Tchaikovsky’s Fifth: Program Notes Mar 10 - 12
Featuring sumptuous tone and melodic mastery, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony culminates in a triumphant final movement. It is led by Manuel López-Gómez, one of the most exciting talents to emerge from Venezuela’s nternationally renowned “El Sistema” music program. Before that, the irresistible rhythms of Spain!
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for March 10 - 12. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
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Image by Serge Lachinov, 1897
Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov: Capriccio espagnol
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (first doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 5 percussion, harp, strings
Performance time: 15 minutes
The sun and sensuality of southern Europe have always held an irresistible fascination for Russian composers.
In the case of Rimsky-Korsakov, the warmth of Spain also provided the perfect inspiration to showcase his strongest suits as a composer: mastery of orchestral color and a gift for exotic, modal melodies. Rimsky-Korsakov had completed his Fantasy on Russian Themes in 1886, and his pleasure at the result moved him to seek another idea for a similar work.
Comments in his autobiography show the genesis of the Capriccio, and make it clear that he appreciated his own gifts as an orchestral colorist:
“I took it into my head to write another virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra, this time on Spanish themes. However, after making a sketch of it I gave up that idea and decided instead to compose an orchestral piece with virtuoso instrumentation. [It] was to glitter with dazzling colors.”
Rather than eliminating the drama of the instrumental solo, Capriccio espagnol turns every section of the orchestra into a group of star players.
“Dazzling” hardly begins to convey the brilliance of the Capriccio.
Composed in 1887, it received its premiere in St. Petersburg in the autumn of that year under Rimsky-Korsakov’s leadership, thrilling critics and audiences. Unlike suites composed for piano and later orchestrated (such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, superbly orchestrated by Ravel), the Capriccio was composed with each melody and development section tailored to specific orchestral choirs.
The Composer At Work
Portrait by Valentin Alexandrovich Serov, 1898
What to Listen For
Capriccio espagnol is comprised of five brief sections that form two larger divisions: an Alborada (the Spanish term for a morning love song), and a two-part finale.
Beginning with a theme in the horns, the Alborada is a set of five variations during which the sections of the orchestra exchange sparkling solo lines; for example, a clarinet solo from the first variation is taken over by solo violin, while the clarinet co-opts a violin cadenza. By the end of the Alborada, virtually every section of the orchestra has been showcased in exacting, highly exposed play.
View on Old Port of Gijon and Yachts, Asturias, Northern Spain.
The second section begins with a Scene and Gypsy Song, a sequence of five cadenzas to balance the five variations in the Alborada. This is followed by the dramatic Fandango of the Asturias (a region of Spain) that integrates themes already heard, braiding them into a finale of fevered intensity.
It’s not necessary to follow this complex architecture to hear the unity it provides. Most of all, the Capriccio is a blood-stirring suite full of color, texture and drama that confirmed Rimsky-Korsakov’s strengths to his contemporary audiences, as it does to us today. Upon reviewing the score, Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov that “your [Capriccio espagnol] is a colossal masterpiece of instrumentation, and you may regard yourself as the greatest master of the present day.”
Joaquín Rodrigo: Fantasy for a Nobleman
Instrumentation: 2 flutes (second doubling on piccolo), oboe, bassoon, trumpet, strings, solo guitar
Performance time: 21 minutes
Look at those dates!
So many of classical music’s great geniuses led tragically short lives—Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Bizet all died in their thirties—that when we encounter those blessed with longevity, we rejoice. The Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo, though blinded by diphtheria at age 3, lived to be 98. He credited the apparent calamity of his illness for his lifelong involvement in music.
Rodrigo made rapid progress at the conservatory in Valencia, graduating early and going on to Paris, where he studied with Paul Dukas at the École Normale de Musique. But while he absorbed the elements of French style and refinement, his music remains Spanish to its very core.
With Manuel de Falla (b. 1876) and Enrique Granados (b. 1867), Rodrigo was central to the flowering of musical creativity that raised the prominence of Spanish music in the 20th century.
These composers burst upon the music world like a new discovery, though their cultural lineage extended back centuries. Musicians and audiences greeted them like long-lost brothers, but their distinctively Iberian sound, drenched in folk melodies and in the traditions of Spanish church music of the Baroque period, was like nothing to be heard in the rest of Europe.
While Manuel de Falla gained renown for ballet scores that traveled with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Granados’ orchestral and piano compositions earned their standing as repertory staples (and his opera Goyescas in opera houses including the Met), Rodrigo became known for his remarkable concertos.
They reflect the Spanish affinity for the guitar; the two best-known examples, his Fantasy for a Nobleman and the Concierto de Aranjuéz, are both for that instrument. But there are other notable examples, including a spectacularly original concerto for harp.
Image by Jac. de Nijs / Anefo - Nationaal Archief, (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Andrés Segovia (1962)
Rodrigo composed the Fantasy for a Nobleman in 1954 for Andrés Segovia, and though it is often mistakenly associated with Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - inspiration for many musical adaptations – the gentleman of Rodrigo’s title is actually Segovia himself.
What to Listen For
The musicologist and commentator George Jellinek, who was not inclined to exaggerate, called Rodrigo’s concertos revolutionary and said that their freshness resulted from Rodrigo’s use of the second interval.
Even listeners with no musical background are likely to have heard about other harmonic intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, and so on—but seconds, comprised of two notes that lie next to each other on the piano keyboard, are rarely mentioned. And we do hear them frequently in the Fantasy for a Nobleman.
But are they so fully responsible for the concerto’s distinctive sound? Or do they function more like the rainfall on a Paris streetscape, adding a poetic dimension to a scene that is already beautiful?
The concerto is comprised of three movements developed from traditional Spanish dance forms, starting with the 17th-century villano introduced in the violins. This opens onto the ricercare, a fugal section.
--- Kaori Muraji
In the second movement we hear the stately dance rhythm of the españoleta composed, according to the movement’s title, as a Fanfare de la caballeria de Napoles (Fanfare for the calvary of Naples), which was formerly under Spanish rule. This is followed by Danza de las hachas, a “hatchet dance,” traditionally performed with torches (as in the Ritual Fire Dance from de Falla’s El Amor Brujo).
--- Kaori Muraji
The concerto ends with a brilliant canario, a folk dance from the Canary Islands that builds in dramatic intensity, culminating in a dazzling cadenza for the guitar.
1874, Author Unknown
Symphony No. 5, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (third doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, strings
Performance time: 50 minutes
We program annotators must always remember that your opinion as a listener is more important than ours; we are here to help equip you to listen and enjoy.
But sometimes a little digging can make that simple task a bit complicated, even when the composer is one whose greatness and popularity are not in doubt—like Tchaikovsky.
Pacific Symphony’s ongoing attention to Tchaikovsky gives us all a chance to deepen our own opinions about a composer whose life and works continue to provoke speculation and even controversy.
How is it that a composer who died more than a century ago sparks new debates among listeners?
Biographical research, for one thing. Each year sheds more light on Tchaikovsky’s torment over his sexual identity and his unhappy marriage. During his lifetime these were taboo subjects, especially in his native Russia, but more recently they have spurred analysis and gossip—even movies.
When Ken Russell found Tchaikovsky’s life ideal for a juicy, highly sexualized biopic, he had to call it The Music Lovers to differentiate it from a 1969 Russian feature titled Tchaikovsky.
Even the composer’s death remains the subject of partisan disagreement, though less hotly debated than it once was: Was it suicide, or wasn’t it?
MOSCOW - DEC 30: The final scene of the battle with the mice in New Years performance at the Cultural Center ZIL on December 30, 2012, Moscow, Russia, Image via Shutterstock
Regarding Tchaikovsky’s standing among the great composers, it’s interesting to note that his two most popular scores among American listeners—The Nutcracker and The 1812 Overture—were works he considered failures and professed to dislike. But when it comes to The Nutcracker, critical opinion has overridden Tchaikovsky’s, and his three great ballet scores, along with his operas and symphonies, are his masterworks.
And though it is dangerous to look for composers’ lives in their music, we can safely say that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies come closest to being a kind of musical diary of an incessant brooder.
Tchaikovsky was mindful of his image as a composer whose reputation would survive him and as a public figure in Russian society.
He also felt that Beethoven had elevated the symphony to a form reserved for big, philosophical ideas expressed in a dramatic arc. Before writing his fourth symphony, which preceded the fifth by more than a decade, he had been impressed with the musical representations of fate that he had heard in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Bizet’s Carmen, and he made his own fourth symphony an account of a fateful struggle for his own destiny and his yearning to live a life of mature respectability.
Progress on it was agonizing, and he found it difficult to resolve. But fate was a theme he would return to in his fifth symphony and in the sixth, his last.
Tchaikovsky began work on his Symphony No. 5 in May of 1888.
He had just returned to Russia after an extensive and highly successful European tour, and moved into a new house in the town of Frolovskoye after visiting the larger city of Tbilisi. Musicologists note that he encountered difficulties in the symphony’s composition at first, but later gained momentum; it seems likely that any obstacles would have been consistent with moving back to Russia and into a new house after his extended absence.
These days we might say he was “getting his seat adjusted.”
What to Listen For
The sheer abundance of melody in Tchaikovsky’s symphonies can eclipse their superb craftsmanship, but it is ever-present, both subtle and spectacular.
Like all his symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is deeply personal and is characterized by a sense of yearning. It is unified by thematic elements that return in every movement, and we can associate these with Tchaikovsky’s contemplation of personal fate.
Even so, we can sense his struggle in expressing the authenticity and urgency of this quest, and, in the fourth movement, resolving it; he worried that the finale might seem overstated or insincere.
Wroclaw, Poland. 15th January, 2016. Opening weekend Wroclaw European Capital of Culture in 2016. Concert the Symphony Orchestra of the National Forum of Music under the baton Ernst Kovacic. Image via Shutterstock.
But the result is a glorious “blowfest.” This is a term your annotator first encountered in the late 1980s in Baltimore, when he was studying and teaching at the Peabody Conservatory. It was more respectful than it sounded, and it was lovingly applied to this symphony, which gives all the players in the pit—not just the brass and woodwind players, who literally blow into their instruments—a chance to play loud, long and hard in passages with high stakes. In Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, any choir in the orchestra can sound heroic.
In the criticism class where I learned this term, I was the only student who had not played professionally in an orchestra, and my classmates’ enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, and for the Fifth in particular, surprised me.
Not that I didn’t like these works, but as a listener I had long observed a certain snobbish resistance to them among the most eminent music critics—a group that everyone in the class aspired to join.
In writing by the rightly revered critic and scholar Nicolas Slonimsky, a compatriot of Tchaikovsky’s who loved Russian music and whose knowledge of it was encyclopedic, you can almost see his lip curl as you read his description of Tchaikovsky as a prolific melodist. His implication: Sure, great melodies are okay if you like that sort of thing.
---Moscow City Symphony - Russian Philharmonic
Of the musical values that critics such as Slonimsky look for in ranking a great symphony, two are beyond dispute in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5: beauty and craft. Yes, Tchaikovsky’s melodic gifts are abundant here, along with his harmonic mastery and his ability to sustain a large, complex symphonic architecture.
In the symphony’s first movement, which moves from an andante to an allegro pace, the “fate” theme comes at us with almost assaultive intensity and a sound that somehow combines funereal gravity with suspense about what might come next.
--- Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Conductor: Yuri Simonov
The symphony progresses from this somber opening through an andante second movement that is full of Tchaikovsky’s poetic melancholia. But there is also a feeling of emotional instability here, as though the sadness we have heard so far, for all its brilliance, need not inevitably prevail.
------Moscow City Symphony - Russian Philharmonic
Movement three, dominated by three waltzes, allows us further opportunity to relax, breathe and contemplate the emotional journey on which Tchaikovsky is taking us.
---Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Conductor Valery Gergiev
When we reach the final movement, it is clear that the music is reaching for resolution. Are you convinced by this expression of triumph? Once it comes, it has taken us from the symphony’s ominous opening in E minor to E major.
Like most listeners, I can only imagine the pleasures of playing Tchaikovsky’s Fifth.
But surely it is almost as much fun to hear. Whether it ranks among the canon’s great symphonies is for each listener to decide. But according to critical orthodoxy, the one element that has been openly doubted—indeed, seems always to be in question when Tchaikovsky’s compositions are scrutinized—is its authenticity of emotion.
Throughout the Fifth we hear Tchaikovsky earnestly seeking to probe feelings of profundity and depth, especially in its outer movements.
Whether or not we are persuaded, there seems little doubt of Tchaikovsky’s sincerity of feeling.
Among the many doubts that tormented him were those raised by critical opinion; he seems to have been so credulous and insecure that he believed his harshest critics and declared the symphony a failure. Modern audiences and musicians have overruled him and his critics, making Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 one of his most popular works.
Program Notes continue here: About The Artists.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
Michael Clive is a cultural reporter living in the Litchfield Hills of Connecticut. He is program annotator for Pacific Symphony and Louisiana Philharmonic, and editor-in- chief for The Santa Fe Opera.