About the Music: Swan Lake

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Suite from Swan Lake, Op. 20a

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840 and died in St. Petersburg in 1893. He composed his ballet Swan Lake in 1875-1876, and it was first performed in Moscow by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877. Tchaikovsky himself never extracted a suite from the score; various versions of a suite were done by others after his death. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.


It is hard to imagine the ballet without Tchaikovsky; though he composed only three ballet scores—Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker—they remain the most popular and oft-played ballets in the repertory. Swan Lake was the first of these. According to Tchaikovsky, “I accepted the work partly because I needed the money and because I have long cherished a desire to try my hand at this type of music.”
The first performances were disastrous, not least because the conductor had no experience with ballet! Some numbers were pronounced undanceable. The production was not given the company’s best dancers, and the scenery, costumes, and orchestra were poor. It was not until some years later that acceptable performances were obtained.

The ballet is about Princess Odette, who (along with her maidens) has been turned into a swan by an evil magician. From midnight to dawn they return to human form. At a ball, Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette and wants to marry her, but at dawn she becomes a swan once again.

Tchaikovsky himself never arranged the ballet into a concert suite. It has been done several times by other hands, but most versions comprise six movements: Scène comes from Act II, and presents the signature theme of the ballet in the oboe; the Waltz celebrates Prince Siegfried’s birthday in Act I; the Dance of the Swans is from Act II; Scène and Pas d’action is a dramatic sequence from Act II; the Hungarian Dance is music from the ballroom scene; and in the Scène and Finale Odette and her maidens are freed from their curse.
Today, of course, the soaring music of Swan Lake does not lack appreciation. While Tchaikovsky is justifiably loved for his glorious symphonies and concertos, many find his highest art in the exquisite musical miniatures he created for the ballet.


Alexander Glazunov
Concerto for Violin & Orchestra in A minor, Op. 82
Alexander Glazunov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1865 and died in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1936. He composed this work in 1903-1904 and led the first performance with Leopold Auer, violin and the Russian Musical Society of St. Petersburg in 1905. The score calls for solo violin, 3 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.


As a young man Alexander Glazunov was a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov; the master not only helped shepherd Glazunov through the composition of his First Symphony, he conducted the premiere of the sixteen year-old composer’s work as well. Later in life Rimsky and Glazunov collaborated again in preparing Alexander Borodin’s unfinished works for performance.

After teaching composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory Glazunov became its Director in 1905. He held the post until 1928, when he exiled himself from the aggressive “progressiveness” of the Soviet cultural regime. He spent his remaining years in Paris. His output of compositions was prodigious, including eight symphonies, several concertos, ballets, string quartets, piano music, and works for chorus and voice. Much like Rachmaninov’s, his music was thought to be too old-fashioned by the musical elites while remaining quite popular in the concert hall; unlike Rachmaninov, few of his works remain in the repertory.

His Violin Concerto is one of the exceptions, and rightly so. Glazunov composed it near the end of his most productive and inspired period, before he became bogged down in his conservatory duties. Just as he steadfastly held the conservatory to its traditional methods and high standards, so did his music uphold the case for continuity: it is unabashedly romantic, a blend of Russian nationalism and European sophistication and utterly immune to the musical revolutions that would soon pass him by.

The Concerto’s form is a matter of continual surprise and delight. Cast in one movement, it deploys the usual three in ways we don’t expect. After giving us two bittersweet themes—the “exposition” of the “first movement,” Glazunov inserts his “slow movement” where we expect a development of those themes. This nostalgic movement is itself a three-part, slow-fast-slow structure. Now the “first movement” returns, seamlessly sliding into its development and recapitulation, all leading to the epic cadenza. Just as we expect a coda to wrap things up neatly, the “finale” begins with trumpets and high spirits. The mood swings joyously between the effervescent and the rustic—complete with drones—and this is where the violin’s fireworks are lit.

Glazunov’s tightly-organized structure sounds completely free, and right as rain—a testament to the craftsmanship behind the notes. With its impeccable good taste, sumptuous melodies and sparkling orchestration, it is a concerto to enjoy, perhaps even to love.


Sergei Rachmaninov
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45
Sergei Rachmaninov was born in 1873 in Oneg, Russia and died in 1943 in Beverly Hills, California. He composed his Symphonic Dances in 1940 and it was first performed the following year by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The score calls for 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, alto saxophone, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, and strings.
To many critics, Rachmaninov committed the ultimate act of apostasy: he ignored modernism. After all, he composed the Symphonic Dances in 1940—after atonality, after Schoenberg and the Viennese school, after Debussy’s impressionism, after Le Sacre, after neoclassicism, even. Yet it was written in a style barely distinguishable from the romanticism he purveyed in 1900.

Despite this, Rachmaninov’s popularity in the concert hall has never diminished, and audiences have it right. His music may be conventional, but it is hugely original. It is less sentimental than Tchaikovsky’s, but just as emotionally intense. In a word, it is satisfying. It must vex the critics that large numbers of people still want to hear it; they forget that most music lovers don’t care when a piece was written when it has the vitality of the Symphonic Dances.

Originally composed for two pianos under the title Fantastic Dances, it’s hard to imagine it now without its fiery orchestral palette. The change of title is significant, because Rachmaninov’s emphasis is on the “symphonic” rather than the “dance.” After the first movement sneaks out of the silence its music turns out to be rhythmically ponderous; danceable, perhaps, only if you are a 19th-century Russian peasant. The lyrical middle section brings the unexpected color of the alto saxophone, singing a beautifully dolorous melody.

The second movement is a waltz in name only. It doesn’t evoke the genteel artifice of a Strauss number, nor is it a slave to triple meter. It is a waltz to savor, not to dance.

After an ambiguous start the finale bursts into a mad, syncopated romp. The music pauses for an idyllic middle section and then returns to the first material with even more fire. Alert listeners will catch the Dies Irae—the melody from the Mass for the Dead that haunts so many of Rachmaninov’s works—beginning to insinuate itself, usually in disguise. Its meaning here is, as always, inscrutable. But as the movement builds to its furious conclusion we come to realize that it was the destination all along.

The wild trills and hefty chords that close the Symphonic Dances also mark the end of Rachmaninov’s timeless romanticism. “It must have been my last spark,” he said, for he composed no more in the three years left to him.

—Mark Rohr
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