Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

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Program Notes: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

Jacksonville Symphony 2022/23 Florida Blue Classical Series

Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture

  • Shostakovich spent much of his career in reaction against the Soviet regime.
  • A brilliant pianist, he began his career playing piano in silent movie houses.
  • His 15 symphonies and 15 string quartets are 20th century landmarks.
  • He was a classicist at heart, revering Ludwig van Beethoven in particular.
  • He also admired Johann Sebastian Bach and composed 24 Preludes and Fugues as an homage to the legendary composer.
  • Shostakovich had a wicked sense of humor, often injecting satire into his compositions.

Most listeners associate Shostakovich with serious music often touched by challenging moments or bitter sarcasm, likely directed at Stalin’s regime. His Festive Overture,  however, differs greatly from his characteristic composition style. This ebullient curtain-raiser is seven minutes of fun and irrepressible good spirits. Also rich with catchy melodies, Festive Overture is an audience pleaser from start to finish.

Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka

  • Stravinsky was a true international figure. He lived in France, Switzerland and other nations before settling in the United States of America.
  • He was arguably the most important ballet composer of the 20th century. Choreographer George Balanchine staged 40 ballets to the music of Stravinsky.
  • Three early ballets, including Petrushka, established Stravinsky’s international reputation.
  • Traditional folk music remained a source of inspiration throughout his career.

Petrushka is a ballet about a puppet who falls hopelessly in love with a ballerina. In a classic love triangle, he loses her to a fierce Moor. Stravinsky’s scenario sets the tale at an Easter fair in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square. He incorporated folk songs and other borrowed material into his colorful score. Music Director Courtney Lewis has chosen the composer’s 1947 revised version of Petrushka, which employs a slightly smaller orchestra. The score’s instrumental timbres remain bright and pungent, including a prominent role for orchestral piano, representing the hapless puppet. The four movements (called tableaux) creative an effective concert piece.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1

  • Tchaikovsky was one of the greatest musical exponents of the Romantic movement, heavily influenced by his German contemporaries.
  • His ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are extremely popular.
  • Unforgettable melodies and sparkling orchestration enrich his music.

No concerto opening is more famous. Thundering piano chords and a gorgeous orchestral theme set the stage for drama. The score blazes with brilliant orchestral and pianistic color throughout, and a French folk tune provides thematic material for the slow movement. Tchaikovsky uses traditional folk songs for the lively Cossack dance that concludes his concerto, creating a piece that has been heralded as a timeless staple of classical repertoire.


Festive Overture, Op. 96

Dmitri Shostakovich

Born September 25, 1906, in St. Petersburg, Russia | Died August 9, 1975, in Moscow, Russia

 Shostakovich composed the Festive Overture before my very eyes…The speed with which he wrote was truly astounding. Moreover, when he wrote light music, he was able to talk, make jokes and compose simultaneously like the legendary Mozart…Two days later, the dress rehearsal took place. I hurried down to the theatre, and I heard this brilliant, effervescent work with its vivacious energy spilling over like uncorked champagne.

– Lev Lebedinsky, quoted in Elizabeth Wilson,

Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994)

Shostakovich habitually worked on several compositions at once. The year he wrote Festive Overture, 1954, was no exception. He was busy in January with final touches on his Concertino for Two Pianos, Op. 94, which he completed just before New Year’s. The premiere of this piece took place on January 20, 1954. By April, he had completed the soundtrack for filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet. Another film score, Seven Rivers, Op. 95, followed during the summer. Before autumn arrived, he had completed the Festive Overture. Festive Overture is an unusually attractive work with no shadows that demand internal soul-searching. In that respect, it is a striking contrast to the stern demeanor of most of Shostakovich’s works. The music historian Ian MacDonald has suggested that the uncharacteristic giddiness may also have been part of a prolonged (if discreet) celebration following the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953. Like the Concertino for Two Pianos, Op. 94, composed a year earlier, the Festive Overture is alive with an unforced laughter that can only reflect its composer’s relief over not having to worry about Stalin anymore.

A brilliant brass fanfare announces that the occasion is a happy one before the winds take off on a madcap chase that eventually involves every section of the orchestra. For listeners familiar with Shostakovich’s dark and sardonic sides, Festive Overture will come as a startling surprise, for it is as melodic and upbeat as Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide.


Instrumentation: piccolo, two flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, side drum, cymbals, bass drum and strings


Petrushka (1947 version)

Igor Stravinsky

Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia | Died April 6, 1971, in New York City

Stravinsky’s early success is inextricably entwined with impresario Sergei Diaghilev, a famous manager of many opera, classical and ballet productions. His success is also tied to the Ballets russes, an esteemed ballet company that toured from 1909 to 1929 throughout Europe in addition to North and South America. Petrushka was the second of three great ballets he wrote for Diaghilev’s troupe in Paris, France. As his geographical and cultural horizons expanded, Stravinsky’s style was evolving. His mix of folk elements, 20th century harmonies and a keen sense of orchestral color is intoxicating.

Petrushka takes place at the Shrovetide Fair, an annual Easter festival in St. Petersburg’s Admiralty Square. The tale unfolds on two levels. One is personal drama dealing with private challenges while the other is a public, kaleidoscopic view of everyday people. The relationship between these two levels, both musically and psychologically, constitutes the larger message of Petrushka, which comments on the complexity of the human condition.

The principal characters in the drama form a classic love triangle. Three puppets, Petrushka, a Ballerina and a Moor, are presented at the fair by the Showman. The puppet show is one of the many entertainments vying for the attention of the curious throng. In the second tableau, Petrushka has become enamored with the lovely ballerina who spurns his advances and mocks him. Her other suitor, the Moor, woos her in the third tableau. In the finale, the Moor challenges Petrushka to battle for the ballerina’s affections. Unarmed, our hero is doomed. The crowd mingles about in shock at the sight of his wooden remains with sawdust spilt about. A policeman helps the Showman dispel the myth that the puppet was ever alive. The ballet closes as Petrushka’s ghost has a last laugh at those whom the Showman fooled.

In the outer two tableaux, the role of the crowd is crucial. St. Petersburg was an important capital whose fair landscape drew diverse, rural types from all over the world. Their energy surges in the opening and closing tableaux. Stravinsky brings the hubbub and opulence of the fair to life: the rides, the shows and the trinket and snack sellers hawking their wares. With so many distractions available, the crowd is easily diverted. Petrushka’s drama is only a brief moment in the bustle of the Shrovetide Fair.

The music has striking moments. The most famous is the so-called “Petrushka motive,” a dissonant fanfare for two clarinets introduced in the second tableau, which takes place in Petrushka’s cell. Both play arpeggios, but one is in C-major and the other in F-sharp major. Their sound is queerly acidic. Each line is sweet and innocuous if perceived independently but intensely pungent when heard together.

Because of some ambiguity in international copyright laws, the score to Petrushka was published and performed in the United States without authorization. In an effort to stem such piracy, Stravinsky revised the score in 1946. Because it was published in 1947, it has become known as the 1947 revised version. Concise and gripping, it makes for wonderful concert music.


Instrumentation: three flutes (third doubling piccolo), two oboes, English horn, three clarinets (third doubling bass clarinet), two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three cornets (doubling trumpets), three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, gong, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, snare drum, xylophone, and long drum), harp, piano, celesta and strings


Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23

Pyotr Ilyich  Tchaikovsky

Born May 7, 1841, in Votkinsk, Viatka district, Russia | Died November 6, 1893, in St. Petersburg, Russia

Tchaikovsky was essentially a man of the theater and of theatrical instincts. He understood how to maximize the inherent drama of piano plus orchestra. Late in 1874, he consulted pianist Nikolai Rubinstein about his new concerto for piano and orchestra. Rubinstein’s initial reaction was scathing and harsh, and he accused Tchaikovsky of writing unplayable music.

Tchaikovsky was both angered and deeply wounded. Three years after the fact, he was still smarting, writing to von Meck:

An independent witness of this scene must have concluded that I was a talentless maniac, a scribbler with no notion of composing, who had ventured to lay his rubbish before a famous man…I was not only astounded but deeply mortified by the whole scene.

            His immediate reaction was to erase Rubinstein’s name from the dedication and substitute that of the German pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow. Bülow played the premiere of the B-flat minor concerto in October 1875 while on tour in the United States. In this country, the reaction was quite the reverse of Rubinstein’s summary judgment. Bülow reported that he was often cheered on to repeat the entire last movement. Thereafter, Tchaikovsky’s concerto was introduced to European audiences with great acclaim. Rubinstein recanted his initial judgment and went on to become one of its most celebrated interpreters.

The Concerto’s rough birthing process is an unlikely prologue to one of the greatest success stories in the history of music. This concerto invites a broad palette of color from the performer. From the commanding chords that mark the soloist’s entrance to the ferocious Cossack dance that closes the work, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto seduces our ears with warmth, powerful emotions, lyricism and a wealth of persuasive melodies. The familiar themes that anchor the outer movements have origins in traditional folksong. The lovely, slow movement adapts a French song and includes a light, playful middle section. Its charming texture is a sharp contrast to the grand, flamboyant gestures of the opening movement.

While the first movement is quite lengthy in comparison to the two that follow, the concerto is hugely successful as a whole. Tchaikovsky combines drama and sentiment with dazzling technique to produce a showpiece that is a classic of its kind.


Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, solo piano and strings


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2022

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