The great Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner was normally miserly with regard to extracting meaning from his works. Just once did he break his own rule. His Fourth Symphony (written in 1874 and first performed on 20 February 1881 in Vienna under Hans Richter) bears the title Die Romantische; the composer himself called his scherzo “Hunting”, his trio a “Dance Melody during the Huntsmen’s Meal” and the ultimate version of the finale a “Folk Celebration”. There is even a programme for the first movement that comes from Bruckner himself: “A medieval town – the early morning gloom – the morning reveille ringing out from the town’s towers – the gates open – knights enter riding proud horses; they are gripped by the magic of the woods – the noise of the forest – birdsong – and the romantic scene unfolds.” According to a remark written in the score, the chirp of a blue tit is imitated in the secondary theme of the first movement.
In the programme, we can readily identify images from operas by Wagner – Bruckner’s idol (the medieval knights in Lohengrin and Tannhдuser, the woodland romanticism of Siegfried). In the extended, melodious lines we can see the influence of Wagner’s “endless melody”, and the hymn-like first movement is composed in E Flat Major – the tonality of the opening of Das Rheingold, depicting the birth of a beautiful world.
There are few people in the world who have performed so many piano concerti by so many composers on the stage as a child and as a young man as Franz Liszt. Perhaps that’s why both of his own concerti are so utterly unlike the works of his predecessors. Liszt justly surmised that new content required a new form, and so he invented the genre of the symphonic poem. It was in the form of a one-movement romantic poem that he composed his concerti.
Piano Concerto No 2 in A Minor was first performed in Weimar on 7 January 1857. The composer was at the conductor’s stand and the soloist was Hans Bronsart von Schellendorf, to whom the composer dedicated the piece. Here Liszt appears with the full arsenal of composition technique. Several musical themes flow throughout the concerto, undergoing the most unexpected transformations, agonised, passionate and fantastical passages brilliantly blended together. But it is the heroic style in the concerto which Liszt inherited from Beethoven that is most important in the concerto; he had known Beethoven personally and performed his music throughout the course of his life. The piano sounds powerful and courageous. To achieve the most powerful resonance, Liszt almost incessantly used double and at times quadruple octaves, something that demands the most incredible heroism from pianists.
Arguably no other work by Tchaikovsky is as popular today as The Nutcracker. The music has long since become part of world music – it suffices to mention that in the 20th century Walt Disney and Duke Ellington both made use of it.
In Tchaikovsky’s ballets the music is a component that has equal status with the on-stage plot, and certainly not just an accompaniment and a metrical reference-point for the dancers. “Ballet is the same as a symphony,” said Tchaikovsky who had written The Sleeping Beauty two years earlier; the composer also developed this idea in The Nutcracker. The music of The Nutcracker took on a life of its own almost half a year before the ballet was first staged. In March 1892 the suite from the ballet, arranged by Tchaikovsky himself, was performed at a concert and proved a great success with the public.
The music of The Nutcracker is a dialogue with different epochs and genres; the refined overture, the pompous procession and the early German Grossvater Tanz (Grandfather’s Dance) in Act I remind us of a gallant era; the night-time scene with the battle is without doubt a tribute to the tradition of German romantic fantasy, truly Hoffmannesque music. Lastly we have the music of Act I – looking forward into the 20th century.
Act II of the ballet, according to the libretto a grand divertissement and already with almost nothing in common with Hoffmann’s plot (which is exhausted in Act I), presented a well-known difficulty for Tchaikovsky. “I sense my utter inability to bring Confiturenburg to life in music,” the composer admitted in a letter to his brother Modest. But a solution was found and it was precisely Tchaikovsky’s music itself that was to be the factor that ironed out the uneven dramaturgy of the libretto.
The scene of the arrival in Confiturenburg is written in an almost impressionistic style; the composer wrote the scene of the magical castle using exclusively timbre means (the tremolo flute, the high register of the bassoon, the arpeggio of the strings and the celesta), at times not even using bold thematic structures. In the suite of dances which follows this scene Tchaikovsky appears as a master of orchestral writing, able to depict the most differing degrees of musical expression – exoticism (the Arabian and Chinese Dances), pastorale qualities (Dance of the Shepherdesses), irony (Mother Gigogne) and a mysteriously fantastical flavour (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; for the performance of this number Tchaikovsky brought from Paris a new musical instrument – the celesta). But in the middle passage – Waltz of the Flowers – there are tragic intonations, while in the culmination of the famous Adagio we are reminded of themes of destiny from his symphonies. The music reminds us that Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is something greater than just a children’s Christmas fairy-tale, and the question of its finale – despite being an apotheosis in major key – remains an open one.
© Mariinsky Theatre, 2015/Vladimir Khavrov