The Spirit of Russia: Piano Recital by Colleen Lee

Venue: Theatre, Hong Kong City Hall
Date: 30 April, 2015 (Thursday) 8PM

Nel modo russico: The Piano Music of Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff

Ask any conservatoire-trained musician what makes nineteenth-century Russian music unique, you would probably get textbook answers: nationalism evoked by the quotation or re-composition of folk music; modally conceived scales lending an exotic tint to the melody and harmony; and a strong adherence to Russian literature and customs. Ask a pianist their general impression of Russian piano repertoire, you would possibly hear descriptions such as opulent texture, swift changes in registers, sheer volume and velocity, and, to cap this off, daunting virtuosity required to perform these pieces. Compared to the connoisseurs, the general audience’s identification of Russian music with broad, memorable melodies; a profound sense of nostalgia mixed with melancholy; and an exotic flavor as piquant as borscht or vodka might seem banal at first glance. Nevertheless, it offers a useful clue to understanding the nature of music by Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, as well as their fellow Russian colleagues.

The three named composers’ lives coincided with the increasing tumultuous years of the Tsarist regime: Mussorgsky died in 1881, the same year Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. After Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, Russia consolidated the dual alliance with France. By the time Rachmaninoff departed for the United States in 1917, Russia was torn by both the October Revolution and the First World War. The Romanov line ended with the abdication and eventual execution of Tsar Nicholas III. All three composers managed to flourish while their world crumbling away. Their music looked not forward to the future, as nothing was certain, but to the past instead. Memories and histories were held dear by Russian composers of their generation, and hence, the unmistakable sense of bitter-sweet nostalgia in their music. What defines nineteenth-century Russian music, in other words, is the old world of Tsarist Russia – a world saturated with the sounds of bells, Orthodox hymns and the songs and dances favored by the Russian people.

While German and French composers sought to break new grounds by departing from tradition at the turn of nineteenth century, their Russian counterpart found inspiration via introspection and retrospection. Although not every composer exhibit a predilection for nationalistic agenda, each had come to embrace and celebrate his own Russian roots. Rimsky-Korsakov, being the most prolific member of the “Mighty Five” fashioned his operas after Russian history and folklore. The young Stravinsky established his reputation as the advocate of modernism through Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring – ballets set against a distinctively Russian backdrop.

Mussorgsky went beyond subject matter through a meticulous simulation of the Russian speech rhythm and inflections in his opera, Boris Godunov. In his letter to Balakirev, the leader of the “Mighty Five” in 1859, Mussorgsky recalled his visit to Moscow, claiming that he experienced “a certain regeneration; everything Russian seems suddenly near to me.” Tchaikovsky wrote ceremonial music which included Orthodox hymn, Russian folksongs and the Tsarist anthem in Marche Slave and the extremely popular 1812 Overture. Although Tchaikovsky was not immediately associated with the nationalistic movement in Russian music, his “Russianess” was championed by Stravinsky. In one of his open letters to Sergei Diaghilev in 1921, Stravinsky opined that Tchaikovsky’s music “is quite as Russian as Pushkin’s verse or Glinka’s song. While not specifically cultivating in his art the ‘soul of the Russian peasant’, Chaikovsky drew unconsciously from the true, popular sources of our race.” Though less evident, Rachmaninoff’s Russian sentiments were channeled through his art songs, which spanned throughout his career. The reticent composer talked about the nature of his music in an often-quoted interview from The Étude in 1941, saying that,

In my own compositions, no conscious effort has been made to be original, Romantic, or Nationalistic, or anything else. I write down on paper the music I hear within me, as naturally as possible. I am a Russian composer, and the land of my birth has influenced my temperament and outlook. My music is the product of my temperament, and so it is Russian music; I have never consciously attempted to write Russian music, or any other kind of music.

It is known that Rachmaninoff was gifted with large hands that covered a phenomenal twelfth. According to biographic accounts, Mussorgsky also shown promise as professional pianist at an early age. Tchaikovsky, however, did not have the natural endowment, but he was trained with proficient skills on the piano. Nevertheless, what sets the three composers apart was not so much their pianistic skills, but rather their temperament and training. Mussorgsky lived at a time when the conservatory was yet to be founded in Russia. At the same time, the composer eschewed all things associated with the German school of compositional training, preferring the untamed and spontaneous quality of Russian folk music to the rigorous rules of harmony and counterpoint. Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, was one of the first graduates from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and a protégé of Anton Rubenstein. While this made Tchaikovsky an easy target for Balakirev’s circle, his training allowed him to master both the major Western genre and infused it with his Russian idiom. Tchaikovsky, therefore, was able to make his music accessible to a wider audience outside Russia. Rachmaninoff, whom Tchaikovsky had known and nurtured since a young age, was a graduate of the Moscow Conservatory. His music could be seen as a synthesis, or better still, reconciliation of the two opposing schools represented by Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

Using tonight’s programme as an example, Mussorgsky paints his musical portraits in bold brush strokes and vibrant colours, transforming the miscellaneous pictures into a coherent narrative. Tchaikovsky approached his calendar illustrations the other way round. Drawing his inspiration from short poems by various Russian poets, Tchaikovsky turned the narrative into a musical vignette, sketching fine lines in pencil and touching up with transparent watercolours. Rachmaninoff’s “study-pictures” are conceived as narrative, sound and images all at the same time, each element serving as the means and the end. The result was an exciting plethora colours and a highly distinctive style which become the signature of Rachmaninoff the composer, and, Rachmaninoff the Russian.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Seasons, Op.37a
January, ‘By the fireside’: Moderato semplice ma espressivo
February, ‘Carnival’: Allegro giusto
March, ‘The lark’s song’: Andantino espressivo
April, ‘The snowdrop’: Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato
May, ‘White nights of May’: Andantino
June, ‘Barcarolle’: Andante cantabile
July, ‘Song of the Reapers’: Allegro moderato con moto
August, ‘Harvest’: Allegro vivace
September, ‘The hunt’: Allegro non troppo
October, ‘Autumn song’: Andante doloroso e molto cantabile
November, ‘Troika’: Allegro moderato
December, ‘Christmas’: Tempo di valse

Tchaikovsky is best remembered by audiences for his symphonic works and ballets. Despite the perennial popularity of his First Piano Concerto and beautifully crafted Piano Trio, Tchaikovsky wrote relatively little for solo piano. Among his solo keyboard works, the Seasons occupies a special place.

In 1875, N.M. Bernard , editor of the Nouvelliste magazine approached Tchaikovsky with the idea of writing twelve short piano pieces, one to be published each month in his magazine. Although the composer’s First Piano Concerto was due for its world première in Boston and his Third Symphony was favourably reviewed, he was far from financially secure. He had yet to encounter the wealthy patron Mme. Nadezhda von Meck. Therefore, these short, salon-like piano pieces proposed by Bernard were a potentially viable source of income.

Tchaikovsky began working on the Seasons in December 1875 and finished in November 1876. Tchaikovsky titled his pieces after the twelve months of the year, each accompanied by an epigraph, a short verse of poetry by Pushkin (January and September) Maykov (March and April), Koltsov (July and August) and Tolstoy (October). The descriptive subtitles were perhaps Bernard’s contribution.

Tchaikovsky was believed to have referred to these miniature pieces as “musical pancakes”. It is perhaps not far from the truth: certainly Tchaikovsky saw these pieces as delightful diversions in his roster. At the same time, the palatability of these pieces themselves is guaranteed to appeal to the market of amateur pianist, who could play these pieces with limited technique.

In terms of structure and content, Tchaikovsky’s Seasons comes close to Schumann’s Carnival, Op.9. Furthermore, neither Bernard nor Tchaikovsky could possibly be aware that Fanny Mendelssohn had already written a set of piano pieces titled Das Jahr (The Year) 1841.

Descriptive details abound in Tchaikovsky’s vignettes, such as the birdsong of the March movement and the hunting horns in September. The colourful Russian festivities and customs also become the subject of interest. For instance, the Shorvetide “Carnival” for February (when pancakes were readily served in the household); the droning of open fifths (an imitation of Russian folk instruments) for July ; and the sounds of sleighbells for November (the “Troika” was a favorite encore on Sergei Rachmaninoff’s piano recitals). Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky also allowed exceptions to conventions. The “Barcarole” for June, probably one of the most popular pieces in the set, was set in common time instead of the expected compound time. In addition, “Christmas” is represented not by religious hymns or Russian carols, but a waltz very much in the spirit of the Nutcracker.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Études-tableaux, Op 39
No 5: Appassionato
No 6: Allegro
No 9: Allegro moderato – Tempo di marcia

Ranked as one of the greatest pianist-composers, Rachmaninoff made his professional debut recital as part of the Moscow Electrical Exposition on 9 October 1892. His insight of the timbral and technical resources of the modern piano allowed him a free rein of expression in expansive forms, such as his piano concertos, as well as in miniature forms, which include his Preludes and Études-tableaux (“study pictures”).

Rachmaninoff’s Études-tableaux are, on one hand, offspring of the nineteenth century virtuoso piano etudes, which peaked with the works of Chopin and Liszt. On the other hand, they transcend and transform the generic features of an etude, very much as Debussy or Scriabin had done.

The nine etudes-tableaux of Op. 39 was Rachmaninoff’s second foray into the genre. His earlier success with the Op.33 collection bolstered his interest in further experiments. These works were conceived between 1916 and 1917, the very last works Rachmaninoff composed in Russia prior to leaving for the United States.

In a letter to the Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, Rachmaninov revealed that each etude-tableau had its own programme. However, he disclosed only five of them. Instead of associating his music with a specific extra-musical subject, Rachmaninoff was often quoted in saying, “I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of his images. Let them paint for themselves what it most suggests.”

The etudes-tableaux of Op. 39 make taxing demands of unconventional hand positions, immense physical strength and energy from the player.

No. 5 is in fact, the last of the études-tableaux Rachmaninoff wrote. The choice of E-flat minor seems to hint at the composer’s inner anguish and his incomprehension of the future. It exemplifies Rachmaninoff ’s distinctive brand of lyricism, in which an endless melody is accompanied by massive chords at the beginning. The throbbing accompaniment eventually subsides, giving way to a nostalgic melody.

Proir to the variation of these materials, a brief transition paraphrases the first pitches of the Dies irae chant, which was a lifelong obsession of the composer. The music ends quietly in E-flat major, as if a glimmer of ray peering out of the windswept landscape.

No 6 was initially part of the Op.33 set. Rachmaninoff sketched the étude-tableanx in 1911 and revised it. Rachmaninoff admitted to Respighi that the A minor étude was inspired by the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, which he had read to his daughter. The menacing chromatic opening sets the chase and escape into swift action.

According to Rachmaninoff, No 9 is an “Oriental march”. It is the only piece in the collection written in major key and it is characterized by energetic and active motion. The music alternates between toll-bell chords and a galloping motive, which resurfaces in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, op.45. The middle part is a repose from the charged opening. A five-part hymn with frequent changes in music gives the étude an Eastern-European (or in Rachmaninoff’s term, an Oriental) tint. The movement culminates in a bravura ending, which might be more commonly found in large-scale symphonic works of the composer.

Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
No.1 Gnomus (The gnome) – Promenade
No.2 Il Vecchio castello* (The old castle) – Promenade
No.3 Tuileries (Children’s quarrelling at play)
No.4 Bydlo* (Cattle cart)
No.5 Promenade – Ballet of Unhatched Chicks
No.6 Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle*
No.7 Promenade – Limoges (The market place)
No.8 Catacombs (A Roman sepulchre) – Con mortuis in lingua morta (With the dead in a dead language)
No. 9 Baba Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs
No.10 The Great Gate of Kiev
(*Pictures not indicated in the 1874 exhibition catalogue)

When the Russian architect Viktor Hartmann died at the age of forty in 1873, a special exhibition of his works was organized in St. Petersburg to commemorate such a genius figure. Vladimir Stassov, who was an honoured critic and friend to both Mussorgsky and Hartmann, oversaw the exhibition. More than four hundred examples of Hartmann’s work, including various sketches, drawings and paintings, were put on display. Mussorgsky who had visited the exhibition early in 1874 decided to create a musical memorial in honour of his dear friend. Writing to Stassov about his new project, Mussorgsky said, “Hartmann is bubbling over, just as Boris [Godunov] did.”

The project in question blossomed into a piano suite, Pictures at an Exhibition, which Mussorgsky began on June 2, 1874. Working at a feverish pitch, the score was complete within the next three weeks. The suite was immediately hailed by the composer’s friends, particularly Stassov. Yet the suite was not performed often during Mussorgsky’s lifetime, as it is tremendously difficult. As Michael Russ has pointed out in his comprehensive study of the suite, “not that moments of real pianism are not present, particularly in ‘Tuileries’ and ‘Limoges’ with their sparkling writing”, nevertheless Russ counters that “demands on the pianist are often more of a matter of awkwardness than virtuosity.”1 The suite was not even published until five years after the composer’s death, but the music had fallen into obscurity after Mussorgsky’s death. It is when Maurice Ravel orchestrated the suite in 1922 did Pictures came to be known to the general audience. The urtext edition of Mussorgsky’s original suite had to wait until 1931.

Pictures at an Exhibition includes musical portraits of eleven of Hartmann’s works and five “Promenades.” This recurring theme, marked “nel modo russico” (“in the Russian manner”) is a personification of Mussorgsky, as he wandered from picture to picture. In terms of musical structure, the “Promenade” frames the entire suite; its variations serve as interludes between Nos. 1 and 2, 2 and 3, 4 and 5, 6 and 7. It is also transformed into a poignant commentary in the latter half of No. 8. Russ has rightly observed that “Mussorgsky tends to focus on something or somebody depicted within the picture rather than being directly concerned with the art-work itself .”

”Gnomus” (The gnome) is a drawing for a nutcracker, with gnarly legs and a wide jaw. It was designed as an ornament for the Christmas tree by Hartmann. The music lurches, twitches, and snaps grotesquely, suggesting the gnome’s “droll movements” and “savage shrieks”, not unlike Gollum in JRR Tolkien’s epic saga, The Lord of the Rings.

“Il Vecchio Castello” (The old castle) depicts a medieval castle before which stands a singing troubadour. The mournful melody is played over a G-sharp pedal of 107 bars, invoking the accompaniment of the guitar or lute.

“Tuileries” is a Parisian garden frequented by children and their nannies. Mussorgsky depicts the “quarrelling of children” with a quick exchange of short phrases. It shows the composer’s gift of capturing the intonation of human speech through purely musical means.

“Bydlo” is the Polish word for cattle. The picture dated back to 1868, when Hartmann spent a month in the historic Polish town of Sandomierz. The vehicle portrayed is a crude ox-drawn wagon with wheels made from solid wooden discs. Mussorgsky’s music vividly depicts the tread of hooves as the wagon lumbers along.

“The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks” is inspired by one of Hartmann’s costume designs for the ballet Trilby, choregraphed by Marius Petipa. Here, children dancers dressed as “canary chicks, enclosed in eggs as in suits of armor”. Mussorgsky emulates the sound of the chicks with chirping grace notes.

“Samuel Goldenburg and Schmuÿle” were originally two separate drawings by Hartmann, which Mussorgsky kept among his private collections. The portraits depicted “a rich Jew wearing a fur hat” and “a poor Jew: Sandomierz”. Mussorgsky fashioned these into a single movement, creating a dialogue between the haughty patriarch, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle the beggar. The “conversation” ends abruptly when Goldenberg rudely dismisses the whining Schmuÿle.

Hartmann’s lively drawing of “The market at Limoges” depicts the animated chattering between French wives. The picture translates into a frivolous scherzo under Mussorgsky’s pen. The composer even penned snatches of their gossip on the margin of his manuscript, which includes the recovering of a loss cow and a new set of false teeth for one of the matrons. The movement is interrupted by a forceful dissonant chord.

“Catacombs” (A Roman Sepulchre) are underground ossuaries in Paris, which hold the remains of about six million people. Stassov remarked in the exhibition catalogue that in the picture, “Hartmann represented himself examining the Paris catacombs by the light of a lantern.” The macabre mood carried into the next section “Con mortuis in lingua morta” (With the dead in a dead language). Mussorgsky noted that “The spirit of the departed Hartmann leads me to the skulls and invokes them: the skulls begin to glow faintly”.

“Baba Yaga – The Hut on Fowl’s Legs” stems from Hartmann’s design of a clock. Mussorgsky’s music conjures up the image of the fearsome Baba Yaga – a child-devouring witch from Russian fairy tales, who transports herself on mortar and flies on a flaming bloom.

“The Great Gate of Kiev” was Hartmann’s design for a monumental structure. Although the gate was never built, its sketch revealed an extraordinary bell-tower in the shape of a gigantic helmet. Mussorgsky represented the sounds heard around a Russian public monument through the quotation of an Orthodox hymn and the kaleidoscopic echoing of bells. The Promenade theme is reprised one last time in the most majestic manner, bringing the suite to a magnificent conclusion.

Programme notes provided by Jennifer To.


Programme Note

Please refer to the notes embedded in “Programme”.