Program Notes
Stamford Symphony 2012-2013 Program Notes: Sweeping Romance
October 6th & 7th, 2012 By Gail Miller Armondino, Ph.D.


Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka

b. June 1, 1804 in Novospasskoye, near Yelna, Smolensk district.

d. February 15, 1847 in Berlin

Overture, from Ruslan and Lyudmila

Glinka conceived of his second opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, in 1836 following the success of his first opera, A Life for the Tsar, which earned him a court appointment. Instead of an historic subject as his second opera, the composer opted to set it to Pushkin's mock-epic Ruslan and Lyudmila. Glinka had hoped to collaborate with the poet, but that plan was foiled when Pushkin was killed in a duel. Glinka proceeded to begin composing without a libretto (the text to an opera). Although this method was an unusual approach, he preferred to write in this manner, as it brought him success in the past.

Set design sketches from Ruslan and Lyudmila

Glinka did find a partner in 1838. He commissioned the text for one of the numbers from the opera from Valerian Fyodorovich Shirkov. Work on the opera was suspended until 1840 because of Glinka's other duties. The opera was eventually finished and had its premiere at St. Petersburg's Bol'shoy Theatre on November 27/December 9, 1842.[1] It met with limited success largely because of its rather disorganized libretto, but also because in 1843 Rubini's Italian opera company took up residence in St. Petersburg supplanting Russian opera almost immediately. Although Ruslan and Lyudmila has seen relatively few performances as a staged opera since its debut, its lively overture has remained a staple in the orchestral repertoire.

Like many composers, Glinka wrote the overture last when rehearsals were already underway. It is comprised of melodies from the body of the opera, arranged into sonata-allegro form with an exposition, development, and recapitulation, similar to symphonic structures of the era. The dazzlingly fast scales and the tutti (all instruments playing) chords that make up the first theme of the exposition are from the wedding and fleet scenes, respectively. Example 1 The more lyrical second theme, played by the bassoons and lower strings, is from Ruslan's second act aria, in which he sings of his love for Lyudmila. Example 2 Glinka incorporates all three melodies into the development section, where he plays with them in fragments and minor mode. Example 3 While these typical structures grab the listener's attention (the true function of the operatic overture), it is the coda (final tail section of a work) that is groundbreaking. Here, Glinka adds a descending whole-tone scale (D-C♮-B♭-A♭-F♯-E-D) in the basses to the three main themes in the upper parts. Example 4 This scale represents the evil dwarf Finn, and it is the first time this particular musical device was used in an opera.[2]

Set design sketches from
Ruslan and Lyudmila

As an opera Ruslan and Lyudmila has met with limited success, partly because of its cumbersome libretto, and partly because it has been overshadowed by the Italian Bel Canto works of the same period. Its instrumental music and innovative use of chromatic harmonies (sharps and flats that are out of the established key), however, have proven lasting. It is rife with nationalistic tendencies, which carried into the latter part of the century, particularly with Russia's "Mighty Handful,"[3] thus giving Glinka's opera its own brand of immortality.


Sergei Rachmaninoff

b. April 1, 1873 in Oneg
d. March 28, 1943 in Beverly Hills, CA

Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op.30

"I don't want to go. But then perhaps after America I'll be able to buy myself that automobile . . . It may not be so bad after all!"
—Sergei Rachmaninoff to his friend Nikita Morozov

Were it not for his love of cars, Rachmaninoff might never have written his third piano concerto. He was invited to give a concert tour of the United States in 1909. However, he did not want to leave his beloved Russia and family for such an extended length of time; the journey alone was approximately two weeks each way. Then the composer thought about the lucrative nature of such a tour and reconsidered. According to his biographer Oskar von Riesemann, Rachmaninoff developed a love of automobiles, and whenever he was in the country, he would go for a drive and "invariably returned happy and refreshed and in the best of tempers. As [Rachmaninoff] said, it was only when driving the car that he could get away from the musical visions which constantly pursued him." And so, with the possibility of earning enough money to purchase his own car, the composer decided to travel to America.

The concert tour featured Rachmaninoff as both performer and conductor of his own works. He composed the third piano concerto during the summer of 1909, while vacationing at his dacha in Ivanovka, specifically for this American sojourn. He did not have much practice time prior to leaving Russia, and so, when he traveled to American in October 1909, the composer made use of a mute keyboard he had brought with him. He wrote of this unique rehearsal method, "I believe it is the only time that I have resorted to this mechanical toy, which, however, at the time proved very useful." Rachmaninoff gave the premiere of his Concerto in D minor on November 28, 1909 with the Symphony Society of New York under the direction of Walter Damrosch. A few weeks later, he performed the concerto again, this time with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Gustav Mahler conducted that performance.

Rachmaninoff's concerto is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is one of the most challenging concertos in the orchestral repertoire. The soloist starts almost immediately, presenting the first theme, which is reminiscent of Russian folk songs or sacred chants, in octaves. Example 1 The remainder of the first movement loosely follows a traditional sonata-allegro scheme; the development section takes off into virtuosic flights in the solo part Example 2 and the cadenza (an embellished cadence for the soloist, usually at the end of the first movement, of a concerto), which is traditionally improvised, is fully composed here. Example 3

The second movement-Intermezzo: Adagio-opens with a long melancholy introduction. The principal theme, played by a solo oboe, is strikingly similar to the main theme of the first movement. Example 4 The soloist picks up this theme and continues with variations of it transforming the theme into a graceful waltz. Example 5 The contrasting scherzando also plays with material from the opening allegro with a variation of its principal melody played by a solo bassoon and clarinet. Example 6 The second movement concludes with a long dramatic solo passage that leads directly to the Finale: Alla breve without a pause.

Rachmaninoff's biographer Patrick Piggot called the Finale "one of the most dashing and exciting pieces music ever composed for piano and orchestra." It begins with a lively rhythmic theme consisting of heavy chords in the piano. Example 7 This energetic opening leads into a more lyrical second theme Example 8 The middle section of this movement is quite unusual in that it is in a distant key, and it is its own mini set of variations. The concerto finishes with a dramatic reprisal of the second theme and dazzling cadenza. Example 9

Because of its technical challenges, Rachmaninoff's third concerto did not receive many performances at first. Its own dedicatee, Josef Hoffmann, never performed it. Vladimir Horowitz's performances brought this concerto to prominence. Since then, it has become a staple of the orchestral repertoire. And, in 1914, Rachmaninoff purchased his first car.


Jean Sibelius

b. December 8, 1865 in Hämeenlinna
d. September 20, 1957 in Järvenpää

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 43

The revolutions of 1870 gave rise to nationalistic feelings throughout Europe. The concept of nationalism in late-nineteenth century music is virtually synonymous with Jean Sibelius. He was one of the central figures in giving Scandanavian, particularly Finnish, music a voice during this period. From 1809 until 1905, Finland was under Russian control as one of the latter's grand duchies. Nevertheless, Finland remained fairly autonomous until Alexander III enforced the Russification of its national minorities, including imposing Russian language and schools on those citizens. In response the Finns began an active campaign of passive resistance with Sibelius as a figurehead for the cause. It was during this period of Russian oppression and resistance that he composed his Second Symphony.

The Second Symphony is the most popular and most often performed of the composer's works. It is lighter and more Italianate than his First Symphony and the Russian elements, so evident in that work, having been left out here. Moreover, the forms and orchestration show a greater maturity than in his previous works. In this symphony, in particular the first movement, Sibelius maintained the emotional content of late-nineteenth-century music while adhering to the forms of the Classical era (late-eighteenth century).

The pastoral opening of the symphony (Allegretto), reminiscent of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, outlines the tonic D major (the first note of a major or minor scale; the key of a work is usually based on a particular scale) with the strings playing a simple do-re-mi motif, which serves to unify the entire symphony, followed by a light melody in the oboes and clarinets. The key Sibelius chose is a bright cheerful key, which the composer himself associated with the color yellow. Example 1 The first movement is in sonata form (exposition of themes-development-recapitulation) with two principal themes. The first is outlined above; the second is characterized by a long note, which followed by a notated turn or trill. Example 2 There are many stories about how these themes came to be composed. Sibelius is known to have improvised one of them on organ during a christening ceremony. Another story tells of his listening to a piece a young girl had composed. He started to improvise on her work and supposedly exclaimed, "Now I've got the thing that I've been waiting for weeks! Now it came!"

The origins of the second movement (Andante, ma rubato) are much more clear. Sibelius sketched its motifs while visiting Rapallo, Italy in February 1901. The sketches had programmatic elements to them[4] -the meeting between Don Juan and Death Example 3; the other was titled "Christus" Example 4 —but these extra-musical ideas were abandoned in favor of an absolute piece. The themes remained in the slow movement.

In stark musical contrast to the slow movement, the scherzo (Vivacissimo) takes off on a wild ride in the strings followed by a surprisingly peaceful theme in the flutes, which is almost lost in continued tumult of the strings. Example 5 After all excitement, a soothing trio, begun by a solo oboe offers a bit of respite. The nine repeated notes present such stark emotional contrast to the movement's opening that many listeners have been moved to tears. Example 6 Sibelius plays with these themes throughout the scherzo movement, and then returns to the do-re-mi motif at the conclusion to lead into the Finale (Allegro moderato).

Some critics and scholars have said that the main theme of the Finale "shows Sibelius in his most heroic mood." Again, he uses the rising three-note (do-re-mi) motif in the strings, but instead of continuing the dialogue in the woodwinds, the trumpets pick up the conversation. Example 7 The second theme, introduced by the oboe and handed off to the clarinet, is made up mostly of fragments, to which some critics feel the composer felt too strong an attachment. Example 8 But, because of sparkling orchestration, the threat of redundancy is eliminated. At the conclusion of the symphony, Sibelius brings back the three-note motif. This time, however, as part of his dramatic finish, he finally reaches the fourth note, which is enormously satisfying for the listener. Example 9

Sibelius's Second Symphony was hugely successful after its premiere on March 8, 1902 with Sibelius himself at the baton. It established the composer as a national hero, and subsequent performances later in the month were sold out-an unprecedented event in Finland. One reviewer erroneously assigned a programmatic element to the work calling it a portrayal of Finnish resistance over increasing Russian oppression. This notion continued into the 1940s when it was named the "Liberation Symphony," a title the composer rejected outright. This symphony has been compared to works by Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky, all of which is plausible. Its uniqueness, however, inspired the composer Rimsky-Korsakov to comment, "Well, I suppose that's possible too."


[1] Russia used the Julian calendar up until the 1917 Revolution, when it changed to the Gregorian calendar. Thus, dates prior to 1917 have been altered.

[2] Fifty years later, French Impressionist composers, such as Debussy, would frequently use the whole-tone scale in their works.

[3] A group of mostly non-conservatory trained Russian national composers: Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev.

[4] Program Music is instrumental music that has specific non-musical references, such as a poem, painting, story, etc. By contrast Absolute Music is written without any of these external references.

© Copyright 2012, Gail Miller Armondino. All rights reserved