Performance Saturday, October 15, 2011 | 1 PM

Discovery Day: Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg

Weill Recital Hall
An afternoon of talks, panel discussions, and musical performance, featuring leading scholars from The Harriman Institute at Columbia University exploring the cultural world of St. Petersburg in the 1890s and beyond.
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A Program of Songs by Tchaikovsky and His Contemporaries

Russia had a late start in classical music. No opera was performed there until 1736, when an Italian company arrived in St. Petersburg to entertain the Russian Empress Anna Ioannovna. The first publication of Russian songs with accompaniment came almost five decades later. The first professional music school—the St. Petersburg Conservatory—was only founded in 1862. Throughout the 19th century, however, the country produced a roster of world-class composers and established its own style in all musical genres from opera and ballet to symphonic and chamber music.

That century also became a golden epoch of Russian romance, as the Russians called their lyrical accompanied songs. In fact, this offspring of a Westernized urban culture (brought in by earlier reforms of Peter the Great) had been the most popular musical genre in Russia for years. It was sung in households, accompanied by harpsichord, piano, or guitar; included in dramatic plays; performed by Gypsy choruses; and written by dozens of unknown amateurs and professional composers. Stimulated by a flourishing of Russian poetry, the romance quickly developed into a sophisticated genre and an important harbinger of Russian operatic and symphonic style.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s romances—totaling more than 100—served as a personal journal, of sorts, to which the composer turned throughout his life. Great ingenuity, melodic appeal, and a natural flow of emotions were evident from early on. Their mostly heightened emotional temperature reflected Tchaikovsky’s own inner turmoil: He was prone to insomnia, fears, and extreme mood fluctuations; his unusual sensitivity prompted his governess to call him “a boy of glass.”

Tchaikovsky’s romances enriched the genre, which was cultivated earlier by the first important Russian composers Glinka and Dargomyzhsky, and by authors of so-called bytovia (“domestic”) romances. Dismissed by some contemporaries as “not Russian enough” and later by the Soviet critics of the 1920s as too “teary” and sentimental, Tchaikovsky’s romances always enjoyed enormous popularity among Russian audiences. Like Tolstoy’s novels and Chekhov’s short stories, they addressed emotional needs of the Russian society in the late 19th century—a time of dramatic political, social, and psychological changes that came after the end of serfdom in 1861.

Tchaikovsky blended the unpretentious and elegiac tone of Russian domestic romance with elements of Russian, Ukrainian, and Gypsy folk songs—not to mention stylistic influences of Robert Schumann. His romances were deeply personal—almost confessional—and at the same time universally appealing.

Surrounded by poetry and poets ever since his youth, Tchaikovsky wrote many of his romances to lyrics by his friends and acquaintances. Unlike his contemporary Mussorgsky, he never took pains to follow the textual minutiae, nor did he care to closely match words to musical intonation. (He could nevertheless be extremely sensitive to the inner rhythm, shape, and “melody” of a poetic phrase.) His songs often start with a psychologically astute musical image that develops into a single melodic and emotional wave that surges up to a tense—sometimes even melodramatic—climax. And, just like in his operas, the instrumental part becomes a continuation of the vocal one, complementing it and revealing the unexpressed.

Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

Universally recognized as the father of Russian national music, Glinka had few predecessors. What distinguishes him is the sophistication and originality of his style, blending the best of Italian bel canto and German counterpoint with inherently Russian musical elements with astonishing ease. A product of aristocratic culture, Glinka grew up in a rural estate in the midst of serfs and village life with its church and folk rituals, songs, and dances. His education continued in St. Petersburg’s school for children of nobility. He served for a brief while as a government bureaucrat, but got more pleasure and success as an amateur pianist, singer, and composer of piano pieces and songs. He traveled to Italy, where he took voice lessons and was inspired to write a Russian opera, before relocating to Berlin, where he studied with Siegfried Dehn. The result was A Life for the Tsar, the first Russian opera with fully developed arias, ensembles and choruses, masterful orchestration, and richly depicted Russian characters.

While not in Europe, Glinka spent much of his time in the bohemian circles of St. Petersburg, among poets, artists, amateur musicians, and writers. His romances—more than 60 in total—were often written (like Schubert’s songs) to share with friends; they mimic Russian domestic romances of the time, yet synthesize simplicity with inventiveness and refined elegance.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

In spite of early signs of great musical talent, Rimsky-Korsakov tried to follow the tradition of his aristocratic military family. A naval officer with a promising career, he combined his service with developing his skills as a pianist, composer, and conductor. He eventually left the military for music, becoming a professor and later the director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the teacher of Stravinsky, and an influential author of such masterpieces as the symphonic Scheherazade and Capriccio espagnol, and operas The Tsar’s Bride and The Snow Maiden.

Rimsky-Korsakov was the youngest member of the Mighty Five—an influential group of composers who emerged in the 1860s and included Mussorgsky, Cui, Borodin, and their leader Balakirev. Like his contemporaries, he wanted to follow Glinka’s path and write distinctly Russian music (which meant Russian subjects and a new musical language rooted in elements of national folklore, liturgical tradition, and speech).

Both Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov set texts by the same poets. Unlike Tchaikovsky, however—who would change poetic text adjusting it to the needs of musical expression and development—Rimsky-Korsakov was always faithful to his literary source, and he gave less space and emotional weight to the piano accompaniment. Known for his intellect, discipline, craftsmanship, and aversion to emotional displays, he lacked Tchaikovsky’s and Glinka’s immediate and captivating genius for melody. His songs instead remind listeners of paintings—carefully structured, proportionate, and laconic, with beautifully balanced colors.

—Maya Pritsker

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Tchaikovsky in St. Petersburg is sponsored by PwC
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Presented by Carnegie Hall in partnership with The Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

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