“... I saw your naked soul, completely naked. It stretched out before me like some wild, mysterious landscape with its frightening depths and narrows, with its wonderful, joyful meadows and peaceful, idyllic corners. I saw it as a natural storm with its terrors and perils as well as its enlightening and calming rainbow... I sensed the struggle for illusions, I saw how good and evil forces admonished each other, I saw how man worked himself into agonising anxiety in order to attain inner harmony; I sensed the man, the drama, the truth, the merciless truth.” (Arnold Schoenberg. From a letter to Gustav Mahler dated 12 December 1904).
It is hard to convey in just a few words the deep meaning of the symphony better than Schoenberg did in his letter when writing to Mahler following the premiere of the Fifth (Cologne, 18 October 1904), as he himself said, “not as a musician to a musician but as a man to a man.” The five movements of the symphony are consequential phases in the struggle that unfolds not on the battlefield but rather in the human heart (à la Dostoevsky!) between Good and Evil. The prologue of the drama is a Funeral March in which there intrudes an episode full of infinite despair (in the score there is the remark “With passion. Wildly”). The tense second movement in complex sonata form is an undoubted culminating point of symphonic narrative (the composer himself prefaces the second movement with the comment “Stürmisch bewegt” (“Moving stormily”). The Scherzo is a grandiose symphonic waltz in which, Mahler said, “ostensible disorder should become supreme order and harmony, as in a gothic cathedral.” The divine Adagietto leads to the ecstatic Rondo-finale which foretells the overcoming of suffering and completes the symphony with a radiant apotheosis.
With the release of Luchino Visconti’s film Death in Venice the Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony became incredibly popular. As if separated from the symphony, it became a work in its own right, performed in highly diverse and at times idealistically contrasting circumstances. According to Willem Mengelberg, a conductor and passionate promoter of Mahler’s music, in December 1901 Mahler sent the score of his only just completed Adagietto to his future wife Alma Schindler. It was a declaration of love: Alma, who was studying composition and greatly admired Wagner, could not but hear in Mahler’s music a direct reference to Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. In 1973 the music of the Adagietto was used in Roland Petit’s ballet La Rose malade, the costumes for which were designed by Yves Saint-Laurent. The three-act production to the music of Mahler’s Second and Fifth Symphonies was created especially for Maya Plisetskaya. The Adagietto blends together the inseparable union of the ecstasy of love and hopeless despair – that is why it is performed at times of intense lyrical loftiness and at times of deep grief. In 1951 Leonard Bernstein performed this music on the final journey of his teacher Serge Koussevitzky. Since then the Adagietto has frequently been performed at funerals.
The premiere of Rodion Shchedrin’s one-act ballet Carmen-Suite took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 20 April 1967. The ballet had been conceived and staged by the Cuban choreographer Alberto Alonso for Maya Plisetskaya, who performed the title role brilliantly at the premiere. By the time of the creation of Carmen-Suite Bizet’s opera had become a standard repertoire production, as had been predicted by Tchaikovsky who was present at the disastrous performance in 1875. Bizet’s contemporaries were incensed not just by the piquancy of the plot in which Mérimée’s heroine ceased to be a character with a hint of negativity – the heartfelt and fervent melodies and spicy harmonies reeked of danger. The musical language of the opera presents a significantly recognisable sound image of Spanish folklore, one that Glinka, too, had invented and which became incredibly popular among composers of the latter half of the 19th century. In the “Spanish” score there are also interwoven the voices and rhythms of the streets of Paris as well as the captivating melodies of Italian opera. But almost the most important thing that stuns anyone hearing Carmen for the first time is its enchanting dance-like nature that imbues the music of the opera from start to finish. We recognise the heroine not from the arias but from the dances – the Habanera and the Seguilida¬. That is why the appearance of a ballet suite to opera music does not seem an extravagance.
Without compromising the image of familiar music, Shchedrin brilliantly brought together components of the opera. The tragic story is narrated in concentrated form – it fits into the thirteen numbers of the suite. The orchestra also represents a kind of extract: the strings and the primarily timbre-like percussion group, which Shchedrin often conveys in the “vocal” fragments.
The subtle orchestration and symphonism of Carmen-Suite released it from the narrow confines of illustrative decorative music. Like Bizet’s opera, Shchedrin’s suite has become one of the most frequently staged works. Just as frequently, it is performed in concert as an independent symphonic score.
“In 1928, at the request of Monsieur Rubinstein, I composed my Boléro for orchestra. It is a dance in a very measured tempo, changing neither melodically, harmoniously nor rhythmically, and yet the rhythm is constantly marked by the beating of the drum. The only element of variety comes with the orchestral crescendo,” Maurice Ravel wrote twenty years later in his Esquisse autobiographique.
Valentin Serov, who painted a well-known portrait of Ida Rubinstein after falling under the spell of her interpretation of the roles of Cleopatra and Schéhérazade with Diaghilev’s company, said that “Egypt and Assyria themselves somehow came back to life with this extraordinary woman.” This time too she enchanted the audience, naturally sharing the glory with the composer and Alexandre Benois who had designed the sets. Here are the words of one person who attended the premiere on 28 November 1928 at the Opéra de Paris together with a performance of La Valse.
From the very start of the piece, in the music one can hear some mysterious anxiety. Restrained and sorrowful, the impossibly long (thirty-four bars!) melody with its unchanging theme becomes an iron-like and persistently repetitive rhythm... When, after the countless repetition of the theme, the sound reaches apocalyptical power, when the melody suddenly begins to disintegrate into individual intonations, when the unexpected shift in tonality literally tears the theme from its steel carcass of rhythm and thrusts it into a chasm of impending catastrophe one has the uncomfortable feeling that the world is collapsing... It was not by chance that one of the composer’s friends, André Suarès, wrote on the anniversary of Ravel’s death that “The obsession of the rhythm and the melody and the clear desire not to vary the theme... was an insistent, almost hallucinogenic repetition of one and the same musical phrase, a gloomy frenzy of music – all of this, in my opinion, transforms the piece into something akin to Songs and Dances of Death.