Program Five: Moscow/St. Petersburg
About the Program
Beginning in the time of Tsar Peter I (1672–1725), Russian cultural history has been told as a tale of opposing pairs: Slavophile/Westernizer, cosmopolitan/nationalist, amateur/professional, and, of course, Moscow/St. Petersburg. In 19th-century musical life, another pair emerged as a personification of these oppositions: Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. In St. Petersburg, self-taught Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was a member of the nationalist Moguchaya Kuchka (Mighty Five), while in Moscow, many considered conservatory-educated Pyotr Tchaikovsky “Western” or “cosmopolitan.” By the end of the century, however, this opposition was a relic of the past: Rimsky-Korsakov, once the amateur composer, had been teaching at the conservatory in St. Petersburg since 1871, and he and Tchaikovsky enjoyed a warm, collegial relationship. Both cities now had conservatories, attesting to the pervasive professionalization of musical life, and in chamber music—a genre formerly denigrated by the nationalists for its academicism—“cerebral” Western technique and “natural” Russian folk melodies had come to coexist.
Nevertheless, this was an age of circles, schools, and societies that gravitated toward Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, the institutional figures of Russia’s two capitals. These groupings have helped to keep the outdated oppositions afloat, but they also enable us to trace lines of influence and artistic genealogy between these supposed poles. In St. Petersburg, Rimsky-Korsakov and his epigones convened for regular Friday evenings of chamber music (“les vendredis”) in the house of their wealthy patron, Mitrofan Belyayev. The timber baron established a publishing house to support these composers, who became known as the “Belyayev circle,” and although it grew out of the remnants of the Kuchka, this circle was far more eclectic in style and inclusive in membership than its nationalist forebear. This ethos of eclecticism and the practice of mentorship were crucial in mediating musical rivalries and bridging the 19th and 20th centuries: Rimsky-Korsakov’s students, such as Anton Arensky, would go on to teach a new generation of composers, including Reinhold Glière, with whom our program begins. Glière would himself teach Sergei Prokofiev and Nikolai Myaskovsky and play an important role in the Soviet Union’s musical program.
Perhaps the best test cases for the opposition posed between Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky are their differing responses to the same poems by Alexei Tolstoy. Although he is less known in the English-speaking world than his second cousin, the great novelist Leo Tolstoy, Alexei’s poetry was second only to Alexander Pushkin’s in its importance for the Russian romance. Both settings of “It was in early spring” fit neatly into the domestic music-making tradition of the Russian romance. In a letter of 1897, Rimsky-Korsakov defended his return to more simplistic harmony and lyricism in his later romances, claiming that he now “strove to be more like Glinka,” aiming for “melodiousness, richness, sweetness.” This sweetness is bittersweet in both composers’ nostalgic settings of “It was in early spring.” Both linger on nadezhda (hope) and iunost’ (youth) and balance the pervasive past tense of the poetry with more urgent interjections—“O life! O woods! O sunlight!” (O zhizn’! O les! O solntsa svet!)—as the emotions of the past rise to the surface.
The second Tolstoy poem, “On the golden cornfields,” again fixes on reminiscence, and Rimsky-Korsakov sets the text with a tone of understated regret. Writing of melody in his later songs, Rimsky-Korsakov declared, “Without it, music’s destiny is decadence.” Perhaps the decadence he had in mind was Tchaikovsky’s setting of the same text, which employs more operatic vocal writing and unstable harmony than typically found in the salon romance. Tchaikovsky adds to the musical scenery with an ominous bell figure in the piano part illustrating the tolling, which Tolstoy describes as resounding in the evening air. While Tchaikovsky was the more cosmopolitan of the two composers, no sound is more emblematic of Russianness than church bells, from Mussorgsky to Rimsky-Korsakov and, later, Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky.
Both Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky had profound impacts on Arensky, who was taught by the former in St. Petersburg, where he regularly took part in Belyayev’s Friday evening gatherings. When Arensky took up a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory in 1882, he became particularly close with Tchaikovsky, whose influence is felt most deeply in Arensky’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor; Arensky wrote it in honor of the elder composer after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893. The quartet opens with a somber melody taken from a Russian funeral hymn, whose implied text—“we make the graveside sobbing our song”—sets the tone for the composition, enhanced by the darker quality of the unusual instrumentation of violin, viola, and two cellos. The second movement makes the connection to Tchaikovsky more explicit: Arensky uses the melody of Tchaikovsky’s “Legend” from 16 Songs for Children as the stately theme for a set of variations. The final movement continues the use of citation, beginning with the melody of the kontakion hymn “With the saints give rest” from the funeral service and eventually arriving at the Russian folk melody “Slava,” which had been used by Mussorgsky in Boris Godunov and would soon be used by Rimsky-Korsakov in The Tsar’s Bride. This theme had also been used by Beethoven in the second of his “Razumovsky” quartets, and it is fitting that Arensky here returns it to a Russian context, connecting the work to various corners of Russian—and European—musical life.
Rimsky-Korsakov predicted that posterity would soon forget Arensky, whose problems with alcohol led him to an early grave. Rimsky-Korsakov’s pupil Alexander Glazunov, however, was an altogether different story. A wunderkind of sorts, Glazunov made his debut in Belyayev’s circle at the age of 16, and after a few lessons, Rimsky-Korsakov considered him more of a friend and colleague than student. Perhaps Glazunov’s first biographer, Alexander Ossovsky, had the composer’s first string quartet in mind when he wrote that “Glazunov has effected a reconciliation between the Russian music of his time and Western music.” The rustic melodic snippets that pervade the first and fourth movements of the quartet, in particular, would have been at home in any of the nationalist operas by the Kuchka. Glazunov’s treatment of them, however, as abstract objects to be filtered through a more “academic” style in a string quartet—the genre of connoisseurs—demonstrates how far Russian music had come from perceived “cosmopolitan” and “nationalist” factions.
This rapprochement occurred largely under Rimsky-Korsakov’s leadership. As the most prolific member of the Kuchka, he had helped develop a nationalist idiom, yet as a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he taught an entire generation of composers in the German academic tradition. He inhabited the role of a mentor in Belyayev’s circle, which welcomed visitors from Moscow, including Tchaikovsky toward the end of his life. That Rimsky-Korsakov saw his role in this circle as that of a teacher is attested to by the modesty with which he regarded his own chamber music. After premiering his Piano Trio in C Minor at a Friday gathering in 1897, along with his Quartet in G Minor, he wrote, “Both of these chamber music compositions proved to me that chamber music was not my field,” and elected not to publish the trio. Rimsky-Korsakov’s student and son-in-law, Maximilian Steinberg, eventually edited and completed the work in 1939, and it was not published until 1970. Rimsky-Korsakov’s modesty about the trio belies a composition full of elegant lyricism contrasted with emotionally intense harmonies and sinewy counterpoint. Still, Rimsky-Korsakov was wise to view his own significance in a broader perspective. As he navigated a cultural landscape so often defined by binary oppositions, the highest achievement was that of reconciliation. Dostoevsky proclaimed in his influential 1880 speech on Pushkin that “to be a true Russian does indeed mean to aspire finally to reconcile the contradictions of Europe.” It is in this spirit of striving for synthesis that we can best understand the chamber works of Rimsky-Korsakov in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky in Moscow, and the generation of composers under their dual mentorship in the late 19th century.
—David Salkowski, Princeton University
Bard Music Festival Presents
Program Five: Moscow/St. Petersburg1 PM Preconcert Talk: Kevin Bartig
1:30 PM Performance: Lysander Trio; Önay Köse, bass-baritone; Anna Polonsky, piano; St. Petersburg String Quartet; Mikhail Veselov, cello
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Piano Trio in C Minor (1897)
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-93)
Selection of Songs
Anton Arensky (1861-1906)
String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 35 (1894)
Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936)
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major (1882)
Reinhold Glière (1875-1956)
Ballade for Cello and Piano, Op. 4 (1902)
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