In the 1860s and 70s there was an unusually large interest in Russian culture concerning Shakespeare’s legacy. One of the most ardent readers of his art, Vladimir Stasov, offered Shakespearian plots to young composers as the basis of musical works. It was Stasov who gave Pyotr Tchaikovsky the suggestion for the programme of the symphonic fantasy based on the play The Tempest. The composer was not immediately drawn to the idea. For several months he was engaged with other works at the same time as he was thinking about a possible plan for The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s plot Tchaikovsky was drawn first and foremost to the lyrical theme. The final version of the programme more or less follows Stasov’s plan. The plot is interpreted in the romantic style; the main sections of the fantasy are linked with scenes of the sea (the opening and the conclusion) and the love scene of Ferdinand and Miranda (in the middle).
Tchaikovsky’s symphonic ballade The Voyevoda is rarely performed and has a reputation as one of the composer’s less effective works. To a large extent, this attitude was conditioned by Tchaikovsky himself. Following the premiere he considered the ballade a non-success, destroyed the score and later made no apology for his decision. Following Tchaikovsky’s death the score was revived from the orchestral parts which had been retained by Alexander Siloti.
The programme of The Voyevoda is based on the eponymous poem by Pushkin which is a loose translation of Adam Mickiewicz’s ballade The Patrol. The voyevoda returns home late at night and sees his wife in the garden speaking to her lover. Ordering the servants to shoot them, the voyevoda himself dies from a bullet fired by his rival. The music follows the plot of the poem; the scene of a mad chase cedes to the scene of the rendezvous. Tchaikovsky brilliantly creates a night-time flavour using orchestral colours including, for the first time, the timbres of the celesta. The declaration of the lovers is a lyrical dialogue of two themes. Sergei Taneyev later suggested that the first of them was conceived as a vocal one to the text “He did not seek, he did not suffer...” to Pushkin’s verse. In the coda comes the dramatic denouement.
Living abroad, Sergei Rachmaninoff composed little, appearing primarily as a concert pianist. In his works from that period he often turned to the European legacy – thus he composed the piano variations on a theme of Corelli and transcription of works by Bach, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was Rachmaninoff’s last work for piano. It was written at the Villa Senar in Switzerland in a short period, just one and a half months. The rhapsody comprises twenty-four variations on a theme from the famous Violin Capriccio No 24 by Niccolò Paganini. The variations are combined in three groups, as a result of which we can see a form reminiscent of a piano concerto – the presto first movement, the lento second and the virtuoso finale. In the seventh variation there is the theme of the mediaeval sequence Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”) – one of the themes that flows through all of Rachmaninoff’s music. The lyrical core of the lento movement and, indeed, the entire cycle, is Variation No 18, in style very remote from the theme but retaining an intonational link with it. In the culmination of the coda we once again hear the Dies irae theme, though the work concludes with peaceful and enigmatic music.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Third Symphony is connected with his opera The Fiery Angel after the eponymous novel by Valery Bryusov. The opera was completed in 1927 and was never performed on the stage during the composer’s lifetime. In 1928 Prokofiev reworked the music of the opera, transforming it into a symphony. Such cases had already occurred with Prokofiev’s music, though previously he composed suites based on theatre music without making any significant changes. Here, however, the themes of the opera were to be developed in a fully symphonic manner.
The gloomy mysticism that reigns throughout the opera casts its shadow on the symphony too. The work opens with a frenzied and challenging theme that later comes back in the culminations of the third and fourth movements. The principal and secondary themes of the first movement are linked with images of the spirit-possessed Renata and Sir Ruprecht. The chorale of the strings at the start of the second movement refers to the final act of the opera in which Renata seeks peace and retreats to a convent. The music of the scherzo has an infernal quality; the tremendously evil sound is created by timbre effects of the string section which is divided into thirteen voices. The grandiose finale combines a whirlwind-like movement of sound massifs with rhythms of a funeral procession and the mystical “sound of silence” in the middle movement.