Rimsky-Korsakov, Schumann, Barber

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 to a family of wealthy aristocrats. The first music of his childhood came from a band of four Jewish musicians who provided evening entertainment for the family. By six young Nikolai was learning the piano and he started writing music when he was nine. But a career in music was considered inappropriate for the boy, and at 12 he was sent to the St. Petersburg Naval College, where he was able to study music only on weekends.
When Rimsky was seventeen, he met Balakirev, the founder of the Russian national school. After beginning studies with Balakirev, Rimsky was sent off on a long naval expedition, during which he wrote a symphony and corresponded with other members of the group which eventually became known as the Mighty Five. His early works were so successful that he was able to retire from the Navy and began teaching at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Rimsky’s excellent autobiography, My Musical Life, reveals in amusing detail how, due to his own incomplete education, he was forced to study his classes’ textbooks quickly to stay a chapter ahead of his students. But he was an effective, much-loved teacher. When he was dismissed from his professorship in 1905 for political reasons, several other teachers resigned in protest and he was eventually reinstated. He was also a gifted and successful orchestral conductor.
Rimsky’s operas, of which he wrote a dozen, were popular in his time and are still performed in Russia, but they have fallen out of favor in the West. (So has most of his music except for the perennial Scheherazade.) He compiled orchestral suites from five of the operas. Christmas Eve is based on a story by Gogol, also used by Tchaikovsky. It was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1895 but was not staged in the U.S. until 1977. The story takes place on Christmas Eve in a Ukrainian village. The blacksmith Vakula, whose mother is a witch, tries to win the love of his Oxana by bringing to her the slippers of the empress. He winds up with the devil as his prisoner and forces the devil to bring him to St. Petersburg to get the slippers. But when he returns to Oxana, he finds that his expedition was unnecessary; she loves him already.

Please do not ever believe the ridiculous stories many annotators tell about Robert Schumann’s “insanity.” Although his music reveals an extravagant temperament, Schumann was an intensely practical and competent person. During his wife Clara’s many long tours as a concert pianist, it was Robert who held the large household together, while composing prolifically, writing some of the best music criticism ever, and even, for several years, serving successfully as the music director of a symphony orchestra in Dusseldorf. When Robert lost his mind and threw himself into a river–and then spent the few remaining years of his life in a mental hospital–it was because his brain had been attacked by a physical ailment, syphilis, common and incurable in the nineteenth century.
The Cello Concerto was composed with incredible speed, in 1850, over a period of just six days. The orchestration took another week. After creating with such spontaneity, however, Schumann continued to revise the work for several years, seeking advice from cellists and working on it even after his illness had taken hold of him. It is thus one of his last major works. Unlike most nineteenth century concertos, but like Schumann’s own Piano Concerto, virtuosity is never the point of the music although it is certainly required. Instead it is lyricism that prevails in the music. Incidentally, this work should dispel another Schumann myth, that he was not a competent orchestrator. Few composers have solved the difficult problem of balancing a solo cello with the orchestra as effectively as Schumann does in this glorious music.

Samuel Barber was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910. He showed musical talent at an early age and began composing on his own at the age of 7. Inspired by his aunt, the famous singer Louise Homer, he decided to study voice. Her husband, the song composer Sidney Homer, also provided inspiration. At the Curtis Institute, Barber studied voice, piano, and composition, becoming highly proficient in all three. (Although he never pursued a singing career, a recording of his own Dover Beach proves he could sing quite professionally.) Also at Curtis, Barber met Gian-Carlo Menotti, a fellow composer, who was to become his lifelong companion. Some periods of inactivity, including a long hiatus after the failure of his opera Antony and Cleopatra, may have been caused by clinical depression. He died in 1971.
While Barber was never prolific, family money combined with the early success of his compositions enabled him to pursue a career as a composer without having to devote a great deal of time to other activities. Even before the Adagio for Strings made him world famous, Barber’s music was being performed by major instrumentalists, singers, and conductors. The Second Essay for Orchestra, for example, was commissioned by Bruno Walter, who conducted its premiere in 1942 with the New York Philharmonic. Barber’s only explanation of the work’s content was, “Although it has no program, one perhaps hears that it was written in war-time.”

It is illuminating to hear the Firebird Suite of Igor Stravinsky on a program with music by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky is rightly regarded as one of the great innovators in musical history. But even the greatest innovators are solidly based in the music of the past and their own time.
There is little in Stravinsky’s earliest work to indicate that he was anything but a follower of the 19th century Russian nationalist school. But then, in the few years between 1910 and the beginning of World War I, his three great ballets–Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rite of Spring–not only revealed Stravinsky’s genius but also set much of the agenda for the music of the coming century.
The Firebird, the first of the three, is closest to Rimsky in its content and color. Stravinsky, like his teacher, uses Russian folklore as his subject and Russian folk music as his inspiration. The splashy, vivid orchestration of the music strongly indicates the influence of Rimsky, but Stravinsky’s harmonies even in this work represent a departure from the norm of his teacher’s work and their Russian contemporaries. Within two years, Stravinsky would depart much further from what his audiences were used to. –Leslie Gerber (Hudson Valley Philharmonic, December 2008)

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