11, 2001, opens the concert with fire and resilience.