Tuesday, January 05, 2016

This Weekend's Russian Festival with the Columbus Symphony

The Columbus Symphony performs a Russian Festival in the Ohio Theater  Friday January 9th and Saturday the 10th at 8 p.m. Your humble author (!) offers pre-concert talks in the theater one hour prior to every Classical series performance.

Rossen Milanov conducts the Columbus Symphony in two programs of music by Russian composers in the Ohio Theater this weekend. We'll hear Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a Suite from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Overture, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 3, and Shostakovitch's Symphony 5. 
If these gray days of winter seem akin to the howling winds on the Russian steppes, it seems worth looking at the life of a musician in Russia over the past 150 years.
Shostakovitch lived and trembled under the Soviet regime. Rachmaninoff left Russia prior to the murder of the last Tsar in 1918. Tchaikovsky and Rimsky -Korsakov were the products of a society influenced by the Russian autocracy. Mussorgsky, who may have been the most gifted of all, died young from alcoholism, having spent most of his working life as a low level Russian bureaucrat.
Mussorgsky is an interesting case. His addictions and "day job" made it difficult for him to finish a lot of his music. Of his larger scores given today, only A Night on Bald Mountain is considered complete in the composer's own handwriting. Pictures at an Exhibition was begun as a work for solo piano, later orchestrated by Ravel. Mussorgsky's great opera Boris Godunov was re orchestrated after the composer's death by Rimsky-Korsakov, and later by Shostakovitch. Tchaikovsky, also emotionally fragile, was left to create and finish his own music.
Over the last thirty years musicians have returned to Mussorgsky's original scores. We hear a spare, sinewy and harsh orchestral color, very far from Rimsky-Kosakov, that master orchestrator. Did Rimsky improve upon Mussorgsky's music, or just get in the way? The fact remains that without the intervention of Rimsky-Korsakov and others, we would know less of Mussorgsky's music than we do now. And had Mussorgsky lived to maturity, and been blessed with better mental health, who knows what he would have accomplished?

And here is Mussorgsky's original:

Russian composers of the 19th century were subjected to the same market forces and critical perceptions affecting (plaguing?) composers today. If the people don't like your music they won't come to your concerts. If the news papers don't like your music people will stay away. Tchaikovsky did not have a strong enough ego to resist these forces, though his talent was obviously divine. Rimsky-Korsakov, known in his lifetime as a (great) teacher of music -Stravinsky was his pupil-had a healthy sense of his own worth and struggled on.
Russian musicians were influenced by the modes and melodies of the Russian church, and by the music making available to the eighty percent of the population living in want, if not slavery in the countryside. Peasants made there own music, filled with sorrow and joy. The intelligentsia listened, copied, expanded and gave a Russian language of music to the west. As vast as he country itself.
If the Soviet Union mean to enforce complete equality it also took away any vestige of artistic Shostakovitch had to write what the Politburo wanted people to hear. The influence of church music was verboten-if hard to eradicate. The countryside was fine, as long as the downtrodden peasants were uplifted. What would not do was free thought. 'Formalism' was a capital offense, writing or creating what you wanted. Shostakovitch was ruined when Stalin heard Lady Macbeth of MtsenskThis opera by the thirty year old Shostakovitch depicted Russian peasant life in its brutality, with music and on stage depictions often pornographic. Watch the clip and listen to the music. The characters are doing exactly what the music suggests they are doing.


For his sins all the knives went out for Shostakovitch. Hiding away was not an option. The Soviet world  literally put a gun to his head making it crucial that his next work, be what it may, delight the Soviet authorities. Indeed, a letter signed by he composer indicated his 5th symphony to be "A Soviets' response to just criticism." Shostakovitch's Fifth symphony was premiered in Leningrad in 1937. The success was immediate. The conductor Mravinsky held the score up above his head, like the gospels, as the audience roared its approval. 

Inevitably, persons began to assign emotion to this work. Was it a victory symphony over the Soviet bureaucracy? Was it an apology? Was the martial finale a call to arms or a victory march? Was the long, largo movement, meditative and enthralling in its beauty, a lament?
Shostakovitch could say nothing. Russian music had come full circle, with the market circumventing the
authority of the government, as it had in the days of the Tsars a hundred years before, The people-peasants?-heard what they needed to hear in a new work the composer needed to write. Statues of Stalin are being pulled down in the 21st century. Shostakovitch's music triumphs in Moscow, St. Petersburg, London, Paris, New York and Columbus.