Columbus Symphony Performs Sergei Prokofiev and Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Ohio Theatre is home to the Columbus Symphony.(Photo: wallyg)
Ohio Theatre is home to the Columbus Symphony.(Photo: wallyg)

The Columbus Symphony performs Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 25 (“Classical Symphony”) and Lieutenant Kijé, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 for cello and orchestra and The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, (“1812 Overture”), Op. 49, January 21 and 22 at the Ohio Theatre.

Peter Stafford Wilson conducts; Julian Schwarz plays cello.

Lieutenant Kijé

After a successful decade and a half in America, Prokofiev chose to return to Soviet Russia in 1930, where the challenge for the composer was to produce works that would satisfy both the authorities and audiences.

“I must hear Russian speech and talk with people who are dear to me [...] Their songs are my song. I am going home.”

Soviet authorities thought they were getting a graceful, compliant artist, but the joke was on them. In 1934, he was invited by film director Alexander Feinzimmer to score a new film called Lieutenant Kijé. The film, a political satire about a fictitious Lieutenant Kijé, became a favorite of the Tsar, at the time.

Prokofiev proved adept at wielding the rapier to Soviet bureaucracy, disguised as an insult to old tsarist Russia. Many of Prokofiev’s contemporaries got the joke, while appreciating the composer’s brittle and graceful music.

Symphony No. 1 in D major

Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Classical Symphony”), Op. 25 was written during World War I at a time when people were dodging bullets in the streets of Petrograd. It was a strange time to write something so witty and beautiful.

The symphony began as an exercise for Prokofiev: He wanted to see if he could compose away from the piano. He also wanted to pay tribute to his primary teacher, Nikolai Tcherepin.

Franz Haydn’s classical form was integral to Tcherepin’s teaching. As a result, Prokofiev would write a symphony in the style of Haydn using contemporary idioms, adding to the wonderful symmetry and grace of the classical style a color of deceptive cadences and flashes of dissonance to keep the 1917 audience entertained.

Here is is performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under the legendary Sergei Koussevitsky.

Variations on a Rococo Theme

Variations on a Rococo Theme, written by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky a generation earlier (in 1876), is a one movement concerto for cello and orchestra.

Haydn was the father of the Rococo style. (There he is again.) In fact, the theme is Tchaikovsky’s original parody of this style. There’s no direct quote from any other composer in this work. It is completely original.

There are seven variations following the initial graceful theme, beginning at 1:00 minute on this video:

The variations were written for Tchaikovsky’s colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. The cellist fancied himself a composer too. When Tchaikovsky asked for Fitzenhagen’s input, he wrote his versions into the autograph score. As it turns out, Fitzenhagen shanghaied the glory away from the composer, who remained cool to this artist as the work he inspired became a hit. Fitzenhagen reported, “I produced a furore with your variations. I was recalled three times!”

The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major

The Year 1812, Festival Overture in E flat major, Op. 49 (“1812 Overture”), written in 1880, was commissioned to open the new Cathedral Church of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The inspiration was the Russian defeat of Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Borodino in 1812.

What had begun as a certain victory for the French was ended by the Russian winter. Once the remnants of Napoleon’s armies reached Moscow, they found the city both deserted and burned to the ground. There was nothing and no one to conquer.

Seventy years later, Tchaikovsky came up with a concert overture in one movement complete with cannon fire and tolling Cathedral bells — precisely marked in the score. We hear the Marseillaise as Napoleon approaches an then runs away.

Finally, the hymn “God Save the Tsar” — a nice bit of propaganda from a Tsarist government in 1882 that would collapse less than fifty years later — thunders forth amid the pealing bells.

Tchaikovsky hated the “1812 Overture,” which became his most popular work. “I’m not a concocter of festival pieces,” he declared. He described the overture as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, because I wrote it without love.”

Indeed. But like many other works, it was loved by the public.

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