SERGEI PROKOFIEV
Lieutenant Kizhe (Kije) Suite, Op. 60

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev was born at Sontzovka, Government of Ekaterinoslav, Ukraine, on April 23, 1891, and died at Nikolina Gora near Moscow on March 5, 1953. He composed the music for the film Lieutenant Kizhe, produced by the studio Belgoskino in Leningrad, in 1933; the following year he adapted several selections from it to fashion the popular orchestral suite. The first performance of the suite took place in Moscow in 1934. The suite calls for two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, tenor saxophone, two bassoons, cornet à piston, two trumpets, four horns, three trombones and tuba, triangle, sleigh bells, tambourine, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, celesta, harp, piano, and strings. Duration is about 20 minutes.

Background

The great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein marveled at Prokofiev’s genius for film music. In the evening he would watch a series of edited takes a few times, note down the number of seconds that certain events lasted, then go off to his studio and return the next day at noon with the score of that scene perfectly attuned to the screen action. To Eisenstein, Prokofiev was capturing the inner rhythm of the film in his music. Indeed, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky is one of those very rare occasions when a great film is accompanied by a superb score.

But Prokofiev had written film music before meeting Eisenstein. His first project on returning to Russia in 1933, after years of self‑imposed exile in the West, was the score to Lieutenant Kizhe,* a satiric comedy set in the court of Tsar Paul I, the son of Catherine the Great. The film, based on a story by Yuri Tynianov (1894‑1943), makes fun of bureaucrats embroiled in red tape and terrified of being discovered in an error. While copying over some military documents, a clerk accidentally repeats two letters (“zh” and “e”) on a list of soldiers being presented for the Tsar’s approval. The Tsar misreads the report and creates a non‑existent name out of the syllable “ki” (which ended the aide’s name), and the syllable “zhe,” a Russian expletive. The aide is afraid to correct an Imperial error, so Lieutenant Kizhe must come into existence.

With a little connivance from the courtiers, Kizhe assumes a paper existence that keeps everyone hopping to prevent the Tsar from learning the truth. The subordinates are hard put to keep up the charade when the Tsar decides to promote the non‑existent soldier to his elite guard. Later Kizhe falls into disfavor and is sentenced to Siberia, only to be reprieved and made a general. Eventually, to the great relief of all involved in the cover-up, Kizhe “dies,” and his funeral is carried out with all the panoply of Imperial pomp—and an empty coffin.

About the Music

Prokofiev’s film score consisted of 16 musical numbers, brilliantly colored for orchestra and capturing the spirit of the 18th‑century setting with a twist of 20th‑century satire. It was his very first attempt to write a film score, but it was a clear artistic success and led the way to seven further film projects (of which Alexander Nevsky is far and away the best‑known).

As with the later Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev reworked some of the film’s music into a concert suite. The music is substantially rewritten to stand on its own while tracing some of the central incidents of the film—in this case the history of the fictitious hero: his birth; his romantic ardor when in love; his marriage (combining brief pomp with unbuttoned festivity in the tavern); a ride in a troika (a carriage drawn by three horses) to the tune of a tavern song; and the death of our hero. This is in no way mournful; on the contrary, once Kizhe dies, all those involved in maintaining the deception can at last breathe a sigh of relief. Each movement has its own characteristic color and mood, presented in brilliant primary colors.

The film was almost completely unavailable for viewing for many years. Happily, it can now be seen for free on YouTube, with English subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nbb539QZZXo. It is very quirky, but fun, and it gives us a chance to hear Prokofiev’s music as he originally conceived it, for the film, and to compare that with the later and more elaborate score for Alexander Nevsky.

* The title is usually transliterated as Lieutenant Kije, but “Kizhé” gives a more accurate representation in English of the pronunciation, since the cyrillic spelling of the fictional lieutenant’s name uses the Russian letter zhe, pronounced like the “z” in “azure.” (The customary transliteration “Kije” was made for publication in France, so it naturally employed “j,” which corresponds in sound to the Russian “zh.”)

 

JAMES MacMILLAN
Veni, Veni, Emmanuel (Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra)

James MacMillan was born on July 16, 1959, in Kilwinning, Ayrshire, Scotland, and currently lives in Glasgow. He composed his percussion concerto Veni, Veni, Emmanuel for Evelyn Glennie in 1992. The first performance took place on August 10, 1992, at a BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall; the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste with Evelyn Glennie as the soloist. The orchestral part calls for two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets (second doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (second doubling contrabassoon), two horns, two trumpets, trombone and bass trombone, timpani, and strings. The solo percussion part requires two tam-tams (one large), vibraphone, two snare drums, two congas, six tom-toms, two timbales, pedal bass drum, six Chinese gongs, six temple blocks, log drum, two wood blocks, two cowbells, marimba (five-octave), mark tree, large cymbal, sizzle cymbal, and tubular bells. In addition, as the score notes, “The orchestral players all play bells (of any sort) or, alternatively, two pieces of loud clanging metal at the end of the concerto.” Duration is about 26 minutes.

James MacMillan has become, in recent years, one of the most frequently performed of the generation of British composers now comfortably ensconced in middle age, and the work that has been heard most often by far is Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. One of the reasons it makes an excellent introduction to MacMillan’s work is that, in being based on a universally familiar melody, it gives audiences an immediate thread to follow in the unfolding of the piece. And, having been written for an extraordinary soloist—quite possibly the world’s only full-time percussion soloist—Evelyn Glennie, it rings with color in ways that immediately attract attention.

MacMillan was already composing as a child, and by the age of 10 he had produced some small piano pieces and some orchestral music. From 1977 to 1981 he studied music at Edinburgh University, where the musicologist Rita McAllister introduced him to Stravinsky, Webern, Messiaen, and the Russian composers of this century, most notably Shostakovitch. He undertook postgraduate studies in composition with John Casken at Durham University and then, in 1983, returned to his native Ayrshire as a teacher. After receiving a Ph.D. in composition he returned to Scotland, where he also became very much involved in educational work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, including projects in the schools and work in communities that had little opportunity to hear contemporary music.

Despite his academic training, MacMillan distanced himself from the traditions of the academy (which mostly means from serial or 12-tone techniques) and chose to write in a more direct and accessible style. Much of his music has reflected political interests—particularly Scottish nationalism—as well as the Roman Catholic religious background in which he was raised.

The following commentary on Veni, Veni, Emmanuel is excerpted from the composer’s notes for the work’s recording on the Catalyst label:

The heartbeats that permeate the whole piece offer a clue to the human presence of Christ. Advent texts proclaim the promised day of liberation from fear, anguish, and oppression, and this work is an attempt to mirror this in music, finding its initial inspiration in Luke 21:

And they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.

At the very end of the piece the music takes a liturgical detour from Advent to Easter—right into the Gloria of the Easter Vigil in fact—as if the proclamation of liberation finds embodiment in the Risen Christ.

—James MacMillan

 

KAMYAR MUHAJER
Bliss

Kamyar Muhajer was born in Teheran, Iran, on October 11, 1976. He spent his formative years in Canada, and now lives in California, having been in the United States since 2007. He composed Bliss in 2014. There was a reading by the Toronto Symphony in October 2015, but this performance constitutes the world premiere. The score calls for piccolo (doubling flute), two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets (2nd doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons (2nd doubling  contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, two trombones and bass trombone, timpani, 3 percussion players, strings. Percussion instruments are sustained cymbal, tambourine, crash cymbals, triangle, cow bells, vibraphone, bass drum, tam-tam, xylophone, marimba, castanets, cabasa, and tubular bells. Duration is about 13 minutes.

Kamyar Muhajer’s first musical activity began with piano lessons. He studied composition at Juilliard with Behzad Ranjbaran and at Stanford with Giancarlo Aquilanti. It is hardly surprising that a composer whose earliest musical experiences included that modality of Eastern music, which is now combined with experiences from the long history of European / American music, will demonstrate a unique blend of these different approaches. He composed Bliss in 2014. It is designed as a “happy” piece of music, which, as he explained to an interviewer, had a specific inspiration that suggested a mixture of Persian approaches to western music, and vice versa. He thought of Rachmaninoff’s last work, the Symphonic Dances, and wondered how it might have sounded if Rachmaninoff had been born and raised in Iran. “I had this symphonic dance in my mind that utilizes a quintessential 6/8 Persian dance. Then I also had a contrasting section of the piece, the symphonic poem, which released the dance from all that activity…”

This resulted in three movements—Dance, Poem, Finale—which he describes as follows:

The first section is a celebratory play on the quintessential Persian “6/8” dance. It starts with a six note Ostinato which is derived from the tail end of the Dance Theme. After several statements of the Dance Theme in a call and response manner, and through a series of modulations and transformations, the Dance Theme develops into a climax, which lasts through the end of the Dance.

This climax is then immediately resolved into the Ostinato which connects to the opening of the Poem. The Ostinato is now transformed (played by harp and strings) to accompany the Poem Theme in bass clarinet. In this first statement, the theme manifests itself in its most delicate form. For the next 5 minutes the Poem Theme takes a journey from this soft vulnerable position to its last statement in a climax which ends the Poem.

The last section (Finale) starts with the Poem Theme played in solo clarinet, while the cellos and double basses play the Dance Theme simultaneously. The Dance Theme is then transformed (for example in oboe), fragmented, and built up using the Ostinato to one last statement before the ending.

 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN
Symphony No. 8 in F Major, Op. 93

Ludwig van Beethoven was baptized in Bonn, Germany, on December 17, 1770, and died in Vienna on March 26, 1827. He composed the Eighth Symphony in 1812; it was first performed, in Vienna, on February 27, 1814. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 26 minutes.

Background

Beethoven composed his Eighth Symphony in tandem with the Seventh. Some of the sketches for both works appear together in a manuscript known as the Petter sketchbook. He apparently liked the challenge and the change‑of‑pace that comes with working on two very different pieces at the same time. Indeed, he had already done the same thing with the Fifth and Sixth symphonies. But though the two new symphonies were finished almost together, the Seventh was premiered on December 8, 1813, about two months before the Eighth, which was not heard until February 27 the following year (unlike the Fifth and Sixth, which had been premiered on the same concert in 1808).

The premiere of the Seventh had been one of the most successful concerts of Beethoven’s life, establishing him without question as the greatest living composer—though the work that truly ignited the audience’s enthusiasm on that occasion was the potboiler Wellington’s Victory, also being heard for the first time. When Beethoven premiered the Eighth two months later, he sandwiched it between repeats of the Seventh and Wellington’s Victory. Under the circumstances, the Seventh, a far longer work, overwhelmed the new score with its sheer visceral energy. A letter in which Beethoven offered both symphonies to an English publisher seems to patronize the later work somewhat, since he describes them as “a grand symphony in A Major (one of my most excellent works) and a smaller symphony in F Major.” But size alone is not the central factor here. If Beethoven could call the Eighth a smaller work, he surely meant so only in the objective sense of the number of measures contained within it. When Czerny once remarked that the Eighth was much less popular than the Seventh, Beethoven replied gruffly, “That’s because it’s so much better.”

About the Music

The opening movement is small in length compared to its sibling, the Seventh, but it is full of events. The opening phrases form a complete melody (how rare that is for Beethoven!), but immediately after the cadence the next phrases open out and grow in the most astonishing way. False leads cheerfully undermine the tonal solidity that Beethoven had been at such pains to establish in the opening bars, seeming to settle in to the highly unorthodox key of D Major (instead of the dominant, C) for the secondary theme. But scarcely has the theme started before it falters, suddenly aware of its faux pas, and swings around to the expected dominant.

The development is one of Beethoven’s most masterful demonstrations of musical timing. At first he simply marks time with a rhythmic vamp in the violas, jumping up and down an octave. The basic melodic idea turns out to be the very first measure of the symphony, unheard since its single earlier appearance. Now it dominates the discussion. The development is a long crescendo over its entire length. The volume increases gradually; at the same time phrase lengths become progressively shorter, so that things appear to be moving faster and faster, until the movement culminates in the blazing return to the home key, while the bass instruments proclaim the principal theme. The recapitulation is quite straightforward until the coda, when a bassoon (recalling the leaping octaves heard at the beginning of the development) leads into a new harmonic world, another crescendo, and a new version of the main theme in the wrong key. After a solid return to the tonic, the orchestra fades out delightfully, leaving one final salute to the first measure in the bass at the very last instant.

The second movement is a humorous homage to Beethoven’s friend Mälzel, the inventor of the metronome, a device that Beethoven found invaluable in giving composers, for the first time, a way to specify precise tempos for their music. The cheerful, jesting movement is filled with humorous touches (including a suggestion at the end that the mechanical marvel has broken down). Its scherzando marking makes it rather faster than a slow movement was expected to be.

Beethoven compensates by making his next movement—for which we expect a rollicking scherzo—Tempo di Menuetto, a marking he had long since ceased using in his symphonies. This movement particularly is responsible for the symphony’s reputation as a Haydnesque “throwback.”

Having held his horses back, so to speak, for three movements, Beethoven lets them have their head in the merry rush of the rondo‑like tune that seems about to come to a close on an normal dominant C when it is suddenly jerked up to C‑sharp, only to have the unexpected note drop away as quickly as it had arrived, apparently without consequence. The same thing happens at the recapitulation, and though the bubbling high spirits leave us little time to worry about details, the sheer obtrusiveness of that note lingers in the ear, demanding consideration. The questions are answered in the immense coda, where the obtrusive C-sharp note returns with harmonic consequences, generating a new and distant tonal diversion that must be worked out before we can return safely home. At this pace, Beethoven can only leave us breathless with delight at his exhilarating wit.

 

© Steven Ledbetter (www.stevenledbetter.com)

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInTweet about this on Twitter