Monday, November 28, 2011

Russian Muse

Alexander Ringer, my most influential music history professor at the University of Illinois, felt strongly that one must study the educational pedigree, so to speak, of a composer to really understand their music. Who were their teachers? Who were their teachers’ teachers? For example, one of Bohuslav Martinu’s favorite students was songwriter Burt Bacharach. I don’t know about you, but I can hear the same quirky, rhythms, shifting meter and bright colors in Bacharach’s “Promises, Promises” as I can in Martinu’s charming works.

Thus in the Thanksgiving weekend’s “Russian Spectacular” concert led by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto we get a rare chance to hear this concept illustrated by three works from composers who were students and mentors to each other. I challenge you to listen to the works as they progress from mentor to student across three generations. So, let’s look a bit at these three Russian giants and see how a Russian Imperial Navy officer influenced a child prodigy who then mentored one of the 20th century’s most important composers.

Born in 1844, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov strove to develop a characteristic Russian nationalist style of classical music. This involved frequent use of Russian folk melodies and folklore tinged with the harmonies and rhythms of Asia rather than the traditional Western European forms and harmonies. Eventually Rimsky-Korsakov settled into a career as a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory (where Glazunov later mentored Shostakovich) and began infusing Western forms and conventions with a characteristic, yet almost indescribable Russian “soul”.

And what better example of that than the opening work in this concert; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture. Here is a work written for a typical western orchestra and in a common western form that literally lives and breathes the unique Russian Orthodox musical tradition. Many of the melodies used in the overture are from the Orthodox liturgy and Rimsky-Korsakov even includes several biblical quotations in his manuscript. While in a recognizable western form, Rimsky-Korsakov used some unusual time signatures to capture the melismatic flow and improvisation of the Orthodox chant. Opening in 5/2 (5 beats to a measure and each beat is a half note long), the work closes in a flowing 2/1, something you do not hear often for sure. But listen to how perfectly these “stretched” time signatures recreate the passionate call and response liturgy straight from a candle lit St Basil’s Cathedral.

Rimsky-Korsakov opened up this Russian soul to new and bright orchestral colors. Since Orthodox churches usually do not use any instruments in their music, Russian music tended to be dark and big, like the basses in the choir. Rimsky-Korsakov, trained as a military band leader used his skill with winds and percussion to expand and brighten the palate. Hear the touches of color from the harp and percussion, the clanging bells, the chanting trombone, exuberant brass fanfares as the faithful celebrate the Easter feast.

By the last quarter of the 19th century, Rimsky-Korsakov was Czar as far as Russian music was concerned. Since he devoted a lot of time to teaching, his influence was deeply felt.

Enter the son of a wealthy St Petersburg publisher, Alexander Glazunov. From all accounts a child prodigy, Glazunov was introduced to Rimsky-Korsakov in his teens, around 1882. Given a score for a symphony (his Symphony #1) Rimsky-Korsakov recognized his obvious talent and arranged a performance. The audience, composer Alexander Borodin among them, was astounded when a 16 year old school boy took his bows on stage. Rimsky-Korsakov took Glazunov as a student shortly thereafter.

Young Glazunov absorbed all the influences his sudden fame afforded him. From Rimsky-Korsakov he learned to skillfully orchestrate; his admiration of Tchaikovsky led to his romantic lyricism, combined with a sense of counterpoint hitherto not realized in Russian music. When he was elected director of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1905, he was at the height of his international fame. His best works came from this period as well, including the Violin Concerto in A minor of 1904.

Listen to the very beginning of this one movement work, with everyone in their lower or middle ranges, and you will hear the Russian Soul that Rimsky-Korsakov nourished. Yet Glazunov took that “soul” and stretched it into a technically brilliant concerto, full of double stops, skittering runs and luscious melodies. Glazunov is often dismissed as being solely a conservative academician, yet in the Violin Concerto he uses a one continuous movement form, which is unique for the period. The orchestration, while not as brassy and bright as Rimsky-Korsakov, is colorful and evocative. Nowhere in this charming and perfectly proportioned work does one encounter the dry academicism which often sapped inspiration from his music.

If Glazunov did not advance Russian music, his students certainly did. Living well into the 1930’s, Glazunov had to cultivate and maintain his conservative style so he could make a living in Revolutionary Russia. A revered composer, pedagogue and a stabilizing force as director of the conservatory in St Petersburg, Glazunov was a musical father to a generation of grateful Russian musicians, who tended to dismiss his music but revere him for his service.

Dmitri Shostakovich came along, total child of the revolution, and built a musical legacy on the firm foundation of Rimsky and Glazunov. His command of orchestral color, while not brilliantly flashy as Rimsky, perfectly fit his often dark and moody music. Like Glazunov, he felt at ease with the familiar and frequently strict forms of the sonata, symphony and concerto, even when he stretched the forms into new shapes.

Shostakovich’s Russian soul was a wounded one. Struggling to maintain his soul, he often hid his thoughts and emotions deep in the music. Many feel his work culminated in the magnificent Symphony # 10 Op. 93 of 1953. Shostakovich said the work “portrayed human emotions and passions”, but one soon realized these human emotions and passions are really the soul of a nation and of its people trapped in misery and darkness. Stalin may have been dead, but his ghost lived on in a country still reeling from war and political oppression. The sardonic and frenetic scherzo, all of 3-4 minutes long, can only represent a monster.. Stalin? It is said that was the composer’s intentions. Yet, in the subdued, dark hued mood of the Symphony, one can hear echoes of Russian and ethnic dances and even some hollow rejoicing.

The 10th Symphony is Shostakovich’s most personal symphonic utterance. Possibly written before 1953, it was held back until Stalin was dead and his oppression of musical ideas relaxed somewhat.  To further personalize the symphony, he uses the notes D Eb C B which roughly recreates his monogram of D SCH.

This was the first use of this monogram which the composer used from time to time to mark his work in a faceless, soul-less society. Listen for it especially in the 3rd movement, a Mahler-like nocturne.

From the glory of the Czars to keeping traditions alive in a revolutionary time to surviving and hiding ones emotions in an oppressive society,  we have progressed through three generations of Russian masters, each cultivating the soul of a vast and complex nation in their music. The “Russian Spectacular” theme for this concert is no mere marketing tool: these three works are spectacular examples of the long and glorious Russian muse.

No comments: