Prokofiev’s Five Melodies for Single Winds and Strings are a transcription of his Five Songs without Words, Opus 35, originally composed in 1920 for the mezzo-soprano Nina Koshetz. Certain hallmarks of Prokofiev’s language—namely, the impish and at times caustic wit that characterizes so much of his chamber and symphonic output—defer in these five miniatures to an unabashed lyricism. The composer was touring California while at work on the Songs without Words, and that state’s natural beauty may have had something to do with the character of these pieces; in his diary, the composer recorded his impression of “the ocean, which at sunset shimmered with the most beautiful colors.”
Their concentration of lyricism does not, however, preclude the Five Melodies’ expressive range. The dreamy wistfulness of the first leads naturally into the tender second movement, which for a brief moment shows its teeth; the third, in turn, marked Animato, launches a nervous frenzy. The fourth tune, equal parts sly delicacy and winsome charm, seems tailored for a Woody Allen film. The set concludes with the most enigmatic of the five: a dreamlike reverie, redolent of the first movement, momentarily offset by an angular middle section.
The Five Melodies honor three violinists who impelled their conception. Prokofiev first had the idea to compose a set of Songs without Words for violin and piano upon hearing the Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Szigeti in recital. A personal acquaintance, the violinist Cecilia Hansen, insisted that the second of the Opus 35 Songs would idiomatically fit the violin. Thus encouraged, Prokofiev consulted Pawel Kochánski, the muse for his First Violin Concerto, and produced transcriptions of the entire set in just two hours. The first, third, and fourth of the Five Melodies are dedicated to Kochánski; the second to Hansen; and the fifth to Szigeti.
These performances offer orchestrations of the Five Melodies by violinist and composer Michi Wiancko.
Patrick Castillo ©2015
Haydn composed his Symphonies Nos. 82–87 between 1785 and 1786 on a commission for the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a Parisian musical society; the commission was funded by Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, Comte d’Ogny, a twenty-something aristocrat who also played cello in the Olympique orchestra. Haydn was by this time Western music’s most celebrated composer, and despite his working in relative seclusion at the Esterházy court, his symphonies had enjoyed tremendous popularity among Parisian audiences since the 1770s.
The six “Paris” Symphonies were no exception. They were premiered in the 1786 concert season to great success, and subsequent editions were quickly published in London and Vienna. Jean-Jerome Imbault, the symphonies’ Parisian publisher, captured the works’ favorable reception in his sales advertisement: “These symphonies… cannot fail to be eagerly sought by those who have the good fortune to hear them, and also for those who do not know them. The name of Haydn answers for their extraordinary merit.”
The particular merit of the Symphony No. 85 in B-flat Major, the fourth of the “Paris” set, won the admiration of Marie Antoinette, thereby giving it the nickname La Reine (“The Queen”).
The first movement’s slow introduction—a convention among Haydn’s symphonies by this time—begins La Reine in fittingly regal fashion. As the music enters the main Vivace section, long sustained notes in the violins above a martial descending line in the lower strings preserves the music’s stately manner. Even at its most exuberant, this opening movement retains a dignified air.
The second movement Romance is a set of variations on the French folk tune “La gentile et jeune Lisette.” Haydn, ever inventive, uses this simple tune to explore a wide palette of textures and broad expressive range. Moments of Sturm und Drang pass through these variations, but the prevailing sentiment (aided in large part by the featherweight flute solo in the penultimate variation) is one of carefree delight.
The innocuous Menuetto features a sly turn at the end of its central trio section, as the wind instruments take short solos in succession above a pedal in the horns and pizzicati in the strings—arriving at a piquant texture to close the section. The symphony ends with an arresting Presto finale.
Patrick Castillo ©2015
A work of tremendous immediate appeal, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings could equally well be heard on deeper listening as an artistic credo of sorts. Composed simultaneously with the 1812 Overture, the Serenade, by contrast to the bombast of 1812, represents an intent focus on craft as a vehicle for personal expression.
The private anguish Tchaikovsky wrestled with throughout his life has been well documented, centering primarily on his sexuality and social relationships. Add to these his cultural orientation as a less palpable, but no less pointedly felt, source of angst. Tchaikovsky was Russian, and held a fervent love for his homeland. He likewise grew up with a deep affinity with French culture: his mother, with whom he was close, was an amateur pianist and singer of French descent; one anecdote relates how, as a child, Tchaikovsky would kiss Russia on a map of Europe, then spit on the rest of the continent—but with his hand covering France.
The Russian-Western dichotomy would become more pronounced in his artistic maturity. Among the Russian composers of his generation, Tchaikovsky was the most firmly rooted in the Western Classical tradition, thus aesthetically distanced from his self-trained compatriots known as the Five (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov), who strived to create a distinctly Russian school of music. He was, in other words, not as Russian as the Russians; nor did he quite fit among the German Romantics (Brahms, et al.).
In the Serenade for Strings, Tchaikovsky seems to work out his cultural identity before our very ears. The Serenade demonstrates Western technique styled after Mozart—Tchaikovsky’s musical idol—and Beethoven. It is, surmises musicologist Roland John Wiley, “as closely knit a motivic work as Tchaikovsky ever wrote.” The opening Pezzo in forma di Sonatina— an overt homage to Mozart in both form and character—begins with a descending melodic figure that unifies much of the work. The ascending scales that follow become the theme of the fetching second movement Walzer, and reappear in the introductory measures of the poignant Élégie.
The Serenade’s rollicking Finale is based on what Tchaikovsky identifies as a Tema Russo, yet derives from the motif that opens the Mozartian Pezzo in forma di Sonatina. Lest there be any doubt, the Russian theme slows to a verbatim reprise of the previous melody before the Serenade’s climactic end. Wiley interprets the Serenade as “an essay in Western/Russian rapprochement which favors Russian at the end.” It is also, more importantly, a sheer triumphant work. Tchaikovsky’s catharsis is our gain.
Patrick Castillo ©2015
About This Program
Sweeping strings and stirring lyricism abound on this program featuring Tchaikovsky’s graceful yet impassioned Serenade for Strings and Prokofiev’s exquisitely shaped Five Melodies, newly arranged for chamber orchestra by violinist and composer Michi Wiancko. At the center of this program is Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, one of the composer’s “Paris” symphonies, which earned the nickname La Reine (The Queen) due to its popularity with the infamous Marie Antoinette.