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Kamio Plays Tchaikovsky

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, December 5, 1791)
Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787)

This ever-popular composition is Mozart’s final contribution to the serenade genre. We’re not sure why he wrote it. Nor do we know the piece in its complete form (it once contained a second minuet and trio that have somehow been lost). The work’s scoring raises further questions. Mozart’s manuscript says “2 violins, viola, cello and bass,” which could mean a string quintet or a string orchestra. (These days, Eine kleine Nachtmusik is most frequently performed by string orchestras.)

It is odd that there should be such riddles connected to a work that sounds so delightfully unproblematic. At first hearing, as well as for the one-thousandth time, no music sounds simpler than Eine kleine Nachtmusik. But this is a sophisticated simplicity, which Mozart could achieve only after completing some of his most complex works, such as the operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the great piano concertos and the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn. With such experiences behind him, Mozart knew how to limit himself to the bare essentials and to say the most with the fewest possible notes.

For anyone new to Classical music, there is no better place to start. The music student trying to grasp the elements of classical forms (sonata, minuet, and rondo) could hardly find clearer examples. And even the seasoned music lover and the professional musician must marvel again and again at a perfection that almost defies description.

The work’s four extant movements seem to offer a compendium of Classical music in a nutshell. The opening Allegro (fast), with its energetic beginning and lyrical contrast materials, is the best demonstration of what sonata form is, with its well-planned alternation of themes developed and then brought back in their original form. The sweet main melody of the second-movement Romanze is followed by a passionately romantic middle section, after which the exquisite first theme returns. The Minuet and Trio and short and are distinguished by the lack of anything distinctive. No metric irregularities here and no sudden modulations; yet even without such surprises, the music never seems trivial. The spirited rondo finale, in which a recurrent main theme alternates with some episodes, concludes the work in a festive manner. Like the entire Nachtmusik, it is supreme entertainment on an artistic level that only Mozart could attain.


Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (b. Oranienbaum (now Lomonosov), near St. Petersburg, on June 17, 1882; d. New York on April 6, 1971)
Symphony in C (1830)

Stravinsky’s interest in the symphony—a genre he had not cultivated since student days—was revived thanks to his American contacts. The symphony, often considered obsolete by European avant-gardists, flourished in the United States, where Stravinsky’s Russian compatriot Serge Koussevitzky had moved in the 1920s. It was Koussevitzky who commissioned Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms for the Boston Symphony in 1930. Over the years, Stravinsky composed two more symphonies that were purely instrumental: the Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony, and the Symphony in Three Movements for the New York Philharmonic. (The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, composed in 1920, is not really a symphony at all.)

The commission for what became the Symphony in C, in honor of the Chicago Symphony’s 50th anniversary, was underwritten by a group of patrons headed by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, wife of a prominent American diplomat who lived in the historic mansion known as Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. The credit for securing these powerful sponsors, as recent research by Kimberly A. Francis has shown, was due in great part to Nadia Boulanger, the famous French composition teacher and conductor. She was a devoted friend to Stravinsky and also spent a great deal of time in the United States, first on extended concert tours and then permanently during the war. When Stravinsky composed his Dumbarton Oaks concerto for the Blisses, the year before writing the Symphony in C, Boulanger conducted the concerto’s first performance at the Blisses’ residence. She subsequently helped Stravinsky by devoting countless hours to editing the score of the symphony.

The symphony was written during what was surely the most difficult period in Stravinsky’s life: within the space of a year, he lost his eldest daughter, his wife and his mother, and he himself was taken ill with tuberculosis. The move from France to the United States came in the middle of the compositional process: the first two movements were written in Europe and the last two in America.

Stravinsky’s works from the 1920s through the early 50s have been described as “neoclassical,” a catch-all term that means, in essence, that the composer was incorporating elements from earlier musical styles in his compositions. The nature of these elements can vary widely and may involve form, melody, instrumentation, and the styles inspiring the music may range from the Middle Ages to Bach, Tchaikovsky and more. In the Symphony in C (or at least in its first movement), Stravinsky clearly took Beethoven as his model. The entire symphony is scored for a classical orchestra, and the first movement, which scrupulously respects classical sonata form, makes obvious references to several Beethoven symphonies. The three notes around which a large part of the music revolves (B-C-G) appear (in the order G-B-C) in the main theme of Beethoven’s First Symphony; the eighth-note rest followed by three repeated eighth-notes, familiar from the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, also plays an important role in Stravinsky’s work. Stravinsky also uses Beethovenian techniques of development, building large formal segments out of tiny motivic fragments.

The second movement, “Larghetto concertante,” features the woodwind instrument and a solo string quartet in lavishly ornamented instrumental “arias.” In true classical fashion, there is a more turbulent middle section followed by a return of the opening music.

Stravinsky may have crossed the Atlantic between the second and third movements of the symphony, but in the finished version, the “Allegretto” follows the “Larghetto” without a pause. Yet there is a noticeable style change: the third movement, a scherzo of sorts, bristles with ostinatos, off-beat accents and changing meters reminiscent of earlier Stravinsky. The tempo slows down for the trio section; then the first section returns in strongly modified form, followed by a whimsical coda dominated by the solo trumpet.

The last movement opens with a mysterious slow introduction, with two bassoons playing in their lowest register. The fast tempo begins with an energetic motif played by violas, cellos and French horns. Musical elements from the first movement—the B-C-G motif and the “Beethoven-Fifth” rhythm—reappear and become more and more dominant. After a recall of the slow introduction and a fugue-like episode (two more classical features!), the work concludes, not with a series of loud C-major chords as one might expect, but with a mysterious coda in a slower tempo. A series of long, soft chords in the woodwind and brass are answered by a single, inconclusive chord in the muted strings: a musical question mark?


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; di. St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 (1878)

There is certainly no shortage of great masterpieces that met with negative criticism at their premiere, yet few have fared worse than Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. This may sound surprising, since this work—now one of the most popular of all concertos—has none of the revolutionary spirit of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Wagner’s Ring cycle or Beethoven’s Eroica, to name just three works that generated heated controversies around the time of their premieres. The fact remains that the great violinist and teacher, Leopold Auer, for whom the concerto was written, rejected it (to his credit, he later changed his mind). And the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, a friend of Brahms and a fierce opponent of Wagner, uttered the immortal phrase after the 1881 premiere that the concerto “stank to the ear.” The composer never forgot Hanslick’s vicious words to the end of his days. It is not easy to account for these harsh reactions today, but one suspects that the critics objected to the very same features of the work that are so admired today, namely that, in an era dominated by German-speaking composers, Tchaikovsky managed to write a violin concerto that was entirely free from German influences. (It was also the first major violin concerto ever written by a Russian.)

The concerto was composed in the spring of 1878. In order to recover from the recent trauma of his ill-fated and short-lived marriage to Antonina Milyukova, Tchaikovsky retreated to the Swiss village of Clarens, on the shores of Lake Geneva, accompanied by his brother Modest, and a 22-year-old violinist named Iosif Kotek, who assisted him in matters of violin technique. The composition progressed so effortlessly that the whole concerto was written in only three weeks, with an extra week taken up by the orchestration. During this time, Tchaikovsky wrote not only the three concerto movements that we know, but a fourth one as well: the initial second movement, “Méditation,” was rejected at an early runthrough and replaced with the present “Canzonetta,” written in a single day. Due to Auer’s initial unfavorable reaction, no violinist accepted the work for performance for three years, until the young Adolf Brodsky, a Russian-born virtuoso living in Vienna, chose it for his debut with the Vienna Philharmonic.

One quality that makes this concerto so great is surely the ease with which Tchaikovsky moves from one mood to the next. Lyrical and dramatic, robustly folk-like and tenderly sentimental moments follow one another without the slightest incongruity, similarly to Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1, written three years earlier. Another remarkable feature is its combination of virtuosity with emotional depth: although the technical difficulties of the solo part are tremendous, every note also expresses something that goes far beyond virtuosic fireworks. All in all, it is one of the greatest violin concertos ever written, and no critic after Hanslick has ever challenged its status again or smelled anything unpleasant in the work!

Program notes by Peter Laki



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