Like many of the great romantic composers, Tchaikovsky was encouraged by his parents to choose a career other than music. Tchaikovsky completed legal training and began a career at the Ministry of Justice. However, his passion for music soon triumphed, and he turned to composing full time.
Tchaikovsky had particular success writing patriotic music. While the 1812 Overture is one of his most familiar pieces in this genre, it was written four years after the equally patriotic Marche Slave, Op. 31. Tchaikovsky was particularly fond of this piece with its steady build from a funeral march at the beginning to the energetic and rousing finish. Particularly effective as an encore, the composer frequently conducted it to close his performances.
The work is a musical retelling of the story of Russian soldiers who supported the Serbian army in the Serbo-Turkish War. Amazingly, Tchaikovsky completed the score in only five days. In spite of this rushed pace, the first performance received nothing short of an ecstatic response. Tchaikovsky described it: “The rumpus and roar that broke out in the hall defies description. The entire audience rose to its feet, many jumped up upon their seats.” Knowing he had a hit on his hands, Tchaikovsky immediately re-started the piece from the top.
In an era when the Faustian legend was strong, perhaps no other public figure conjured images of a man who offered his eternal soul in exchange for musical mastery of his instrument more than Paganini. The great violin virtuoso was famous throughout the world. His technical skills were unmatched, to be sure, but it was said that he could bring an audience to tears with his beautiful playing of a single unaccompanied lyrical line as well.
A gifted composer, Paganini wrote music that inspired many others. The “theme” upon which Rachmaninoff composed today’s variations was also was a source for Schumann, Brahms and Liszt.
Featuring no less than 24 variations, the work is a true showpiece for the soloist, who makes his way through a wide variety of styles and tempos. Cleverly, Rachmaninoff opens with the first variation before the theme itself is heard. Instead, the theme is played moments later by all the violins.
Perhaps best known in the work is the 18th variation, a soaring and beautiful inversion of Paganini’s theme. Although already popular, this theme became beloved by a new generation when it was prominently featured in the film Somewhere in Time. Throughout the other variations, a variety of emotions and colors is pulled from the soloist and orchestra. The astounding technical display certainly requires a virtuosic soloist. After a massive buildup to a thrilling finish, the final bars are a surprise as the last two measures sneak delightfully away.
Like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov spent part of his youth pursuing a career other than music. In fact, at the age of 12, he entered the Naval Academy in Russia and spent more than a decade in service. His musical interests kept developing, and, over the course of his life he became a well-known composer, a master orchestrator, and one of the leading teachers of the next generation of Russian musicians.
Rimsky-Korsakov also headed a group of musicians known as “The Mighty Five.” Their collective goal was to develop a distinctly Russian style of classical music, as opposed to the heavy influence of Western European/German music that was so prevalent. One of their main tactics was to use Russian history, folklore, legends and characters as the inspiration for their compositions.
Scheherazade is such an example. Based on 1001 Arabian Nights, each of the four movements are inspired by a specific story from the anthology. Most notable is the striking use of the solo violin, of which Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “This unifying thread consists of brief interludes, each illustrating Scheherazade herself telling her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan.”
The first movement is the story of “The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship,” evident in the rolling accompanying figure in the low strings. The second movement tells the “Story of the Kalendar Prince,” who disguises himself to join a member of a group of dervishes.
The third movement is a romantic love song of “The Young Prince and Princess” before the fourth movement illustrates the joyous and colorful “Festival in Bagdad.” The music then returns to the “Sinbad” music from the first movement before his ship crashes loudly into pieces onto a mighty rock. The work closes with the solo violin, as the story quietly concludes.