Tchaikovsky’s Fourth: Program Notes 10/20 - 22
Tchaikovsky himself described his Fourth as "a reflection of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony." This definitive romantic Russian music, from thundering brass to dramatic finish, will carry you away and evoke powerful emotions.
This powerful work completes a program featuring an innovative world premiere by Pacific Symphony's Composer in Residence, Narong Prangcharoen, and Mozart’s most beloved violin concerto, as performed by award-winning French violinist Arnaud Sussmann, whose violin playing has been described as “reminiscent of Jascha Heifetz or Fritz Kreisler.”
Preview Talk with host Alan Chapman included.
This is Part 1 of the Program Notes for Oct 20-22. You'll be automatically linked to the next NoteStream at the end.
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To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.
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Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973)
“Absence of Time” for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Orchestra*
Jessica Pearlman Fields
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Concerto No. 3 in G Major for Violin and Orchestra, 216, "Strassburg"
I N T E R M I S S I O N
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36, TH 27
Andantino in modo di canzona
Scherzo: Pizzicato ostinato
Finale: Allegro con fuoco
Narong Prangcharoen (b. 1973)
"Absence of Time" for Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon and Orchestra
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, strings
Performance time: 15 minutes
Notes by Narong Prangcharoen
Time is one of the main factors impacting the world and our lives. Einstein saw time as the relationship of the motion of one object relative to the position of another object, as measured through observation. But can we really measure time objectively?
Music, the art which moves through time, can affect our perception of time, and can affect each person’s perception of time differently. Depending on the emotion it stimulates, music can make time seem to pass quickly or slowly. A composer can use music to convey time to an audience and different musical ideas can create different sensations of time.
“Absence of Time” is a concerto for woodwind quartet and orchestra. It has three main sections (fast, slow, fast), recalling traditional concerto form, but it does not use the solo instruments in the traditional way, i.e., as soloists in contest with the orchestra.
Inspired by the idea of juxtaposing different experiences of time, I divided the instruments into two groups: the four soloists and the orchestra. The orchestra functions mostly as the keeper of time (“real” time) while the quartet of soloists fluctuates (in “imaginary” time or in the “absence” of time) around the orchestra’s time.
While the quartet’s instruments do play solos, they also play in ensemble with the orchestra. You could say that they play in both “imaginary” time (as soloists) and in “real” time (with the orchestra). In addition to this, the woodwind section of the orchestra plays in conversation with the solo quartet, calling it back to “real” time. Fusion is achieved at the end of the piece through the use of strong, driving rhythm.
“Absence of Time” was commissioned by Pacific Symphony and is being premiered by Pacific Symphony and the orchestra’s four principal woodwinds with Carl St.Clair as conductor.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Violin Concerto No. 3
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, solo violin
Performance time: 24 minutes
It may seem odd, but when it comes to Mozartiana, violin enthusiasts have a right to sing the blues. While Mozart's brilliance on the piano is fixed in the popular imagination, his accomplishments on the violin—in some ways equally remarkable— are less well known.
And though his violin concertos are a cornerstone of that instrument's repertory, they do not carry the weight that his piano concertos do. All five were composed in the year 1771, when Mozart was just 19—though, being Mozart, he was already writing masterpieces.
We know that at age 4 he played the pianoforte with technical mastery and style that belied his age, and stories of his spectacular pranks at the keyboard have become part of his legend. Later in life, his superb piano concertos were written in part to showcase his skills as a piano virtuoso.
Yet somehow we forget that he was also one of the greatest violin soloists of his era, a combination that has no parallel among the great composers. His five violin concertos are a cornerstone of the violin repertory.
Make no mistake: Mozart's early violin playing was equally prodigious as his keyboard skills, and is documented by one of the most famous letters in the Mozart bibliography. Written by family friend Johann Andreas Schachtner, it describes what happened when Mozart, probably age 7, received the gift of a violin.
We were going to play trios, Papa [Amadeus' father Leopold] playing the bass with his viola, Wenzl the first violin, and I was to play the second violin. Wolfgang had asked to be allowed to play the second violin, but Papa refused him this foolish request, because he had not yet had [any] instruction in the violin, and Papa thought he could not possibly play anything.
Wolfgang said, "You don't need to have studied in order to play second violin," and when Papa insisted that he should go away and not bother us any more, Wolfgang began to weep bitterly and stamped off with his little violin.
I asked them to let him play with me. Papa eventually said, "Play [along] with Herr Schachtner, but so softly that we can't hear you [so as not to disturb the group], or you will have to go." And so it was.
Wolfgang played [my part along] with me. I soon noticed with astonishment that I was quite superfluous. I quietly put my violin down, and looked at [Leopold]; tears of wonder and comfort ran down his cheeks at this scene.
Though Leopold was hardly one to question his son's incredible musical gifts—he was quite literally banking on them—in this case they seem to have taken him by surprise. Even today Mozart's early violin skills, confirmed by modern scholarship, defy the imagination.
The physical challenges of producing accurate intonation and bowing expressively are completely different from skills required at the keyboard, yet Mozart seems to have been a prodigy at both.
Shortly after the incident with Johann Schachter and Herr Wenzl, young Wolfgang began playing publicly on the violin as well as the piano throughout Europe.
J. B. Homann, circa 1812
He became Michael Haydn's second concertmaster in the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg at age 13, beginning a professional association about which he would later complain bitterly. He appeared throughout Austria and Germany as a violinist in his teens.
Despite these achievements, his reputation as a violinist seems to have been as much in eclipse in his own lifetime as it would be in ours. In a letter to his father describing a 1777 violin performance (he was by then 21), he averred that "I played as if I were the greatest fiddler in all of Europe."
Leopold's response could serve equally well today: "…Many people do not even know that you play the violin, since you have been known from childhood as a keyboard player."
Always the disciplinarian (and the artist's agent), Leopold advised his son to apply himself further so that he really could be known as Europe's leading violinist, and to play with "boldness, spirit and fire."
Wolfgang's response was to resume his concentration on the pianoforte and leave the violin playing mainly to others.
But his violin compositions, which he continued to produce through the end of his life, show a fluent sensitivity informed by his own skill on the instrument.
What to Listen For
Even dedicated Mozart enthusiasts may not recognize the melody he quotes to open this concerto: a theme from his opera Il ré pastore ("The Shepherd-King"), which he had recently completed.
Though Mozart never lacked for melodic inspiration, this melody is well suited to the violin and is an example of the fertile exchange of ideas between his concertos, operas and symphonies. In the second movement, Mozart showcases the instrument by withholding its entrance until the ideal moment, when its singing expressiveness is given a gorgeous entrance—a beginning and climax in a single note.
The concerto's final movement is energetic, with dancing rhythms that create a mood of irresistible gaiety that has been compared with the spirit of another Mozart opera: The Magic Flute.
We'll never know why Mozart seemed to turn aside from the violin, but can be grateful that he left us with his five concertos for the instrument and another masterpiece, the Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola.
And we know that he played this one in a concert at the Heiligenkreuz Monastery near Augsburg. Describing the event to his father, he wrote, "In the evening at supper I played my Strasbourg concerto, which went very smoothly. Everyone praised my beautiful pure tone."
Detail from oil on canvas by Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov, 1883
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893
Symphony No. 4
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, 3 percussion, strings
Performance time: 44 minutes
It's tempting but often misleading to draw connections between a composer's life and his music. Not so in the case of Tchaikovsky— especially with respect to his compositions dating to the years 1877 and 1878, which included the Symphony No. 4.
According to many musicologists, including the noted Tchaikovsky authority David Brown, this symphony and his opera Eugene Onegin reflect the turbulent state of Tchaikovsky's emotions at the most difficult time of his life.
Always self-conscious about the way he was perceived by critics, colleagues and friends, Tchaikovsky was tormented by inner confusion over his sexual identity and seemed desperate to live a life of mature respectability.
In 1877, during the period when he was working on both the Fourth Symphony and Onegin, he became aware of a letter that had been written to him by a 16-year-old student, Antonina Miliukhova, who was infatuated with him.
In the "letter scene" of Onegin, an operatic setting of a novel-length romantic satire by Pushkin, Tchaikovsky dramatized a similar incident in which the opera's heroine, Tatyana, pours her soul into a confession of love to Onegin, who rejects her.
Many musicologists call this scene—which captures the agonized depths of Tatyana's desire and its inevitable rejection—the greatest in all of Tchaikovsky's operas, informed by his own deep ambivalence regarding Antonina.
At the same time, composing his Fourth Symphony, he was preoccupied with the role of implacable fate in personal happiness and embedded it in the symphony. Throughout the Fourth, we hear the power of fate juxtaposed against the struggle for personal happiness.
Correspondence and journal entries suggest that he wanted urgently to suppress his homosexual longings. All this made him especially susceptible to the influence of the two women who dominated his personal life while he was at work on the Fourth.
"It seems to me as if the power of fate has drawn to me that girl," Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron and confidante Nadezhda von Meck, to whom he dedicated the symphony.
Picture from Kennan, Siberia and the Exile System, vol. 2, 1891
Letters to his brother from the same period show he was considering the possibility of marriage to counter rumors about his homosexual encounters. Dangerous as homosexuality was in that time and place—punishable by exile to Siberia—it seems likely that Tchaikovsky was more concerned with appearances, and saw marriage to Antonina as his chance for an outwardly normal life.
He married her (the proposal was hers) on July 6 of 1877.
The marriage was an unmitigated disaster even though Tchaikovsky made it clear in his written acceptance to Antonina that there could be no physical relationship between them.
Still, the reality of marriage plunged Tchaikovsky into such unbearable tension that he could not bear to be near her. In one near-encounter when they found themselves in the same room, they passed without exchanging a word.
What to Listen For
Tchaikovsky had already begun composing his Symphony No. 4 in 1876, the year before Antonina flung herself at him, and he had sketched the first three movements before he received her first letter.
But Tchaikovsky expressed deep personal feelings in his symphonies, and in his Fourth he grappled with questions of the individual, life choices and fate. He completed the symphony’s finale around the time of the proposal, imbuing the music with his hopes for his marriage.
We hear a sense of successful resolution in this movement that answers the first movement’s expression of fateful personal challenges.
Music historians tell us that Tchaikovsky entered into marriage with Antonina expecting a happily platonic relationship that would give him a visibly stable home life and undercut rumors of his homosexuality.
The marriage took just 18 days to fail and three months to end, belying the elements of musical resolution we hear in the symphony.
This symphony is one of those high-profile classical works that announce themselves with “fate” themes—Beethoven’s Fifth and the opera Carmen are two others that come immediately to mind, and both influenced Tchaikovsky in composing this symphony. In fact, Tchaikovsky had been pondering individual suffering at the hand of fate since he saw Carmen in 1876.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Kunsthalle Hamburg.
We hear this theme in the opening of the first movement as a frigid, threatening blast in the horns, a force that stands in opposition to the individual’s yearning for free will and personal goals. This is a musical utterance that embodies both Romantic ideas and Tchaikovsky’s personal struggles, and it provides the symphony’s through-line.
The opening movement comprises more than half the symphony's total length and sets up the contest between implacable fate and personal happiness. Though the symphony has always inspired comparisons to Beethoven's Fifth—characterized in schoolroom mnemonics as "fate knocking at the door"—Tchaikovsky's represents a personal struggle rather than a philosophical one.
From the first moments we hear the blazing fanfare of the fate theme opening the reaches of a wintry landscape to the listener. The intensity of the melody and its realization in the brasses conveys not only the power of fate, but also the composer's personal fright in confronting it.
The melancholy second movement seems to open an icy, windswept Russian landscape before us. The thematic material, though original to Tchaikovsky, is inspired by Russian folklore, but the structure is a classical canon.
In the third movement, a scherzo with beautiful, persistent pizzicato passages in the strings, has an exotic sound with the feeling of an arabesque—perhaps informed by Tchaikovsky's ballet writing. (It is also noted for its brief but technically demanding solo for piccolo, one of the most difficult in the repertory.)
The fourth movement is marked allegro and combines familiar Russian folk themes with the original fate theme from movement one. Here the power of fate, which had the power to sweep aside everything in its path, seemingly finds resolution with the human search for daily happiness. The unanswerable question for critics, and for us listeners, is this: Is this resolution authentic, or is it just Tchaikovsky groping for a solution, as he did with his marriage?
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.
To meet tonight's Artists, please click here.
To learn more about Music Director Carl St.Clair, click here.