14 January 2015


Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857): Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila

A nonentity of genius”—this is biographer David Brown’s pithy assessment of Glinka, prompted by the utterly undistinguished music he produced up until the time he found his métier, opera in the Russian language, on Russian subjects, using Russian folk music. Glinka’s initial opera, A Life for the Tsar, produced in 1836, was the first successful Russian opera and brought him fame if not fortune; his second and final opera, Ruslan and Lyudmila, produced in 1842, brought him mostly headaches and heartaches. Nonetheless, these two works and a few orchestral bon-bons blazed the trail for the generation of Russian composers who followed him.

The eldest surviving son of a wealthy Russian landowner, Glinka was born to a life of cultured leisure—his training and his work habits were haphazard, and he spent as much time recovering from cures taken abroad for his many ailments as he did partying in the salons. But while he supplied the sentimental songs and vapid variations that such occasions demanded, Glinka also possessed from childhood a thorough familiarity with Russian folk song: he could incorporate the style of folk music in original melodies, where others could only quote what was commonly known. In A Life for the Tsar a Russian composer spoke for the first time to his own people through the favoured art form of fashionable European society.

A Life for the Tsar had been based on an incident in Russian history, and presented a straightforward dramatic story line. In turning Pushkin’s fairy-tale poem Ruslan and Lyudmila into an opera, Glinka faced tremendous problems of stagecraft and storytelling which ultimately were too great—he and five others made a hash of the libretto, and the work has rarely been staged since. His music, however, is his best; unfortunately, the rip-snorting overture is all that is generally heard of it. It begins with music from the opera’s conclusion celebrating Ruslan’s rescue of his fiancée Lyudmila from the wicked dwarf Chernomor. After the string passages die down, the violas and cellos sing a passage from Ruslan’s big aria; the magical dwarf appears near the end in the form of a repeated descending scale in the trombones, exotically formed from notes a whole tone apart. Although commonplace by 1900, this is the first documented use of the whole tone scale in Western music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A major, K.622

This is not the first concerto ever written for the clarinet, it just seems like it. Although modern research has turned up a surprising amount of earlier clarinet literature (Karl Stamitz, for example, left 12 concertos) none of it combines thorough technical exploitation of the instrument with such a high level of inspiration as the Mozart Concerto. Of course, the same could be said of most of the later literature as well—Mozart is like that.

He fell in love with the sound of the clarinet while on his job-hunting trip to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-78—“Ah, if only we had clarinets, too! You cannot imagine the glorious effect of a symphony with flutes, oboes and clarinets”, Mozart wrote to his father in Salzburg—but after leaving Paris (with his Symphony No.31) he was to have no further access to them until he moved to Vienna. There he made the acquaintance of the court clarinetist Anton Stadler, a virtuoso who truly demonstrated the instrument’s potential. The Quintet for Piano and Winds, the Clarinet Trio, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, and the present Concerto are the best known fruits of this friendship. Finished in October of 1791, this was Mozart’s last completed major composition.

The version played today is a posthumous adaptation made for ‘normal’ clarinet—Mozart’s original score was for the larger and deeper basset clarinet, and has not survived (although attempts to reconstruct it from an earlier sketch have been made). Nonetheless, it is obvious from its unsurpassed quality that the transcription is reasonably accurate. The supple passage work displays the instrument’s flexibility (all the more difficult on clarinets of the day, which had only five keys as opposed to the modern seventeen) while the work’s orchestration, lacking the pungency of oboes, matches its mellow tone. But the greatest tonal attribute of the clarinet is its ability to sustain ethereally soft tones—and nowhere has that magical quality been more effectively exploited than in the Adagio.

This is not the last concerto written for the clarinet either—but one could be forgiven for thinking so. Mozart is like that.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

What a life of poetry this work unfolds before our senses, allowing us to see into its depths! The composer himself provided the key to those depths when one day, in this author’s presence, he pointed to the beginning of the first movement and expressed in these words the fundamental idea of his work: ‘Thus Fate knocks at the door!’”

Anton Schindler, from whose Beethoven biography this famous and perhaps untrustworthy anecdote is taken, was unfortunately a self-aggrandizing rogue, not above forging entries in his Master’s conversation books. But true or not, the tale popularly defined the Fifth Symphony for a century.

First performed in December 1808, some sketches for the Fifth date from as early as 1804, and differing types of paper used in the autograph score reveal that the first movement was completed considerably before the last three. The Fifth Symphony was thus partly conceived before the Fourth of 1806-07, and on the evidence of Beethoven’s letters it seems that both were commissioned by the same Count Oppersdorf to whom the Fourth is dedicated. Here, Beethoven too may have been guilty of roguery: after accepting Oppersdorf’s down-payment (which normally included a time-limited exclusive right-of-use), in November 1808 he nonetheless blithely wrote the Count, who was still waiting for the rest of his order, that although he had now sold both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies to a publisher, he would yet be sending ‘the one intended for him’. Whether Oppersdorf sought restitution or merely remained satisfied with his place in history is not recorded. The Fifth’s dedication went to two other Beethoven patrons, Prince Lobkowitz and Count Rasumovsky.

The Fifth began generating copy almost immediately, with a laudatory review by the celebrated author E.T.A. Hoffmann appearing in 1810. For two hundred years it has been popularized and politicized (“V for Victory”), commercialized (for example, a 2012 TV spot used the opening motto to dramatize the plight of flea-bitten pets) and canonized (we’re playing it again tonight). Although new scholarly angles are increasingly difficult to find, even speculation draws attention: one 1995 article wondered if an obscure trio by Johann Stamitz might have inspired Beethoven’s scherzo—which of course spawned another article in rebuttal (2006)—while a more interesting paper from 2000 posited that the remarkably subdued recapitulation of that Scherzo is the composer’s onomatopoeic depiction of his aural symptoms. The Fifth has been “interpreted” (compare a few recordings), “restored” (some conductors now repeat the trio in the scherzo à la Symphony No.7 in accordance with Beethoven’s original plan) and is now being re-interpreted (other conductors maintain he changed his original plan and play the trio once only). It remains indestructible.

Why has this piece become an icon? The opening four-note motto is of course unforgettable, the manner of its elaboration into a tightly organized unified structure exemplary, its reappearance in various guises (for example, the horn theme in the third movement) revelatory. The melody of the Andante con moto is one of the composer’s most memorable, even though its asymmetrical rhythm passes through three keys in eight bars. The transition that builds to the finale is a technical tour-de-force that cost Beethoven much effort; the return of the scherzo theme in that finale is a stroke that even his detractors admired. But while all of this is true and excellent, in the end it is the symbolism of the Fifth that makes it the most popular symphony in history. The emotional progress from movement to movement (denial, acceptance, doubt, affirmation) evokes an archetypal spiritual journey through adversity to triumph which can be read in many different ways, be it Beethoven’s own struggle with deafness, a people’s battle against tyranny, or a listener’s personal trial. On this level, the work goes beyond Schindler’s mere Fateful summons, in that it provides a response: a more appropriate interpretation might be “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

©Jeffrey Wall 2015


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