Lise de la Salle Plays Chopin
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka 1804-1857
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka
Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

Mikhail Glinka was the founder of nationalist movement in Russian classical music. Until his appearance, Russian musical life, including opera, was dominated by such Italian composers as Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello, who had spent part of their careers in St. Petersburg. The rich indigenous folk music was totally ignored. Glinka changed all that with his first opera, A Life for the Tsar, a product of the great wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century. It was the first opera in Russian, on a Russian subject and incorporating Russian folk music.

Ruslan and Lyudmila, based on a fairy tale poem by Alexander Pushkin, was completed in 1842. Glinka had recruited Pushkin’s help in writing the libretto, but the poet’s untimely death in a duel left the text in a disjointed and confused state that contributed to the initial lukewarm reception of the opera.

The inspiration for the virtuosic overture came to Glinka during a court wedding dinner celebration, with a chorus and orchestra providing the entertainment: “I was up in the balcony, and the clattering of knives, forks and plates made such an impression on me that I had the idea to imitate them in the prelude to Ruslan. I later did so, with fair success.”

Glinka's overture replaces the clatter of silverware with the glitter of instruments, playing at breakneck speed. Like most opera overtures of this period, this one is in classic sonata allegro form, the first theme, boisterous, Example 1 the second more lyric. Example 2
Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849
Frédéric Chopin
Frédéric Chopin
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

The son of a French father and Polish mother, Frédéric Chopin was born and grew up in Poland; but after the collapse of the Polish revolution against Russia in 1831, he went into exile to France. He settled in Paris, which was then the center of Polish émigrés.

Chopin's chosen medium was the piano as a solo instrument. Although in his late teens he tried to combine the piano with the orchestra, creating the two piano concertos, the Variations Op. 2, Fantasia Op. 13, Concert Rondo Op. 14 and the Grand Polonaise Op. 22, he was uncomfortable with the medium and after age 20 never again wrote for a large ensemble. In all these works, the orchestral scoring is so light that during the nineteenth century it was fashionable to re-orchestrate and "improve" it. Be that as it may, Chopin probably intended the orchestra to serve as a delicate background for the soloist, especially since he himself was known to have had a rather light touch on the piano; heavy orchestration would have drowned him out.

The f minor Concerto, although listed as No. 2, was the first composed (1829-30) but was the second published. It was premiered in March 1830 in Warsaw with the composer at the piano. As was so often the case with composers in the Romantic Era, the inspiration for the Concerto came to Chopin as the result of unrequited love. The object of his ardor was a voice student at the Warsaw Conservatory. But by the time the Concerto was published six years later, he had long forgotten her and dedicated it instead to his pupil, Countess Delphine Potocka, a gifted singer and close friend.

Although Chopin has the reputation for musically "wearing his heart on his sleeve," he was also gifted and innovative in his use of harmony and phrase structure. The Concerto capitalizes on all the pianistic qualities that were to catapult him to fame in Paris. It opens in a gruff mood, Example 1 followed by a more lyrical second theme introoduced by the solo oboe. Example 2 When the piano enters in a standard double exposition, it inserts its own second theme before taking up the oboe theme. Example 3 The development section of the first movement is a major departure from true development as understood by Beethoven. Chopin's music never argues; rather, his development could be described as a commentary on the themes and on what had gone on before, his customary tendency is to embellish and decorate the pianistic line. Example 4 This long section is almost serpentine in the way it slides in and out of new keys and deftly manipulates phrasing and the themes themselves. In this regard, the Concerto foreshadows the composer's future, even more adventurous harmonic writing.

The slow movement is intense and still lyrical, with the ornamentation of the main theme gradually becoming an integral part of it. With its seemingly endless, fluid lines, elaborate ornamentation and recitative-type passages, this movement has led scholars to compare Chopin with the contemporaneous Italian bel canto style of opera composer Vincenzo Bellini, whom Chopin greatly admired. Chopin provides a brief orchestral introduction Example 5 where embellishment now becomes an integral part of the first theme with the entrance of the piano. Example 6 After all the trills and decorations, however, Chopin gets down to the real meat of the movement in what has become one of the most quoted of his melodies. Example 7

The finale is a rondo, although unusual in that it is a waltz. Example 8 Not surprisingly, it provides the pianist with glittering runs and pyrotechnics to show off against a largely superfluous orchestra. The rondo is never played quite the same way twice. The third episode is in mazurka rhythm. Example 9 The mazurka became one of Chopin's signature rhythms, an expression of his nationalistic feeling. It originated as a Polish folk dance in triple meter from the Mazovia district near Warsaw. But mazurka became an umbrella name for a number of related dances: the fiery mazurek, the lively oberek or the slower and more sentimental kujawiak. All three dances originated from the older polska, a dance in which a strong accent falls on the second or third beat of the measure, accompanied by a tap of the heel. Chopin composed nearly 60 mazurkas for piano solo, as well as several that have been lost. A horn fanfare heralds a spectacular coda. Oddly, there is not a single cadenza in this piece.

The Concerto was received enthusiastically at the premiere, but Chopin had his doubts as to whether the audience actually understood it: "The first allegro...received, indeed, the reward of a 'Bravo,' but I believe this was given because the public wished to show that it understands and knows how to appreciate serious music. There are people enough in all countries who like to assume the air of connoisseurs!"
Dmitry Shostakovich 1906-1975
Dmitry Shostakovich
Dmitry Shostakovich
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Volumes have been written about Dmitry Shostakovich and his ambivalent relationship with the Soviet regime. Much of this writing is based on after-the-fact statements whose authenticity and veracity is often difficult to verify. What is clear is that the composer was a true son of the Russian Revolution and, as teenager, a true believer. But in his late 20s he became caught up in the Stalinist nightmare.

Shostakovich’s roller coaster ride from Soviet adulation to denunciation began in January 1936 when an article appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda severely criticizing his successful new opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtzensk District. The result was that, upon the order of the government, the opera – as well as the rest of the composer’s music – was withdrawn from the stage and the concert hall. For the first of many times Shostakovich was cast into Soviet limbo, his music unperformed, his livelihood withdrawn and his life in jeopardy. In later years he recalled that he was so certain of being arrested that he would sleep with his suitcase packed near the front door so that if the secret police were to pick him up they would not disturb the rest of the family.

Shostakovich's response was to go in two directions. Because of his fame both at home and abroad, the government was willing to give him the chance to earn a living composing music for propaganda films and politically correct spectacles. To satisfy his own creative energy, he composed works “for the drawer.” Some of his greatest and most personal works did not see the light of day until after Stalin's death in 1953.

The Fifth Symphony was the composer’s attempt to rehabilitate himself as a serious artist in the eyes of the authorities after the Lady Macbeth debacle. How it did so is an example of how politicized art operates. The chromatic, dissonant Symphony was certainly not in line with the cultural commissars’ requirement for cheerful, uplifting music, and the wild audience enthusiasm at the 1937 premieres – both in Moscow and in Leningrad – made the Soviet bureaucracy suspicious. They were convinced that the enthusiastic reception had been organized by Shostakovich’s friends and colleagues; they grilled the conductors and musicians looking for evidence for a conspiracy. It took a special performance for the apparatchiks alone to finally convince them to give the Symphony the official seal of approval.

The Symphony opens with a broad theme, Example 1 a constant presence underlying a melancholy counter-theme in the upper strings. Example 2 These two themes, already brooding at the outset, pass through a violent transformation during the course of the movement. They ultimately do battle with a new haunting melody also in the upper strings, a response to the harsh opening statement. Example 3 The composer slowly ratchets up the hushed tension, gradually adding other instruments, a calm before the storm. More than halfway through the movement, clouds appear on the horizon with the trombones blaring out the first string theme with an increase in tempo and dynamics until the shrieking violins introduce it as a violent march with full brass and snare drums. Example 4 The opening theme also reappears, transformed in ever more threatening terms. Example 5 And then the storm suddenly passes. Solos based on the lyrical string theme, first in a duet for solo flute and horn, then the rest of the upper winds establish a tentative tranquility. Example 6 The movement concludes with a gentle glockenspiel solo.

The short Scherzo is a rhythmically lopsided waltz evoking everything from Viennese ballrooms to music boxes. The scherzo proper gradually evolves from a spiky unsingable introduction Example 7 into a more cohesive melody Example 8 answered by outbursts from the brass. Example 9 The Trio includes gentle solos for violin, flute, clarinet and bassoon. Example 10 Each repeat features a different orchestration. The erratic shifts in dynamics suggest a kind of musical satire that emerged more overtly and with greater bitterness in the composer’s later works. According to Solomon Volkov in his controversial biography Testimony, the composer told him that the movement depicts the brutality of the regime. Given the Viennese overtones and the many lightly orchestrated pianissimo passages, it is one of those statements that raise more questions than answers.

The Largo is a somber outpouring that probably best reflects the composer’s mood during those terrible years – a gentle melody reminiscent of Bach. Example 11 Melancholy solos for flute Example 12 and especially the oboe Example 13 punctuate the long lament. As in the first movement, the tension slowly builds, until it reaches a climax beginning with a xylophone and violin theme accompanied by a loud tremolo in the rest of the strings. Example 14 The remainder of the movement is a varied reprise of the opening, a gradual emotional cooling down, but ever somber. The solo harp closes the movement with a repeat of the oboe solo melody – but resolves its inherent tension. Example 15

The Finale is a military quick march, blaring in the approved “Socialist Realism” style. There are two principal themes, which both undergo significant transformations in mood, from strident militarism to pensive melancholy. Example 16 & Example 17 The moments of shrieking ostinato passages in the violins and rising chromaticism, as well as the somber middle section belie the triumphal themes. Example 18 It is as if Shostakovich is surveying his environment (symbolized by the two themes) at the beginning of the movement, grimly pondering it in the slow middle section Example 19 & Example 20 and, in the final measures, fatalistically accepting it. Example 21 Later, he put an unflattering interpretation on this movement, equating it with a forced march, the coerced and highly organized Soviet “spontaneous outpouring” in mass demonstrations.

For the following ten years Shostakovich was able to compose relatively undisturbed. But in 1948 the official axe fell again; it was only with Stalin's death in 1953 and the subsequent temporary cultural thaw that his music was heard again and his “good name” restored in the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Shostakovich’s periodic bending to the official Soviet will did not sit well with the academic serialist composers of the West, who denigrated his work until a parallel “cultural thaw” in the West relaxed the stranglehold of rigid atonal music.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2017