What We Are Missing
As much as I would like, I am not able to attend every major orchestral concert in New York, but I do keep abreast of all of these events by the diligent perusal of brochures. Recently, it occurred to me that there was a significant hole in the repertoire offered as concert fare. Just to make sure that I was not having a senior moment, I systematically reread the schedules of the three venues which comprise virtually the entire symphonic scene in town and present my findings herewith. The following represent two complete seasons (this and the next) of programming. Out of hundreds of concerts, the number of presentations of nineteenth century Russian music not written by Tchaikovsky are:
Carnegie Hall: none
Lincoln Center: none
New York Philharmonic: Scheherazade
Carnegie Hall: none
Lincoln Center: none
New York Philharmonic: Ruslan and Ludmila Overture
The news is even more discouraging if one tracks the number of pieces written in the first three quarters of the 20th century in England, not counting the work of Benjamin Britten:
Carnegie Hall: none
Lincoln Center: none
New York Phil: none
Carnegie Hall: none
Lincoln Center: none
New York Phil: none
Considering that these figures include visits by several Russian and British ensembles, the net effect is staggering. Undoubtedly there are reasons for this dearth, but none of them are viable. I leave it to the reader’s speculation as to why this is happening, but I feel that I should at least make my pitch for the inclusion of this vital music in the concert repertoire of the future.
Russian classical music really begins with Mikhail Glinka. Born at the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Glinka was the first Russian composer to study in the West, training in Italy and Germany from 1830 to 1834. He returned to the motherland with a deep love for Italian opera (he met both Bellini and Donizetti) and a solid theoretical base. Glinka is called "the father of Russian music" because he adapted the unique modalities of his culture into the Romantic forms then entrancing the rest of Europe. He composed the first truly national opera of Eastern Europe when he penned the instantly popular A Life for the Tsar in 1836. The structure and approach were straight out of contemporary Italian lyric theater (there is one of the most beautiful trios in all of opera in this work) but the language is Slavic. The opera has remained so beloved that the Soviet regime, not wishing to glorify the Tsar, changed its name to Ivan Susanin and reworked the libretto but never seriously considered banning the piece. Glinka's other famous work, Ruslan and Ludmila, is Italianate in principle, but more Eastern sounding in practice, including the first use of a whole tone scale in a European opera. Elements of folk song are predominant in this work.
Alexander Serov is virtually unknown outside of Russia but the three operas that he composed during his brief life were extremely important to the development of Russian musical art and are staples of the repertoire up to the present day. Serov was from St. Petersburg, the city that served as the gateway to the rest of Europe (Glinka was educated there), and visited the West several times, meeting Wagner on one occasion. His first theater piece, Judith, is a grand opera in the then popular style of Meyerbeer. Serov had considered an Italian libretto but opted instead for his native tongue. He made his living as a journalist and scholar and he became fascinated with the ethnomusicological study of the folk songs of his richly diverse country. His second opera, Rogneda, is written in a wholly Russian idiom and won the praises of Tsar Alexander II. Serov died before completing his third, Malevolent Power, but it was finished by a colleague and has joined his two others as powerful statements of a people's nationalistic soul. Even more obscure in the West are the works of his wife, Valentina Serova, the first woman composer of Russia. Alexander Dargomyzhsky was another resident of St. Petersburg who traveled on the continent and returned to compose opera. His early works show the European influence, but his later productions, especially Rusalka, show a tendency toward Russian nationalism and an integration of Russian language with musical declamation and dramatic power. His final work, The Stone Guest, was orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakoff after Dargomyzhsky's death. There are many possible orchestral excerpts from all of these pieces which would be fascinating marginalia in a world obsessed with only one small, Germanic corner of the repertoire.
Vladimir Stasov occupied an unique position in the Russia of the mid-nineteenth century. As a critic his word was law throughout Russia (he was decidedly anti-Wagner) and he determined to a large extent what composers would flourish in the new awakening of classical music. He predicted a bright future for a group of composers that he dubbed "the mighty handful" and each in his own way fulfilled this promise. Modest Mussorgsky was the master of creating music which complimented the Russian pattern of speech. His opera, Boris Goudonov, is perhaps the most powerful in all of the rich history of European theater and its emphasis on the typically Russian bass voice sets a standard for all composers of Russian music to follow. The orchestral excerpt known as the Coronation Scene is extremely colorful and powerful. Mussorgsky is extremely adept at evoking the purely Russian emotion known as toskha, that is a nostalgia for an era which never really existed (akin to the concept of merrie olde England). Varlaam's song in Boris is the supreme example of this Slavic phenomenon. His other powerful composition for the stage is Khovanshchina, whose prelude is a wonderful showpiece for a shimmering style of orchestral playing. Mussorgsky also composed purely orchestral music, including A Night on the Bare Mountain, and piano music, most notably the incredibly evocative Pictures at an Exhibition, known to generations of audiences from its orchestration by Maurice Ravel (and purposefully excluded from my statistics, for the orchestration is pure Ravel and thus not germane). Alexander Borodin was a chemist by trade who composed music as a sideline. His three beautiful symphonies, two string quartets and the opera Prince Igor, whose Polevtsian Dances are a natural for orchestral presentation, reflect the Oriental aspect of Russian music and his melodies have often been appropriated by popular composers (the musical Kiss Me, Kate is all stolen from Borodin). Mily Balakirev journeyed to the Caucasus mountains and incorporated the Eastern flavor of this region into his music while Cesar Cui was the miniaturist of the group who also wrote operas for production in St. Petersburg. The fifth member of the handful was the prolific Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, originally known in the West for his orchestral music, especially Scheherazade, the Russian Easter Overture and Capriccio Espagnol, but much more famous in Russia as a composer of opera. It is a shame that these great works of vocal and orchestral richness and beauty are so unknown outside of the composer's native land. Some of the best are The Maid of Pskov, The Snow Maiden, May Night, The Tale of Tsar Saltan (with the famous Flight of the Bumblebee) and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh. There are spectacular suites fashioned by the composer for each and every one of these works which would be electric on a concert program. Rimsky-Korsakoff was also an important theorist and one of the greatest orchestrators in music history, his three symphonies some of the most interesting of the century
Well known in his lifetime but now almost forgotten is Tchaikovsky's contemporary Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein was a great piano virtuoso, rivaling Franz Liszt, who composed five piano concertos, six symphonies, much chamber music and many operas, the most famous of which was The Demon. Rubinstein was, like Tchaikovsky, a true Romantic whose gift for melody was strong. However his music has not survived in the popular imagination although he was considered the greatest of all of the Russians by Western audiences at the turn of the twentieth century. What seems odd to me is that the Rubinstein piano concerti are no longer espoused by aspiring virtuosi. I can’t remember a pianist since Josef Hoffman in the 1930’s who has spent any time with these marvelous works. Rubinstein’s ”Ocean Symphony” is also a good candidate for resurrection, not only on its own merits, but as a precursor to the impressionistic techniques of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.
Speaking of Rachmaninoff, he is the first composer after Tchaikovsky whose works enjoy a rich orchestral life in the modern concert hall. His contemporaries Tanayev and Glazunov were exceptional symphonists, but one would never know that if one only attended concerts in New York. What is common to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff was their zeal for proselytizing in the West, the elder traveling extensively as a conductor (he was on the podium for the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1891), the younger settling in America in his new found career as a great concert pianist.
Another odd phenomenon in all of this is the popularity of some of this music at the conservatory level. Virtually all instrumental students are familiar with works of Rimsky, Mussorgsky and Glinka, but this does not apparently translate well into the professional repertoire. There is probably no one in New York more immersed in their love of Brahms and Beethoven than I, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a little variety on the concert stage? Rather than spend our time on the untried (and often untrue) world of contemporary music, perhaps we would all be better served to explore some of the glorious repertoire from east of Dvorak.
In the early years of the twentieth century the Moravian composer Leos Janacek visited London and when he heard a newsboy whistling in the streets he remarked "that is the music of England". The great revival of classical music (the English renascence) that began at the turn of the twentieth century was inspired largely by the folk tradition. Sir Edward Elgar brought English music into the front ranks of orchestral writing with such works as the two completed symphonies, the Enigma Variations and the two wonderful concertos, one for violin and one for cello. Elgar was an early member of the pastoral movement which reacted against the horrors of the Boer and Great Wars and bemoaned the deaths of the flower of English youth and the demise of the civilities of the nineteenth century. Coupled with the folk ideal, the pastoral tradition shaped English poetry (Housman and Hardy) and music in the twentieth century. Cecil Sharp, a composer himself, was highly influential as a collector of folksongs, searching for the English tradition all the way from South Australia and America to the North of England. He was also a devotee of folk dancing and helped to revive the Morris dance which contributed to the popular embracing of a longing for a simpler time and place and the perceived ideals of "merrie olde England". Many composers joined the pastoral movement including Herbert Howells (the Pastoral Rhapsody and the string quartet In Gloucestershire), Rutland Boughton (Galahad and Agincourt), Gerald Finzi (Channel Firing, Farewell to Arms) and the poet and composer Ivor Gurney. Gassed at Passchendaele, Gurney was eventually committed to a mental hospital and stands as a symbol of the wasted generation of men of intellect, such as the poets Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, who died in the war. Gurney wrote musical settings of his poetry including selections from War's Embers and Severn and Somme.
Much of this music inspired a new orchestral tradition. The folk song plays a major role in the pastoral music of Frederick Delius. Pieces like A Village Romeo and Juliet, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, North Country Sketches and Brigg Fair are all tone poems meant to evoke the quiet life of the countryside. Gustav Holst also collected folk song and reproduced it in a pastoral setting in such works as Brook Green Suite and, with delicious British irony, in the two Suites for Military Band. He was also interested in more exotic folk music and wrote the Japanese Suite and Beni Mora, a tone poem based on North African native music. His most famous composition is The Planets, whose first two movements, Mars, the Bringer of War and Venus, the Bringer of Peace starkly contrast horror and tranquility. Arnold Bax was an important symphonist who also followed the pastoral tradition in such tone poems as The Garden of Fand, Tintagel and The Happy Forest. Ralph Vaughn Williams is one of the most significant symphonic composers of the twentieth century and his nine works in the medium stand as a group the equal of any other of the era (he certainly compares well with Mahler, Sibelius or Shostakovich and yet does not seem to have this reputation outside of England). No composer in history, not even Verdi in Philip’s soliloquy from Don Carlo, has ever expressed modern man’s elemental loneliness as well as Vaughn Williams did in his riveting Simphonia Antarctica He too was a pastoral folklorist and wrote many pieces that express that uniquely wistful quality of twentieth century British music. Among his most moving works are The Lark Ascending for string orchestra, In Windsor Forest, On Wenlock Edge, Willow Wood, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Flos Campi and Folk Song Suite. If one composer exemplifies the pastoral tradition it is Vaughn Williams as he consciously endeavored to create a national music as one of his major artistic goals. Although he himself considered his output tame, often praising his friend Bax for his more colorful chords, his music is actually incredibly rich and powerful and comes closest to the English ideal of nostalgia for a period which never really existed (ala Mussorgsky).
William Walton's career spanned the period from the avant-garde 1920's to the early 1980's. Walton became famous for his collaboration with the Sitwell family in a work called Façade. A jazzy, irreverent score was coupled with Edith Sitwell’s reciting of her absurd poetry (through a curtain of painted lips) via a megaphone. However, Walton did not stay on an iconoclastic path, choosing instead a relatively conservative method of modern composition rich in harmonic inventiveness. His Belshazzar's Feast and Variations on a Theme of Hindemith as well as his symphonies and instrumental concertos are his major contributions. He was also an adept composer of film scores. His contemporaries included Havergal Brian, a composer of a remarkable set of 32 symphonies in the post-Romantic style of Mahler and Strauss and Michael Tippett, a pacifist who actually served time at Wormwood Scrubs Gaol during the war. His oratorio A Child of Our Time is about the assassination of a Nazi member of the German embassy in Paris in 1938 by a young Jewish boy and how a seemingly justifiable act of violence leads to horrific global slaughter.
Jingoism aside, all of this music should be played in the concert hall. Champions must arise to present it. I am surprised that no clarinetist tours with the magical works for their instrument and orchestra written by Finzi. It should not be up to only the likes of Neeme Jarvi and Valery Gergiev to introduce the great works of Mother Russia to the rest of us. The world of music is a rich landscape. All we are asking for is a guide.
Frederick L. Kirshnit