Programme Notes - February 2019

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Prelude to Khovanschina, Dawn over the Moskva River (1873-74)

Mussorgsky was instrumental in promoting and encouraging a Russian style of composition in the face of the more dominant Germanic traditions of the 19th century. Unlike Tchaikovsky, who wrote his violin concerto in under a month, Mussorgsky was notorious for starting works and not finishing them, or at any rate not for a long time. That, coupled with his descent into alcoholism and his consequential early death, meant that many of his works were completed or orchestrated by others, in particular by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  

His opera Khovanschina is no exception though the prelude was completed relatively quickly in 1873-74. The opera tells the story of the rebellion by arch-conservatives loyal to Prince Khovansky against reforms during the regency at the start of the reign of Peter the Great. The plot is irrelevant for the purposes of the overture which is a serenely atmospheric depiction of sunrise over the Moskva River.  

Piotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35 (1878)

Tchaikovsky's concerto is a much-loved work of the Romantic repertoire and unmistakably Russian. It is difficult to imagine how very strange and violent it must have seemed to the first audience, more used to the concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and possibly the new one by Brahms (whom Tchaikovsky openly disliked).

In 1878 the 38 year old Tchaikovsky was depressed. He had married an obsessed fan with whom he had nothing in common, to some extent as cover for his homosexuality. The marriage was a disaster and they soon separated.  His patroness, the rich widow Nadezhda von Meck, had an estate on the shores of Lake Geneva and it was to there that he went in the summer to recover.  

He was joined by his favourite composition pupil, the 23 old violinist Josef Kotek. Kotek's arrival restored his creative energies and provided inspiration for the concerto. He completed it in a month with Kotek advising on the solo part, playing it over to Tchaikovsky as he wrote it. The happiness with which it was composed is evident. 

The concerto is one of high energy, with drama, lyricism, Russian folk idioms and great technical demands on the soloist. The first movement is the longest and most varied with an extended cadenza for the soloist. The second movement is a passionate love song (presumably for Kotek) and leads without a break into the fast and fiery final movement. 

To avoid speculation about his relationship with Kotek, Tchaikovsky offered to dedicate it to Leopold Auer, the great violinist and teacher in St Petersburg.  Auer declined, saying it needed revision, and it was finally dedicated to Adolph Brodsky who premiered it in Vienna (not wise) in 1881. Predictably it was panned by the influential pro-Brahms critic Hanslick. Kotek then declined to play it for fear of damaging his reputation, leading to a temporary rupture with Tchaikovsky. Brodsky's Russian performance was however a success and Auer later played it extensively (but with his own revisions). Quality shone through and the work is now immensely popular worldwide.

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)

Symphony No 5 in D minor (1937)


Shostakovich fell from official favour in 1936 for writing music that did not satisfy the party’s requirements (Stalin had been to his very successful opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and clearly didn't like it). His very survival was at stake. It was the time of Stalin’s terror and in the purges many close to Shostakovich were arrested and never seen again. He himself only narrowly avoided the same fate. 


Shostakovich needed to rehabilitate himself without compromising his integrity. With the fifth symphony he gave the party an accessible work worthy of socialist realism but on another level it is a powerful assertion of individual will and personal defiance in the face of oppression. He was also careful to have an alternative personal meaning woven into the work as an alibi in case of official criticism: he had been in love with a lady called Yelena (for which the Russian diminutive is Lala).  She had dumped him to marry the filmmaker Roman Karmen. If need be he could explain the symphony as a reaction to this breakup (the quotations from Bizet's Carmen ("l'Amour, l'Amour!"), allusions to death and despair, regeneration and indeed the repeated notes at the end). As it was, the alibi wasn't needed.  At the first performance in 1937 the standing ovation lasted half an hour.


The symphony combines bombast, haunting melodies, quirky irreverence and quotations from orthodox chants, Carmen, Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and one of his own works.  It mixes martial vigour with ironic circus tunes and heart-wrenchingly beautiful slow passages yet it still retains a coherent structure. 


The third movement is the emotional centrepiece with echoes of the orthodox requiem (the use of tremolo strings would have been immediately associated by the audience with death). It divides the violins into three sections instead of the usual two, enabling Shostakovich to increase the layers of anguish and ends with harp and celesta quoting Mussorgsky’s “Flow flow bitter tears” which ends his opera Boris Godunov (and would have been recognised by the first audience). 


The relentless driving returns in the final movement but is interspersed on high strings quoting his own setting of Pushkin’s “Regeneration”.  It ends in a blaze of sound with the note A ("la" in non-English notation) repeated 250 times – Soviet happiness, the triumph of the state, the fear of the public (the first person to be seen to stop clapping the leader gets shot?), the sound of traditional Russian church bells of celebration or the lovelorn composer shouting out Lala's name over and over? As so often, Shostakovich remains an enigma.