Tchaikovsky Competition Winner Daniil Trifonov plays Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto
Samuel Barber 1910-1981
Samuel Barber
Samuel Barber
Adagio for Strings

For all the hoopla over Public Radio – whose affiliates are quickly converting their classical music programming to all-news-all-the-time – gone are the days when a commercial AM radio station had its own resident symphony orchestra, much less with the world’s foremost maestro to conduct a weekly broadcast. But in 1937, NBC inaugurated its live orchestral series under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. Musically conservative in taste, Toscanini, nevertheless, was eager to include suitably lyrical works by American composers on the series. Samuel Barber submittedfor the maestro’s consideration both the First Essay for Orchestra and the Adagio for Strings, an orchestral transcription of the Adagio from his String Quartet in b minor.

Not always a paragon of tact, Toscanini sent back both scores without comment, infuriating the composer. Barber profoundly revered the conductor and had endeavored to compose something worthy of him only to receive a snub. In actuality, Toscanini, whose poor eyesight made it impossible to read a score from the podium, had kept the scores just long enough to commit them to memory and intended, as he told the composer’s friend Gian Carlo Menotti, to perform both works on the air. He premiered both on November 5, 1938.

The neo-romantic Adagio was an instant success and has remained Barber’s most popular work by far. Its emotional power lies in the imperceptible gradual buildup of tension by the repetition and elaboration of the stepwise theme in different registers and instrument combinations. Example 1 At the powerful climax there is a short pause after which the theme is restated in its original form and then winds down peacefully.
César Franck 1822-1890
César Franck
César Franck

A Belgian by birth who lived and taught most of his life in France, César Franck was one of the most influential music teachers of the period and a famous organist. Although he enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire at age 15, his maturation as a composer came late in life, his most lasting compositions from his 50s and 60s. Franck was an easy-going, unassuming person, who never knew how to promote himself. As a result, much of his music was either ignored during his lifetime or derided by doctrinaire academicians. He achieved worldwide recognition only in the twentieth century. His students adored him, calling him “Pater seraphicus,” and his influence on the future of French music was enormous. He was appointed in 1871 as professor of organ at the Conservatoire, but his classes evolved into de facto composition classes for the succeeding generation of major French composers, including Vincent d’Indy, Henri Duparc, Ernest Chausson and Paul Dukas.

Psyché is a massive symphonic poem in four parts that Franck composed in 1886-87 at the same time as his Violin Sonata. It is one of five poèmes symphoniques he composed under the influence of Franz Liszt.

The story of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche is found in the second-century A.D. Metamorphoses – also known as The Golden Ass – by Lucius Apuleius; it is the only Latin novel to survive in its entirety. Embedded in the plot are numerous tales, Eros and Psyche being the most famous.

Venus, jealous of the beautiful and virtuous mortal, Psyche, sends her son Eros to make her rival fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. But when Eros sees Psyche asleep, he inadvertently wounds himself with his golden arrow and falls in love with her himself. Psyche’s parents, meanwhile learning from an oracle that their daughter is destined to marry a monster whom no one can resist, reluctantly abandon her on a mountaintop. Psyche is transported to a garden where all the servants are invisible, and Eros forbids her to look at him during their nightly trysts. Overcome by curiosity, Psyche lights a lamp after he has fallen asleep, but he is awakened and wounded by a drop of oil, with the inevitable consequences. Psyche is banished, wandering the earth until she comes to a temple of Venus. Although Psyche is penitent, the goddess visits upon her Herculean tasks, including a trip to the Underworld to fetch a box containing some of the cosmetics of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. Because of Psyche’s piety, various gods take pity on her and offer supernatural help. But in carrying back the box of beauty, the girl once again gives in to her curiosity. This time Eros appeals for help from Jupiter, who plays the archetypal role of deus ex machina. Psyche bears a daughter, appropriately called Voluptas.

The four part of the Symphonic Poem recount only the first, innocent part of the story:
Sommeil de Psyché (Psyche’s Sleep): The movement opens with a slow, somnolent introduction, Example 1 but Franck soon introduces a motive, probably portraying either Psyche herself or, more likely, the impression the sleeping girl makes upon Eros as he wounds himself with his arrow. Example 2

Psyché enlevée par les Zéphyrs (Psyche carried off by the Zephyrs) describes Psyche’s flight as the winds carry her to Eros’ abode. Rapid figures in the flutes and first violins are a bit of obvious tone painting. Example 3 As Psyche arrives, Franck repeats her motive in the clarinet. Example 4

Les jardins d’Eros (Eros’ Gardens): After two movements of slow, sensual music, Franck must have decided to increase the tempo and turn Eros' garden into a rather vibrant place. Example 5

Psyché et Eros: The final movement portrays the lovers’ first meeting – the initial slow, hesitant moments suggesting an initial shyness Example 6 – and presumably the consummation of their love before Psyche’s disastrous act of disobedience. Even Apuleius is rather prim about what exactly the two are up to during their meetings. Eros and Psyche have their own themes, his initially stated in the cellos and brass, Example 7 hers in the violins. Example 8 The music is sentimentally erotic, the themes initially flowing together like a conversation between the two lovers. Franck later develops and entwines them contrapuntally.{Example 9
Franck subsequently added a chorus to the orchestra to represent the invisible servants who wait on Psyche in Eros' enchanted garden. Today, however, Psyché is frequently performed without the chorus.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

It is ironic that Tchaikovsky’s two most popular works, the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto, were initially rejected by the greatest virtuosi of his country as unplayable fiascos.

“...Utterly worthless, absolutely unplayable. Certain passages are so commonplace and awkward they could not be improved, and the piece as a whole was bad, trivial, vulgar.” This was the verdict of Nikolay Rubinstein, first director of the Moscow Conservatory and one of Tchaikovsky’s mentors, on hearing the composer play his new Piano Concerto on Christmas Eve 1874. The tirade raised Tchaikovsky’s hackles, and he refused to change a single note (although in later editions he made some minor modifications). But with Rubinstein’s negative opinion, he had little chance of mounting a respectable performance – or unbiased reception – in Russia. What has come to the most popular piano concerto by Russia’s most popular composer was premiered in Boston on October 25 1875, with a pick-up orchestra and famed pianist Hans von Bülow, where it was a smashing success.

It is worth remembering that the First Piano Concerto came relatively early in Tchaikovsky's career. Rubenstein, the founder of the Moscow Conservatory, had served both as a mentor and first employer to the young composer. Moreover, Tchaikovsky's well-known bouts of depression and sense of alienation because of his homosexuality exacerbated his self-doubts about the quality of his music. It was a personal triumph, therefore, that he managed to withstand Rubinstein's vicious assault.

Although the majestic introduction has become so well known as to be recognizable even to people unfamiliar with classical music, it was revolutionary for its time. It remains unlike any standard introduction in the orchestral repertory, replete with a fully developed theme and a cadenza. The four horns in unison play a four-note phrase that prefigures the opening theme, followed by the rest of the orchestra playing a series of chords which shift the key from B-flat minor to the relative major key, D-flat. Example 1 The piano enters with crashing chords that span more than six octaves and serve as the accompaniment of the introductory theme on the strings.

Introduced by a soft chordal transition, the exposition begins with a rhythmic figure that shifts the accent as the theme proper commences. Example 2 The melody is one Tchaikovsky allegedly heard a blind beggar sing at a country fair, but this theme too is hardly touched on again. As if the composer were searching for just the right melody to express his emotions, a sighing second theme in the winds Example 3 and yet a third is added by the strings. Example 4 The development concerns itself largely with these two final themes, including wide mood swings that show off the pianist’s technical virtuosity. At one point Tchaikovsky combines the melody of the second theme in the horns with rhythm of principal theme in the upper winds. Example 5 The long cadenza is unusually restrained, a fine vehicle for highlighting the pianist’s control of pianissimo.

The second movement opens with a gentle theme on the flute, accompanied by muted strings; Example 6 the theme is then taken up by the piano with just a single note change. Instead of maintaining the tempo for the middle section of the slow movement, Tchaikovsky quixotically launches into a tonally ambiguous (Lisztian, in fact) cadenza of pianistic pyrotechnics Example 7 as a lead-in to a melody based on a popular cabaret song of the time. Example 8

In the rondo finale Tchaikovsky again uses a folk tune in triple meter, but with the accent always on the second beat. Example 9 The violins introduce a second, broad lyrical theme for contrast, echoed in the piano. Example 10 As momentum towards the climax builds, the violins sneak in a hint of the main theme of the first movement. Example 11 In place of a formal solo cadenza, an excited coda with lavish pianistic flourishes concludes the Concerto. Example 12

It is probably fair to ask why this Concerto is such a popular competition piece. In keeping with the composer’s tumultuous emotional life, it requires of the performer a mastery of just about every artistic and technical resource: rapid passages in octaves, abrupt changes in mood, delicate passages of arpeggiated filigree, giant buildups of harmonic and emotional tension, whispered legato pianissimos. Is it any wonder Rubinstein overreacted?
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2012