Tchaikovsky-125 years after his death

Today, we mark the 125th anniversary of P. I. Tchaikovsky, who is one of the most important and influential Russian composers. Stravinsky, for instance, called him his greatest influence and his ballet Le Baiser de Fee is an hommage to Tchaikovsky.

We all know that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that he had to preserve his sexuality throughout his relatively brief life. 53 years would have been a lot in Shakespeare’s times, but not at the end of the nineteenth century.  I don’t want to talk about his personal trauma, but about his literary influences today. Well, I mentioned Shakespeare, so let’s talk about the influence of the greatest English dramatist on the greatest Russian composer (I know that I’m walking on thin ice by saying that).

When we talk about Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare, we have to talk about the former’s tone poems or, in some cases, fantasy overtures, as the composer called them. Don’t get too confused about that, it’s roughly the same thing. So, we talk about three major works:

-Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasia

-The Tempest overture

-Hamlet overture

Now, none of these do want to talk about a specific narrative. For example, Romeo and Juliet does not talk about how the lovers fell in love and how Romeo poisons himself and Juliet stabs herself at the graveyard. It’s more about musical mirroring, as I like to call it. Tchaikovsky wanted to represent emotions, which renders him as a genuinely romantic composer: He is interested in  character development and feelings, but briefly describing the context. Just imagine the violence of the Montagues and the Capulets, the chorale type music that represents Friar Lawrence, the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. There is only a vague reference to any kind of story in those works.

For instance, in the program notes to Hamlet, Tchaikovsky defines three sections: Hamlet until the appearance of the ghost; the scherzo section (Polonius, the rat) and the adagio (Ophelia); Hamlet after the appearance of the ghost, his death and Fortinbras (the future king of Denmark). It kind of has a symphonic form, doesn’t it?: an introduction, a scherzo, an adagio and a finale. Very interesting, especially of Tchaikovsky, who initially despised any kinds of form. Just look at his first symphony, which is more or less written in a style of a fantasia (free form, to be plain). However, afterwards, he went on to be more traditional.

Overall, we have quite a different idea from the  Straussian tone poem, in which a whole fairy tale or story is pictured. Just take Don Juan or Tod und Verklärung as examples. This emotional representation reminds me more of Franz Liszt, who also wrote a tone poem called Hamlet and had similar ideas of representing characters through music. Hamlet is said to be a psychological study of Hamlet with short glimpses of Ophelia, but I will leave that to your own listening and enjoyment.

(I know that I didn’t write anything about The Tempest, but I don’t want to stress you with too much information. Just use your imagination and build an enchanted island in your head. That’s what the beginning and the ending are all about!)

Here are the examples of the three tone poems and Liszt’s Hamlet:





Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)


Ottorino Respighi I

Today, I want to present you a composer whom many people do not know because he, similar to Ildebrando Pizetti, Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero, worked in the shadow of the masters of Verismo such as Puccini, Leoncavallo and the fascist Mascagni. I’m talking about Ottorino Respighi, an apolitical composer, who lived for art. Mind you, he was a very important scholar as he did a lot of research on 16th-18th century Italian music (cf. his three suites of Ancient Airs and Dances).

Well, Respighi was a very prolific composer: He composed many orchestral works, nine operas and also ballets as well as vocal and chamber works. In my view, he is quite an underrated figure as he did not achieve a “pop” status in the fashion of his mentioned contemporaries. However, the great conductor Arturo Toscanini admired the discussed composer very much and even recorded the ˝Pines of Rome˝ twice (a thing that is rarely done in classical music with such pieces as it is not a Beethoven symphony. Am I right Mr. Karajan?). Well, Karajan also recorded the work in 1978, but it the ˝Pines of Rome˝ are not everything. Thankfully, there are also conductors that, in addition to them recorded something else: Leonard Bernstein also did the ˝Roman Festivals˝. Those two pieces are not the only ones in this cycle as there is also a third tone poem, namely ˝The Fountains of Rome˝. Sadly, I rarely see a recording of all three pieces together.

Respighi’s style can be described as quite unique, really something new. He is impressionistic, without a doubt, but it is very much different to Ravel or Debussy. In my view, it is better, but, probably, my view stems from the fact that both of them are overplayed in the orchestral repertoire of symphony orchestras around the world.

Well, Respighi combines his impressionism with a very romantic, chromatic touch. The orchestral forces are used up to their totality and brilliance. However, on the other hand, he is also able to use few instruments and create beautiful melodic and harmonic lines.

The ˝Pines of Rome˝ seem to be his most famous work. We can say that it has everything in its combined four movements: a chromatic fast movement, a slow, somber and pious chant, a delicate and an impressionistic description of nature on a hill and the triuphant return of the Roman army. It describes the pine trees or, rather, the sorroundings of them in four distinct places around the city of Rome: in the English landscape garden of the Villa Borghese; the catacombs of the Campagna (the area sorrounding Rome); on the Janiculum hill and, finally, the Via Appia.

The work begins with a description of a childrens’ play in the garden of the Villa Borghese. It is a fast movement with some dissonance in the brass sections of the orchestra ( naturally, as children are proned to causing trouble) and it shows Respighi as a master of orchestration, combining several sections of the orchestra to create childish chaos.

Afterwards, we make a giant leap from frolicking to death as we enter the catacombs. In fact, the movement employs a chant that is part of the traditional mass, namely the Kyrie (“God, have mercy! Christ, have mercy! God, have mercy!). Respighi is also playing with dynamics quite a lot. The dynamics of a piece are the volume of the piece and the composer gradually moves from pianissimo (pp) to fortissimo (ff) and back down to the former.

Slowly, this leads us to the Janiculum hill, on which the birds are singing and the water is flowing. Again, Respighi demonstrates the lushness of his orchestral and emotional power. Orchestra really have to be careful to be expressive and to obey the indicated tempo.The movement really has to be performed very slowly and dreamy. We have to understand that Respighi was an impressionist, which is seen in the brief solo sections of the oboe and the violin in the middle part of the movement. The human joy is expressed through the ecstatic entrance of the complete orchestra. In the final bars of the moment, Respighi uses something that has never been used before in music, namely sound effects. He recorded the singing of a nightingale and incorporated it into the piece.

Shortly after, we hear a moderate and quiet march as the Roman army is nearing the Via Appia and the pines on both sides of the road. The march is getting louder and louder and the gradually the complete orchestra enters (even an organ!) and the march ends triumphantly.

Interestingly, the piece was written in 1924, but, essentially, the final movement is similar to the Bolero by Ravel because of the intensifying dynamics and the repetition of one theme. Therefore, we can ask ourselves the question: Is Ravel a copycat?

Does Respighi need more recognition in the musical spheres around the world? I think he does and hopefully you, dear readers, will also acknowledge his genius.


Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)

Wagner’s Parsifal I

Parsifal is Richard Wagner’s final music drama (some tend to name it opera, but you just can’t compare it with the works of, for instance, Verdi or Puccini, due to its dramatic structure, plot etc.) or Gesamtkunstwerk. Well, the opera has often been called Wagner’s paradox. The reason for that lies in its subject, namely the Christian faith and the ethics of compassion. This is, in some sense, awkward because of Wagner’s own biography:

Wagner was a leftist revolutionary and had socialist ideas, even in the work that preceded Parsifal, that is Götterdämmerung (first performed in Bayreuth in 1876).

Hence, Wagner has undergone a great spiritual shift and has become subject to numerous critical views on his late work. Debussy found the plot a little silly, but the most important of the criticisms is probably Nietzsche’s book “Nietzsche contra Wagner”, which is better known as “The Antichrist”. Here, the great German philosopher condemned Wagner for promoting chastity and for “killing” ethics:

Parsifal is a work of perfidy, of vindictiveness, of a secret attempt to poison the presuppositions of life – a bad work. The preaching of chastity remains an incitement to anti-nature: I despise everyone who does not experience Parsifal as an attempted assassination of basic ethics.” (Nietzsche)

However, he praised the music of the work. Well, Wagner’s music seems to be unquestionable, the problem for some critics is only his ideological point of view. Just note, on the other hand, the numerous positive critics of the drama, both musically and ideologically: Gustav Mahler, Max Reger, Jean Sibelius etc.

Today, I will present you the prelude to the work. When you will listen to it, you might find it boring due to its slow tempo (mostly sehr langsam (very slow) and no fast tempos as in The Meistersingers, for instance), but we have to understand this in the context of its pious subject. Also, in order to undestand the work, you have to have knowledge of some of the leitmotifs. For your information, a leitmotif or “leitmotiv” is a reccuring theme that characterizes a certain event or character or, even, symbol.

The prelude opens with a solemn melody, representing the Grail Knights, the protectors of the holy grail, but if you leave out the first note, the leitmotif is quite different, namely that of the holy communion (this is more clearly seen later in the second scene of the first act and the ending of the opera). Then, in the repetition of the first theme, you will hear a descending fifth, representing the guilt of king Amfortas, who lost the holy spear, when he was seducted by vicious Klingsor’s flower maidens (mind you, Klingsor was also a Grail Knight, but was excluded from them, when he self-castrated himself). Also, important is the leitmotif of the Holy Spear, which is represented by three rising notes. Interestingly, in Wagner’s Ring Wotan’s spear is represented by a number of falling notes, which is, in my view, quite logical, as Wotan’s spear is essentially different to the Holy Spear (pagan vs. christian=>diametrical opposition).

In the second part of the prelude, there are also two important leitmotifs that are introduced: In the beginning brass section, the holy grail is represented. Following that, the woodwinds indicate the leitmotif of faith.

In the final part of the prelude, we return back to the first theme, but it is a little different as it also indicates Amfortas’ agony:

Zajeta slika

Interestingly, the motif is then shifted for a fifth interval, indicating Christ’s own suffering on the cross. So, enjoy the prelude to Wagner’s opera Parsifal.


Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)

Mahler I

So, after a break of six months due to the writing of my thesis, I have returned to write about music. From now on, there will be more short entries than long ones, but there will be more of them. So, today a little about Mahler’s music, particularly his symphonies.

What interests me a lot in the last weeks and months is the magic of his adagios, especially of his 4th, 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies. They have a really different character. Whereas one could characterize the adagio of the 4th symphony as joy of life and of the 5th as a love song to his future wife Alma Mahler, the 6th and the 9th symphony have a more negative tone. Well, of course, everything is very debatable, but, looking at Mahler’s biography and the programmes of his works, there is a certain truth about it.

The 6th symphony is, in my humble opinion, the most tragic of Mahler’s entire orchestral repertoire, even though one might say that the 9th was his “farewell symphony”. However, as we know, Mahler did not mean it so as he was more active than ever after the composition of his 9th, although his heart condition was getting worse and worse (engagements in New York etc.). But the 6th symphony, one could say, had a certain tragedy in itself: The first movement with the march rhythm, the second movement with the character of a demonic scherzo and the finale with its famous three hammer blows (Mahler omitted the third one as a consequence of his superstition, although some conductors, as Leonard Bernstein, performed it with the third one included). Just to make the case even grimmer, these hammer blows were some kind of a prophecy as each of them were later seen as crucial blows of fate: firstly, the diagnosis of his then uncurable heart disease (today, the ilness can be successfully cured with antibiotics); secondly, the death of his daughter Maria (ironically or even prophetically, he even wrote his Kindertotenlieder, the work Alma could not understand in 1904 as this seemed to be one of Mahler’s happiest years); finally, he was fired from the Vienna State Opera. So, the 6th symphony has something special in it, a certain power that his other symphonies do not have, although their quality is unquestionable.

However, the adagio of the 6th is something special: it has a character of resignation or even of happiness or maybe it is just “the calm before the storm”. Who knows? It is definetely the most curious as the other three movements convey a certain negativity. In no other Mahler symphony we are able to find that:

The 9th as a whole, for instance, can be seen as a farewell due to the repetitions of his earlier works; the 4th has two jolly movements, a grim scherzo and an adagio similar to the 6th; the 5th has two tragic opening movements, but afterwards expresses a triumph of life. So, you see that the adagio of the 6th is something special. One glance of positivity is embedded into a tragic work to, probably, function as some light in the everlasting darkness.

Here are the Adagios:


Time: 5th symphony (Adagietto): 23.00; 6th symphony: 34:53; 9th symphony: 52:05


Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)