Fireworks, Op. 4 (1908-09)

By Christopher Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As the son of a leading bass in the Russian Imperial Opera, Igor Stravinsky’s exposure to music started young. Feodor Stravinsky was not anxious, however, for his son to pursue a musical career and insisted that he go to law school, which he did for eight semesters without ever graduating. The musical impulse could not be silenced and Igor began serious study. One of his most important influences was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose sons he had befriended and with whom he eventually took private lessons free of charge.

Rimsky, a brilliant orchestrator and author of an important treatise on instrumentation, supervised the composition of Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat major, which was partially performed in 1907 and presented in its entirety the following year. His next orchestral work, the Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, is a companion piece of sorts to the more compressed Fireworks, Op. 4. Both are in the Russian tradition of brilliant, vibrantly colorful scherzos, either contained within symphonies or written as separate pieces. Fireworks also owes a clear debt in its slow, mysterious middle section to Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice (subtitled “Symphonic Scherzo after Goethe”) which Stravinsky heard Alexander Siloti conduct in St. Petersburg in October 1904.

Stravinsky supposedly wrote Fireworks to celebrate the marriage of Rimsky’s daughter Nadezhada to the composer Maximilian Steinberg in June 1908. He later recalled informing Rimsky of his plans: “He seemed interested, and told me to send it to him as soon as it was ready . . . I finished it in six weeks and sent it off to the country place where he was spending the summer. A few days later a telegram informed me of his death, and shortly afterwards my registered package was returned to me: ‘Not delivered on account of death of addressee.’” Although Rimsky did die just three days after the wedding, Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin is suspicious of the chronology related in this story. His detective work suggests that Stravinsky composed the work well after the wedding (he calls Fireworks “a belated wedding present”), most likely in the fall of 1908. In any case, Stravinsky was still refining the orchestration in May of the following year and it was finally premiered at one of Siloti’s concerts in January 1910. (There are reports of conservatory or private performances leading up to the event.)

Both the Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks tremendously impressed the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky, then in his mid-twenties, to write for the upcoming season of the Ballets Russes in Paris. His first assignment was to orchestrate two pieces by Chopin for a planned revival of Mikhail Fokine’s ballet Chopiniana, retitled Les Sylphides. This initial collaboration with Diaghilev eventually led to the Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, and other works. Stravinksy conducted Fireworks often during the course of his long career. (With a duration of less than four minutes, it serves as an attractive concert opener or encore.) One of the most important performances, recorded for posterity, came in October 1962 during his historic return visit to Russia after an absence of nearly five decades. Robert Craft, his assistant and interlocutor, reports that Stravinksy asked the Composers’ Union to invite Rimsky’s daughter, for whom he had written the work so many years earlier, but “the old lady declined because she had always known that I. S. detested her husband, the composer Maximilian Steinberg.”

Revolution 1905

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

This concert engages the question of how music can inform our understanding of history. Today’s program is divided into two distinct parts. Three of the works, Glazunov’s Song of Destiny, Miaskovsky’s Silentium, and Stravinsky’s Fireworks come from a short period in the history of Russia in which the most significant event was the so-called Revolution of 1905. In the second half of the program, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11, subtitled “1905” but completed in 1957, forces us to reflect on how we conceive of, interpret, and remember history. In looking back, we can be influenced not only by the elapse of time but by the momentous changes that can seem to exceed the particular temporal distance. Consider for example, America in 1950 and the America of 2000, or more poignantly, the America before the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, and the America on the eve of the 2004 election. In what ways will our children and grandchildren commemorate and understand September 11, 2001?

The world in which the 1905 Revolution took place was one of radical economic progress for Russia. In terms of industrialization, Russia could be counted in 1900 among the most backward of European nations. It was the last European nation to abandon the feudal practice of serfdom. It was plagued by massive illiteracy, an enormously powerful state-supported church, a corrupt, landed aristocracy, and an obsolete form of monarchy. Nevertheless, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century through the first fifteen years or so of the twentieth century, Russia became the object of enormous capital investment, comparable in some ways to China of today or Korea and Japan in the second half of the twentieth century.

With Russia’s rapid economic development came a fast-growing middle class and rise in the cosmopolitanism of the nation’s urban centers. This all took place alongside dramatic increases in personal wealth, in the standard of living, and in expectations for the future, particularly in St. Petersburg and Moscow. At that time, the western part of Russia included part of modern-day Poland. The cities of Russian Poland also experienced the boom, such as Warsaw and Lodz, which became a burgeoning center of textile manufacture. Among the expectations that emerged was one of political reform, the demand for which was driven by a need to expand the possibilities for economic development.

This economic and social transformation should be further understood in the context of a long nineteenth-century history of tension between the Russian intelligentsia (both in Russia and expatriated) and the Russian monarchy. Ever since the execution of the Decembrists during Pushkin’s generation in the early nineteenth century, the Russian monarchy and its policies were the object of intense criticism. Restrictions on liberty forced not only the creation of exiles but underground movements within Russia, as well as generational strife. The novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy reflect this. In addition, Russia’s ambivalence in terms of its national identity in regard to the West in the nineteenth century became a rallying cry for vying camps of intellectuals and artists. There were those who believed in the unique Russian tradition, and those who wanted modern social progress on a Western model. Gogol and Dostoevsky expressed the known conservative view of Russia’s character. The older Tolstoy enigmatically engaged both; toward the end of his life he was an outspoken utopian social radical, but also a Christian believer whose faith led him to challenge the virtues of modernity and the traditions of high culture. In music, the division between the Westernizers and Russophiles who saw Russia more natively Eastern is well documented. In this conflict only Tchaikovsky emerged as holding a middle ground successfully.

Peter the Great’s ideals of Westernized modernization continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before the October Revolution of 1917, but they were persistently contested. The period from the 1890s to the outbreak of World War I came to a dramatic and notorious end with the Russian Revolution and, shortly thereafter, ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky. This dénouement followed decades of internal unrest, assassination (most notably of Czar Alexander II), the popularity of anarchism, and the operation of prison systems so eloquently described by Dostoevsky in From the House of the Dead (1860). This prison system laid the groundwork for the gulag of the Soviet era. The tensions between Westernization and an anti-Western Russian nationalism, between a vision of an industrial and a rural Russia, between a cosmopolitan embrace of notions of democracy and freedom and a more communitarian Russian Orthodox vision of a unified people, did not disappear after 1917. Stalin’s success was one of both strategic brilliance and of terror and cruelty. He understood that if there was a way to combine the idea of communism with that of nationalism and patriotism, a more successful and stable Soviet state could be developed. He was less committed to the idea that the Russian Revolution would be a first step in a global communist revolution in which nations and politics would disappear.

Many Americans do not even realize there was a revolution in 1905 which was brutally suppressed. That revolution coincided with Russia’s humiliating defeat at the battle of Tsushima in its war against Japan. The defeat of the Russian fleet was especially symbolic given the heritage of Peter the Great’s longstanding dream of Russian naval power. The unrest resulting from these events inflamed the movements among the urban population for better work conditions and representation in the government. The monarchy was forced to institute some reforms including a parliament, or Duma, but a genuine constitutional monarchy never came into being. However, during this brief period of liberalization, there was enormous optimism. It is in this period that the greatest Russian art collections, particularly of French impressionists, were amassed. Russian theatre and painting flowered. Some of the masterpieces by Russian painters may be seen in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Russia developed not only a middle class but its robber barons and super-rich as well. Education and culture blossomed. The earlier works on today’s program are examples of the energy, sophistication, and originality in this period. Glazunov and Miaskovsky were master craftsmen whose achievements easily match the technical attainments of their contemporaries in Europe and North America. Young Stravinsky, who studied with Rimsky-Korsakov, would later draw upon his Russian training and roots to set one of the major directions for twentieth-century music.

But World War I and the 1917 Revolution brought this hopeful time to an end. In the mid-1920s, after the Civil War and the war with the new independent Poland, there was a huge emigration. Paris was the favorite destination, as it had been for the emigrating intelligentsia since the early nineteenth century. It was there that Serge Diaghilev and Stravinsky found themselves among a fabulous group of colleagues in all fields of art and culture. The “White” Russian emigration included such famous names as Nabokov, Milstein, Heifetz, Rachmaninoff, Chagall, and the young Prokofiev. During the first decade of the Soviet Union, there was also still some limited travel to Russia. Communication was maintained between the musical and visual avant-garde from the West and composers and artists in the young Soviet Union. Art and architecture were also beneficiaries of this early modernist enthusiasm. Shostakovich came of age with the October Revolution. (The 1905 Revolution occurred before his birth and was central to his parents’ generation.) While in his twenties as a student, Shostakovich heard Berg and Hindemith. He encountered innumerable performers concertizing in the new Russia. His own early music, including the opera The Nose, expressed an optimism about modernity and the possibility of new art for a socialist utopia. This lasted until the composition of his Fourth Symphony.

With Stalin’s gradual accretion of power, artistic freedom was restricted and debate ended. The modernists and the left-wing proletarian simplifiers were both taken to task. In 1936, Shostakovich’s second opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was publicly censured. A new relationship between the state and the artist became entrenched. Painters and architects were now understood as serving Stalin’s new vision in which a sense of Russian history and nationality were to be combined with conservative traditions of art-making, all accessible to the masses. What was deemed wrong was condemned as “formalism.”

In this context, Glazunov’s oeuvre was quickly judged to be old-fashioned and bourgeois. Glazunov had been one of Shostakovich’s teachers (as well as a legendary consumer of vodka); ultimately he emigrated. The somewhat younger Miaskovsky, however, took a different path. Based in Moscow and one of Prokofiev’s champions and mentors, Miaskovsky continued to teach and write. His initial optimism turned into a quiet pessimism, but he remained in his homeland and never flagged in his output of music of extraordinary quality, including twenty-nine symphonies, today all underperformed. Miaskovsky played the game with restraint, and in 1940 received the Stalin Prize for his Symphony No. 21. He became a grand old man who salvaged the opportunity to continue composition in the Soviet state.

Shostakovich’s situation was more complicated. He was the most talented of the new generation and became the greatest Soviet artist in any field of endeavor. His First Symphony made him world famous. His second opera resulted in brutal attacks. He adjusted to the criticism, and redeemed himself with the famous Fifth Symphony. The Seventh Symphony once again attracted worldwide attention for its expression of the suffering and heroism of the Russian people during the great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. But in 1948, he again earned Stalin’s censure, only to rehabilitate himself a second time by writing the music for the film The Fall of Berlin and traveling to New York to attend an international congress of culture. This was presented in defense of the aesthetics of the Soviet state under Stalin and of socialist realism against the modernism of the West.

Shostakovich’s relation to Stalin has been the object of scrutiny and controversy. But it cannot be doubted that he was at one and the same time a patriot and loyal son of the country, and a tortured and conflicted artist who had no illusions about the tyranny of Stalin and the price people, including artists, paid. He witnessed Stalin’s crimes, including his final campaign of terror against the Jews that culminated in the notorious Doctors Plot.

With the death of Stalin and the process of de-Stalinization begun by Khrushchev, another era of optimism, reminiscent perhaps of 1905 and 1914, came into being. This was cut short in the early 1960s, even while Khrushchev was in power. By the mid-1950s, however, Shostakovich’s position was secure because of his international fame. For the last twenty years of his life he was not only honored by his nation but served in a wide variety of official capacities on behalf of the state.

This sketchy description of this complex and multi-faceted period of history only suggests the challenges facing great artists writing music. Symphony No. 11 has been interpreted variously in terms of its meaning. What is beyond doubt is that from the perspective of the post-Stalin era, the 1905 Revolution took on new significance. It was not only understood as a precursor of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; it was also remembered as the event that began a period of political reform, greater openness, and prosperity. It symbolized a period in which the arts, especially music, flourished in an atmosphere of greater freedom and material well-being.

Perhaps the ambiguity of Shostakovich’s intentions in the Symphony concerning the way 1905 could be recollected half a century later is an indication of both the Symphony’s power and its so-called purely musical qualities. Like other works of instrumental music, Symphony No. 11 has the merit of being able to break free from its origins and the intentions of its composer. Contemporary listeners do not need to be aware of the 1905 Revolution or the composer’s troubled life and politics to fashion a rewarding sense of the music. This is part of the allure that instrumental music holds for listeners. When faced with tyranny, music becomes a refuge, a protected oasis for the freedom of the imagination. When personal liberty and freedom is under attack, it can be understood as a steady means of escape and detachment. In this sense, music always possesses the plausible capacity to be read in reference to the self. At the same time, however, Shostakovich was committed to writing music that communicated with a large public. It is clear that he was after something more than mere entertainment. That challenge continues to be relevant. What values, ideals, and aspirations can the making of art take up and protect in periods dominated by political disappointment and fear, and in the presence of danger and restrictions of freedom and intolerance of dissent? Although one does not need to know the historical context or references of Shostakovich’s Symphony in order to be affected by it, it is illuminating to reflect on the connection between the Symphony’s genesis and the internal and external political developments and aspirations with which Shostakovich and his listeners struggled. The 1905 Revolution and its memory suggest that there is an inevitable connection between music and history, particularly the political reality which the artist and his or her public share. The complex dynamic between music and citizenship is itself a challenge that no artist can afford to ignore. This admonition holds for all generations, including our own.

Song of Destiny, Op. 84 (1908)

By Fred Kirshnit

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

The student rebellion of 1905 was devastating for some and inspiring for others; for Alexander Glazunov it turned out to be a rather fortuitous career move. A lowly tutor at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he resigned in protest over the firing of Rimsky-Korsakov, but was soon elevated to the directorship of the institution after most of the demands of the activists were met. Naturally reflecting on the Hegelian (or, in his case, Tolstoyan) effects of historical thesis and antithesis on one dispensable mortal, Glazunov soon examined the role of predestination in his own life by reworking the fate motif from the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven, allying himself with others (to name but two examples, the Third Piano Quartet of Brahms and the Piano Pieces, Op. 3 of Richard Strauss) as part of a grand tradition of glorifying this most famous and recognizable of classical music themes; and in so doing, making a strong case for reverence of and learning from the past. Glazunov, by reversing the major-minor relationship of this famous motto, a technique later employed by Sergei Prokofiev when he transformed the Beethovenian “moonlight” motif into the ghostly introduction of the third movement of his own Symphony No. 5, creates a destiny that doesn’t so much knock stridently at the door, as does the corresponding phrase in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, but rather oozes over the transom like the all-pervasive cosmic force that is the centerpiece of that same composer’s Fifth Symphony.

The same winds of change that blew Glazunov into power, however, seemed also to have chilled his hand. Having already created his eight unjustly neglected and very beautiful symphonies and the simply gorgeous Violin Concerto, the new administrator virtually retired from significant composition after completing this rhapsodic tone poem, living another twenty-eight years relatively comfortably, but unchallenged. Eventually becoming disillusioned with the communist system, he moved to Paris and conducted briefly in Detroit and Boston as well. Listen especially to the third subject of this piece, introduced by the flutes and treated as an expansive gouache. Here we experience his luxurious style of composition by titanic washes of sound so memorable in the scores of his own symphonies and those of his contemporaries Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. The very opulence of its environment slowly emboldens the fate motif and its final reprise is much more strident and portentous.

The most talented pupil that Glazunov trained at the conservatory was surely Dmitri Shostakovich, who himself quotes a Wagnerian fate motif in his own final symphony. Ironically, the administrator who was swept into power in an era of radical change eventually became the chief symbol of fogeydom for the young firebrand, although that faintly Oriental flavor of much of the early Shostakovich, especially the First Symphony (written during his student days), is a direct result of exposure to the colorful harmonic language of the traditionalist teacher. It is in fact the heady scent of the Caucasus that permeates the Song of Destiny, contributing signature and exotic beauty to the hero’s life.

Silentium, Op. 9 (1909)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

In 1905 Nikolai Miaskovsky (1881–1950), who would become one of the most prolific and significant Russian composers of the twentieth century, author of twenty-seven symphonies, was still in the military. Following family tradition, he spent years at the prestigious St. Petersburg Cadet College and then at the Academy of Military Engineering, and upon graduating in 1902 served in Moscow as a military engineer, in spite of his growing passion for music. He played piano and violin, studied composition privately with Reinhold Glière, met with and sought advice from the unquestionable leader of Russian music, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and wrote numerous art songs and piano pieces, but did not enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1906. He spent five years there, graduating in 1911, the oldest among his fellow students. Sergei Prokofiev, ten years his junior and a student of the same composition class of Anatoly Lyadov, noted in his diary in 1910, “Miaskovsky does not exist outside music . . . just one silent shadow. He is strange. And so uncommunicative—especially with ladies [ . . . ] When music is concerned, he is a completely different man, for whom nothing exists but one idea.”

This shy, modest, awkward man, who was prone to melancholy and depression and mentioned his compositions with self-deprecating humor even to his trusted composer-friend Prokofiev, possessed not only a sensitive soul, but also an inquisitive intellect, and was attuned to the cultural movements of the time. At the dawn of a new century, Russia experienced a passionate affair with symbolism. Its obsession with the mysterious and the unspoken, with the realms of imagination and dreams, with death and loneliness, chaos and decay, resonated with spiritual longings of Russian fin-de-siècle society.

The poetry of Zinaida Gippius, the siren of Russian symbolism, found its way into a number of Miaskovsky’s songs. Among other favorites was the poet Konstantin Bal’mont, an admirer and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe’s prose and poetry was known in Russia since the 1860s, but his widespread popularity, which soon reached a cult level, began in the mid-1880s, when a collected edition of Poe tales in Russian translation was published for the first time.

With his innate pessimism, Miaskovsky felt very close to the psychological horrors of Poe’s tales. Silentium, in Bal’mont’s opinion the best of Poe’s tales, captured his imagination in 1908. He mentions in a letter to Prokofiev “a very good plot.” He writes in another one that he is “enormously enthralled with the plot,” adding that it will be an “orchestral tale” for a very big orchestra and that the whole piece will be devoid of any light note—“only darkness and horror.”

Silentium, completed in 1909, was the first of Miaskovsky’s compositions to be publicly performed, though a year before his First Sympony was written. The premiere of Silentium took place on June 12, 1911, on the summer stage in Sokolniki (Moscow) under the direction of Konstantin Saradjev, who became a friend and an avid advocate of Miaskovsky’s music.

Miaskovsky called Silentium his much-beloved child, and rightly so—it is one of the most sincere and passionate of his pieces, remarkable in its combination of spontaneity, originality and well-thought technical mastery. (The composer polished and edited it up to the mid-1920s). Its twenty-minute one-movement structure follows Poe’s tale very closely—a dark parable about the unbearable horror of eternal silence, told through a symbolic figure of a man, tired and full of sorrow, longing to be alone. He sits on a gray rock amidst a sad landscape of desolation, taking in stride terrifying noises and whispers, dangers of wild animals and tremendous storms, but runs in horror when a sudden deadly silence falls, bestowed by demons. The composer realizes all of this with emotional and visual precision in a sonata-like structure, which he, following the narrative, transforms into a natural flow of images both picturesque and deeply touching, creating one of the earliest and finest examples of Russian musical expressionism.

Symphony No. 11 in G minor, “The Year 1905,” Op. 103 (1957)

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

After the phenomenal international success of his Tenth Symphony (1953), Shostakovich’s Eleventh, “The Year 1905” (1957)—a large-scale programmatic work timed to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution—struck many of his admirers as disappointingly provincial. The opening salvo of the first, abortive Russian Revolution, the massacre of workers in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square on “Bloody Sunday” (January 9, 1905), forms the programmatic basis of the Symphony. Still, despite the expedience of its graphically realized program, the Eleventh transcends the level of propagandistic potboiler. The evils of tyranny and oppression with which the Symphony deals are a pervasive theme in the music of Shostakovich, one which he well knew is timeless and universal.

On the surface, Shostakovich’s “1905” Symphony would appear to be similar in conception to both his Symphony No. 2, “Dedication to October” (1927), and Symphony No. 3, “The First of May” (1929). Unlike both of these one-movement works, however, Shostakovich rejects the use of the chorus and explicit poetic texts in his later Symphony. The Eleventh is comprised of four movements, each with a descriptive subtitle, although the movements are unified thematically and are performed without a pause. The first movement, “The Palace Square,” sets the stage for the action to follow. Its uneasy tranquility is shattered by the second, “The Ninth of January.” Here, the mounting suspense becomes almost unbearable, making the advent of the massacre itself all the more dramatic. The last two movements represent two very different reactions to the carnage that has taken place. “Eternal Memory” focuses on the grief and sorrow; and in the final movement, “Alarm,” the forces of fury and confrontation are released.

To help convey the emotional intensity of the historical moment, Shostakovich relies on direct, if sometimes fleeting quotations from a number of popular revolutionary songs. The songs—including the funeral march “You Fell a Victim”; the battle march “Boldly, Comrades, Keep Step!”; the song of student protest “Rage, Tyrants!”; and the Polish revolutionary song “Varshavianka”—are among the most famous of the revolutionary legacy. All had their origins in the nineteenth century and all were already widely disseminated by 1905. Likewise, all have long been enshrined in the realm of musical folklore. For the Russian listener, even a snatch of one of these tunes carries a subtext of symbolic and concrete imagery, much as fragments of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “We Shall Overcome” might communicate to an American audience. In addition to the quotations from revolutionary songs, Shostakovich makes extensive use of two motifs from one of his own earlier compositions, “The Ninth of January,” (No. 6 of Ten Poems on Texts by Revolutionary Poets of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Op. 88), a song for unaccompanied chorus that treats the events of Bloody Sunday explicitly. Each of those two motifs is striking and distinctive. Indeed, the musical identity of all the borrowed material is so strong that Shostakovich is able to treat it with great flexibility, developing its symphonic potential and exploring the melodic and rhythmic interconnections. Underlying the explication of the extramusical program is a highly sophisticated and integrated musical structure. While the basic building-blocks of the Symphony may be less familiar to the non-Russian listener than to the native, Shostakovich succeeds in crafting those blocks into a vivid and compelling drama that communicates, as only music can, across national boundaries.