Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts

Andrews University
Symphony Orchestra
Novemeber 13, 2010

Rachmaninov: Vocalise, Op.34 | Tchaikovsky: Pezzo capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra, Op.62 |
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.4 in F minor, Op.36

Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Vocalise, Op.34

“I have never been quite able to make up my mind,” Sergei Rachmaninoff confessed to Oskar von Riesemann, the editor of his memoirs, “as to which was my true calling–that of composer, pianist, or conductor.... I am constantly troubled by the misgiving that, in venturing into too many fields, I may have failed to make the best use of my life.” While he may not have been able to pursue all three fields simultaneously, the annuals of music history have indeed confirmed that as one of the greatest pianists of his time, a very successful conductor, and with a oeuvre of well-loved compositions, Rachmaninoff made fine use of his life. During his final years in Russia, he did, for a time, give up performing as a pianist to attend to his conducting engagements, and even composition had to take a back seat, save in the summers that he spent at the family’s summer house, Ivanovka. In addition to his Third Piano Concerto, a Russian liturgical work, and two sets of etudes for piano, between 1910 and 1912 he completed the Fourteen Songs, Op 34. The songs were set to texts of poets representative of Russian Romanticism, except for the last, Vocalise.

While the term “Vocalise” may indicate a textless vocal exercise to be sung on various vowel sounds, this gem of the vocal repertoire is no mere vocal exercise, but a true concert song, without words. The songs of the set were dedicated to the composer’s various singer friends. The Vocalise was dedicated to Moscow’s leading lyric/coloratura soprano Antonia Nezhdanova. Originally for voice (soprano or tenor) and piano, Rachmaninoff arranged the piano part for orchestra, and the many arrangements for every conceivable solo instrument has joined the repertoire to make this one of the composer’s most popular short works. The solo voice is supported throughout with a rich harmonic texture, punctuated with orchestral comments and counter melodies. A solo violin takes the final statement of the main melody while the soloist accompanies, soaring above it in an obligato of a nearly two-octave range. Riesemann wrote of this lyrical, nostalgic piece, “The wonderfully curved melodic arch, with its even tranquility, spans the song from beginning to end in one unbroken line. We find in it a resemblance, without any similarity of notes, to Bach’s Air on the G String, which moves in the same clarified atmosphere of divine tranquility.”

Back to Top

Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Pezzo Capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra, Op.62

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky wrote his last work for soloist and orchestra, Pezzo Capriccioso for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 62 in 1887, a year that yielded few compositions, but in an emotionally intense atmosphere. The composer had been tending his terminally ill friend, Kondratyev at the German spa of Aachen. In August he took a much needed break traveling to Paris where he met up with his former theory student, the Russian cellist, Anatoly Brandukov. Upon Tchaikovsky’s return to Aachen, amid the harshness of witnessing Kondratyev’s suffering, the melancholy Pezzo Capriccioso took shape rapidly. He began sketches August 24 and by September 11 the final scoring was completed. Brandukov, with Tchaikovsky conducting the Colonne orchestra, gave the first performance at the grand Parisian home of wealthy Russian expatriates Nikolay and Marie Barnardaky (the latter a singer trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory). The work was premiered in Moscow, November 25, 1889.

The solo cello leads the way in a short passionate introduction. A potentially singable cantabile theme emerges–but the phrases escalate into instrumental flourishes. A scherzo-like section interrupts the melancholic musings, another version of the cantabile main theme returns, and finally, the scherzo reappears as the coda.

Back to Top

Peter I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Symphony No.4 in f minor, Op.36

Two of Tchaikovsky’s finest works were in progress during the composer’s arguably most traumatic year, the annus horribilus of 1877. The works are Symphony No. 4 in f minor, Op. 36 and his opera Eugene Onegin. Two women took prominent places in the story: the determined young Antonina Milyukova who pressured Tchaikovsky into an ill-fated marriage, and Nadezhda von Meck, a widow with ten children and a profound love of music, who supported the composer financially, and emotionally through letters. Tchaikovsky and von Meck never met. The symphony was in development throughout the year–even before the July marriage, but in the end it reflects the composer's struggle to reconcile the extremes of melancholy and frenzied optimism. It took a suicide attempt, psychological breakdown, long visits with family, a trip to Western Europe, and, finally the appearance of his patron Madame van Meck into his life before the composer’s suffering and trauma had subsided enough to complete the symphony in December of that year. It was to van Meck–“my best friend”–that the work was dedicated. At her request he provided a program of the symphony. In reality it is a post compositional attempt to explain in words the agonized state of his emotional world that he expressed in sound.

The piece begins with the seed of the whole symphony, a brass fanfare–the call of fate. This theme appears throughout the first movement, and reappears near the end of the last movement. The despair of Fate, “that ominous power which hinders our striving after happiness,” contrasted with dreams of happiness dominates the first movement. An oboe solo introduces the second movement. "Here is that melancholy feeling which enwraps one when he sits at night alone in the house....One thinks on the gladsome hours, when the young blood boiled and bubbled, and there was satisfaction in life....And it is all so sad and yet so sweet to muse over the past." The playful pizzicato of the third movement expresses "capricious arabesques of elusive images which rush past...your spirit is neither cheerful nor yet sad. You think of nothing; you give free rein to your imagination...somewhere in the distance, a military procession passes." This movement is made up of "completely disjointed images which rush past in your head when you have fallen asleep.” Of the fourth movement the composer wrote "if within yourself you find no reasons for joy, look at others. Go among people. Observe how they can enjoy themselves, surrendering themselves wholeheartedly to joyful feelings." But then "irrepressible fate again appears and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you...they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad....Do not say that everything in this world is sad. There are simple but strong joys. Rejoice in others' rejoicing. To live is still possible!"

Back to Top

Program notes by Linda Mack. Copyright 2010.
Send me e-mail.

Program notes home Alphabetical Index of Composers Chronological Index of Concerts