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The very lively overture to Ruslan and Ludmila has themes from the opera based on Pushkin’s fairy tale. Ludmila has been spirited away from her lover, Ruslan, by the evil dwarf Chernomor. Ruslan perseveres through many adventures to regain Ludmila. The overture is an energetic concert opener but also includes lyrical moments and uses the orchestra to great effect. Mikhail Glinka is regarded as the father of Russian concert music. Born in 1804, his father decided Mikhail should work for the Foreign Office. However, on travelling to Italy in 1830 and hearing the Italian style of music being composed by Bellini and Donizetti, Glinka decided to create distinctive Russian music. Listen out for the lyrical theme of Ruslan declaring his love for Ludmila which is played by bassoons, violas and cellos.
Stravinsky, in his early compositions explored and used Russian folksongs. Born in 1882, Stravinsky became internationally famous with three ballets, the first of these was ‘The Firebird’, composed in 1910. Prince Ivan, the hero, arrives at the castle of Kaschei the Immortal. He hears the beautiful sound of the Firebird and captures the bird, who begs for her life by offering to help him should he ever be in need. Having fallen in love with one of the 13 princesses at the castle, Prince Ivan encounters King Kaschei who threatens to send in monsters to turn everyone to stone and kill Prince Ivan. Ivan summons the Firebird who breaks Kaschei’s magical spell. Prince Ivan marries his princess and everyone lives happily ever after!
In contrast to the happy endings in the plots for the music in the first half of our concert, the opening theme of the Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky is ‘fate’. Following his catastrophic marriage to a former student - the marriage lasted two months – Tchaikovsky started composing his fourth symphony. Referring to the opening of the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote in a private programme for Madame von Meck (a wealthy widow who commissioned this symphony) ‘the fatal power which hinders one in the pursuit of happiness’. Despite his moments of anguish, Tchaikovsky wrote a wonderfully plaintive oboe melody at the start of the second movement. The ‘fate’ theme returns in the finale but does not silence the Russian folk songs. However this movement is lively and uplifting. In his programme notes for Madame von Meck, Tchaikovsky concludes ‘Rejoice in the happiness of others and you can still live’.