Program Notes | Sounds of the Season
Sunday, Dec 11, 2022 / 4:00 pm
PETER ILYCH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born May 7, 1840, Votkinsk
Died November 6, 1893, St. Petersburg
Selections from The Nutcracker Suite
Early in 1891, the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg approached Tchaikovsky with a commission for a new ballet. They caught him at a bad moment. At age 50, Tchaikovsky was assailed by worries that he had written himself out as a composer, and—to make matters worse—they proposed a story line that the composer found unappealing: They wanted to create a ballet on the old E.T.A. Hoffmann tale Nussknacker und Mausekönig, but in a version that had been retold by Alexandre Dumas as Histoire d’un casse-noisette and then furthered modified by the choreographer Marius Petipa. This sort of Christmas fairy tale full of imaginary creatures set in a confectionary dream-world of childhood fantasies left Tchaikovsky cold, but he accepted the commission and grudgingly began work.
Then things got worse. He had to interrupt work on the score to go on tour in America (where he would conduct at the festivities marking the opening of Carnegie Hall), and just as he was leaving his sister Alexandra died. The agonized Tchaikovsky considered abandoning the tour but went ahead (it was a huge success), and then returned to Russia in May and tried to resume work on the ballet. He hated it, and—probably more to the point—he hated the feeling that he had written himself out as a composer. To his brother, he wrote grimly: “The ballet is infinitely worse than The Sleeping Beauty—so much is certain.” The score was complete in the spring of 1892, and The Nutcracker was produced in at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg that December, only eleven months before the composer’s death at 53. At first, it had only a modest success, but then a strange thing happened—that success grew so steadily that in the months before his death Tchaikovsky had to reassess what he had created: “It is curious that all the time I was writing the ballet I thought it was rather poor, and that when I began my opera [Iolanthe] I would really do my best. But now it seems to me that the ballet is good, and the opera is mediocre.”
Tchaikovsky may have suspected—in the months before his premature death—that The Nutcracker would prove a success, but he could have had no idea just how popular it would prove: Over the last century The Nutcracker has become an inescapable part of our sense of Christmas, and the current catalog lists nearly 40 recordings of the familiar Suite. This concert offers not that familiar Suite but a selection of movements from the ballet, largely characteristic dances. The fiery Russian Dance (sometimes called Trepak) is a wild Cossack dance, while La mère Gigogne (roughly equivalent to The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe) features dancing clowns. Tchaikovsky, who was an admirer of Johann Strauss, loved waltzes, and this selection concludes with one of his finest, The Waltz of the Flowers from Act II of The Nutcracker.
We hear such music and are left wondering: How possibly could the man who wrote it have worried that he had dried up as a composer?
—Program Note by Eric Bromberger
Born Tyumen, Russia
Died 1989, New York City
Born in Russia, Israel Baline came to this country with his family at age five. He began writing songs as a boy and published his first at age 19. Four years later, under the name Irving Berlin, he achieved fame and wealth with the song Alexander’s Ragtime Band and went on to become one of the most characteristic American voices of the 20th century: Estimates of the number of songs he wrote run as high as 1500. Many of these—songs like God Bless America, There’s No Business Like Show Business, and This Is the Army, Mr. Jones—have become part of the American national identity.
White Christmas was originally part of Berlin’s score for the 1942 film Holiday. The mellow sound of Bing Crosby’s voice was perfectly suited to this song, with its warm but relaxed sentiment, and White Christmas—in its many reincarnations—has become an inescapable way we think of that holiday. Its popularity has never been in doubt: White Christmas won the Academy Award as the best song of 1942.
―Program note by Eric Bromberger
Born 1841, Muhlhausen, Bohemia
Died 1904, Prague
Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Opus 88
Allegro Con Brio
The summer of 1889 was an unusually happy and productive time for Dvořák. At age 48, he found himself a successful composer with a large and devoted family. Earlier that year, his opera The Jacobin had premiered, and he spent his holiday at the family retreat in the countryside south of Prague. Although he went there to escape the pressures of the concert season, he composed a great deal and wrote the entire Symphony No. 8 in less than a month.
From the moment of the premiere, audiences have loved this symphony (including one very particular audience: Dvořák conducted it before 30,000 Czechs on an all-Czech program at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893). Surprisingly, the Eighth Symphony has come in for a tough time from certain critics, who find much to complain about. One finds the music plain and claims to hear signs of haste in its composition; another criticizes the music’s harmonic sequences, while yet another calls the finale a “not altogether satisfactory design.” All seem baffled by the structure of the movements.
Actually, this is one of the loveliest pieces of music ever written. It is quite true that Dvořák went his own way in writing this symphony rather than attempting to compose a “correct” symphony, and that may be what bothered those critics; Dvořák’s biographer Otakar Šourek noted that the composer himself felt that in this music he was trying to write “a work different from his other symphonies, with individual thoughts worked out in a new way.”
We feel this from the first instant. Although the piece is in G major, the beginning is firmly in the key of G minor, and this will be only the first of many harmonic surprises. It is also a gorgeous beginning, with the cellos singing their long wistful melody. But―another surprise―this theme will have little to do with the actual progress of the first movement. We soon arrive at what appears to be the true first subject, a flute theme of an almost pastoral innocence (commentators appear unable to resist describing this theme as “birdlike”), and suddenly we have slipped into G major. There follows a wealth of themes―one critic counted six separate ideas in the opening minutes of this symphony. Dvořák develops these across the span of the opening movement, and the cellos’ somber opening melody returns at key moments: quietly to begin the development and then blazing out triumphantly by the trumpets at the movement’s stirring climax.
—Program note by Eric Bromberger
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Born 1872, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire
Died 1958, London
Fantasia on Greensleeves
England’s contribution to great music has always been sporadic. During the height of the Middle Ages, England was in the vanguard of musical innovation, paving the way for major stylistic changes in Western music that were to flourish in the European Renaissance. But following the 15th and 16th century’s two generations of brilliant composers, English music slept again until Purcell and then relapsed into a dependence on the continental style through the career of the transplanted Handel, a situation that continued through the 19th century.
As in many European countries, by the end of the 19th century British composers were eager to recapture the glory of their musical past. A great lover of English folk songs, Ralph Vaughan Williams was instrumental in their rediscovery. He collected more than 800 of these tunes, arranging and transcribing many of them for various vocal and instrumental combinations. The frequent appearance of Greensleeves (originally a secular song) is thanks to the composer, who found several versions of the tune used as New Year’s carols throughout Britain.
Greensleeves is an old tune, probably originating from the 15th century. Vaughan Williams adapted the song for use in his opera Sir John in Love, based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. He inserted it into the third act to be sung, with lute accompaniment, by Mrs. Page to Sir John Falstaff, as part of her pretense of being in love with the old braggart. The orchestral arrangement of the piec is by writer and composer Ralph Greaves (1889-1966).
–Program note by Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn
JOHANN STRAUSS I
Born 1804, Vienna
Died 1849, Vienna
The Viennese craze for waltzes was launched by Johann Strauss I and Josepf Lanner in the early 19th century, but Strauss’ son, Johann Strauss II, as the real waltz king. It was the son who wrote the Blue Danube, Emperor, Wiener Blut, Morning Papers, and hundreds of other waltzes that will charm audiences as long as there is music. Although the waltzes and performances of the senior Strauss were much admired in his lifetime, his music has almost disappeared from concert programs today, and by a curious irony his one composition to achieve enduring fame, the Radetzky March, is not a waltz at all.
In 1848, revolutions swept across Europe, threatening the old order in general and the Hapsburg monarchy in Vienna in particular. In that same year Field Marshal Radetzky, the commander of the Hapsburg forces in Italy, crushed a revolt by Italian nationalists and was installed as governor of Lombardy. Imperial Vienna was grateful for any military success in those nervous times, and in celebration of this victory Strauss wrote Radetzky March.
This quick little march (it zips past in less than three minutes) is in ternary form. It opens with the snappy march tune itself, and the jaunty middle section is full of leaps and trills before the opening material returns to round matters off emphatically. It is easy to understand the eternal popularity of this music; one commentator notes that it “fires the blood like pepper.
The piece was one of the earliest examples of a musical generation gap. Strauss Sr. was intensely conservative politically, and he was only too happy to write music to celebrate a victory by the establishment. The New Grove Dictionary describes the Radetzky March as a “symbol of the military might of the old Hapsburg monarchy.” However, his sons (including Johann II) were sympathetic to the revolutionary spirit of the times. While their father’s Radetzky March was entertaining Imperial audiences in the palaces, the sons were conducting their own Revolution March on the barricades.
—Program note by Eric Bromberger