Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) :: Andante cantabile
By the time Tchaikovsky died in November of 1893, he was a famous man, not only in his homeland, but internationally as well. Just two years before, in 1891, he had been invited to be the shining centerpiece in the grand festival of concerts kicking off the opening of America’s first major orchestral concert space, Carnegie Hall. With six symphonies completed, plus multiple instrumental works (Serenade for Strings, 1812 Overture, etc.), operas, chamber music, and ballets, Tchaikovsky had firmly cemented his spot in history as one of the greatest Russian romantics.
He came to music a little late, since his parents never imagined he would become a musician. Soon he realized that music was his true passion, and so he left to begin studying at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
One characteristic that we appreciate and remember Tchaikovsky for is his great talent for melody. During his student days he became familiar with the works of Mozart—who is also remembered for his beautiful tunes—and would later exclaim, “I don’t just like Mozart, I idolize him.” Melody and emotion were Tchaikovsky’s hallmarks from the start, and that trait shone like a rare jewel catching and embracing the light in the slow movement of his String Quartet No. 1, Andante cantabile, that would later become a freestanding work of its own.
Its beauty famously captivated one legendary personality—Leo Tolstoy. Tchaikovsky recorded the following in his dairy: “Probably never in my life have I been so moved by the pride of authorship as when Leo Tolstoy, sitting by me and listening to the Andante of my Quartet, burst into tears.”
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) :: Concerto No. 10 for 4 Violins in B minor, RV 580
Italy has been home to virtuoso string instruments, players, and composers for hundreds of years. Among them, Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713), Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762), and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of them had a profound influence on music of the Baroque, and on composers such as Handel and J.S. Bach.
Vivaldi has contributed a vast amount of literature in the concerto form (totaling around 500). Some of these were written for solo instruments, while most were written in the Baroque concerto grosso format of concertino (or a small group of soloists functioning together) contrasted against the ripieno (the whole large ensemble). His first collection of concertos entitled L'Estro Armonico, or “harmonic inspiration,” was written in 1711. Included in L'Estro Armonico were twelve concertos for various combinations of two to four solo violins (like No. 10) with some including solo cello. These were written during Vivaldi’s tenure as master of violin at the Ospedale della pieta, an orphanage in Venice. Therefore, amongst the first musicians to perform L'Estro Armonico would have been the exceptional girls who formed the ensembles at the Ospedale.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Violin Concerto No. 4 in D major, K. 218
In the years after Mozart’s tours of Europe as a child prodigy, he became a prolific teenager/twenty-something. Before moving to glittering Vienna to launch his adult career as a superstar, he was back in his hometown of Salzburg unhappily employed by the Archbishop, yet as productive as ever. During this time, he penned a list of compositions that reads like the lyrics to the holiday song, “12 Days of Christmas”: sixteen minuets for orchestra, eight minuets for piano, six piano sonatas, five violin concertos, four symphonies, two church sonatas, two masses, and an opera. That’s not even half of his output during the decade, for included are a smattering of divertimentos and serenades—nearly one of each per year.
In his adulthood, Mozart primarily performed on the piano, but he was also exceptionally talented as a violinist (amazing his father at the ripe age of seven with his prowess on the instrument)—which is evident in the virtuosic demands of his concertos. In all, he wrote only five concertos for the violin. All of them were written in Salzburg, and all but one were written in 1775.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) :: Symphony No. 44, “Trauer”
We refer to Haydn as the “father” of the symphony, not because he invented the genre, but because he helped (along with Mozart, and Beethoven, his later contemporaries and successors) bring the form to its fullest potential and maturity. This was, in part, the luck of being born at the right time in history. The widespread establishment of equal temperament (tuning instruments so all pitches were equally spaced) in the 18th century was leading to broader possibilities of modulation between tonal centers, and as a result sonata form (the main building block in a symphony) was blossoming. As a master of form and structure, Haydn foresaw the possibilities.
It was in 1761 he went to work for the Esterházy family at their private estate—a stroke of fortune and opportunity. Up until then he had made a living as a freelancer, and then briefly as Kapellmeister in another court. Most of Haydn’s musical education had come from years of training in a Vienna choir school (until his voice broke, apparently embarrassingly in front of Empress Maria Theresa, herself), then self-instruction through books, and some formal training. The Esterházy family kept an orchestra comprised of some of the best instrumentalists in the region, which was a tremendous gift to Haydn (the more talented your musicians, the more interesting and challenging music you can write). At its largest point, the orchestra included between 22-24 members. Haydn not only wrote for them and directed them, but also enjoyed a close relationship with his colleagues. James Webster notes, Haydn “had full authority over the musicians, both professionally and in terms of their behavior; but he was close to many of them personally as well, often serving as godfather to their children.”
Charles Rosen notes in his book The Classical Style that “what is most exceptional, not what is most usual, has often the greatest claim on our interest.” What made Haydn remarkable, and why we remember him, was his ability to explore the exceptions to the “rules” of form and style that were prevalent during his lifetime. He was constantly finding a way to modulate to a key that was unexpected, for example, and a sense of drama, humor, and dialogue seems to pervade his works even though the music is completely abstract.
Symphony No. 44, “Trauer” (“mourning”), which was completed in 1772, represents a work composed during Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” (often translated as “storm and stress”) period—a kind of precursor to the more fully romantic style symphonies to come along with the next generation (including Haydn’s pupil, Beethoven). The transcendently beautiful slow movement of the symphony was apparently a favorite of the composer. He requested that it be performed at his own funeral.
Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.