What’s in a name? In the case of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, completed in 1866, it’s hard to say for sure. Tchaikovsky gave the work the descriptive title, Winter Daydreams (the first and second movements are subtitled, Dreams of a Winter Journey and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists). Beyond these descriptive phrases, the First Symphony remains pure music, without a program. At moments, the music may suggest the play of sunlight and shadow on a chilly, snow-covered winter landscape. But to experience the true essence of this music we have to leave behind these literal references and just listen.
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony isn’t played as often as his later symphonies. He struggled to complete the work, revising it several times amid the devastating criticism of his former teachers, Anton Rubenstein and Nikolai Zaremba. But listen to the second movement and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything more beautiful in Tchaikovsky’s output. This is one of those circular, Russian-folk-song-inspired movements which reminds you that Russian music looks East as well as West. A long, lamenting melody reaches for an unattainable goal and then folds back on itself. It’s repeated by one group of instrumental voices and then another, eventually rising into a defiant, soaring statement in the horns. It’s a melody which demands that we listen, but defies resolution.
In 1883 Tchaikovsky described the First Symphony in a letter saying,
Although it is immature in many respects, it is essentially better and richer in content than many other more mature works.
Throughout the First Symphony, there are occasional hints of Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Beyond all of this is the the unique, fully-formed sound of Tchaikovsky. In the first movement’s brass fanfares, it’s easy to hear the seeds of the opening of the Fourth Symphony. The final movement opens with the gloomy darkness of the solo bassoon. The woodwinds provide a brief, motivic glance back at the second movement.
Here is the complete Symphony No. 1 in G minor performed by Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra:
Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 “Winter Dreams” at iTunes, Amazon.
Legendary violinist, conductor, and teacher Joseph Silverstein passed away yesterday in Boston. He was 83.
Born in Detroit, the son of a public school music educator, Silverstein studied with Efrem Zimbalist, William Primrose, Josef Gingold, and Mischa Mischakoff. He served as concertmaster of the Boston Symphony for 22 years, beginning in 1962. In 1971 he was appointed assistant conductor of the BSO. He was music director of the Utah Symphony between 1983 and 1998. Silverstein was on the faculty of New England Conservatory and the Curtis Institute. He was also a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas Honorary Board.
In this informal interview from last December, Joseph Silverstein shares thoughts on violin playing, the role of the concertmaster, auditions, stage fright, and much more. He remembers performing concertos with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra and accompanying Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony. He recommends that students aspire to “a life in music,” celebrating all aspects of playing (solo, chamber music, orchestral), as well as teaching. The interview provides a hint of Silverstein’s famously gruff and uncompromising teaching style, which underlies intense conviction. Silverstein demonstrated a great love for the violin. When the student interviewers asked why he continued to practice rigorously (including scales) at his stature, he answered “I want to get better.”
In his 1983 book, Great Masters of the Violin, Boris Schwarz wrote,
Whenever I hear Joseph Silverstein, I am convinced that there is no more fastidious violinist around. His playing is so finely chiseled, his tone so warm, his interpretation in such good taste, that he has few rivals.
Early on, Silverstein played a 1773 J.B. Guadagnini which had been owned by Arthur Grumiaux. For most of his career he played the 1742 “ex-Camilla Urso” Guarnerius del Gesù.
Here is a sampling of Joseph Silverstein’s numerous recordings:
Concertmaster Solo from Swan Lake
Here is solo from the Danse russe from the third act of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet score. It was recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony in 1978:
Barber Violin Concerto
Here is the first movement of the Samuel Barber Violin Concerto, recorded in 1985 with the Utah Symphony:
Stravinsky Violin Concerto
Silverstein’s recording with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony, released in 1965:
J.S. Bach Partita No. 3
Here is the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3 for solo violin:
Claude Debussy’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, recorded in 1975. Michael Tilson Thomas is playing the piano.
Richardson’s buildings, load-bearing and often featuring extensive stone and masonry, convey a sense of rugged weight and accentuate a fascinating play of solids and voids. The Beaux-Arts-trained architect developed a medieval revival style, imitated by later architects through the early years of the twentieth century, which became known as “Richardsonian Romanesque.”
Henry Hobson Richardson’s most famous work is undoubtedly Trinity Church in Boston’s Back Bay, built between 1872 and 1877 and designated one of the “Ten Most Significant Buildings in the United States” by the American Institute of Architects. The church anchors Copley Square, its enormous central tower creating a dramatic visual approach. In the absence of an “American” style, nineteenth and early twentieth century architects looked to historical examples in Europe. (In the case of Trinity Church, a fresh new form emerges, rather than a simple copy). Richardson wrote,
…the style of the Church may be characterized as a free rendering of the French Romanesque, inclining particularly to the school that flourished in the eleventh century in Central France.
Despite its size, Henry Cobb and I.M Pei’s neighboring 790-foot-tall John Hancock Tower, completed in 1976, defers to Trinity Church. Its sliver-thin side meets the square with an axis which keeps the church the center of attention. Mirrored glass almost makes it seem to disappear as it reflects its surroundings and becomes a liquid contrast to Trinity Church’s solidity.
As we celebrate Henry Hobson Richardson’s legacy, let’s step inside and hear the extraordinary Trinity Church choir. Here is a playlist featuring their 1999 Naxos recording, Radiant Light – Songs for the Millennium. Opening with Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria, the CD includes meditative music by Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Tchaikovsky, Randall Thompson, and John Rutter:
Earlier in the month, we listened to the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a song cycle about death, renewal, and immortality. Written in the final years of Mahler’s life, Das Lied von der Erde, along with the Ninth Symphony (completed in 1909), were Mahler’s swan songs. (He completed one movement of a Tenth Symphony before his death in 1911). Both completed works leave us with a sense of finality, not with the joyful, celebratory exuberance of Beethoven’s Ninth, but instead quietly fading into a sea of eternal peace. There’s something unsettling, even terrifying about the ending of both, but at the same time there is a sense of liberation in letting go.
We’ll explore Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in a future Listeners’ Club post. But for now, here are four other pieces which say “goodbye” in their own unique ways:
Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony
Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is one of music history’s most famous and dramatic “goodbye’s.” It’s music that seems to give up in anguished resignation. Following the exhilaration of the third movement (which ends with such a bang that audiences often can’t help but applaud), the fourth and final movement immediately plunges us into the depths of despair. Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere nine days before his death. Some listeners have been tempted to view this symphony as the composer’s suicide note. No historical evidence exists to back up such a romanticized reading. Besides, truly great music is never biographical. It always transcends the literal.
Each movement of the Sixth Symphony features a descending scale. In the final movement’s second theme, this descending motive takes on new prominence. We hear it in the last bars, which are marked, morendo (“dying away”). In the ultimate descent, the instruments of the string section gradually drop out until only the lowest voices are left. When I play this music in the second violin section, I’m always struck by a visceral sense of the music going underwater and remaining unresolved, as the scale line (B, B, A, G, F-sharp) makes it to G, the lowest note on the violin, but can’t go further.
Here is the final movement performed by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic:
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto
Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in A Major, completed in 1895 while Dvořák was in New York, is a musical elegy. It’s music which wistfully revisits distant memories, pays respect, and then rises into blazing triumph.
Shortly after completing the cello concerto, Dvořák learned that his sister-in-law, Josefina Kaunitzová, had passed away. 30 years earlier he had been in love with Josefina. She had not returned the feelings, and Dvořák ultimately married Josefina’s younger sister, Anna. In the second movement, Dvořák quoted one of his earlier songs, Kez duch muj san”(“Leave me alone”), which had been a favorite of Josefina. (Listen to that beautiful melody here). The third movement, peppered with fiery Czech folk rhythms, appears to be propelling towards a conventional conclusion, when suddenly in the movement’s coda, all of the forward drive dissipates and we find ourselves in a moment of tender introspection (beginning at 35:39 in the clip below). When the soloist, Hanuš Wihan, attempted to add a cadenza in the third movement’s coda, Dvořák would not permit it, writing,
I give you my work only if you will promise me that no one – not even my friend Wihan – shall make any alteration in it without my knowledge and permission, also that there be no cadenza such as Wihan has made in the last movement; and that its form shall be as I have felt it and thought it out.
He went on to offer the following description:
The Finale closes gradually diminuendo, like a sigh, with reminiscences of the first and second movements—the solo dies down . . .then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and the whole concludes in a stormy mood. That is my idea and I cannot depart from it.
Here is a 1964 recording with Leonard Rose and the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Eugene Ormandy:
Richard Strauss’ ultimate musical “goodbye” was the Four Last Songs, written in 1948, a year before his death. But a few years earlier, in 1945, Strauss’ Metamorphosen became a farewell to the pre-war world he had known, and perhaps even the long arc of Romanticism which had begun with Beethoven. The work for string orchestra was begun the day after allied bombing destroyed the Vienna Opera House. It quotes the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica, although Strauss claimed that the reference only became apparent to him after the score’s completion. Two verses from Goethe’s poem, Widmung(“Dedication”) also served as inspiration.
Strauss initially attempted to placate the Nazis, partly in an attempt to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He believed he could survive this regime, as he had others before it. A few days after completing Metamorphosen, he wrote,
The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.
Here is a 1973 Staatskapelle Dresden recording, conducted by Rudolf Kempe:
Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra
Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, written in 1943 two years before the composer’s death, says “goodbye” in a strikingly different way than Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. Amid rapidly failing health and poverty, Bartók wrote this monumental work as a commission for conductor Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
The final movement soars with exuberance, celebrating the full virtuosic possibilities of the orchestra. Eastern European folk rhythms dance alongside a fugue, one of the most sophisticated musical structures. It’s hard to imagine any music more full of life. The last chord lets out one final, joyful yelp as it reaches for the stars.
Here is the fifth movement of Concerto for Orchestra, from a recording by Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony:
Find Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Pathétique” at iTunes, Amazon.
Great orchestras develop an institutional collective memory. As conductors and players come and go, they often leave a subtle mark on the sound, style, and soul of the ensemble. New players are assimilated into a dynamic, ever-evolving team. The esteemed history of the Philadelphia Orchestra is a case in point.
For years the Philadelphia Orchestra was known for its distinctive, darkly opulent sound, especially evident in the lush, velvety warmth of its string section. The “Philadelphia Sound” likely emerged under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski (music director from 1912 to 1938), who discarded a baton and conducted with his enormous, expressive hands. The sound continued to develop under Eugene Ormandy (music director from 1936 to 1980). Balance favoring the bottom voices (bass and cello) seems to have contributed to tonal richness and depth. Also, the dry acoustics of the Academy of Music may have played a role in shaping the “Philadelphia Sound,” as conductors attempted to compensate for the cavernous concert hall’s weaknesses.
The old Philadelphia Orchestra never sounded more vibrant than when it was performing the music of Sergei Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov’s long association with the orchestra is one of music history’s most fascinating examples of mutual influence between a composer and orchestra. Both Stokowski and Ormandy championed Rachmaninov’s music, beginning with Stokowski’s January 3, 1913 performance of the tone poem, Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov’s final work, the Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, first performed on January 3, 1941, was dedicated to Ormandy and the orchestra. Rachmaninov is said to have composed with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s sound in his mind. The sensuous beauty of Rachmaninov’s music surely left its imprint on the orchestra, as well.
Many excellent recordings have been made of Rachmaninov’s orchestral music in the intervening years, but there’s something uniquely soulful about the old Philadelphia recordings. Here is a sample:
Symphony No. 2
Eugene Ormandy recorded Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony four times: Once in 1934 with the Minneapolis Symphony, and again in Philadelphia in 1951, 1959, and 1973. The final recording restores the work to its original form, without Rachmaninov’s approved cuts. The performance below was a June, 1979 PBS broadcast, celebrating Eugene Ormandy’s 80th birthday. It’s amazing to watch Ormandy’s seemingly effortless sense of control. There’s nothing flamboyant or flashy in his conducting, yet he draws incredible power and warmth from the orchestra.
For Rachmaninov, the Second Symphony, written between 1906 and 1907, emerged out of uncertainty and self-doubt. Following the disastrous premiere of the First Symphony and the ensuing harsh criticism, Rachmaninov fell into debilitating long-term depression. The music transcends all of this. The Second Symphony’s melodies blossom and soar with gratitude, passion for life, and sensuality. Similar to Tchaikovsky’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the first movement’s opening motive runs like a thread through the entire work.
The opening of the second movement hints at the Dies Irae (from the Roman Catholic mass for the Dead), which shows up throughout Rachmaninov’s music.Brief, passing motives throughout the movement return in later pieces, such as the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and the Symphonic Dances (listen to the flute and clarinet lines at 18:06 and the four note motive at the end of the fugue section at 20:30).
The opening of the third movement shows us all of its cards up front, embracing us with an expansive statement of the movement’s main theme before moving away. This theme returns in the final movement at a moment when we least expect it. One of my favorite passages begins at 29:36, as the music reaches increasingly higher toward its climax. Listen to the way the horn line soars above the strings.
The final movement explodes with joyful exuberance, at moments paying homage to Tchaikovsky. We hear hints of the adventures of the previous movements, and then have a sense of spirited transcendence.
Clumsy…badly written…vulgar…with only two or three pages worth preserving.
That was the harsh assessment of Tchaikovsky’s friend, the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, following a private reading of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 on Christmas Eve, 1874.Rubinstein went on to call the piece “worthless” and “impossible to play.” But Tchaikovsky refused to “alter a single note” (he later made a few revisions in 1879 and 1888) and the concerto now joins a long list of beloved war horses prematurely deemed “unplayable.” The violinist Leopold Auer had a similar, if slightly less devastating reaction to the Violin Concerto.
Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto breaks the rules. It opens with an unabashedly expansive melody in the “wrong” key of D-flat major. Beyond the first movement’s introduction, this powerful theme isn’t heard again, but it opens the door for all that follows. As Kenneth Woods points out, the concerto develops from motivic cells present in this memorable opening “seed.”
In the second movement, a series of instrumental voices, each with its distinct persona, contributes to the musical conversation. First we hear the solitary flute against the backdrop of spare pizzicati. We step into a warm new world with the first statement of the piano. Listen to the velvety descending string line and the bassoon in the background. Before the movement is over, the oboe, horn, and cello have contributed to the conversation.
One of my favorite moments in this concerto comes at the end of the final movement (beginning around 38:20, below), as our sense of expectation is stretched almost to its breaking point. As the bass and tympani hold a dominant pedal, the violins search for the theme we know is coming (38:38). At 39:31 the final notes of the piano’s dramatic cadenza seem to be leading a clear tonic resolution. Another composer might have given us that clear downbeat resolution. But, because of the harmony of Tchaikovsky’s theme (beginning on the dominant), the triumphant orchestral tutti begins and for a split second we’re still hanging on the dominate.
Here is pianist Evgeny Kissin with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic on New Years Eve, 1988:
Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso — Allegro con spirito 0:00
a younger Martha Argerich and then another performance from a few years later. At the end of the second performance the audience and conductor Charles Dutoit urge a clearly annoyed Argerich to play an encore and she gives in with a magical performance of Schumann.
In September, Russian-American violinist Philippe Quint released a recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, accompanied by conductor Martin Panteleev and the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. If you already own a thousand recordings of the Tchaikovsky, there are good reasons to also include this CD in your collection. Quint offers a distinctive and introspective performance, which emphasizes a rounded, singing tone, even in the most difficult passages of the first movement’s cadenza. He also includes Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard original final movement.
As Philippe Quint explains in this interview, Tchaikovsky originally dedicated the concerto to Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein, among others. Auer considered the third movement to be “unviolinistic” and set the concerto aside. Tchaikovsky withdrew the dedication and rededicated the work to Adolph Brodsky, who gave an ill-fated premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. Leopold Auer later revised the final movement and this is the version we almost always hear performed.
Listen to Quint’s performance of the first and second movements and the standard Auer version of the third movement. Then compare it with Tchaikovsky’s original version of the final movement (below). The influence of ballet seems to be just below the surface in much of Tchaikovsky’s music. Throughout ballet scores like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky often repeats short, symmetrical phrases. We hear a similar kind of repetition in the third movement of the Violin Concerto (1:01-1:09, for example). Auer condensed the score, cutting these repeated passages.
Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2
This recording also includes Anton Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 35 (1894).Arensky, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and the teacher of Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninov, dedicated the Quartet to the memory of Tchaikovsky. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Legend, No. 5from 16 Songs for Children, Op. 54. Arensky’s Quartet features the unusual combination of violin, viola and two cellos. Here are the first, second and third movements.
What happens when a series of folk songs becomes the seed for an entire symphony? The answer can be heard in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2, a piece which earned the nickname, “The Little Russian” because of its use of three Ukrainian folk melodies. (Since the Middle Ages, the Ukraine has commonly been called “Little Russia.”) This is Tchaikovsky’s most Eastern-looking symphony, the closest he came to the music of the largely self-taught, nationalist “Russian Five” composers, who attempted to develop a uniquely “Russian” musical style.
The first movement begins and ends with “Down by MotherVolga,”played by the solo horn and then the bassoon. To get an idea of the folk song and the distinct sound and style of a Russian choir, listen to this clip. In the opening, notice that Tchaikovsky repeats the melody while changing and developing the music around it. You’ll hear similar variations on an endlessly repeated melodic fragment in the final movement. This is one of the elements which makes this music feel distinctly “Russian.” Mikhail Glinka’s Kamarinskaya (1848) is an example of the same kind of folk song development. Tchaikovsky not only uses folk material, he allows it to shape the formal structure of the symphony. The result is music which moves differently than most German symphonic music, at times feeling almost circular or static.
In the middle of the movement, listen to the way the melody is fragmented and tossed around in the development section. Here, contrapuntal voices are coming at us from all directions. Even in his ballet music, Tchaikovsky occasionally plays rhythmic tricks which make it hard to tell where the downbeat lies. Around the 7:00 mark, you’ll hear something similar.
At the end of the movement, the horn voice is suddenly passed to the bassoon. Consider the way the atmosphere changes as we sink into gloom. Was this the way you expected the movement to end?
The second movement is a march which suggests toy soldiers. The second theme (13:31) uses the Ukrainian folk song, “Spin, O My Spinner”. This music was originally written for the unpublished 1869 opera, Undina. Tchaikovsky adapted music from the opera in later works and eventually destroyed the rest of the score. Listen to the way the melody is passed between instruments, starting with the distant sounds of the clarinet and bassoon. Each time the melody returns, a different layer is added (the pizzicato at 13:14 and then the swirling string lines and sparkling flutes at 15:56) until the music fades into the distance, ending as it began.
Hans Keller draws an interesting parallel between this movement and the march in Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony:
It seems significant that whereas the First [Symphony] quotes from the past, the Second quotes, as it were, from the future: the basic thought of the second movement, Andantino marziale, quasi moderato, was to grow, more than 20 years later, into the (not so called) march of the Sixth Symphony’s third movement.
As Mozart’s instrumental music often feels like imaginary, wordless operas, ballet is never far away in the music of Tchaikovsky. The exuberant grace, elegance and lightness of the third movement feels like ballet music waiting for choreography.
The opening of the final movement gives us the feeling of music composing itself. We start with three notes and a simple I-V-I chord progression…then add another note…and suddenly the motive takes shape. It’s similar to what Beethoven does in the opening of the First Symphony’s final movement. In this case, the melody is related to a folk song called, “The Crane.” As the final movement unfolds, listen to the colorful, constantly changing variations which take place around this melody. The music seems to celebrate and pay homage to this simple Ukrainian folk melody. One of my favorite moments comes at 28:20, where the harmony descends around the circle of fifths. As the melodic line rises, it’s met with the low brass descending. The passage reminds me of this similarly exhilarating moment of contrary motion in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
Tchaikovsky is a composer who pushes us to the limit and then, miraculously, takes us even farther. That’s what happens in the final movement’s development section. Just before the development begins, at what should be the moment of highest climax, the music suddenly seems to spin out of control with a series of “wrong” pitches in seemingly random registers and octaves (28:48). Listen to the way these bell-tone-like pitches are picked up in the low brass, becoming the foundation of a development section which combines the movement’s first and second themes.
Tchaikovsky finished the “Little Russian” Symphony in 1872 and revised it several times over the following ten years. You can get a sense of the original version here.
This recording from 1990 features Yuri Temirkanov and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: