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Little Russian

Alexander Borodin (b. St. Petersburg, Russia, November 12, 1833; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, February 27, 1887)
In the Steppes of Central Asia—1880
Alexander Borodin is one of the most colorful characters in Russian musical history, primarily because he wasn't a musician at all. The illegitimate son of an Armenian prince and a doctor's wife, Borodin devoted his life to pioneering research on the chemistry of phosphoric acid.  He worked tirelessly to advance students' rights at St. Petersburg's medical school, and was one of the first men in that school's history to speak in favor of educating women in medical fields. Composing was not Borodin's vocation, simply a beloved hobby.  He wrote unforgettable music purely as a distraction for himself, unconcerned about ever having it performed in public. As he frequently proclaimed, "Science is my work, and music is my fun." 

Indeed, Borodin's work kept him so occupied that in winter, he found time to compose only by staying home from his scheduled chemistry lectures.  His musical friends sent him notes reading not "I hope you are well," but rather, "I do hope you are ill!"  Fortunately for generations of music lovers, Borodin managed to make the time relatively late in his busy life to write this magical work.

 Symphonic poems are programmatic pieces composed in a single, continuous movement marked by mood changes that suggest an associated story.  1880 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of Czar Alexander II's ascension to the Russian throne, and elaborate festivities were planned to celebrate the event in St. Petersburg.  One of the planned highlights of the festival was a series of historical plays accompanied by music commissioned from some of Russia's most prominent composers. But the project collapsed, and most of the music composed for it was quickly forgotten.  Only Borodin's contribution, In the Steppes of Central Asia, is still performed in concert today. 

Borodin was fascinated with the far reaches of the Russian empire, where European Russia merged with the mysterious world of Asia. Scored for 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tympani and strings, this piece is an elegant musical illustration of his romantic imperial vision.  When the score was published in 1882, an elaborate program for the work was printed along with it, explaining the composer's intended storyline for the work.  Every musical gesture of this charming miniature illuminates that story. 

The work begins with stark, sustained high harmonics in the violins -- as close as music can come, says Borodin, to painting a picture of the ethereal "silence of the sandy steppes."  Over these harmonics the clarinet introduces what Borodin calls a "peaceful Russian song."   This is then followed by "the melancholy strains of Oriental melodies" played initially by the English horn. Ponderous pizzicato figures in the lower strings represent the deliberate, unhurried, rather clumsy progress of a caravan making its way across "the measureless waste."  Eventually the two melodies intertwine in a sensuous counterpoint, Russian folk meeting and melding with Oriental mysteries, suggesting an idealistic musical view of the future of Czar Alexander's empire.  Borodin writes: "The songs of the Russians and those of the Asiatic natives mingle in common harmony—then die away in the distance." 
 
Despite the priority Borodin placed on science, he was hardly a dabbling musical amateur.  His chamber compositions, particularly his string quartets, set a new Russian standard, and many of his other works are still commonly performed.  If imitation is the sincerest flattery, popular music is filled with compliments for this Russian master.  The Broadway musical Kismet drew heavily from this work and from Borodin's opera Prince Igor, with the hit song "Strangers in Paradise" perhaps the best known quotation.   Like many of Borodin's other works, In the Steppes of Central Asia has a beguiling, exotic soundscape that has earned it a lasting reputation far exceeding its composer's modest ambitions. 

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (b. Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia, May 7, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, Russia November 6, 1893)
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17  Little Russian—1872
Tchaikovsky was a painstaking composer, and labored intensely over his first two symphonies.  His first took him eight years to fashion into its final form.  The Second Symphony came together more quickly; he finished the first version of it in just six months early in 1872.  He later destroyed that score, however, and completely rewrote the work in December 1879 and January 1880.  The Symphony's gained its subtitle, Little Russian, after the composer's death; it refers to the fact that many of the musical ideas echo folk songs of the Ukraine, a section of the country known to all Russians as 'Little Russia'.   Tchaikovsky spent much of December 1879 at the family estate of his sister's husband in Kamenka, Ukraine near Kiev.  There he apparently was inspired to create a symphony with these haunting melodies interwoven throughout.  

At this time, Russian musical life was divided into two opposing camps.  One group looked West, particularly toward the German symphonic tradition, for inspiration.  The other, known as the kuchka, or the Mighty Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov), employed native folk elements in order to create an overtly Russian style.  Today Tchaikovsky is most often aligned with the Westward-looking internationalists, yet he always showed a strong interest in including Russian folk music into his work. He was trained at conservatory, where Balakirev was one of his instructors; and his teacher's ideas about folk song heavily influenced Tchaikovsky's compositional style.  Tchaikovsky's formal training, oddly enough, was what kept him from being fully embraced as a member of the circle of nationalistic composers.   His largely untrained contemporaries tended to begrudge Tchaikovsky's world-wide reputation as Russia's greatest composer and most sought-after export.

Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony is orchestrated for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, and strings. The first movement begins with a haunting, melancholy folk tune, Down by Mother Volga, played first by the solo horn and then even more poignantly by the bassoon.  Tchaikovsky does not typically develop melodic ideas by transforming the melody itself.  Instead he repeats the melody again and again, adding new elements to the accompaniment beneath the melody with each repetition.  The orchestration becomes more complex with each new elaboration, and this growing complexity of overall sound gives the listener the impression that the music is changing, even though the melody remains essentially unaltered.  This style of composing is distinctly Russian in origin, often associated with the father of Russian nationalism in music, Mikhail Glinka.  

The first movement finally shifts into Allegro and Tchaikovsky breaks the folk melody into brief melodic fragments, giving the music a breathless quality and creating a sense of almost frenzied agitation. Tchaikovsky's trademarks are noticeable here -- for instance, an emphasis  on "trade-off" passages in which sections of the orchestra pass back and forth the terse motives and rushing scalar figures.  The movement ends as it began, with a slow statement of the folk melody by the solo horn then shortly brought to a hushed conclusion by the bassoon.

Imagine two contrasting melodies dancing gracefully with one another and the premise behind the second movement, marked Andante marciale, is revealed.  The idea for this movement came from one of Tchaikovsky's early, abortive attempts at composing an opera. The two themes are fragments from a bridal march originally written for Undine.  In the Symphony, this elegant march combines a perky, smiling melody with one that is lyrical and melancholy; and those two opposing ideas are ingeniously interwoven. Again, Tchaikovsky avoids the Germanic notion of melodic development in favor of the Russian tendency to weave variations around virtually exact repetitions of the melodies.

"Scherzo" means joke; and Tchaikovsky's third movement Scherzo is a particularly frenetic sonic version of a joke.  It is filled with the same agitated, restless energy as the Allegro portion of the first movement.  This movement is far more dance-like, using the folk song Spin, oh my spinner as the melodic material; but the stabbing, accented notes that accompany the melody create beats that are completely inappropriate to dancing: thus the musical "joke."  In contrast, the brief Trio section in the center of the movement features a vivacious folk-like tune in the woodwinds.

On hearing the slow introduction to the Symphony's finale, music-lovers might initially accuse Tchaikovsky of plagiarizing Mussorgsky's The Great Gate of Kiev from Pictures at an Exhibition.  The theme Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky both used to base their respective works, a popular Ukrainian folk song called The Crane, is the connection between the two.  Tchaikovsky's version, however, is distinguished by its use of rhythm.  A clever syncopation — shifting the accent of the beat away from where it is expected to fall into a unexpected new placement — foreshadows the playful way Tchaikovsky uses the theme later in the movement.  Once again the melody is repeated over and over, underpinned by its ever-changing accompaniment.  Eventually Tchaikovsky introduces a gentler contrasting melody to provide some lyrical interest, and an exuberant coda teeming with bombastic brass fanfares and stirring cymbal crashes brings the symphony to an exultant end.  

Jennifer Higdon (b. Brooklyn, New York, December 31, 1962)
Concerto for Orchestra—2002
Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra was premiered in Philadelphia on June 12, 2002. It drew a roaring ovation from the audience and inspired a front-page review in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a rare honor in American classical music circles.  Ned Rorem, a revered American composer, has called Jennifer Higdon one of the dozen most important American composers today.  She was the first woman to be a featured composer at the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival; her music has been performed at the White House and recorded on more than two dozen CD's.

Concerto for Orchestra is the result of a commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra in celebration of the orchestra's centennial.  Higdon started her musical training on the flute, and since she began as an orchestral musician, she feels a close connection to the orchestral experience.  When composing, she told an interviewer, "I think about the actual sensation of what it feels like to have the sound well up around you when you're playing in the orchestra."  She tends to think in terms of melody and color, and her music draws the listener's attention to exuberant rhythms, bright patches of orchestral color, and fascinating shifts of texture.  

A concerto for orchestra is a work where each section of the orchestra is given the chance to be the soloist.  The idea of writing a concerto for orchestra is not new.  Bela Bartók, for instance, wrote one of the most famous examples of the genre. Higdon worked closely with the principal players of the Philadelphia Orchestra, tailoring their solo moments to their particular talents.  Her work bears a small resemblance to Bartók's earlier composition in that each has five movements laid out in a symmetrical "arch."  In the original program note about her piece, the composer explained, "The Concerto for Orchestra is truly a concerto, in that it requires virtuosity from the principal players, the individual sections, and the entire orchestra."

In the opening movement, chimes and timpani announce the entrance of the strings with energetic ascending figures based on octatonic scales. This movement was actually the last of the five to be composed.  Higdon explained, "It took writing the other four movements to create a clear picture of what was needed to start this virtuosic tour-de-force." In many ways this movement is a cosmic gathering of sonic forces, "in recognition" Higdon says, "of the fact that it takes many individuals to make the whole of the orchestra."  Soon the woodwinds join the tapestry of sound, followed by the brass boldly playing closely spaced chords, which add a tinge of disharmony amidst the lush, largely consonant background of sound from the strings and winds.

Higdon's second movement features the string section in a movement with the sprightly, carefree character of a scherzo.  All strings begin the movement playing pizzicato, plucking a playful melody.  A solo violin enters with a bowed melody and the other players switch to the bow at different times throughout the movement until all are playing with the bow.  The melody is capricious, continuing to sound joyful until the end. when a snap pizzicato ends the movement with a humorous twist.

The central movement is the pinnacle of the arched form. Higdon tells us that it was actually the first movement she composed for the Concerto.  Each principal player has a solo early in the movement, and material from those initial solos is woven into the sonic fabric when the orchestral sections are individually featured later in the movement. The woodwind section is featured first; then comes a segment for full orchestra, followed by yet another highlight of the entire string section.  Finally the brass section is given a moment in the spotlight.

Percussion, harp, piano and celesta dominate the fourth movement.  Higdon comments, "Since this piece was completed at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it seemed very fitting to have a movement that highlights the one section of the orchestra that has had the greatest amount of development during the twentieth century."  As the percussionists gradually move from pitched to non-pitched instruments, the tempo accelerates.  Higdon's program notes note that this gradual increase in speed is "meant to resemble the effect of a Victrola being wound up."  The gathering momentum accelerates into the finale of the Concerto without a pause.

To begin the concluding movement, the majestic string section enters over a persistent percussion ostinato; and soon, the entire orchestra is featured once again. The tempo is driven forward relentlessly by the ever-present repetition of the percussion motive, until by the movement's close it is twice as fast as it was at the beginning.  As the Concerto ends, we are left positively breathless with excitement.

                                                                        Program Notes by Dr. Beth Fleming

 

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