What can be said about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that hasn’t been said already? Those ubiquitous four hammer strokes of fate are indelibly marked in the cultural zeitgeist, and are recognized by all as the furious fanfare of unrestrained genius. Even those with a passing familiarity to the work (which would include most of the human race) know the bittersweet story of Beethoven, of the genius composer gone deaf, and can hear the very real and sincere rage that seeps into the soul of this movement. But what some may not know is the rest of the story, where this symphony goes after the unforgettable first movement. In the second movement, Beethoven introduces us to a lyrical theme of unyielding beauty, and in the third, an anxious and faltering scherzo punctuated by bold horn calls gives way to a finale that is nothing short of triumphant. The first movement you will hear tonight may be the most memorable thing that Beethoven ever wrote - it may indeed be the most memorable thing that anybody has ever written - but it is worth remembering that all of the rage of this piece eventually gives way not to despair, but to celebration and joy, much as the composer himself chose hope in the face of adversity.
Night On Bald Mountain:
Mussorgsky is a fascinating figure in the history of Russian music, and the history of Western Art music in general, and his music and legacy bring up questions about authenticity, authorial intent, and the respective merits of originality and craft. Mussorgsky was one of a group of five Russian composers nicknamed “The Mighty Handful” that sought to create a distinctly Russian style of music in the latter half of the 19th century. This nationalistic impulse always had an uneasy relationship with the German style of music, in which ideas are introduced and developed in a logical and methodical routine. Each of these composers grappled with harmony, structure, and development in a unique way, and with differing degrees of divergence from the German style. But perhaps none of them eschewed conventional wisdom in the same way that Mussorgsky did - contemporaries called him ‘unrefined’ and ‘coarse’, and other choice words, but all recognized him as original, and many recognized the raw power in his music.
Most of the music of Mussorgsky we are familiar with today are reorchestrations and reworkings of his music - just last concert we performed Pictures at an Exhibition, originally a piano suite by Mussorgsky arranged for orchestra by Ravel. Ravel of course adds his own flair to the work, but his changes are trivial compared to the reworking of “Night On Bald Mountain” by Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky-Korsakov, another composer from the Mighty Handful, reworked this piece from three of Mussorgsky’s different iterations on the music - he reharmonized, rewrote, reorchestrated, added, omitted, and all together made a new work out of the ideas. Some have gone so far as to say it is more Rimsky-Korsakov’s work than Mussorgsky’s. It is fascinating to hear the original tone poem by Mussorgsky - the unedited version that wasn’t unearthed until the late 20th century. The orchestration is at times sloppy and messy, and at other times inventive and striking. The way the piece progresses is at times confusing and at other times a wonderful depiction of the story. It’s hard to say what’s right and wrong in these scenarios, or even truly who’s work this is anymore. But in spite of all of Rimsky-Korsakov’s edits and ‘corrections’, it is clear that it is the sheer originality and power of Mussorgsky’s musical ideas that we remember most, and that makes this piece the concert favorite that it is.
The Firebird was nothing short of a breakthrough work for a new generation of Russian composers. Following the premiere, Stravinsky was hailed as “the rightful heir to the Mighty Handful”, and Stravinsky readily admitted influences from Rimsky-Korsavkov in portions of the work (it is worth mentioning that Stravinsky studied under Rimsky-Korsakov for a time). As an early work of Stravinsky’s, it is more tonal in it’s conception than later works such as the Rite of Spring and others, but one can hear his experimental and original ideas piercing through in moments. Like Night on Bald Mountain, the story to the ballet makes use of various different Russian folk stories to create a uniquely Russian product. The story goes that Prince Ivan wanders into the realm of Koschei the Immortal. Ivan finds and spares the Firebird and then falls in love with one of thirteen princesses under Koschei’s spell. Ivan then battles Koschei and with the help of the Firebird’s lullaby, destroys Koschei and frees the princesses from his spell. What you will hear tonight is the ‘Berceuse’ (the Firebird’s lullaby) followed by a grand finale celebrating Ivan’s triumph.
Both Night On Bald Mountain as well as The Firebird (in suite form) were featured in the Fantasia films, but in the original film, Night On Bald Mountain was paired with Schubert’s Ave Maria to juxtapose the “vulgar with the sublime” to great effect. Tonight, we take that same idea, but with a twist. We will traverse from the sinister to the triumphant, and from one generation of Russian composers to the next, all through the lens of Russian music and Russian stories.