Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy
Now the most popular and beloved of 19th-century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky dealt throughout his life and career with tension between himself—a conservatory trained composer steeped in and committed to Western European musical style—and The Mighty Handful, the group of five Russian composers committed to establishing a uniquely Russian sound. His relationship with Mily Balakirev, the leader of the group (which also included Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov), was particularly uneasy, but Balakirev ultimately became both a mentor and advocate for Tchaikovsky, beginning with the writing of Romeo and Juliet. The piece’s genesis was an 1869 discussion between the composers in which Balakirev suggested using a great work of literature as both inspiration and a formal guideline. Tchaikovsky completed a first draft of the work in just six weeks, and it had its premiere the following year. Having received multiple sets of detailed notes, suggestions, and criticism from Balakirev, he wrote two more versions of this “overture-fantasy,” with the third and final version—which you’ll hear tonight—completed in 1880. Constructed in a modified sonata form—that archetypical European conservatory form—Romeo and Juliet, while not seeking to depict the action of the play from start to finish, is full of themes tied to the narrative’s characters and events, from Friar Laurence’s opening hymnlike theme and the chordal sword-thrusts of the Montagues and the Capulets to, finally, the unforgettable love theme of Romeo and Juliet themselves.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade
A pianist and composer from an early age, Rimsky-Korsakov took an unusual path to music, choosing as a twelve-year-old to follow his brother into the College of Naval Cadets but never giving up the study of music, even when on two-and-a-half-year expedition after graduation from the college. On his return to Russia in 1865, he continued to work for the Navy, but his duties required only a few hours a day, leaving plenty of time for composing and immersing himself in the vibrant cultural life around him. In 1871, despite his lack of formal training, he became professor of practical composition and instrumentation at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he would eventually teach Glazunov, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and many others. Never a prolific composer, he wrote very little for much of the 1880s, but then had a burst of productivity, including Scheherazade in 1888. About the work, he later wrote:
The program I had been guided by in composing Scheherazade consisted of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures from The Arabian Nights, scattered through all four movements of my suite: the sea and Sinbad’s ship, the fantastic narrative of the Prince Kalendar, the Prince and the Princess, the Bagdad festival and the ship dashing against the rock with the bronze rider upon it…In composing Scheherazade, I meant these hints to direct but slightly the hearer’s fancy on the path which my own fancy had traveled, and to leave more minute and particular conceptions to the will and mood of each… [It brings to a] close this period of my activity, at the end of which my orchestration had reached a considerable degree of virtuosity and bright sonority.