Saturday, January 23, 2010

KSO Programme notes: Dohnányi, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960)

Symphonic Minutes, Op36

1. Capriccio

2. Rapsodia

3. Scherzo

4. Tema con variazioni

5. Rondo

Ernő Dohnányi (Ernst von Dohnányi in German, as he generally had it on his published compositions) is now an obscure figure, but in his day was considered the greatest pianist and composer to emerge from Hungary after Liszt. He studied at the Budapest Academy along with his childhood friend Béla Bartók. In the late 1890s he shot to fame after a single performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in London. At the same time he made headway as a composer: his Piano Quintet was acclaimed by Brahms, who arranged its première in Vienna.

In the years that followed he also established himself as a conductor, and championed the music of Bartók among others. Unlike many star pianists of the day, he was equally comfortable appearing as a concerto soloist and as a chamber musician. His piano playing is preserved in what was for the day the cutting edge of recorded media: in the 1920s he recorded a number of pieces on the Ampico Reproducing Piano, which captured performances on piano rolls. This technological marvel’s life would be cut short by the advent of electrical sound recording, as well as the collapse of the market for player-pianos after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

He became head of the Budapest Academy, but resigned in 1941 in protest at the anti-Semitic policies being introduced by the fascist government under the influence of the Nazis. This stance was not enough to prevent him becoming the victim of a whispering campaign by the Communist government that took over after the war, and he lived the latter part of his life in exile in America. Only in recent years has his role in the development of Hungarian music in the early twentieth century been reappraised and recognised.

Although he took some inspiration from Hungarian folk music, Dohnányi the composer is not a nationalist like Bartok or Kodály. His music is firmly in the mainstream tradition of 19th century Europe, and in his lush harmonies and orchestrations comes across as a more cheerful cousin of that of his Russian contemporary, Rachmaninov. The five delightful miniatures that comprise the Symphonic Minutes date from 1933, shortly before he joined the Budapest Academy.


Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35

1. Allegro moderato

2. Canzonetta: Andante

3. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo

In July 1877 Tchaikovsky married Antonina Miliukova. He was neither the first nor the last man to enter into matrimony as a facade for his real inclinations. It was, however, by any standards one of the most catastrophically ill-advised acts he could have performed. He had first met her in 1865, when he was 25 and she 16. He did not remember this occasion although it seems she did, and carried a torch for him ever after. She later studied at the Moscow Conservatory where Tchaikovsky was one of her professors, but had to leave due to financial difficulties.

She wrote to him at least twice in 1877, and their engagement was announced that year. By then she was 28, rather past what was then considered the ideal marrying age, and Tchaikovsky was the subject of gossip concerning his sexual tastes. He hoped that marriage would provide the cover for him to pursue his own liaisons as before. The marriage would therefore appear to have been the product of a certain desperation on both sides. Even on their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky was writing to his sister detailing all that he despised about Antonina and her family.

Entering an institution to which he was so unsuited with a woman whom he did not even like very much was clearly not going to end well. Tchaikovsky duly suffered a mental collapse and walked out on the marriage after only six weeks. The couple remained legally married until Tchaikovsky’s death, and Antonina spent 20 of the 24 years she outlived her husband in an asylum. Her own reminiscences of her marriage were recorded there after her husband’s death. They suggest a naive woman unable properly to understand what had happened but vaguely aware that there had been some sort of misunderstanding between them. For his part, Tchaikovsky virulently criticised her in letters to his friends, referring to her as “The Reptile.” They met only a couple of times again, even then much to Tchaikovsky’s disgust.

Tchaikovsky escaped to a resort by Lake Geneva in Switzerland to recover. It was here that his Violin Concerto took shape. He was joined by a pupil of his: Yosif Kotek was talented enough to have been a pupil of Joseph Joachim. They played through a number of works on violin and piano, including the French composer Eduard Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole. This seems to have been the immediate catalyst for the concerto. He wrote to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. “Lalo... does not strive after profundity, but he carefully avoids routine, seeks out new forms, and thinks more about musical beauty than about observing established traditions, as do the Germans.”

With Kotek on hand to provide technical advice, work on the new concerto proceeded swiftly and it was completed within a month, even though Tchaikovsky replaced the original middle movement with the Canzonetta that provides the lyrical heart. He hoped that the violinist Leopold Auer would give the first performance. In his enthusiasm he sent it straight to his publisher complete with dedication: it was in print before the dedicatee had actually seen it. Later in life, Auer denied the rumour that he had declared the concerto “unplayable”, but he was certainly not convinced of its quality, and felt that some of the violin writing was not suited to the instrument. He therefore declined to perform it, and the planned premiere in March 1879 had to be cancelled. Eventually Adolf Brodsky became the first performer, and second dedicatee of the concerto in December 1881.

Reactions were mixed. “Long and pretentious” was the judgement of the influential critic Eduard Hanslick, while Theodore Helm of the Wiener Signale declared it to be “an accumulation of discords, confused climaxes and dressed-up trivialities, covered by the national flag of the most barbarous sort of Russian nihilism.” None of this has prevented it becoming a firmly established favourite with violinists and audiences alike.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Symphony in C

1: Allegro

2: Larghetto Concertante

3: Largo

4: Allegro non troppo

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C was composed in difficult circumstances. He had been living with his family in Paris since 1934, while continuing a long-term affair with Vera de Bosset. His wife Katya had long since become aware and eventually, accepting of his infidelity. In 1938, Katya, already stricken with cancer, contracted tuberculosis, which she passed both to her husband and their daughter Lyudmila. They were all confined to a sanatorium where Lyudmila died in November 1938, followed within months by her mother. Then in June 1939 Stravinsky’s own mother died. This was surely the most wretched period of his life.

Stravinsky sketched the first two movements of what became the Symphony in C in the sanatorium in response to a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A further sign of his standing in America came with the offer of a lucrative post at Harvard. Stravinsky’s star was waning from the height of his fame in Europe, and so he was only too happy to accept the post.

Politically the time was ripe to leave Europe, although Stravinsky was not in personal danger from the rise of the Nazis as were Jewish composers such as Schoenberg. He was essentially an apolitical conservative. Understandably for someone who had been cut off from his homeland and culture by revolution, he sought order above all. This probably explains his rather unfortunate admiration for Mussolini throughout the 1930s. If he was in any doubt that the winds were blowing against him, he would have received a rude awakening in 1938 when the Nazis included his work in their exhibition of “Degenerate” Art. This, coupled with his desperate financial straits (the Chicago commission was the only one on the table at the time) made emigration an attractive prospect. Thus in September 1939, as war broke out, Stravinsky boarded a boat for the United States. He resumed work on the symphony in New York. In early 1940 Vera followed him, and became his second wife.

Some of the philanthropic wives of Chicago who were bankrolling the commission had withdrawn their money from the commission when they found out how much Stravinsky would be earning for a year’s lectures at Harvard. Nevertheless, the symphony was completed in 1940 and premiered in November that year in Chicago. Its reception was lukewarm, and it remains something of a Cinderella among his works. Stravinsky would observe drily in later years that it only received as many performances as it did because he conducted them.

Stravinsky frequently and controversially changed his compositional style throughout his career. Many of his contemporaries accused him of adopting a series of masks in place of displaying a consistent artistic voice. With hindsight it becomes more obvious that beneath the constant shape shifting on the surface of his music there is anunswerving purpose and personality. Stravinsky’s approach to the past is more similar to our times than his own. It is seen not as a lineage to be continued, but a vast resource to be appropriated, quoted, distorted or adapted as suits the composer’s purpose. Although this symphony takes as its starting point the archetypes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it pursues its own course, transforming and distorting its found model to produce something that still sounds like it could have been written by no-one else.

The middle movements nod more to baroque models than anything classical. The third in particular caused Stravinsky some trouble. He attempted to write something that would perform the same function as a Haydn minuet or a Beethoven scherzo without being reminiscent of either. The finale begins forcefully, but concludes in an unexpectedly sombre mood. There is here a strong scent of Stravinsky’s devout Russian Orthodox faith: its ritualistic air suggests perhaps a prayer both for the three women he had lost and the continent he had left behind.


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