Program Notes for Winter Dreams

By Jane Purcell

 

1.  November/Troika.  Tchaikovsky's "The Seasons", subtitled '12 characteristic scenes', is a set of twelve short character pieces for solo piano.  They are named after each month of the year.  Tchaikovsky wrote the pieces between December 1875 and May 1876, and they were published in monthly installments in the Saint Petersburg journal Nouvellist.  The pieces were commissioned by the journal's publisher, who selected the titles and subtitles.

 

Tchaikovsky didn't really put much effort into them (he was more preoccupied with Swan Lake and Francesca da Rimini at the time), yet they are considered classics of the piano literature.

 

We are playing Svetlana's masterful arrangements of the last two pieces of the suite. November is subtitled "Troika" (a three-horse sleigh), which shows that winter comes early in many parts of Russia. December, subtitled "Yuletide", is a waltz, illustrating the many holiday parties of the season.

 

Tchaikovsky attended at least one performance by Vasily Andreyev's balalaika orchestra, and praised them highly.  He wrote:  "What a delight these balalaikas are!  How fine, how artistic and stylish!  What a marvelous, transparent sound!  Not to mention the artistry of the performance, but the very timbre of the sound is surprisingly interesting.  What an amazing effect they can have in an orchestra!  In terms of timbre, these are unique instruments."

 

2.  Russian Winter.  "Russian Winter" is a medley of two old Russian songs.  The main theme is the song, "The Sleigh Bells on the Yoke Are Singing" (Pod dugoy kolokol'chik poyot), composed by Matvey Nikolayevsky (1882-1942).  The bells are on the yoke of a troika, a Russian sleigh drawn by three horses.  The song tells about a young man giving his sweetheart a ride on a fast sleigh on a winter night, hoping to make her cheeks hot and her heart sweet.  In the middle of the piece is the melody of the sad song "A Valiant Troika is Dashing Along" (Vot mchitsya troika udalaya), from a poem by Feodor Glinka, a relative of the composer Mikhail Glinka; with music composed by Aleksey Verstovsky (1799-1862).  It is about a young coachman who is heartbroken.  He has fallen in love with a beautiful girl but she is not allowed to marry him, since he is just a poor orphan.  So he pours his heart out in song.

 

"Russian Winter" was arranged by Vera Gorodovskaya (VYAYR-uh  guh-rah-DOHV-skah-yuh) (1919-1999). She was conservatory trained as a pianist, but when she was invited to play in a folk orchestra on the gusli, she fell in love with that instrument.  She played the gusli in the Osipov balalaika orchestra since its beginning in 1939 until her retirement in the 1980s.  She composed and arranged countless pieces for the balalaika orchestra, one of very few women composers in the Soviet Union. Her works remain popular in the repertory of every balalaika orchestra today.

 

3.  Steppes All Around (Step' da step' krugom). In America we have songs about dying cowboys in the desert.  This is a similar heartbreaking song about a coachman dying on the vast frozen steppes of Russia.  He asks his comrade to bury him, to bring his horse back to his parents, and to bring his wedding ring back to his wife.  He wants his wife to know that she may marry another, and that he died loving her.

 

The piece was composed by Sergei Sadovsky to the words of a poem written in 1865 by Ivan Surikov.

 

4.  Dance of the Tumblers.  Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov completed his opera "The Snow Maiden" in 1881.  It premiered the following year, to great success.  It was the composer's own favorite work.  The plot is based on traditional Russian folklore.  It is about a maiden made of snow who wants to live with people, but it is also about the eternal struggle between the Sun and the Frost, between Spring and Winter.  The Dance of the Tumblers occurs in Act 3, when the local villagers have a celebration in the forest with singing and dancing.

 

Rimsky-Korsakov also attended a concert of Vasily Andreyev's balalaika orchestra in 1890, at the same time as Tchaikovsky, and used balalaikas and domras in one of his later operas.

 

5.  Russian Dance.  Tchaikovsky's great ballet "Swan Lake" is familiar to many.  It premiered in 1877, about a prince who falls in love with a beautiful princess who has been enchanted by an evil sorceror so that she is a swan during the day and human at night.  The Russian Dance occurs in the middle of the opera during the ball where the prince is supposed to choose his bride.  The piece doesn't relate to the opera's plot, but it is great music that gives an opportunity for great dancing.  For this reason, this short work is often performed on its own by both dancers and musicians.  As one reviewer wrote: "The work is a lovely virtuoso work (for both the ballerina and the violinist) that seems to summon forth the spirit of Russia through its rhythms and melodies."

 

The ballet originally did not include the Russian Dance; it was inserted later for the sake of patriotism, when Russia was embarking on a war against Turkey.

 

6.  Sviridov's Snowstorm Suite.  Soviet composer Georgy Sviridov was asked to write the soundtrack for the 1964 film "Snowstorm."  The movie was based on a famous short story by Aleksandr Pushkin.  Nine years later, in 1973, Sviridov decided to turn the soundtrack fragments into a suite.  The entire suite contains nine pieces.  We will play four of them:  Troika, Waltz, Romance, and Military March.

 

Georgy Sviridov (Ghee-OR-ghee  svee-REE-doff) (1915-1998) began studying piano at the age of 9, but he soon became interested in the balalaika and joined a local folk instrument ensemble.  However, he continued his classical musical training, studying composition at the Leningrad Conservatory under Dmitri Shostakovich.  Although little known in the U.S., he was considered a major composer in the Soviet Union.  The "Snowstorm Suite" is one of his most popular works.  Winter was Sviridov's favorite season.  He considered winter to be "the time when Russia especially clearly expresses its true essence."

 

Pushkin's story "Snowstorm" is about mistaken identity.  A young couple decides to elope and arranges to meet in a country church and get married, but a severe blizzard comes up.  The groom gets lost in the snow.  At the same time, a stranger caught in the blizzard happens upon the church and stumbles in, all wrapped up in his snow-covered coat.  The bride's friends think he is the groom and hurry him to the altar where the bride is waiting in her veil.  He goes along with it as a joke, but runs away when the bride finds out she married the wrong man and faints.  Years later, the two of them happen to become acquainted and they fall in love with each other.  The woman finally confesses that she is unable to marry the man because years ago she accidentally married a stranger in a country church during a snowstorm.  So, it all turns out happily in the end.

 

7.  December/Yuletide.  December, subtitled "Yuletide", is a waltz, illustrating the many holiday parties of the season.

 

8.  The Entertainer.  This is one of the classics of ragtime.  One of Scott Joplin's most popular pieces, it returned to international prominence as part of the ragtime revival in the 1970s, when it was used as the theme music for the 1973 Oscar-winning film "The Sting, " starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.  While "The Entertainer" was published in 1902 as a piano piece, it was dedicated to James Brown and his Mandolin Club.  So perhaps Joplin himself envisioned it being played by a plucked string orchestra.

Composer Scott Joplin was known as the "King of Ragtime."  He wrote over 100 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet, and two operas.  He was primarily a pianist, but he also played and taught guitar and mandolin.  Joplin was born in Texas about 1868, and died in New York City in 1917.  The ragtime era died with him.

 

9.  Selections from "The Nutcracker Suite."

Tchaikovsky compiled his Suite from the ballet "The Nutcracker" in 1892, before the ballet was even completed.

 

The Suite from the ballet The Nutcracker was compiled as a substitute for the symphonic ballad "The Voyevoda" on the program of a Russian Musical Society concert in Saint Petersburg scheduled for 29 February 1892, at which Tchaikovsky was due to conduct his own works. Having destroyed the score of The Voyevoda following its premiere in November 1891, Tchaikovsky suggested replacing it with a suite of numbers from his new ballet The Nutcracker, which he was preparing to orchestrate.  The full Suite contains eight numbers; we play five of them.

 

The Suite was premiered a week later than intended, at the ninth symphony concert of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society on 7 March 1892, with Tchaikovsky conducting. The Suite quickly became a popular favorite.

 

The Nutcracker, based on a children's fairy tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, was Tchaikovsky's last ballet.  The ballet premiered in  December 1892 in Saint Petersburg.  According to the composer the audience was unenthusiastic: "The Nutcracker was staged quite well: it was lavishly produced and everything went off perfectly, but nevertheless, it seemed to me that the public did not like it. They were bored".

 

The first complete performance outside Russia took place in Prague in 1908, where the ballet was staged a total of 24 times over the next two years. It was only in 1934 that the ballet received its first complete performance in London. The first complete performance in the United States was not until 1944, in San Francisco.

 

10. I Am Blamed by the People (Vinyat menya v narode).  This is a very old Russian song, of unknown authorship.  It also has no lyrics, so we don't know what the singer is being blamed for.

 

The piece was first published by Lev Gurilyov (1770-1844).  He subtitled it "Russian song with variations"; possibly he wrote the melody himself.  Gurilyov was a serf belonging to Count Orlov and the conductor of the Count's orchestra.  After the Count died in 1831, Gurilyov obtained his freedom.

This arrangement by Aleksandr Shalov (ah-leeks-AHN-der  SHAH-luff) is by far the most popular version of the piece today.

 

Aleksandr Shalov (1927-2001) was a balalaika performer, teacher, and composer, one of the greatest in Russia.  He was a soloist in the Andreyev Balalaika Orchestra and was one of the founders of the folk instrument department of the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Shalov wrote more than a hundred works for solo balalaika and folk orchestra.  He taught dozens of the finest balalaika players of Russia, including Elina Karokhina and Andrei Saveliev.  His works are played by all balalaika players.

 

11. Woolen Boots (Valenki) (VAH-len-kee).  Valenki are traditional winter Russian footwear, made from wool felt almost an inch think, so they are very warm.  However, this humorous folk song describes valenki that are so old and worn that the singer cannot go out in the snow to see his sweetheart.  His mother advises him not to go out to visit girls but to stay home and repair his valenki.

This song was extremely popular in Russia over a century ago as a Gypsy dance tune.  In the 1940s, it became a trademark of the great Russian folk singer Lidiya Ruslanova, who recorded the song with a slightly different tune, the one we know today.  Our arrangement was written by Aleksandr Shalov.

 

12. Shutochnaya.  Elina's encore was called "SHOO-touch-nah-yuh", or "Joke Song".  It is an fantasy by Shalov based on a humorous folk song called "My Husband Made Me Fire Up the Sauna".

 

13.  Kalinka (kuh-LEEN-kuh).  This piece is usually considered a folk song, but it actually was composed in 1860 in the folk style by Ivan Larionov (ee-VAHN lah-ree-OHN-uff) (1830-1889), a multi-talented folklorist, writer, composer, music reviewer, and choral director.  (He also spent several years each as an army officer, a justice of the peace, and a music teacher.)  The song quickly became popular throughout Russia, and is now known around the world.  The word "Kalinka" means "red snowball bush", but the bush is an allegory for passionate unrequited love.  The singer begs a beautiful girl "Please love me", but if not, "bury me under the green pine tree."

 

This lively arrangement is by Vera Gorodovskaya.

 

 

 

 

 

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