Aleksandr Krein, The Rose and the Cross

by Peter Laki

Written for the concert Russia’s Jewish Composers, performed on December 17, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born October 20, 1883, in Nizhniy-Novgorod, Russia
Died April 21, 1951, in Staraya Ruza, Russia
Composed in 1917–21
Performance Time: Approximately 20 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 2 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 1 contrabassoon, 5 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, tam-tam), 2 harps, 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

Aleksandr Blok, perhaps the greatest Russian symbolist poet, died in 1921, four years after the October Revolution. Although he had welcomed the Revolution, he was hardly a Communist and by the time of his death at the age of 41, he had become disillusioned by the Bolsheviks. Blok had a great affinity for music; his mystical drama The Rose and the Cross was originally planned as a ballet whose score was to have been written by Aleksandr Glazunov. (In 1914, Mikhail Gnesin composed incidental music for the play.)

In the event, the play had more than 200 rehearsals at the Moscow Art Theater but was never performed in public. In his book Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, Simon Morrison offers the following summary of Blok’s play:

The plot brings together dissimilar characters, settings, images, and events: a grief-stricken lady and a dejected knight, a dilapidated castle and a windswept beach, the bells of a sunken city and a ghost in a dungeon, a peasant dance around a decorated tree and a song contest in a flowering dale. The spring that sets the plot in motion is a song so provocative that it haunts the dramatis personae for years after they hear it performed by an itinerant troubadour. The troubadour reappears at the drama’s end for an encore performance…the song’s pastoral text identifies joy and suffering as equivalent emotional states. Its music was intended to mesmerize its listeners—both those on and off the stage.

Krein was deeply steeped in Eastern European klezmer musical traditions, and the majority of his works were inspired by Jewish folklore. But not all of his works are Jewish in inspiration, and he honored Blok’s memory, a few years after the poet’s death, with the present five-movement orchestral suite, providing that ‟mesmerizing music” the play called for.

The score includes the following epigraph from the play:

The world’s boundless ecstasy
belongs to the heart that sings,
the roaring ocean calls
to a fatal and aimless wandering.

Surrender to the impossible dream,
You will fulfill your fate,
It is the heart’s immutable law:
Joy and suffering are the same!

(transl. P. L.)

Movement I (‟The Castle of Archimbault at Dawn”) opens with a dark motif for low strings and clarinets, accompanied by dramatic tremolos; a gloomy idea that gradually rises in dynamics to reach fortissimo, only to sink back, suddenly, into the mysterious atmosphere of the opening.

A brief fanfare for three muted trumpets leads into Movement II (‟The Rooms of Isaure”), a passionately romantic sketch with a colorfully orchestrated, explosive melody.

Movement III (‟On the Ocean Shore”) reprises the main motif of the first movement in a more dramatic presentation; it is followed without pause by Movement IV (‟Gaetan’s Song”), in which we hear the song that is so important in the play (and from which Krein took the above-quoted epigraph). The expressive melody, first heard on English horn, viola, and cello, is later taken over by the entire orchestra. Movement V (‟The Death of Bertrand: Epilog”) opens as a funeral march that, however, segues into a recapitulation of ‟Gaetan’s Song” from the previous movement, fashioned into the work’s triumphant conclusion, representing the ‟boundless ecstasy of the heart that sings.”

Peter Laki is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at Bard Conservatory of Music.