A huge thanks to our fantastic conductor Christopher Stark who worked with us to create a truly special evening. Serene scenes of dawn over the Moscow River from Mussorgsky were followed by passion, drama and “sparkly panic” (to use Chris’s very desripive phrase!) in Prokofiev’s Cinderella. The evening finished with the searing Sixth Symphony by Shostakovich – we can’t work out why this isn’t played more often as it is a truly amazing piece.
Khovanshchina – Prelude: “Dawn over the Moscow River”
(orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov)
Mussorgsky was one of five prominent 19th century Russian composers known as the “Mighty Handful” or “The Five”.
Initially taught by his mother, he was a child prodigy, making his debut as a pianist aged just nine. Expected to pursue a military career, he was moved to St Petersburg where, as a young lieutenant, he met the composer Mily Balakirev, who would later bring together “The Five”. In 1858, just months after starting lessons with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission to devote himself to music.
1874 marked a high point in Mussorgsky’s life. It was the year that his opera Boris Godunov was staged in St Petersburg and Pictures at an Exhibition was composed. Following the success of Boris, he pressed on with the composition of another historical opera, Khovanshchina. However, financial troubles, epileptic seizures and alcoholism took their toll and he died a week after his 42nd birthday without finishing the work.
Khovanshchina (“The Khovansky Affair”) is one of five operas Mussorgsky started but never finished. In it, Prince Ivan Khovansky leads a hopeless rebellion against the modern reforms imposed by Tsar Peter the Great at the end of the 17th century. After Mussorgsky’s death, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, another of “The Five”, interrupted work on his own compositions in order to sift through the mass of disorderly manuscripts and complete his friend’s music so it could be performed. His version of Khovanshchina was premiered in St Petersburg in 1886. The opera was revised in 1959 by Dmitri Shostakovich but, although it is Shostakovich’s version of the opera that is usually performed, tonight we perform Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration of the Prelude that introduces the opera.
The music evokes the gradual coming of daylight in a sequence of five variants on a folk tune. These variants correspond to the way a song is modified from one verse to the next in the traditional singing style of Russian folk music. The melody is expressively extended and decorated, with the rumbling and sinister tolling of the timpani hinting at the historical tragedy about to unfold.
II. Pas de chat (The cat’s dance)
IV. Fairy godmother and Fairy winter
VI. Cinderella goes to the ball
VII. Cinderella’s waltz
Russian composer Prokofiev was one of the giants of 20th century music. Another child prodigy, he composed his first piano piece aged five and his first opera four years later. In 1904, he so impressed the composer Alexander Glazunov, professor at the St Petersburg Conservatory, that, at the tender age of 13, he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1918, already something of a celebrity, Prokofiev left revolutionary Russia for America and then in 1920, Paris. However, he was never very happy in the West and from 1932 his visits to Russia became increasingly frequent until in 1936 he returned for good and became one of the leading figures of Soviet culture. The second world war sharpened Prokofiev’s national and patriotic feelings and he composed with remarkable assiduity, even when the evacuation of Moscow in 1941 necessitated his relocation. He reached the peak of his fame in 1945 with the premiere of his Symphony No. 5. However, in 1948, he was one of four Russian composers denounced by the Politburo for “the renunciation of the basic principles of classical music”. Eight of his works were banned and the remainder were considered too dangerous to programme, resulting in severe financial difficulty. He continued to compose even as his health declined until his death in 1953. The subsequent years saw a rapid growth of his popularity in the Soviet Union and abroad and in 1957 he was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest honour, the Lenin Prize, for his Symphony No. 7.
The music for Cinderella was commissioned in 1940 by the Kirov Theatre in St Petersburg. Prokofiev had finished two of the ballet’s three acts when, in June 1941, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union plunged the nation into crisis. The score was not completed until 1944 and the ballet’s first production took place not at the Kirov, as originally planned, but at the Bolshoi, in Moscow, in 1945. Prokofiev subsequently extracted three concert suites from his full ballet score.
In the Introduction we meet Cinderella. The first theme we hear is wistful and somewhat mournful, as befits Cinderella’s sad lot at the start of the story. This gives way, however, to passionate music accompanied by rippling harp figures as Cinderella dreams of happiness.
In the next piece Cinderella is at home serving her stepmother and stepsisters, while the household cat (represented by the clarinet) scampers about.
Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters have been embroidering a shawl to wear to the palace ball, but in the third piece we hear them quarrelling ever more violently over which of them will wear it before they finally tear it in two!
In the ballet, Cinderella is visited by her Fairy Godmother and four fairies who rule the seasons. Together they conjure a beautiful dress for Cinderella and transform a pumpkin, mice, grasshoppers and dragonflies into a carriage, horses and a retinue of footmen. In the fourth piece we hear first the Winter Fairy, a graceful, lilting woodwind theme, and then Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, a shimmering theme played on the piccolo, as they weave their magic.
A fanfare announces the start of the ball. Awaiting the arrival of the Prince, guests dance a Mazurka.
Next is music for the magic carriage ride that takes Cinderella to the palace. She’s late and you can hear the frantic rush. But when the coach arrives at the palace, the music moves into a graceful dance with descending woodwind phrases and a nervous violin theme.
Cinderella dances with her Prince to the darkly passionate Cinderella Waltz. But she has forgotten her Godmother’s warning not to linger past midnight and the dance is abruptly halted by the striking of the clock.
Prokofiev’s clock is of nightmare proportions as the woodblock marks time and the cogs whirr. Twelve fantastic dwarves pop out of the clock to doom-laden descending phrases in the bass instruments and Cinderella’s horror is palpable. The music finishes with a desperate rendition of the love theme as Cinderella flees from the Palace.
Check out our programme notes, courtesy of multi-talented bass player Pui Wah Poon.
Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906 – 1975)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 54
Born fifteen years after Prokofiev, the Russian composer Shostakovich was also destined to became one of the most celebrated composers of the 20th century. Like Prokofiev, he was admitted to the Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, subsequently Leningrad) Conservatory aged just thirteen. In 1925, he composed as his graduation piece from the Conservatory his Symphony No. 1. It was an immediate success and quickly achieved worldwide currency.
After this, Shostakovich openly experimented with avant-garde trends, displaying a comprehensive awareness of what was new in Western music. But this proved too radical for the Soviet authorities which demanded a direct and popular style of music. Avant-garde music and jazz were officially banned in 1932. In 1936, after Stalin attended a performance of Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District, the state newspaper, Pravda, slated this “bedlam of noise” and both the opera and the still unperformed Symphony No. 4 were withdrawn.
Fearing for himself and his family (many of his friends and relatives had been imprisoned or killed), the composer had to produce a work that would please the authorities without entirely bending to their will. The result was Symphony No. 5, informally subtitled “A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism” – although its opening sense of protest is far from repentant! It was a phenomenal success and was judged to be exactly what the State wanted.
The success the Fifth put Shostakovich back in good standing – only for him to be denounced again in 1948 (alongside Prokofiev). Most of Shostakovich’s works were banned and he was dismissed from the Conservatory. After this he composed three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works “for the desk drawer”.
From 1960 his health began to deteriorate and he even contemplated suicide. In 1966, he suffered the first of several heart attacks and then a number of falls from which he never fully recovered, and which hastened a preoccupation with death evident in his later string quartets and his Symphony No. 14.
Symphony No. 6 was written in 1939. Unusually, it is comprised of only three movements: the contrast of the expansive, sombre first movement with the two shorter and seemingly light-hearted movements that follow representing the dual nature of the composer’s private suffering and public show of contentment. It is an ironic response to official demands for lightness, cheerfulness and optimism.
The piece opens with a long, dark melody, initially played in unison, that rises slowly then falls away. The longer second wave develops the same foreboding theme and comes to a catastrophic climax announced by a trumpet solo. Then comes a funeral march with the cor anglais sounding the lament over the distant strikes of the timpani. The Largo includes a strange flute solo: a single lost nightingale. The first theme, when it returns, sounds more helpless than ever. The final bars bring back the funeral march and the doom-laden tolling of the timpani and lower strings.
The tiny E-flat clarinet opens the second movement with a capering scherzo. But this cheerful lightness is fleeting. A short string melody brings in a sudden sadness, the bass clarinet with three bassoons start another theme with a more frightening tone, and the first tutti when it arrives sounds dark and grotesque rather than playful. The movement bristles with activity: the tone both light and sinister as the music marches towards the general climax. The recapitulation is brief but the movement never fully regains its earlier cheerfulness and finally it just vanishes away.
The last movement starts with a circus-like gallop. Soviet propaganda wanted people to see only “joy and spring” and so Shostakovich presents us with a quasi-triumphant march-dance. This exuberant finale, a Rossinian romp, remains in high spirits throughout, although occasionally the smile seems forced. Shostakovich thought the finale was so infectious and unthreatening that “even the most fastidious critics won’t have anything to pick at.”
The writer Ian MacDonald puts it perfectly: “If you want light music, you are going to get it – and with vengeance.”
After the belated triumph in Russia of his Romeo and Juliet with the Kirov Ballet in 1940, the ballet company commissioned him to write another ballet, and suggested the topic of Cinderella which he eagerly agreed to. He was fascinated by fairy-tales and supernatural stories as a child, and returned to them throughout his career for inspiration.
In his own words: “The main thing I wanted to convey in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince — the inception and flowering of the emotion, the obstacles in its way, the realisation of a dream. A major role in my work on Cinderella was played by the fairy-tale nature of the subject, which faced me as the composer with a number of interesting problems — the mysteriousness of the good grandmother fairy, the fantasy of the twelve dwarfs leaping at midnight from the clock and beating out a tap-dance reminding Cinderella to return home……… The authors of the ballet wanted the onlooker to see living, feeling, experiencing people in this fairy-tale setting.”
Since he began the score immediately after leaving his wife of many years for another woman, Prokofiev’s understanding of obstacles and dreams was probably rather personal.
Perhaps because his his earlier ballet, Romeo and Juliet had at first been criticises as being “undanceable,” he aimed to avoid the same response and set out to write numbers “that would emerge naturally from the story line, that would be varied, that would allow the dancers to do enough dancing and to exhibit their technique.”
Prokofiev had largely finished the first two acts by early summer of 1941 when the Nazis invaded Soviet Russia, and he and other artists were evacuated for their safety. Cinderella seemed inappropriately frivolous for the times and he worked instead on his epic opera War and Peace and returned to Cinderella only when War and Peace was finished in the summer of 1943.
Cinderella was premiered with great success in November, 1945, and has remained one of the most widely performed and important contemporary ballets in the repertoire ever since.
We’re so pleased to be able to announce the new section leaders who are joining our team at the Ernest Read Symphony Orchestra. After four different days of auditions, with fierce competition from some great candidates, we found it a tough choice!
Sunday’s “In Disguise” family concert saw ERSO saying a very fond farewell to our wonderful Principal 2nd Violin Tom Rowan-Young and Principal Cello Barbara Mohorko.
Tom and Barbara were part of the original team of ERSO string section leaders, along with former Deputy Leader Jaga Klimaszewska, and their contribution to ERSO has been massive – not only in terms of building and coaching our wonderful string sections but also in their energy, enthusiasm and ideas which they have contributed so freely.
We’re going to miss them so much and we wish them well in their next endeavours.