Janáček: From On an Overgrown Path
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928), along with Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, is considered one of the most influential composers in the history of Czech music. Like Smetana and Dvořák, he often infused his works with distinctive Czech elements, either musically or through programmatic titles. The idea of nostalgia also forms a significant part of his musical imagination, as is evident in his collection of fifteen pieces for solo piano, On an Overgrown Path. This album of miniatures, according to the composer himself, ‘contain distant reminiscences … so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish’. The intimacy of expression in these exquisite gems, whether of unbridled joy, inexhaustible grief or something in between, gives each one a unique charm. Janáček began writing pieces to be included in the set around 1900 and published three of them in 1901. He kept adding to the collection until, in 1911, he published a ‘complete’ volume of ten movements. Decades later, in 1942, twenty years after the composer’s death, two more pieces were published as ‘volume 2’, followed by a ‘supplement’ with another three.
The title of the collection comes from a line in a Moravian wedding song, Moravia being the eastern part of the present-day Czech Republic and the region from which Janáček came. In the song, the bride laments that the path to her mother’s house has become overgrown. This meeting of joy and pathos, of memories both happy and sad, infuses the entire set. We hear musical renderings of cozy evenings by the fire (No. 1, ‘Our Evenings’), young love (No. 2, ‘A Blown-Away Leaf’), children’s games (No. 3, ‘Come with Us!’), a religious procession (No. 4, ‘The Madonna of Frydek’) and a young boy’s impression of older village women talking (No. 5, ‘They Chattered Like Swallows’). This afternoon’s set concludes with a haunting premonition of tragedy (No. 10, ‘The Barn Owl Has Not Flown Away!’), in which the owl of the title takes on its traditional role in Czech folk culture as a harbinger of doom. A sense of foreboding is very much present, and in one published score, the English title ‘The Little Owl Continues Screeching’ accentuates the movement’s ominous character.
Rachmaninoff: Six Ètudes-Tableaux, op. 33
As a virtuoso in the grand nineteenth-century tradition, the Russian pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) wrote many pieces for himself to perform. While Rachmaninoff’s style was firmly rooted in standard European practices, he pushed the limits of expansive harmonies and in many ways redefined dissonance by taking what in Mozart’s time a century and a half earlier would have been considered crunchy and making it sound lush and inviting.
Rachmaninoff wrote two sets of Études-Tableaux, or ‘Picture Etudes’, the first in 1911 (published in 1914 as op. 33) and the second in 1916 and 1917 (published in 1917 as op. 39). Etudes are most often defined as study pieces, the sort of thing pianists practice to develop their technique and which one really wouldn’t want to play (or hear) in public. In the hands and minds of nineteenth-century pianist-composers such as Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt, however, these became musically informed pieces with a great deal of appeal to both performers and audiences.
The qualifier ‘tableaux’ – pictures – is telling. Rachmaninoff remarked that these etudes were inspired by ‘external visual stimuli’, though he wouldn’t reveal what they were. He wanted listeners to form their own impressions without any influence from him or anyone else. The resultant pieces are filled with vivid aural imagery of an abstract sort. Rachmaninoff wrote nine pieces to be included in his first set, op. 33, but decided to publish only six of them. Of the three that didn’t make it into the publication, one was reworked and included in the second set while the other two were not published until after Rachmaninoff’s death. This afternoon, we’ll hear five of the original published set (1-2, 4-6) and, performed third, one of the two posthumously published etudes.
Manuel de Falla: ‘Cancíon’ and ‘Nocturno’
These two introspective pieces by the eminent Spanish musician Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) both come from his youth and reflect the composer-pianist’s fascination for French musical tastes. In ‘Cancíon’, from 1900, the crystalline textures evoke the soundworld of Erik Satie, while the ‘Nocturno’, from about 1896, reflects the richly sonorous pianistic style of not only Claude Debussy but also of one of the most famous composers of nocturnes, Frédéric Chopin. In the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, de Falla was making his living as a pianist. He performed regularly in salons in his home town of Cadiz as well as in Madrid and supplemented his income by giving private piano lessons. De Falla was also writing the sort of music that would be popular in salons, though most of these works remained unpublished until the late 1990s. There’s evidence that de Falla performed both pieces heard this afternoon on his semi-private concerts. In 1907, de Falla fulfilled his dream and went to Paris, where he lived for seven years before returning to his homeland and becoming a major figure in Spain’s musical firmament.
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) was part of a group of Russian composers whose goal was to create a distinctively Russian sound for their country’s music. The journalist Vladimir Stasov strongly supported such ideals, and in one of his articles he coined the term ‘mighty handful’ for this notable clutch of musicians. Most of its members were musical amateurs and had professional lives in fields other than music, at least early on. Besides Mussorgsky, a soldier, the group included Mily Balakirev, its leader and the only professional musician among them; Cesar Cui, an engineer; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval officer; and Alexander Borodin, a chemist and medical doctor. It was not just musicians who Stasov supported in their efforts to create a distinctively Russian style but also artists such as Ilya Repin and architects and graphic designers like Viktor Hartmann.
In 1873, Hartmann, with whom Mussorgsky was friends, died unexpectedly. The following March, Stasov helped organize a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s drawings, sketches and paintings. That summer, after seeing the display, Mussorgsky created a musical cycle for solo piano in which he offered musical impressions of ten of the pieces featured in the retrospective. These were not only musical evocations coming from visual stimuli (a concept to which Rachmaninoff would later return in his Études-Tableaux) but also a heartfelt memorial to his friend. It is not just the art itself that Mussorgsky translates into music but also the physical movement of moving around the gallery. Mussorgsky accomplishes the latter through a recurring ‘Promenade’. The ‘Promenade’ is one of the most remarkable aspects of the set. It is wholly Russian in that it is not organized into multiple groupings of three, four or even eight pulses, as was typical of Western European music at the time, but rather consists of a single idea that unfolds over eleven pulses. (It is a characteristic of nineteenth-century Russian music to organize music in terms of prime numbers; five-pulsed and seven-pulsed melodies were also very popular.) Furthermore, each statement of the ‘Promenade’ is distinctive in that it depicts a different emotional response to the artwork and its surroundings. Pictures at an Exhibition became especially popular after the French composer Maurice Ravel created an orchestral version in 1922.
Mussorgsky’s musical paintings appear in complementary pairs, one of which tends to be playful, or even absurd, and the other more serious and noble. The first two, ‘The Gnome’ and ‘The Old Castle’, depict, according to Stasov’s own notes, a clumsy gnome running and a troubadour singing in front of a medieval castle. The next pairing, ‘Tuileries’ and ‘Bydlo’, evokes images of children and their nurses running around after playtime followed by a large-wheeled oxen cart moving steadily along. A goblin then appears in ‘Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells’, inspired by one of Hartmann’s costume sketches. This movement is paired with a musical double portrait of two Jews, one rich and one poor, in ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’. From there it is to ‘The Marketplace in Limoges’, where we hear a group of French women quarrelling, and ‘Catacombs (Roman Tomb) / Cum mortuis in lingua mortua (With the Dead in a Dead Language)’, a painting in which Hartmann himself appears and whose musical version includes a transformation of the ‘Promenade’ theme into a sort of religious chant. This leads into the final pairing, ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba Yaga)’, a quirky musical rendering of a fanciful clock based on a Russian folk tale, and, as the work’s apex, ‘The Great Gate of Kyiv’. This final movement has taken on increased resonance since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 as a symbol of Ukrainian strength, fortitude and hope. Hartmann created his formidable architectural drawing for a competition to design a massive gate to celebrate the survival of the Russian tsar Alexander II from an assassination attempt on 4 April 1866. The tsar was very popular among his people, though not the aristocracy, for bringing many freedoms to the peoples living under Russian rule. Though Hartmann’s entry won the competition, the grand gate was never built. There are many tales of people going to Kyiv looking for the monument they know of because of Mussorgsky, only to be told that it doesn’t exist. ‘The Great Gate of Kyiv’ continues to resonate as a memorial to a great friend and as a symbol of good overcoming evil.
—Programme notes by William Everett
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