It is one of the enduring ironies of classical music that so much of today’s repertoire was written by such a small number of people. This post is the eleventh in a multipart Arts Fuse series dedicated to reevaluating neglected and overlooked orchestral music. Comments and suggestions are welcome at the bottom of the page or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
For many, perhaps most, in the developed world today, the notion of geographical rootedness – particularly, living one’s life without leaving a small geographical area – is alien. And yet, for most of human history, such experiences have been common. Of course, the limits of travel didn’t suppress the lure of exotic locales – they’re virtually everywhere in every discipline and era of the arts, after all – but it did mean that, until the 19th century, most of the wider world was off limits to most of humanity.
It certainly was for many musicians, Mozart’s early travels to Italy, Germany, France, and England notwithstanding. But by the 1850s, all that changed. Berlioz, for instance, toured widely through Europe and Russia. So did Liszt. Johann Strauss took up residency in Russia for ten summers in the 1850s and ‘60s, and spent part of 1873 in Boston and New York. Tchaikovsky and Dvorak both also came to America – Dvorak making it as far west as Iowa in the summer of 1893 – and Mahler famously spent the last three years of his life based (during the concert season) in New York City.
But few composers of the era matched Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s yen for seeing the world. He even joined the navy partly in order to satisfy the craving. But a military career wasn’t for him: in his autobiography, he later noted that while “distant lands began to allure me…naval service never pleased me much and hardly suited my character at all.” Still, it was a profession that provided him a lot of down-time for studying literature and music.
That he did, through fits and starts, eventually becoming a master orchestrator and a close affiliate of “The Mighty Five,” a group of Russian composers intent on forging a nationalist style (one of them, Modest Mussorgsky, was even Rimsky’s roommate for a time). Gradually, too, his music took on a distinct voice, marked by stirring, powerful melodies; rich, chromatic harmonies; and vibrant scoring.
Much of his best-known music today bears these qualities. It also reflects his fascinations with the wider world, be that the great expanses of the Russian Empire and modern Europe or lands of myth and mystery. Is there any symphonic poem, for instance, that speaks with more evocative passion, exoticism, or tunefulness than Sheherezade? Similarly, few composers of any day have captured the sultry heat of Iberia better than Rimsky did in his Capriccio Espagnole.
Then there’s the distinctly Russian music – pieces like the Russian Easter Overture and the operas The Snow Maiden, Mlada, and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh – which draw on authentic folk sources and, especially in the latter group, Slavic legends and supernatural traditions. Add to this the myriad concertos, folk song arrangements, and chamber music and you get a singular catalogue: individual of style, technique, and sheer sound.
Even, at times, his approach to symphonic form was unique. Take the Symphony no. 2, subtitled Antar. Its compositional history is certainly peculiar. Written in 1868 but revised twice – in 1875 and again in 1891 – and then reworked further in 1903, Rimsky based the piece (at the behest of Mussorgsky and Cesar Cui) on an exotic tale by Osip Sennkovsky.
The story itself concerns Antar, a reclusive adventurer living in the desert, who rescues a gazelle being attacked by a large bird. It turns out that the gazelle is a fairy called Gul-Nazar, who is also Queen of Palmyra. As a reward for his heroism, Antar is granted the three joys missing from his life: vengeance, power, and love. The experience of the last joy, however, consumes Antar, and, at the end, he dies in the Queen’s arms. Is there any wonder why a narrative with such strong archetypal themes would appeal to such an innately theatrical composer?
The first of Antar’s four movements opens with a recurring rising figure that’s meant to evoke the grandeur and mystery of the desert. It’s passed from strings to winds, the scoring always delicate and clear. After three iterations of this gesture, the violas play a tune that’s meant to represent Antar, himself: it’s broad and noble, but steeped in melancholy. As the fast section begins, a trotting figure representing the gazelle/Gul-Nazar appears and, through much repetition and colorful scoring, builds to a great climax that depicts Antar saving the Queen. As the strum of her harp fades, the opening “desert music” recurs and Antar suddenly wakes from his dream.
Antar’s second movement depicts the joy(s) of revenge. Menacing string tremolos find release for their pent-up rage in martial brass tattoos. Antar’s theme reappears, now edgy, strident, and marked by dissonant pedal points. After an unsettled section involving antiphonal triplets and a grotesque transformation of the first movement’s evocative flute theme, the chilling climax – Antar’s theme heard under furiously driving string tremolos – appears. But, rather than building to any sort of triumph, the music then fades away.
If vengeance alone proved unsatisfactory in the second movement, power comes across as more pleasing in the third. Here things begin with a jaunty march played by winds, brass, and percussion. Eventually this gives way to a lyrical tune that, ultimately, leads to Antar’s theme, now proud and forceful. Musically, there’s a lot going on in this movement and the sheer skill of Rimsky’s orchestration – always so smartly balanced and involved so that, not matter how active the part, one can always hear what’s going on – is no where in Antar more brilliantly demonstrated.
While the previous movements have been filled with drama and excitement, Antar’s finale, evoking the hero’s experience of the joy of love in the arms of Gul-Nazar and his subsequent death, is altogether more reserved. It features numerous woodwind solos (including some lush ones early on for English horn and clarinet) plus tenderly lyrical writing for strings and harp. Various allusions to earlier movements crop up and Antar’s theme is smoothly woven into the sweeping “love music.”
So where has Antar gone? Well, like much of Rimsky’s early symphonic output, it was overshadowed by the composer’s later successes, particularly his mega-triumph Sheherezade. Its convoluted history of revisions, too, hasn’t helped anything: among other things, Rimsky changed Antar’s designation from symphony to suite. His explanation – that the piece “has no thematic development whatsoever – only variations and paraphrases” – is sound enough, but it certainly hasn’t helped make the work more user-friendly.
But, of course, that shouldn’t matter much, anyway: what’s of primary importance is the music and, in Antar, Rimsky crafted a score of great intensity and excitement. It was evidently written in close collaboration with “The Mighty Five” – there’s a nod to Mussorgsky’s love for the viola in the first movement’s scoring, and several themes seem to have been shaped (or influenced) by the likes of Cui and Alexander Dargomyzhsky – but the music’s shape, sweep, and Oriental tinge have Rimsky’s fingerprints all over them.
Antar’s neglect – it was still played regularly during Rimsky’s lifetime – is unfortunate. Here’s a piece that packs a world of chimeric colors, impellent drama, and memorable tunes into less than thirty minutes. It conjures up a realm of magic, the likes of which only Rimsky could create. And it excitingly evokes some of the deepest of human emotions. What more could you want?
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.