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Concert IV, 2019-2020 season

Remembering Old Russia

To the Lost World
Liliya Ugay

“To the Lost World” was commissioned by the Raleigh Civic Chamber Orchestra for a performance in 2017. In an interview with the Yale School of Music magazine, preparatory to the Yale Philharmonia playing this work, Ugay says: “The years during which the Soviet Union existed became the era that, despite the wars and political oppressions, established its own culture, traditions, and beliefs. For many people, the time was represented by a spirit of belonging to a powerful country, spreading the values of equality, human strength, and selfless hard work in the belief of a great future. Nowadays, the remaining attributes from that culture evoke from one side fascination, and from another side a mass sense of nostalgia for the past, for the culture that ended. It is the feeling of nostalgia that I express in this piece because I feel it myself and deeply sense it from others. It is like remembering the special moments from your childhood and associating them with not only yourself but whole generations of a huge country.”

Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
Sergei Rachmaninoff

One virtuoso pays homage to another. Paganini was perhaps the most amazing violin virtuoso in history. Cadaverously thin with straggly long hair, strikingly pale skin, unusually long thin fingers, and a double jointed thumb (his overall appearance may in part have been due to Marfan’s Syndrome), he was capable of playing entire pieces on one string or in harmonics, dazzlingly mixing pizzicato and bowed sound, playing hitherto unimaginable chords on the instrument, making his bow fly in unprecedented ways, and keeping many of his tricks as secret as possible. These were technical and personal feats that sent his audiences into paroxysms and caused more than one writer to pronounce him the agent of the devil, if not the devil himself. His notoriously difficult 24 Caprices, from which Rachmaninoff’s theme is taken, only hint at the pyrotechnics of which he himself was capable. Paganini’s reputation was surely part of what spurred Rachmaninoff to write this devilishly difficult and orchestrally wild work. Rachmaninoff’s occasional use of the “Dies Irae” tune (a Gregorian chant from the Mass for the Dead that begins with one small step down, back up to the starting note, then a slightly larger leap down) does nothing to dispel the slightly supernatural or possessed aura of the work.

The first hint of the “Dies Irae” is about three minutes in, in the piano and accompanied by pizzicato and other skittery sounds in the strings. It does not last long, but clarifies the relation between the first four notes of the chant and the ubiquitous four-note figure from the tune (they are the same notes re-ordered.) This four note figure is really the motivic heart of the work, along with a slower minor triad figure that derives from the skeleton of the tune. Although the overall form of the work is a relatively traditional set of variations, each with its own distinct character, the piece as a whole falls into three large sections, with a lush slow “movement” inserted between two faster ones.

Pictures at an Exhibition,
Modest Mussorgsky, orchestrated by Maurice Ravel

Modest Mussorgsky was one of the “Mighty Handful” of five self-consciously Russian and modernist composers (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov in addition to Mussorgsky) in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Having studied piano in his youth (and become an accomplished player), he studied composition privately with Balakirev and then by analyzing the works of many other composers, both Western-European and Russian. Although he wrote some purely instrumental works, including the well-known Night on Bald Mountain, he is best known for his operas Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, and his songs. He was very interested in setting the Russian language in ways that respected its rhythms and intonations—“realistic” was a term he used—and this attention to the sound of Russian, as well as to the melodic patterns of Orthodox church music, are evident throughout Pictures.

This work was written in 1874, originally for solo piano; like many of Mussorgsky’s works it was not published until after his death and was revised (in this instance very slightly) by his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov. It is a suite, like Handel’s Water Music or Bach’s solo cello suites, but rather than being based on dance rhythms, most movements are musical responses to pictures by Victor Hartmann, an artist/architect friend of Mussorgsky, who had just died. Linking these musical pictures is the “Promenade” refrain, whose irregular meter gives a wonderful sense of a leisurely meander through a museum. Only a few of the relevant Hartmann pictures are still extant, but there have been numerous attempts to complete the set and match Mussorgsky’s music.

Because this piano work is so obviously picturesque, it has cried out to be orchestrated (set for orchestra). The first orchestration, by Mikhail Tushmalov, appeared only five years after the first publication of the piano work. The one we play today, by Maurice Ravel is the most famous. Not all reworkings of the piece are for classical orchestra. There’s at least one electronic version and a rock one by the group Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Ravel’s version is an amazing orchestral showcase, especially for the brass and winds. From the haunting saxophone solo in “Il Vecchio Castello” to the galumphing tuba in “Bydlo,” (haywagon), or the brilliant trumpet work in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” or the chirping flutes and oboes in the “Ballet of Chickens in their Shells,” the palette of sounds is always changing, but always perfectly calibrated to capture the colors of Mussorgsky’s responses to these pictures


© Mary Hunter 2019