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Symphonie Fantastique

Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857)

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka was born in Novospasskoye (now Glinka), nr. Smolensk, Russia, on June 1, 1804; he died in Berlin on February 15, 1857. He composed his opera Ruslan and Ludmila between 1837 and 1842; it was first performed in St. Petersburg on December 9, 1842.
     The overture to Ruslan and Ludmila runs about 4 minutes in performance. Glinka scored it for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings.

Glinka’s first opera, A Life for the Czar, premiered in 1836, established him without question as the most important composer in Russia. His next opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, based on a fairy tale by the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, was eagerly anticipated but had mixed reviews when finally staged. Glinka’s librettists had failed to turn Pushkin’s poem into a convincing stage work. Yet the opera contains several wonderful numbers that have become known as excerpts; none is more popular than the spirited overture which is probably the best known of all of Glinka’s works (at least in the West).
    The opera’s protagonists are Ludmila, a princess, and her suitor Ruslan. After Ludmila is kidnapped by the evil sorcerer Chernomor, Ruslan rescues her and the lovers are finally reunited.
    The irresistible melodies of the overture come mostly from the final portion of the opera, where there is general rejoicing over the happy ending of the story; the lyrical theme, first played by violas, cellos and bassoons, is the voice of the amorous hero. The evil Chernomor is represented in the opera by the use of the whole-tone scale (a collection of tones that does not fit into the normal major-minor system); that scale appears at the very end of the overture like a passing cloud, but it can cast only the most transient of shadows on the surrounding, jubilant D major sonorities.

Lieutenat Kijé Suite, Op. 60
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Sergeievitch Prokofiev was born to Russian parents in Sontsovka, Ukraine, on April 23, 1891. He died in Moscow on March 5, 1953.
    He wrote the music for the film Poruchik Kizhe (Lieutenant Kijé), directed by Alexander Feinzimmer, in 1933. Later he adopted the film score as an orchestral suite in five movements (with an optional baritone solo in the second and fourth movements). The first performance was given in Moscow in 1934. Serge Koussevitzky led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the American premiere on October 14, 1937.
    The Lieutenant Kijé Suite runs about 20 minutes in performance. Prokofiev’s orchestra consists of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, tenor saxophone, 4 horns, cornet, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, military drum, triangle, cymbals, tambourine, sleigh bells), harp, celesta, piano, and strings.

The writer Yuri Tynianov (1894-1943) found the story of Lieutenant Kijé* in an old book of anecdotes and recollections from the time of Czar Paul I, who reigned from 1796 to 1801:

In one of the commands issued by the military, the scribe split a word in one of the sentences, beginning the next line with the letters ‟kizhe.” The original sentence ran like this: ‟And the ensigns (praporshchiki-zhe) X, Y, and Z are to be promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.” The Czar, running through this command, understood ‟Kizhe,” which was followed by names, to be another name. He issued a new command: ‟Second lieutenant Kizhe to be promoted to first lieutenant.” The next day he promoted Kizhe to second captain, the day after to captain. Before anybody had figured out the mistake, the Czar had promoted Kizhe to the rank of colonel, and given the order: ‟Bring him to me immediately.” Then a frantic search was started in all the military documents to locate Kizhe. The name showed up in the Apsheron regiment on the Don, and the Czar’s messenger rushed like mad to find him. The colonel’s assertion, that there was nobody by the name of Kizhe in the regiment, startled the entire military leadership. They started searching in the orders again and finally discovered the initial mistake. In the meantime the Czar had been asking whether Colonel Kizhe had arrived, for he wanted to promote him to General. But they told him that Colonel Kizhe had died. ‟Too bad,” Paul said, ‟he was a good officer.”

Apparently, there were many such stories about Czar Paul, who was said to be mentally ill. (After a reign of only five years, he was murdered by conspirators who then placed his son Alexander I on the throne.)
    In 1927, Tynianov wrote a brilliant short story about this episode. When six year later the story was being made into a movie, director Alexander Feinzimmer asked Prokofiev to write the music. The composer, who was living in Western Europe at this time, accepted the offer, and composed the score in Paris during the summer of 1933. The next year he completed a five-movement symphonic suite based on the film score, making substantial revisions in the music. The composer’s intention was not only to write humorous music for the story of the soldier who never was, but also to evoke the period of Paul I through melodies modelled on traditional Russian romances.

From an imaginary cradle to an empty coffin

The first movement of the concert suite, ‟The Birth of Kijé,” begins with an offstage cornet fanfare, followed by the subtle parody of a march, with piccolo, flute, and military drum. Gradually, the whole orchestra joins in a colorful tutti, which suddenly yields to a sad and soulful Russian tune, introduced by the first flute and the tenor saxophone. This tune, which Prokofiev’s Soviet biographer Israel Nestyev called ‟Lieutenant Kijé’s leitmotif,” will be associated with the hero throughout the piece, as will the tenor sax. The movement ends with the return of the military march and the cornet fanfare.
    The second movement (‟Romance”) is, according to Nestyev, ‟patterned on ‛The Little Gray Dove is Cooing,” a well-knoen sentimental ballad. As the musicologist wrote, ‟Prokofiev did not use the original tune, however, but composed a melody of his own in the spirit of this popular early nineteenth-century song.” The melody is first played by a solo double-bass, and is later taken over by a solo viola, then by the tenor saxophone, two abssoons and the first horn, and finally by the celesta. The keys change abruptly with each repetition, and the accompaniment also varies, lending some special colors to this simple melody.
    The Czar decided to marry off his favorite soldier to a lady-in-waiting at court. The third movement (‟Kijé’s Wedding”) opens with a pesante (‟ponderous”) brass phrase, followed by the happy wedding song, modelled after a children’s round, ‟O how lovely is the evening, when the bells are sweetly ringing.” As a contrasting middle section, the sad ‟Kijé leitmotif” is heard on the saxophone, before the wedding song returns with an even wittier orchestration than the first time. For symmetry’s sake, the opening brass music also closes the movement.
    In the fourth movement (‟Troika”), a group of drunken officers is driving in a ‟three-horse open sleigh” in order to fetch Kijé, while singing rowdy songs. ‟Its rapid accompaniment,” Nestyev writes, ‟colored by the percussion instruments, piano, and harp, suggests a dashing troika with bells jingling and hoofs clicking.”
    The fifth movement (‟The Burial of Kijé”) opens and closes with the cornet fanfare from the first movement. In between, several themes from earlier movements return as we witness the solemn funeral procession. The Czar, marching with the entire regiment, is the only person who doesn’t know that he is following an empty coffin.
    At one point during this movement, the melody of the second-movement Romance (now in the violins) is heard simultaneously with the wedding song from the third movement (now on the cornet, and twice as fast as before). It is as if the whole film of Kijé’s life were played back as a summary of his glorious career. When the same melody is played by the trumpet and the cornet in close succession, we may discover the difference between the timbres of these two related instruments. The wedding melody gradually fades away, the sad ‟Kijé leitmotif” is heard one last time on a single flute, and then we hear the cornet fanfaret from the distance. Kijé is no more.
    Lieutenant Kijé started what proved to be a brilliant cinematographic career for Prokofiev who, after his permanent return to the Soviet Union, met the great director Sergei Eisenstein. Together they went on to produce two great masterworks: Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944).

* The name is most frequently spelled in the West the French way, though one occasionally encounters the transliteration ‟Kizhe” as well.

 

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 (1830)
Hector Berlioz (La Côte-Saint-André, France, 1803 - Paris, 1869)

Louis-Hector Berlioz was born in La Côte-Saint-André, Isère, France, on December 11, 1803, and died in Paris on March 8, 1869. He composed the Symphonie fantastique during the spring of 1830. The work's premiere was given at the Paris Conservatory on December 5, 1830, conducted by François-Antoine Habeneck. The symphony was subsequently revised, and performed again on December 9, 1832, together with a newly composed sequel, called Lélio, ou Le Retour à la Vie ("Lélio, or the Return to Life"). The Symphony was published in 1845, the year of Berlioz's Russian tour, and dedicated to Tsar Nicholas I. The Philharmonic Society of New York performed the first four movements under Carl Bergmann on January 27, 1866. The first complete performance in the United States was conducted by Leopold Damrosch on March 8, 1879.
    This work runs about 50 minutes in performance. Berlioz scored it for 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (second doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides (an obsolete brass instrument now replaced by tubas), timpani, percussion (cymbals, bass drum, snare drum, and bells), 2 harps, and strings.

1830 was an extraordinary year in the political and cultural history of France. On February 25, the Comédie-Française premiered Hernani by the 28-year-old Victor Hugo, a drama that openly challenged the conventions of classical drama, and it came to an outright battle between the conservatives and the defenders of the new work. Then, in July, the fighting hit the streets as the revolution broke out. The Bourbon dynasty, overthrown in the Great Revolution of 1789 but restored to power in 1815, was finally ousted for good, and Louis-Philippe, the ‟Citizen King,” assumed the throne to preside over an era of modernization. On December 5, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was performed for the first time at the Conservatoire. The premiere was somewhat overshadowed by the political events, but the 27-year-old Berlioz’s first large orchestral work, written in the wake of the Hernani scandal and shortly before the July Revolution, clearly exudes the revolutionary spirit of the time.
    Berlioz claimed to ‟take up music where Beethoven had left it off.” The Fantastique is certainly indebted to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony ("Pastorale"), in which a fifth movement had been added to the usual four and each movement had a programmatic title. But Berlioz took the idea of program music much further than Beethoven had done. In addition to providing titles for the symphony as a whole ("Episode from the Life of an Artist") and its individual movements, Berlioz wrote an extensive literary program that he insisted should be distributed to the audience in the concert hall.
    In the first edition of 1845, the program read as follows:

The composer's intention has been to treat of various states in the life of an artist, insofar as they have musical quality. Since this instrumental drama lacks the assistance of words, an advance explication of its plan is necessary. The following program, therefore, should be thought of as if it were the spoken text of an opera, serving to introduce the musical movements and to explain their character and expression.

Episode in the Life of an Artist

First Movement: Daydreams—Passions

The composer imagines that a young musician, troubled by that spiritual sickness which a famous writer* has called "le vague des passions," sees for the first time a woman who possesses all the charms of the ideal being he has dreamed of, and falls desperately in love with her. By some strange trick of fancy, the beloved vision never appears to the artist's mind except in association with a musical idea, in which he perceives the same character—impassioned, yet refined and diffident—that he attributes to the object of his love. This melodic image and its model pursue him unceasingly like a double idée fixe. That is why the tune at the beginning of the first allegro constantly recurs in every movement of the symphony. The transition from a state of dreamy melancholy, interrupted by several fits of aimless joy, to one of delirious passion, with its impulses of rage and jealousy, its returning moments of tenderness, its tears, and its religious solace, is the subject of the first movement.

Second Movement: A Ball

The artist is placed in the most varied circumstances: amid the hubbub of a carnival, in peaceful contemplation of the beauty of nature—but everywhere, in town, in the meadows, the beloved vision appears before him, bringing trouble to his soul.

Third Movement: In the Meadows

One evening in the country, he hears in the distance two shepherds playing the ranz des vaches**; this pastoral duet, the effect of his surroundings, the slight rustle of the trees gently stirred by the wind, certain feelings of hope which he has been recently entertaining—all combine to bring an unfamiliar peace to his heart, and a more cheerful color to his thoughts. He thinks of his loneliness; he hopes soon to be alone no longer... But suppose she deceives him!... This mixture of hope and fear, these thoughts of happiness disturbed by dark forebodings, form the subject of the Adagio. At the end, one of the shepherds again takes up the ranz des vaches; the other no longer answers... Sounds of distant thunder... solitude... silence...

Fourth Movement: March to the Scaffold

The artist, now knowing beyond doubt that his love is not returned, poisons himself with opium. The dose of the narcotic, too weak to take his life, plunges him into a sleep accompanied by the most terrible visions. He dreams that he has killed the woman he loved, and that he is condemned to death, brought to the scaffold, and witnesses his own execution. The procession is accompanied by a march that is sometimes fierce and somber, sometimes stately and brilliant; loud crashes are followed abruptly by the dull thud of heavy footfalls. At the end of the march, the first four bars of the idée fixe recur like a last thought of love interrupted by the fatal stroke.

Fifth Movement : Sabbath Night's Dream

He sees himself at the witches' sabbath, in the midst of a ghastly crowd of spirits, sorcerers, and monsters of every kind, assembled for his funeral. Strange noises, groans, bursts of laughter, far-off shouts to which other shouts seem to reply. The beloved tune appears once more, but it has lost its character of refinement and diffidence; it has become nothing but a common dance tune, trivial and grotesque: it is she who has come to the sabbath... A roar of joy greets her arrival... She mingles with the devilish orgy... Funeral knell, ludicrous parody of the Dies irae, sabbath dance. The sabbath dance and the Dies irae in combination.

Anyone having read this program is likely to remember the witches, the execution and the ball, but it is easy to forget the very first sentence, according to which tyhese figures and events are represented "insofar as they have musical quality" (dans ce qu'elles ont de musical). In other words, the program isn't really an "extra-musical" one, since it builds upon musical types such as dance, march or plainchant, endowing them with some more concrete meanings. Music and program are strongly interdependent: the musical style of the symphony, with its many unusual features, would hardly make sense without the program, but the program itself is full of musical references.
    Some of the dreams described in the program were undoubtedly Berlioz's own (and we know that he had tried opium shortly before writing the symphony). There was a woman in real life who seemed to him to "possess all the charms of the ideal being"; this idée fixe was named Harriet Smithson, an Irish-born actress playing Shakespearean roles in an English company in Paris. Berlioz fell madly in love with Smithson after seeing her on stage just once, and his passion was burning for several years even though he had never met her in person. (They did eventually meet; they got married, had a son, were unhappy ever after, and, finally, separated—but that's quite another story.)
    The Symphonie fantastique reflects Berlioz's intense feelings at the time of his infatuation with Harriet Smithson; yet some of the work's themes came from earlier compositions. The tune of the opening Largo was taken from a song of Berlioz's adolescence, and parts of the idée fixe may be found in an early cantata. Most importantly, the fourth-movement March seems to have come from Berlioz's unfinished opera Les Francs-Juges ("The Self-Appointed Judges," 1826), a tale about a band of vigilantes in medieval Germany (we have only indirect knowledge of this connection since the march does not survive in its original form). Some critics have argued that the presence of these self-borrowings diminishes the relevance of the program (after all, some of the music was originally composed with other ideas in mind), but in reality, the program and the new context effectively change the meaning of these borrowed themes which fit in perfectly with the newly composed materials.
    To start at the beginning—the slow introduction to the first movement—there is so much more to it than that tune taken from a childhood essay. It contains some higly agitated passages where the conventional melody is suddenyl swept away by utterly new sounds. The Allegro agitato has been said to be a fairly regular sonata movement; yet the exposition is extremely brief and consists merely of the first appearance of the idée fixe, followed by what could be described as transition material (containing some truly hair-raising modulations). The development section is interrupted by a passage in which all thematic relationships are suspended: all we hear is ascending and descending chromatic scales in the strings, with frightening interjections from woodwinds and horns. Then, a three-measure general rest follows, after which all the rules of the sonata form are thrown overboard. It is at this point that we hear the only complete recapitulation of the idée fixe (but not in the home key), followed by more development, including a wonderful counterpoint to the idée fixe played by the solo oboe (we are told that it was a compositional afterthought). The idée fixe, in varied form, is soon taken up by the whole orchestra, but by this time we are clearly in the coda of the movement. The first segment of the idée fixe and a series of C-major and F-major chords end the movement, to be played, according to Berlioz's instructions, "as soft as possible."
    The second movement ("A Ball") had originally stood in third place, but Berlioz soon reversed the two movements, so that a central slow movement is now flanked by a dance and a march. The ball scene starts with a transition from the first movement's C major to A major, the key of the waltz that follows. The dance is twice interrupted by the idée fixe that appears in foreign keys to "disturb the artist's peace of mind."
    The ranz des vaches that opens the third movement ("In the Meadows") is a dialogue between the English horn and the oboe (the latter positioned, according to the instructions, behind the scene). It is not an actual quote from an alpine folksong; yet Robert Schumann found it so convincing that he wrote in his famous review of the symphony: "Just wander about the Alps and other shepherds' haunts and listen to the shawms and alphorns; that's exactly the way they sound." The movement's main theme is introduced by the flute and the first violins (the same combination that played the idée fixe for the first time!) and brought to a climax by the full orchestra. The idée fixe is then heard again in the flute and the oboe. The meadow scene has a symmetrical structure; after the idée fixe, the main theme returns, followed by a coda in which we hear the ranz des vaches again.
    The fourth movement, "March to the Scaffold," is one of the wonders of orchestration, with effects such as the pizzicatos (plucked strings) of the divided double basses and the innovative tremolos of the timpani. The movement's first idea is a seven-note descending scale figure superimposed on a six-note rhythmic pattern—because of this discrepancy, the music never repeats itself exactly. The second idea is a regular march theme dominated by the distinctive sonority of the brass, especially the trombones and ophicleides (tubas). At the end of this movement, the solo clarinet intones the idée fixe, as the artist's last thought before the guillotine comes down on him with a fatal blow.
    It is perhaps in the last movement that Berlioz went the farthest in his innovations of both sound and musical form. The slow introduction to this movement with its special uses of percussion and novel wind effects creates an eerie suspense, into which bursts a cruel parody of the idée fixe, first scored for C-clarinet, and then for the shrill-sounding small E-flat clarinet. It is the image of the artist's beloved turned into a witch and showing up at the sabbath! The "devilish orgy" begins with the Gregorian melody of the "Dies irae," the sequence from the Mass of the Dead, presented in slow notes by the bassoons and tubas, repeated in a faster tempo by the horns, and finally transformed into a dance tune by the woodwind. The witches begin a round dance which is eventually combined with the "Dies irae" and brings the symphony to a truly blood-curdling close.
    Many listeners in the 1830s were completely taken aback by the novelties of Berlioz's symphony. The musicologist François-Joseph Fétis wrote a scathing review, but even as great a musician as Mendelssohn found it "utterly loathsome" and depressing, even though he had met Berlioz and found him a thoroughly likable person. It is all the more surprising that Schumann devoted one of the longest and most analytical of his critical essays to the Fantastique. Schumann had not heard the piece and knew it only from Liszt's published piano transcription. His review, written in response to Fétis's attack, was full of admiration. Although he did see some flaws in the work, he was one of the first to recognize Berlioz's genius. As a direct result of his article, the French composer's name became widely known in German musical circles, and his international career was under way.

* The "famous writer" is François-René Chateaubriand (1768-1848), whose René was widely read at the time. In this book, Chateaubriand defined "the vagueness of passion" as an emotional state that "precedes the development of great passions, when all the faculties, young, lively, and whole, but closed, have only acted on themselves, without aim and without object."
** The ranz des vaches is "a type of Swiss mountain melody played on the alphorn by herdsmen to summon their cows." (Harvard Dictionary of Music)

Program notes by Peter Laki

 

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