KSO Season 58 2013-2014

Unless otherwise stated, all concerts take place at St. John's, Smith Square and are conducted by Russell Keable.

Tuesday 15 October 2013
Bartók: Dance Suite
Barber: Knoxville: Summer of 1915
John Adams: Harmonielehre

Monday 25 November 2013 at Milton Court
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 3
Piano: Nikolai Demidenko
Bruckner: Symphony No. 3

Monday 20 January 2014 at Queen Elizabeth Hall
Mussorgsky: St John's Night on the Bare Mountain (original version)
Liszt: Totentanz
Berlioz: Symphonie Fantastique 

Saturday 15 March 2014, with guest conductor Jacques Cohen

Programme to include

Walton: Symphony No. 1  

Monday 12 May 2014 at Milton Court
Rachmaninov: The Isle of the Dead
Debussy: La Mer
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 3 

 Monday 23 June 2014
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy Overture
Kodály: Dances of Galánta
Nielsen: Symphony No. 2  

Dvořák: Symphony No. 7

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904)
Symphony No.7 in D minor, Op.70

  1. Allegro maestoso
  2. Poco adagio
  3. Scherzo: Vivace – Poco meno mosso
  4. Finale: Allegro

Duration: 35'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013, 1999

Older readers may just be able to recall a time when there were London evening newspapers other than the Evening Standard. Unless there are any Methuselahs present tonight, however, it is unlikely any would remember the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette was founded in 1865, and became successful enough that it absorbed a lesser paper, the Globe, in 1921 before being itself merged with a rival in 1923 - ironically enough, the Standard.  It took its name from the fictional newspaper in Thackeray’s The History of Pendennis, and over its lifetime printed the work of many notable writers. In turn it became referenced itself in fiction, appearing in Sherlock Holmes, Dracula and The Time Machine.

One scoop the newspaper secured in 1886 was an interview with Antonín Dvořák, who was in England for the first performance of his oratorio St. Ludmilla. In it Dvořák talked of his upbringing and his approach to composition. Asked by the (anonymous) interviewer what he thought of the English, then widely considered to be an utterly unmusical species, Dvořák replied, “So far as my experience of English audiences goes I can only say that people who had not a good deal of love for music in them would hardly sit for four hours closely following an oratorio from beginning to end, and evidently enjoy doing it. As to their being good musicians, I judge them by the orchestras who have played my compositions under my own direction, and it has struck me every time. With regard to music it is with the English as it is with the Slavs in politics--they are young, very young, but there is great hope for the future.”

Perhaps here Dvořák had found a reason for the extraordinary enthusiasm for his music in England.   Since his Stabat Mater had been performed there in 1883 there had been an explosion of enthusiasm for his music. Following the similarly sudden success of his Slavonic Dances in 1878, this firmly established Dvořák as an international figure.

The road to this success had been a long one.  As he related in his interview with the Gazette, Dvořák came from humble beginning: his father was a butcher and innkeeper (“which two occupations generally go together with us in Bohemia”). When he was 10 he was sent to the village of Zlonice to be educated at a German-speaking school, as was the custom for Czechs in the Austrian Empire. At the same time he began to teach himself the violin.  In Zlonice he was given rudimentary music lessons, enough to enable him to play his fiddle with street musicians when he returned home for the holidays.  His parents were supportive of his musical ambitions, and despite their poverty managed to arrange for him to attend the Organ School in Prague. When he finished his studies in 1859, Dvořák began a decade of graft as a musician in dance bands and pit orchestras in Prague.

By 1874 Dvořák was married and settled in the post of organist at the church of St Vojtěch.  He applied for the Austrian State Stipendum, a grant given to artists.  He was awarded grants for four years running, but more importantly made the acquaintance of Johannes Brahms, who was one of the judges. Brahms wrote to the publisher Simrock recommending Dvořák as a publishing prospect. With the approval of Brahms (who soon became a close friend) and the imprint of Simrock behind him, Dvořák’s stock rocketed, and in 1884 the butcher’s son was on his way to England.  He was made an honorary member of the Royal Philharmonic Society, which also commissioned him to write a new symphony, his seventh.

His seventh to be composed, perhaps, but it was not known as such during his lifetime.  Although four of his previous six symphonies had been performed, Simrock had published only one, the sixth, as “Symphony No.1” .  When he took the new symphony on, therefore, Simrock numbered it as Dvořák’s Second (and subsequently issued the fifth as “No. 3”). Simrock nearly did not publish the symphony at all, after he and Dvořák fell out over the difference between the fee Simrock was prepared to pay and the fee Dvořák felt he was due. The dispute was eventually resolved in Dvořák’s favour, but the issue flared up again a few years later, which would lead to his next symphony being published by the English firm of Novello & Co.

The Seventh (as we may now definitively refer to it) is a self-consciously epic work by a composer highly aware of his position as both an internationally renowned composer and a representative of his people’s nascent national identity.  From its brooding opening though its lyrical and fiery middle movements  to its noble yet tragic conclusion it reflects the time of its creation, and the struggles of the Czech people to establish a voice and a nation for themselves. Yet it also looks wider: Dvořák takes many cues from Brahms, whose third symphony had recently been unveiled, and which influence can be heard particularly strongly in the second movement.   The note he scribbled on the sketch for this movement, “From the sad years”, refers to the Czech longing for independence, but also to more personal concerns.  The recent death of his mother was still at the front of his mind, but this must also have brought back memories of the previous decade, hen in the pace of two years his three eldest children all died in infancy.  Perhaps this sharp demonstration of the fragility of life spurred Dvořák to play his part in the rebirth of his nation. “Twenty years ago we Slavs were nothing,” he told the Gazette. “Now we feel our national life once more awakening, and who knows but that the glorious times may come back which five centuries ago were ours, when all Europe looked up to the powerful Czechs, the Slavs, the Bohemians, to whom I, too, belong, and to whom I am proud to belong.”

Matthew Taylor: Storr

Matthew Taylor (b. 1964)

Duration: 15'
Publisher: Peters Edition
KSO performed: 2013
“The Old Man of Storr” (or “Storr”) is a collection of rock formations which lie high on the Totteridge peninsular on the Isle of Skye. It is one of the most impressive and best loved sights on the island noted particularly for its highly distinctive craggy outcrops, appearing like jagged, giant teeth protruding from the ground. But equally spectacular is the massive expanse of barren terrain just below these cliffs known as “The Sanctuary”.
I was so struck by the beauty, majesty and grandeur of Storr after my first ascent that I felt compelled to compose a symphonic poem on the subject, even if the precise character, scoring and overall architecture of the piece still remained unclear at this early stage.
When my old friend Tom Hammond approached me with the idea of commissioning a new work for the Essex Symphony Orchestra he suggested a piece which might provide a parallel, in a general sense, with two other works  which conjure specific landscapes, The “Needles” Overture and “Blasket Dances” . The choice of “Storr” seemed obvious.
The work is cast in four continuous sections and last about 13 minutes. The opening is slow and spacious but becomes increasingly reflective and lyrical as it continues, suggesting the first impressions of Storr in the midst of ever- changing cloud formations seen from a distance and at ground level. It leads directly into a second fast section which evokes a steep ascent through forestry with sudden flickers of sunlight and occasional glimpses of bright sky. The texture of the music is very light and transparent but nonetheless highly charged and active, perhaps resembling something of the mood of a Mendelssohn scherzo. Eventually a climax is reached which marks the opening of the third part. There is a more deliberate, striding momentum here conveying large open spaces on a plateau which soon relaxes into an extended flute solo - distant bird song . The final section, another ascent, takes the form of a vigorous fugue introduced by cellos. This last climb is perhaps the most strenuous part of the journey, but there is nonetheless a great sense of expectancy as the summit of Storr is now very close, even if we are more fully exposed to the elements. But we are rewarded with magnificent vistas when reaching the peak where the music culminates on a huge string chord stretching over many octaves clearly outlining the tonal centre of E.
Storr was commissioned by the Essex Symphony Orchestra with funds provided by the PRS Foundation and The Britten Pears Foundation. It was first performed by the Essex Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tom Hammond in Christchurch , Chelmsford, Essex on Saturday 3 March 2012.
It is dedicated to Charles and Jo Warden, my wife’s parents who were the first to introduce me to the glories of Skye. The full score was composed between March and August 2011.
The performance tonight is the London premiere.
© Matthew Taylor 2011

Lyadov: Eight Russian Folk Songs

Anatoly Lyadov (1855-1914)
Eight Russian Folk Songs, Op. 58

  1. Religious Chant. Moderato
  2. Christmas Carol “Kolyada”. Allegretto
  3. Plaintive Song. Andante
  4. Humorous Song “I Danced With The Gnat”. Allegretto
  5. Legend Of The Birds. Allegretto
  6. Cradle Song. Moderato
  7. Round Dance. Allegro
  8. Village Dance Song. Vivo

Duration: 15'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013 

If Lyadov is remembered at all now, it is generally as the composer who failed to come up with the goods for Diaghilev, thus paving the way for a young upstart called Igor Stravinsky to make his name.  This is rather unfair.  Although Diaghilev certainly considered Lyadov for the job, there is little evidence that he got as far as asking him about it, and none that Lyadov ever received such an offer.  A good story often wins out against facts, however, and so Lyadov’s place in history remains as the composer too lazy to write The Firebird.

Nevertheless, it remains true that Lyadov never managed to complete any of the larger scale works that he began. It all began so brightly for him.  He was born into a musical family: his father was a conductor at the Mariinsky Theatre. He entered the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1870 aged only 14, initially to study piano and violin, but soon joining Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition class. Unfortunately his appalling attendance record at lectures led to his expulsion in 1876, although he did manage to secure re-admittance two years later in time to graduate.  Thereafter he held a number of teaching posts at the Conservatory, and was considered a talented pianist and conductor, as well as a sympathetic teacher.

If he had indeed inherited a family trait of lack of concentration and slack approach to work, his meagre output is at least as much due to an intense self-criticism and lack of confidence in his own ability.   His great strength was as a miniaturist, evident in his piano pieces and orchestral tone poems. In the late 1890s he developed a growing preoccupation with Russian folk song, and eventually published several volumes of tunes that he had collected for the Imperial Geographical Society.  Some of these he arranged for orchestra, and this suite of eight finely-crafted miniatures was completed in 1906.

Mahler: Symphony No. 7

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Symphony No.7

  1. Langsam – Allegro risoluto, ma non troppo
  2. Nachtmusik (I): Allegro moderato. Molto moderato (Andante)
  3. Scherzo: Schattenhaft. Fließend aber nicht zu schnell (Shadowy. Flowing but not too fast)
  4. Nachtmusik (II): Andante amoroso
     5.   Rondo-Finale

Duration: 80'
Publisher: Bote & Bock (Boosey & Hawkes)
KSO performed: 1995, 2013

Mahler in Vienna
Concert life in Vienna in the first decade of the 20th century was an exclusive affair.  The concerts at the Musikverein where the Vienna Philharmonic performed were private occasions, and a second concert hall did not exist until the construction of the Konzerthaus in 1913.  Most people’s experience of music making was through playing at home and through dancing in the Dance Halls.  This was not to say that events in the high cultural life of the city were not of concern to the citizens.  The newspapers were a powerful force for debate, and reports on such matters as Mahler’s appointment as director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897 (and later sacking) were the fuel for many debates and arguments in middle-class households, most of whom would never actually have attended an opera or concert.  For the emerging bourgeoisie, not having much actual experience of High Art was no barrier to having an opinion about it.

This growing number of people whose experience of culture was based on reading about it in the papers rather than experiencing it first-hand (whether through attending concerts or playing at home) is reflected in an innovation introduced by the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1890s - programme notes.  That the orchestra identified a need for explanatory notes for its audience reflects the decline in a musical tradition and literacy that would once have been taken for granted - but also a new bourgeois audience who were keen to be seen as consumers of high culture, but came from backgrounds lacking the kind of musical education that Vienna’s elite classes took for granted.  

Although by now the empire had granted its  Jewish population full citizenship, old prejudices remained.  Mahler converted to Catholicism in 1897 in order to secure the post at the Vienna Opera: as a Jew he would otherwise have been barred from taking the post. If Mahler's conversion seems cynical to us, at the time it was not such a  remarkable thing to do. Viennese Jews were keen to integrate with Austrian society as fully as possible, and for many their religion was more a matter of social conventions than deeply held beliefs.  Although Mahler’s tenure would prove controversial, the most vocal opposition to him came from antisemitic factions that still had a prominent influence in the city (not least in necessitating Mahler's conversion in the first place).

In his 10 years at the opera he introduced no fewer than 33 new operas to the company’s repertoire. In 1905, as he completed the Seventh Symphony, Mahler had hoped to secure the first performance of Richard Strauss’s new opera Salome.  On this occasion he did not get his way. The Court Theatre’s Censorship Board decided that on religious and moral grounds the libretto was unacceptable, and banned it.

He raised the standard of performance considerably, but not without resistance. His flamboyant conducting style and his dictatorial manner caused many ructions with his singers and musicians. It was said that he treated the players “as a lion tamer treats his animals.”  By the time he resigned he had reached a level of celebrity that few could hope to attain.  His work as a composer was controversial, but even his severest critics acknowledged his talent as a conductor and musician.  

Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century was a city of contradictions.  During the 1870s it was extensively rebuilt, and by the time Mahler returned in 1897 had become one of the earliest examples of a modern city. It had become a fertile breeding ground for new ideas, both artistic and scientific.  Sigmund Freud’s theories of the subconscious mind and the significance of dreams influenced the development of Expressionism, as seen in the work of the likes of Gustav Klimt, Arthur Schnitzler, and Arnold Schönberg.  

Yet Vienna was also the centre of  a large, declining empire.  It was therefore also host to a population filled with a complacent, conservative mindset.  The rise of a middle-class also meant the rise of a middlebrow bourgeois culture. The undisputed king of Viennese music in 1897 when Mahler arrived at the Opera was the waltz king, Johann Strauss II. The only composer in the city with a comparable reputation was Johannes Brahms, whose last public appearance barely a month before his death that year was to attend a Strauss première.  Strauss’s nostalgic, cosy music reinforced Vienna’s idea of itself as a place apart from the rest of the world.  Mahler, a man of international ambitions, was uncomfortable with this insular atmosphere and determined to shake things up.  Throughout the nineteenth century there developed a trend for favouring old music over new.  When Mahler was a student there was already a visible trend for “historical” programming. By the time he left Vienna for the second time in 1907 this had developed into a chasm between composers and audiences, and the separation of “high” and “low” culture was entrenched: on the one hand, Mahler and Richard Strauss, on the other Lehár and Johann Strauss.  

Mahler’s own music reflects this heady mix of old and new, in its combination of complex music following in the traditions laid down by Beethoven and Brahms which nevertheless included “low” art, in the form of folk tunes, popular music and other sounds that could be heard on the street. This tended to result in the dismissal of his music on both sides of the cultural divide.  He found supporters in a younger generation of Viennese composers determined to shake up the conservative city.  Webern professed Mahler’s Seventh Symphony to be his favourite, particularly because of its highly original approach to orchestration which influence can be seen in his own orchestral music. Webern’s teacher Schönberg was initially a skeptic as far as Mahler’s music was concerned. However, hearing an early performance of the Seventh Symphony transformed his opinion, and he was thereafter a devoted acolyte.


Mahler’s composing routine was strict: he composed in the summer while on holiday in Maiernigg, a small alpine hamlet on the shore of the Wörthersee.  He rose at 5.30am each day  and swam in the lake before retreating to his studio where he would work for seven hours.  He would begin work on a new symphony at the same time as he produced the final score of the work he had sketched the previous summer. Thus as he put the final touches to the score of his Sixth Symphony in 1904, he quickly drafted two movements for a seventh - the two Nachtmusiken (“Night-Music”, or nocturnes).  However, when he returned the next year he found himself devoid of inspiration as to how to continue. Unusually, he had no clear overall plan for the shape of the new symphony, and struggled to find a suitable context for the two movements.  After two weeks of getting nowhere, he broke his routine and went hiking in the Dolomites instead, hoping that walking would inspire him as it had in the past. Still no ideas came, and Mahler despondently marched back down to Krumpendorf, the village on the opposite shore of the lake, where he took a boat across the water back to Maiernigg. As he later related to his wife, this was the turning point: “I got into the boat to be rowed across. At the first stroke of the oars the theme (or rather the rhythm and character) of the introduction to the first movement came into my head.” His writer’s block finally cleared, Mahler proceeded to sketch out the rest of the symphony, completed the work in sketch by the end of August, and the orchestration the next year. As was his way, he would tinker with the details of the work on several occasions thereafter until (and beyond) its first performance in 1908.

The form of the Seventh Symphony harks back to the fifth in dividing into three parts: the two large outer movements surrounding three short character pieces in the middle. Moreover these three central pieces display a further symmetry, with the central scherzo flanked on either side by the two “Nachtmusiken”.  The entire symphony thus forms a vast arch.  The “rowing” music that opens the symphony was the idea that triggered Mahler’s imagination to complete the symphony, but the vast opening movement itself was the last to be completed.  Over the slow tattoo a tenor horn (an instrument familiar to Mahler through military bands rather than orchestras) declaims a haunting theme - “Here Nature roars,” he described it.  Mahler’s music frequently evokes nature, but rarely as wildly as in this movement, which takes as its inspiration the Carinthian Mountains where Mahler often walked.

The central triptych of the symphony begins with the first “Nachtmusik”, which Mahler composed after being entranced by Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch”. The movement is not an attempt to portray the painting, but merely seeks to create a similar atmosphere. The third movement is marked “Schattenhaft” [shadowy], and is one of the spookiest of the phantasmagorical scherzos in which Mahler specialised. wisps of dance rhythms pass by, parodies of Viennese Ländler and waltzes loom out of the darkness.  Then follows the second Nachtmusik, which is an altogether more romantic affair than its sibling.  Here Mahler celebrates the romantic view of night, the time when lovers (perhaps illicitly) come together.  It takes the character of a serenade, its character defined by the presence of a guitar and mandolin.

The finale appears to begin straightforwardly enough as an explosion of daylight after the three shadowy ones that preceded it, and soon blossoms into a triumphalist mood reminiscent of a theme from Wagner’s opera Die Meistersinger von Nürenburg. This affinity was only emphasised by Mahler’s programming of the overture from that opera alongside the Seventh Symphony at early performances. But suddenly this is cut off and the music heads down an entirely different street.  This sets the pattern for the entire movement; the grand, solemn music returns again and again, but is never allowed to establish itself, and comes to seem progressively more pompous than majestic. Less important passages are given strident cadences, while more substantial ideas peter out. The effect is profoundly disorienting and unsettling. When the final peroration comes, Mahler deploys the orchestra in such a way as to make it seem bombastic and empty: blaring brass and timpani played with hard sticks to produce a harsh, brittle sound.  Just at the very end Mahler unleashes one more surprise which leaves the final C major chord feeling less like a triumphant conclusion than a punch in the face.

This collision between Wagnerian grandeur and parodies of Leháresque middlebrow Viennese kitsch may be Mahler’s portrait of the society he moved in.  Some commentators suggest that Mahler intended to write a conventional, triumphal finale but failed. Perhaps though, the failure of this model is exactly what Mahler intended: Die Meistersinger is an opera about opera, so this is a symphony about symphonies, and its finale a comment on the impossibility of returning to the naive optimism of earlier ages.  Mahler himself refused to provide any kind of programme for it, despite repeated cajoling by friends, so there can be no definitive answer as to its meaning. “Everything has its price!” was all he would say.  Perhaps the daylight represents not a triumph over dark night thoughts, but the obliteration of profound, romantic ideals by the banality of everyday life.  Where Mahler’s other symphonies are now so commonly played and so unthinkingly accepted that they are in danger of losing their meaning, the Seventh remains stubbornly resistant to easy assimilation.  A century after its creation it continues to puzzle, delight and frustrate in equal measure, and remains enigmatic, complicated and problematic - just like life, in fact.

Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

  1. The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship
  2. The Kalendar Prince
  3. The Young Prince and the Young Princess
  4. Festival at Baghdad. The Sea. The Ship Breaks against a Cliff Surmounted by a Bronze Horseman
Duration: 15'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013, 1994

In the wake of Glinka came a generation of Russian composers who redefined what Russian music was. The most revolutionary of them was the group of five composers led by Mily Balakirev, who became known as “the Mighty Handful”, or simply, “the Five”. In the 1860s this group of mostly amateur composers - Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky, Borodin and Cui - developed a new aesthetic which celebrated the distinctive sounds of Russian folk-music and rejected what they saw as the overly Western European influenced teaching prevalent in the Conservatoires. Of the “Five”, Rimsky-Korsakov was probably the most accomplished. He was the only one other than Balakirev himself who made a living as a composer.

In 1871 he became a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire.  Given the group’s hostility to the musical establishment, this naturally caused some fiction.  By this stage however the group had largely drifted apart.  Musorgsky died that year from alcoholism, while Cui developed a career as a critic and Borodin concentrated on his main career as a research chemist, working intermittently on an opera, Prince Igor, that remained incomplete at his death.  

In the 1870s and 80s Rimsky-Korsakov’s music evolved from the experimental style he had cultivated in the 1860s. His approach to orchestration especially developed from a sparse style to an extraordinary lush and rich one, full of exotic effects, which would prove hugely influential to the next generation, including his greatest pupil Stravinsky.  Two particular foreign influences were Liszt's symphonic poems, and the orchestral music of Berlioz.  From Liszt he learned a more adventurous harmony, and from Berlioz he took a much more adventurous approach to the orchestra. Berlioz’s innovative approach to orchestration was a revelation to many Russian composers of the period, and his Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes became required reading.  The flow of ideas between Russia and France would become more and more important through the latter part of the century. The culmination of this cross-fertilisation was the establishment of the Ballets Russes in Paris, whose first season in 1910 featured as its main attraction a ballet danced to Rimsky-Korsakv's orchestral suite Scheherazade.    

Scheherazade represents the height of this period of Rimsky-Korsakov’s output.  It was completed in summer 1888 and first performed in November that year.  It is a tour de force of orchestral writing, so much so that when Rimsky-Korsakov came to write his own manual of orchestration, many of the examples he included were taken from it.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s own programme note for the first performance is remarkable for its refusal to be drawn into the specifics of the suite’s programme: “The Sultan Schariar, convinced that all women are false and faithless, vowed to put to death each of his wives after the first nuptial night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saved her life by entertaining her lord with fascinating tales, told seriatim [i.e. with the conclusion held back until the next night], for a thousand and one nights. The Sultan, consumed with curiosity, postponed from day to day the execution of his wife, and finally repudiated his bloody vow entirely.

“Many wondrous things were related to the Sultan Schariar by the Sultana Scheherazade. For her tales she took verses from the poets and words from the songs of the people, and intermixed the former with the latter.”

He did not intend to portray specific tales, but rather an impression of the variety of folk stories to be found in the 1001 Nights.  In his memoirs, he recalls that his conception of Scheherazade was "an orchestral suite in four movements, closely knit by the community of its themes and motives, yet representing, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and designs of Oriental character."  It was his former pupil; and colleague Anatoly Lyadov who suggested the titles for each of the movements.  Rimsky-Korsakov at first acquiesced with these suggestions and even allowed them to be printed in the score, but later had them removed.  “I meant these hints to direct but slightly the listener's fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of the individual listener," hecrecalled. "All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders.”  Certain aspects of the music do nevertheless seem to represent particular ideas clearly: the terse opening theme seems to embody the sultan, while the solo violin that follows and recurs throughout the piece stands for Scheherazade herself.  

Whether the opening movement really does represent “the Sea and Sinbad’s Ship” is therefore a matter for the imagination of the listener, although there is a salt-flecked taste to it entirely in keeping with a composer whose younger years had been spent in the Russian Navy.  Likewise, the Tale of the Kalendar Prince (a fakir who turns out to be a nobleman in disguise).  The third movement meanwhile certainly has the feel of a romantic scene, even if it cannot really be tied too tightly to the Tale of Prince Kamar al-Zanna and Princess Budur (“created so much alike that they might be taken for twins”).  

Lyadov’s proposed programme falls apart completely in the final movement, and conflates elements of several tales. Ironically, this perhaps reflects best Rimsky-Korsakov’s intention that Scheherazade be taken as a kaleidoscope of implied stories rather than any specific representation.  One very clear influence on this movement is Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; Borodin had died only a year before and Rimsky had worked on completing and orchestrating his friend’s unfinished opera prior to composing Scheherazade.  What is clear by the end is that Scheherazade’s story-telling has saved her: in the closing moments we hear the sultan’s theme calmed by the solo violin.

Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Verklärte Nacht

Duration: 30'
Publisher: Universal Edition
KSO performed: 2013 

Vienna in the 19th century may have been the centre of a large empire, but it was not so cosmopolitan as to grant all its inhabitants equal rights.  Since the seventeenth century the city’s Jewish population had been confined to the suburb of Leopoldstadt.  It was here that Samuel Schönberg, a shoemaker from what is now Hungary, lived when he came to Vienna in 1852.  By this time Jews enjoyed more freedom of movement following reforms implemented by the Emperor Joseph II in the late eighteenth century, and the accession of Franz Josef in 1848 accelerated the change.  In 1867 Jews were finally granted full citizenship rights.  One of the results of this was that over the next 40 years Vienna, which had long had a reputation as a staid and conservative city, became a centre of radical artistic and political activity. Few Viennese artists would prove as radical as Samuel’s son Arnold, who came into the world a full citizen of Austria-Hungary in 1874.

Arnold Schoenberg (as he would eventually spell his name when he moved to America in the 1930s) was his parents’ eldest surviving child. Music was part of his life from an early age, largely through the influence of his mother. Although she taught piano, the family did not own one themselves and so Schoenberg never mastered the instrument. Instead he learned the violin from nine years old, and later took up the cello (initially playing on a homemade instrument before he was able to acquire a proper one).

Schoenberg’s formal education was cut short at 15, when his father died suddenly.  As the eldest son, Schoenberg became the main breadwinner for the family and so had to leave school and take a job at a bank.  His appetite for learning was only intensified by this, and he continued to explore for himself, studying whatever scores he could lay his hands on, and gaining practical experience in “Polyhimnia”, a local amateur music society.  It was here that he met the composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Zemlinsky was only three years older than him, but had all the formal education that Schoenberg lacked.  He took lessons with him, and so Zemlinsky became the only formal composition teacher that Schoenberg ever had.

Up until this point Schoenberg’s hero had been Brahms, but Zemlinsky introduced him to the work of Wagner and Richard Strauss, and these soon made their effect felt in his music.  His first major work, Verklärte Nacht [Transfigured Night] reflects these influences; its harmony is the rich, dense kind favoured by Wagner and Strauss, but it also betrays Schoenberg’s love of Brahms in its intricate textures, which rely less on block chords than on the interweaving of many lines.

In keeping with the fashion of the time, Verklärte Nacht is a tone-poem that takes as its model a poem of the same name by the modernist poet Richard Dehmel.  Where the piece is decidedly out of kilter is that rather than a lush orchestral piece, Schoenberg chose to cast the work as a string sextet.  It was only in 1917 that he rearranged it for string orchestra, with a few minor revisions made in 1943; the piece is now probably best known in this guise.  

Dehmel’s poem portrays a man and a woman walking in the woods at night.  The woman confesses that she is pregnant by another man; filled with longing for motherhood, she sinned with a stranger and now, having met her companion, is filled with regret and despair.  The man consoles her. The Universe shines brightly, he says; their love will transform the child as it has transformed him, and it will be born as his own. The night is transfigured, and they walk on through the moonlight.

These ideas of the transforming powers of love and faith held an acutely personal resonance for Schoenberg as he wrote the sextet over three weeks in 1899. He had just fallen in love with Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, who would become his first wife.  That year he also converted to the Lutheran church.  Converting to Christianity was common amongst Austrian Jews at this time, partly out of an enthusiasm for integrating with the culture of the empire which had now granted them full citizenship, but also for political reasons: Mahler famously became a Roman Catholic in order to be eligible for the role of director at the Vienna Court Opera House.  Schoenberg’s conversion seems to have been sincerely meant, although he would come to regret it.  Apart from the fact that Protestantism gave little advantage in a Roman Catholic country, the most prominent members of the faith at this time were increasingly vociferous anti-Semites.  Schoenberg would therefore never find the sense of belonging he sought in the church.  When the rise of the Nazis forced him into exile in the 1930s he returned to his Jewish faith.

Verklärte Nacht is nowadays known as the Schoenberg piece that even people who don’t like Schoenberg can get along with.  At the time of its first performance, however, it caused considerable consternation.  This was partly down to the subject matter: Dehmel’s poetry, and the aesthetic that underlay it was offensively liberal and explicit in its portrayal of sexualtiy, especially to a conservative culture such as still largely held sway in Vienna.  Beyond this, Schoenberg’s complex textures and advanced harmonies were met with a combination of incomprehension and disgust, a reaction he would have to get used to as his career took a course along rockier roads. As he observed in 1937, “As long as an audience is inclined not to like a piece of music, it does not matter whether there happen to be, besides some more or less rough parts, also smooth or even sweet ones. And so the first performance of my Verklärte Nacht ended in a riot and in actual fights. And not only did some persons in the audience utter their opinions with their fists, but critics also used their fists instead of their pens.”

Glinka: Overture, Ruslan and Lyudmila

Mikhail Glinka (1804 - 1857)
Overture: Ruslan and Lyudmila 

Duration: 6'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013 

Glinka spent his early childhood in the care of his overprotective grandmother.  She kept him confined to a warm room, wrapped in furs and fed sweets.  The only music he heard was the sound of the local church bells, and the folk songs sung by passers-by.  When his grandmother died he was sent to live with his uncle, and it was here that he first heard an orchestra. Later, when he was sent to school in St Petersburg, he briefly took piano lessons with John Field, the Irish composer who invented the nocturne, and began to compose.

Upon leaving school his father decided that he should work for the Foreign Office, and Glinka duly found himself employed at the Department of Public Highways. The job was hardly taxing, and so he had plenty of time to compose.  The major turning point in his development came in 1830 when he travelled to Italy.  Hearing the Italian style that was being forged by composers such as Bellini and Donizetti, he determined to create a distinctive Russian music.  On his return to Russia he composed his first opera, A Life for the Tsar.  This proved to be a great success and Glinka was rewarded by the gift of a ring from the Tsar worth 4,000 Roubles, and more importantly a post as director of the Imperial Chapel Choir.  Shortly afterwards he began work on his second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila.

The poet who devised the plot of Ruslan and Lyudmila, Konstantin Bakhturin, did so by his own admission in a quarter of an hour while drunk.  It shows: dramatically the opera is a mess, and is rarely performed now outside Russia.  While the quality of the opera as a drama is suspect, however, the music Glinka produced for it though is some of his finest. It was the seed of a major transformation of Russian music undertaken by the next generation of Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov.

The rollicking overture has found an enduring place as a concert opener, and encapsulates the qualities that would prove so influential. It showcases Glinka’s dazzling deployment of the orchestra to full effect as well as his use of folk-derived thematic ideas.  The closing bars move beyond conventional Western harmony and melody with the introduction of a descending whole-tone scale.  This was the first time this had been heard in European music, but by the end of the century composers such as Debussy would make it a familiar sound. In the opera it stood as the theme of the evil dwarf Chernomor, who kidnaps Lyudmila; thereafter it became the standard Russian way to portray sorcery or villainy in music.