Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840–1893
“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking… [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.
Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.
What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.
At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits. He helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.
The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction, paving the way for the lyrical first theme. After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.
The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky’s second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, No. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement, serving as sharp contrast to the raucous Finale that follows without pause. Hanslick’s appraisal: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”
The unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna’s critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music and a symbol of Russian nationalism. Another peculiar divergence from tradition that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza at the beginning of the movement that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction and leads right into the main theme. Now, if these had been German or Hungarian dances, Vienna’s attitude might have been different.
Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune (Afternoon of a Faun) Claude Debussy 1862-1918
The publication in 1876 of symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s subtly sensual poem, L’après-midi d’un faune, created a furor in the cultural circles of Paris with its hints of bisexuality and lesbianism. The figure of the youthful, erotic faun appealed to Debussy, who in 1892 planned a three-part composition, Prélude, interludes et paraphrase finale pour l’après-midi d’un faune, to serve as background music to readings of the poem. In the course of the composition, however, he was, sidetracked by his work on the opera Pelléas et Mélisande. As a result, only the Prélude was ever written.
The poem depicts a sensuous faun, a rural deity represented as a man with the ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat, silently contemplating cavorting nymphs and other forest creatures on a warm sunny afternoon. The suggestive music captures the erotic atmosphere of the poem with consummate skill and is one of the first and most evocative examples of musical Impressionism. The Prélude was first performed in Paris in December 1894 and was an instant triumph, the only work of Debussy ever to receive an encore at its premiere. Mallarmé himself praised the music, saying that it extended the emotion of his poem and provided it with a warmer background. Debussy regarded the music as “a very free illustration and in no way as a synthesis of the poem.”
The Prélude requires a full orchestra, but with a touch as light and evanescent as the poem; often the pauses in the music are as dramatic as the music itself, which relies mostly on the woodwinds and the harp to create the dreamy atmosphere and imagery. In 1912, however, Sergey Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, urged the dancer Vaclav Nijinsky to choreograph and dance the role of the faun in a ballet based on Mallarmé’s poem and Debussy’s music. Nijinsky’s interpretation of the role turned out to be much more literal than Mallarmé’s symbolist poetry. His openly erotic interpretation of the faun provoked a major scandal, primarily because of the final scene in which the faun, frustrated and saddened by the inability to seduce his nymph playmates, consoles himself by sensuously fondling a scarf that one of the nymphs has dropped in her escape.
The signature theme of the Prélude, which opens the piece as a flute solo, reappears in many variations, re-harmonized and re-orchestrated, with even little snippets – particularly the first six notes – incorporated into other melodies. It seems to symbolize the faune, although there is nothing in the score or the ballet to prove the association.
Poem of Ecstasy, Op. 54 Aleksander Skryabin 1872-1915
Short of stature but long on ego, composer and pianist Aleksander Skryabin has been called the bad boy of Russian music. Considered a visionary and musical messiah by some – including himself – to others he was a charlatan, neurotic degenerate and total failure. He started formally studying piano and reading music at the relatively late age of ten, but by fourteen was already composing feverishly. At 16 he entered in the Moscow Conservatory to study piano – his teacher, Nikolay Zverev, discouraged him from composing – pursuing a totally different route from his classmate Sergey Rachmaninov, who bested him in winning a first Gold Medal to Skryabin’s second.
Skryabin’s early models were Chopin and Liszt, but he was a loner and innovator and, in his maturity, discarded their influence to develop his own musical language. His innovative harmonies make his music instantly identifiable. He experienced an intrinsic association of specific tones with colors and odors, a benign neurological condition known as synesthesia.
Synesthesia is not that uncommon in ordinary individuals; many people unconsciously associate colors with numbers, letters of the alphabet or days of the week from early childhood. Skryabin, however, went further. He developed an interest in mysticism and in Wagner’s philosophy of the Gesamtkunstwerk (all-encompassing art), the synthesis of music, poetry and spectacle, and its fruition in his music dramas. Both composers adhered to a belief going back to the ancient Greeks that music could transform the human soul – and Skryabin literally believed his music was destined to create this transcendent experience. Although the late nineteenth-century nationalistic Russian composers were ambivalent about Wagner, Skryabin was fascinated with him, and believed that his own even more inclusive artistic synthesis of the senses would out-Wagner Wagner.
His theories became gradually more and more esoteric, leading to an attempt to create music that combines the stimulation of all the senses, culminating in a project he entitled Mysterium, a grand synthesis of the arts, including music, speech, colors, aroma and touch. It was to be presented in a vast Indian temple by thousands of musicians dressed in white. For that purpose, in 1914, he bought a plot of land in Darjeeling, India. Having been born on Christmas Day, Skryabin fashioned himself a mystic and preacher of christologic magnitude. Unfortunately, this forerunner of today’s multimedia creations remains only a series of sketches, Skryabin having succumbed to septicemia from a boil on his lip in a sudden and uncharacteristically ordinary death.
Commenced in 1905 and completed in 1907, the Poem of Ecstasy was a step in Skryabin’s “progression” towards Mysterium. In keeping with his penchant for purple prose he gave the score the working title Orgiastic Poem, heading it up with a long, poem that defies simple interpretation. In the poet’s own words: “Sometimes the poem’s effect is so potent that it requires no content.” The general scope of the poem concerns an unexplained force, the Spirit, its battle against unnamed forces and ultimate victory, self-actualization, orgiastic release – whatever.
According to Skryabin’s friend, conductor Modest Altschuler, the composer described three sections in Poem of Ecstasy: l) his [Skryabin’s] soul in the orgy of love, 2) the realization of a fantastic dream, and 3) the glory of his own art. On the other hand, the composer also claimed that it would be better for listeners to approach the work without the poem or other philosophical interpretations. Skryabin’s biographer, Faubion Bowers, put it more succinctly: “…behind the distillation of Scriabin’s world view is something more blunt – sex.”
Skryabin based the overall musical concept of the Poem on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, whose opening measures, representing the unfulfilled passion of the lovers, introduce a chord progression that does not resolve until the final cadence, five hours later, when they are finally united in death. Likewise, in The Poem of Ecstasy, the principal themes do not resolve until the last chord of the piece. Wagner had equated the build-up of harmonic tension directly with sexual tension. The text of the Poem equates sexual fulfillment with mystical transcendence – not exactly an original idea either.
Despite the fact that critics and psychologists alike agree that Skryabin’s megalomania was probably the result of a severe manic disorder, Skryabin as a composer was a strict and systematic formalist. The Poem is written in sonata form with its conventional exposition, development and recapitulation of the themes – although without the standard key relationships. Because of the composer’s association of specific instruments and tempi with his themes, the structure of the Poem is not difficult to follow. The first part belongs largely to the upper winds and strings, opening with slow theme for the flute, taken up by a solo violin and a brief motive for trumpet.
Skryabin juxtaposes languorous sections with more energetic Allegros, all with more flowery tempo and expressive designations. But the “big theme,” the one that will actually resolve into harmonic release (our euphemism) is another trumpet solo, an upwardly soaring melody. The Poem concludes with a fully orchestrated coda and a final climactic cadence in C Major.