The Russian Symphony Part 1
So I started writing about the piece we will talk about today, and then I realized I’d listened to and wrote about the wrong symphony.
The second symphony from this Russian composer doesn’t feel terribly Russian or Symphonic. Perhaps in a world before Debussy’s La Mer, this piece would feel less like a large-scale tone poem, something it seemed to lean toward as the composer worked on the piece later.
Despite Liszt’s lack of willingness to give aid to the young, poor Rubinstein, the symphony bears a dedication to Liszt. Its first performance was on March 6, 1852, and the American Symphony program notes state:
… it won the favor of audiences with its magnificent trumpet calls, swirling melodies, and solid structure. The ocean, according to Rubinstein, is depicted in the contrasts between the agitated and peaceful passages, the deep lyricism of the second movement, and the heroic chorale at the end of the fourth movement, when man’s spirit gains domination over the power of the ocean.
Despite its initial success, the composer took to heavily revising the work over the subsequent decades: two additional movements, a new scherzo, and the above-linked program notes suggest that this was the composer’s response to the growing enthusiasm for the tone poem as a form in classical music. As I mentioned earlier, my initial thought about this piece was a much more traditional La Mer, it feels nautical and spacious and adventurous, but it’s in this no-man’s-land between traditional symphony and expansive tone poem, and these late revisions tipped the scales in favor of the latter.
I’d say… the way I see it, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t go back and mess with old things, because… that’s how they are. They’re an indication of who you are then and at that time; it’s a snapshot of sorts, of your talents, viewpoints, emotions, etc. However, Rubinstein apparently saw the artistic process as a never-ending one, and his continuous treatment of this work bears that out.
Interestingly, when Richard Strauss programmed the piece on
December 19, 1894, he decided on the original four-movement symphony instead of the seven-movement tone-poem-thingy for the performance, despite the apparent quality of the new movements. Apparently, even Tchaikovsky preferred the original, more pared-down version of the symphony.
I’d say, whether you’re a painter, a chef, a composer, a hairstylist… you have to know when to quit. But that’s a matter of opinion. We’ll be discussing the four-movement form.
The opening is outstandingly ‘maestoso’, majestic and big and broad and sunny, like sailing out onto a flat ocean at sunrise. The opening melody in flute with shimmery strings in the background is captivating and put to quite effective dramatic use, outdoing itself a few times in big, shining lyrical beauty, so that when a mellower, quiet passage comes around, there’s a delicious contrast, like a slight chill that comes in when a cloud prevents the sun from warming your skin.
Pay attention to the brass (well, trumpets) as the first subject cools down. There’s kind of a fanfare-ish call that might remind you of Tchaikovsky’s fourth. Remember, he loved this symphony. In any case, things mellow down considerably with the second subject, and these two themes of ours cover enough emotional and musical ground to make this feel like an oceanic, epic symphony, even if we’ve already experienced one of the high points of the piece. The opening theme calls out from bassoons, and we feel like we’ve reached a different point in the piece. There are a few moments where it feels like we might get a repeat of the exposition, with shimmery strings and flute returning, but no. Cellos and basses end up overpowering them in swells, and really does feel nautical, this back-and-forthing in the orchestra. It feels much more an impressionist technique than a Romantic one, but it’s very effective.
The return of the opening subject seems premature. Those trumpet calls come back, and stay for even longer. Is the fact that Tchaikovsky used trumpet calls an indication of his adoration of this symphony? Not necessarily, but it makes things interesting, no? Sounds good.
The recapitulation is nice, but feels drawn out and somehow… strangely familiar but also almost boring…? The development was interesting and dramatic and there was tension. In the recap, there’s pizzicato. Strong first movement.
The second movement is an adagio, the slow movement, but even it has its share of storm, kind of an undercurrent, again represented by low strings, bassoon, below long smooth lines in higher strings. This movement, at least the first few minutes, feels or sounds almost like something from… Sibelius! It’s broad and tense and mildly pained, and darkly beautiful, textured, rich, with long, expressive lines that stretch out across a landscape, except this time it’s the ocean, not Finland. Truly beautiful. The middle section reaches a gorgeous high point where the tumultuous low strings drop away (or else calm down) and violins and woodwinds sing a sweet melody that’s almost saccharine, almost film score in its precious, bordering-on-sappy expression. The entire movement up to this point feels like one long breath, one singular thought, and before you know it, the darker, richer atmosphere from the opening has blown back in. There is more to the music in its atmosphere than the music… does that make sense? It’s definitely mood music, the atmosphere and emotion that a movement like this evokes means more when you know the program, but even if you don’t it’s sufficiently dramatic and expressive. Timpani roll to begin to announce the coming end of the movement, and flute (a gorgeous, whole, pristine clean rich flute) and trumpet call-and-respond as the movement draws to a tensely quiet close from a drone in horns and timpani. Cool stuff.
The stormy low strings roll us into the allegro third movement. This feels Russian, and the lyrical B theme after the opening is really quite delightful. It feels almost Tchaikovskian, but that wouldn’t be proper, since Rubinstein was far earlier! So it sounds, perhaps… just nicely Russian. It’s the first thing that feels distinctly Russian, to me, but also a maybe a little bit outside the program for the piece, maybe more suitable for ballrooms than bowlines or boating. It still feels adventurous and kind of Romantically epic, but a bit more elegant than the rest. It’s also the shortest movement of the four (in the 1851 version; I’ve not heard the movements that were added later). The movement feels almost through-composed… it does its thing and then it’s over. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s about half the length of all the other movements.
The opening of the fourth movement is the most somber-feeling passage of the entire symphony, for me. It opens with clarinets, then strings, followed by a flute (again with the amazing flautist!) that feels like it’s trying to call back the melody from the very beginning, but no. The strings really take over here, and the tension and build is stronger than anything we’ve heard thus far. It’s very well done. Out of it emerge cellos that seem happy to see the sunlight; there are some stops and starts, but we’re moving toward brighter things, it seems, but not so fast. After some really stormy uncertain passages and a long pause, there emerges, almost illogically, a steady, confident tune, seemingly out of nowhere. It’s triumphant, even playful. With these two new strong characters as our themes, this movement presents itself as another sonata-form movement, also without a repeated exposition. Rubinstein isn’t that traditional. The development of this movement seems to be marked more by joy and triumph and celebration than uncertainty or tension.
The timpani punctuates important, epic points of the symphony and it marks the beginning of the epic end of this piece. It climbs and swells and grows in triumph, a long, drawn out climax, almost a Brucknerian finish in its soaring, almost searing brass.
The reason I feel like this piece, despite its fine structure and moving passages and all the rest of its symphonic qualities is that the programmatic nature of the piece from beginning to end seems almost to drown out its symphonic structure. Does that make sense? Like, the unity of voice and expression, that ocean theme unifies the whole piece, which is great, but while the piece feels expansive and rich and interesting, it’s very much all in that tapestry. It’s obviously not as drippingly Russian as, oh, say, many of the other pieces we’ll talk about, I find this a solid work, one that unfortunately doesn’t often make it to the concert stage.
It is also, as being less Russian than most of the other works we’ll discuss, a good starting point, as almost a foreword to the real Russian stuff. I know, I know, it’s very Russian and so was Rubinstein… sort of. But this first symphony is here because (aside from Rubinstein’s first symphony) it’s one of the earliest examples of a Russian composer writing a symphony in the Western sense. Glinka didn’t.
So this is our jumping off point, a really enjoyable, easily approachable, musically solid, rich work that is definitely NOT German, but not really Russian like we will see develop over the next few decades of music from this point forward. The contrast will be much clearer with the entrance of another important figure in next week’s articles. See you then.