Ivan the Terrible, musical picture after L.A. Mey, Op. 79 (1869)

By Yoel Greenberg

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Anton Rubinstein was one of the most influential musicians in nineteenth-century Russia. As a piano virtuoso he was considered the equal of Liszt, performing all over the world until his death in 1894. As a pedagogue, he was the founder and director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky was one of the first students. As a composer, Tchaikovsky considered him superior to Brahms, and his works were widely performed throughout the nineteenth century all over Europe and America. His second symphony, “The Ocean Symphony,” was the most frequently performed orchestral work in the second half of the century. Today, however, a work by Rubinstein is a rare sight on a concert program.

Rubinstein was born in 1829 to Jewish parents, who were baptized the following year. At the age of eleven, Rubinstein embarked on a tour of Europe, during which he made the acquaintance of Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer. During this tour, Rubinstein first heard Italian opera, which was to have a major influence on his music. Rubinstein’s first and longest contact with Vienna was in 1846, shortly after his father’s death. He spent two years in the city of music, living in great poverty, later describing this period as “the most terrible time in my life.”

It was during this time in Vienna that the volatile lifelong relationship between Rubinstein and Liszt developed. Rubinstein’s manner of playing was highly influenced by Liszt—he even “pulled all the Liszt faces” — and in many cases, the form of his compositions, in particular the symphonic portrait Ivan the Terrible, is indebted to Liszt.

In 1848 Rubinstein returned to Russia, where he became an essential part of the country’s musical life. His two most important contributions were the founding of the Russian Music Society in 1859, and of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, which was to produce some of Russia’s finest musicians. This latter enterprise was greeted somewhat sourly by the members of “the five” (the nationalistic composers Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov), who rejected formal musical education as a “German” influence. They were also critical of the German influence evident in Rubinstein’s compositions. Rubinstein was later to modify these “foreign” influences in his work, and espouse, to a certain extent, the theories of “the five.” His later music, as is evident in Ivan the Terrible, makes increasing use of Russian folk music.

The symphonic portrait Ivan the Terrible, written in 1869 and arranged for piano duet by Tchaikovsky the same year, is based on the play bearing the same name by Lev Alexandrovich Mey. Mey’s play recounts the story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s attack on Novgorod, leading to the deaths of Tucha and his beloved Olga, who turns out to be none other than the Tsar’s daughter. The work begins with a dark chorale-like theme, followed by a fugal one. Both themes show a clear Mendelssohnian influence. After a return to the chorale theme, a dramatic section begins, in which the two themes are developed. Next appears a new, turbulent, theme followed by a beautiful Russian-flavored tune on the bassoons, accompanied by plucked strings. The music builds up to a festive climax, after which the three new themes (turbulent, Russian and festive) are developed extensively. A new chorale-like theme is played by the low strings, and the development continues, until a tense and tragic return of the first two themes, which slowly die out. The turbulent theme makes its final appearance, bringing the work to a close.