Thursday, October 22, 2015

Columbus Symphony: Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss

The Columbus Symphony conducted by Rossen Milanov performs Richard Strauss's Don Juan, Tchaikovsky's Symphony 4 in f minor, and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto 2 in the Ohio Theater on October 23 and 24.   Haochen Zhang is the piano soloist. I give pre-concert talks one hour before each performance.

I'm doing some pre- concert listening for the Columbus Symphony programs this coming weekend. I'm struck initially by Richard Strauss's sounded effortlessly, almost nonchalant music making, and the torture and uncertainty that stalked Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky's Fourth symphony,from 1876-1877 would be a mixed emotional bag for the composer. Would the memory of it sicken him, or fill him with relief?

Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)
Work on the Fourth coincided with admiring letters from one Nadzheda von Meck, a fabulously wealthy widow and mother of 18 children. The lady was probably bored to distraction counting her money and her kids. Tchaikovsky's music became an  obsession. Not so the man himself, who she never met. Rather, Meck found herself a reason to live as long as Piotr Ilyitch continued to produce the music she deeply craved. Tchaikovsky dedicated the Fourth symphony to her, and by the time work was proceeding he was receiving 500 ruble a month stipend from the lady. This allowance would last, along with a voluminous correspondence until 1890. In those fourteen years the two never met. There's a lovely story that once out riding they recognized one another-how?-
from a distance. The composer tipped his hat and rode on.

Tchaikovsky met another lady at nearly the same time, with disastrous results.This was Anotnina Ivanova Milyukhova. She had been a pupil of his at the Moscow conservatory-probably one of a spate of young girls taking his classes, of which he complained mightily for their communal silliness. Antonina too, fancied herself mad-almost literally-for Tchaikovsky. He was foolish enough to believe that marrying her would cause her crazy attentions to desist. This marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Tchaikovsky literally fled the city.

It was to Mme Meck he turned, in gratitude for her money and approbation, as he began to recover
Tchaikovsky and his wife Antonina Ivanova Milyukhova
from his ridiculous marriage. "Our symphony" he described the Fourth to her. She agreed to accept the dedication, asking only that her name not be mentioned publicly.

The sinister brass figure beginning the work Tchaikovsky has described as fate-with a sword of Damocles hanging over one's heard. He didn't need to be a disastrous marriage to feel pessimistic. Except there's an exuberant dance like theme for the winds glowing early out of the fire.
The fourth symphony develops the fate motive gradually and incompletely...there's a second movement of almost deep sadness and a wild, almost militaristic finale. Tchaikovsky liked to deny that his music had any "program' "Just listen to it." To colleagues he agreed that fate, exhaustion, despair and exuberance were to be heard in this music. I like the finale, where he said "Go out among the people and learn from their joy!"

Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Richard Strauss would have had little use for Tchaikovsky's emotionalism . He wrote his music like a businessman, from nine to five in his study five days a week, with a generous lunch break. He was delightedly henpecked by his wife Pauline, and nothing in Strauss's correspondence betrayed any angst in what he regarded as his profession and a way to get on, writing music. The closest to exasperating would be parts of his correspondence with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who admired Strauss's music and considered him rather low rent socially. A laid back temperament didn't keep Strauss from writing orchestral music on a heroic scale.

The tone poem Don Juan comes from 1888. The composer at 24 was already conducting in Weimar and led the Don Juan premiere in that city.  He was expanding the tone poem work-the one movement symphony telling a story that had been popularized by Liszt.  The opening moments of Don Juan is not the music of either a beginner or a neurotic

Tchaikovsky's moodiness and Strauss equanimity each produced sensational music One emotion driven, the other filled with color. What would have happened has the situations been reversed. Would we listen as intently to a mellow Tchaikovsky or a neurotic Richard Strauss? Happily, we can only imagine.

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