Program Notes – May 20, 2018 Concert

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Reena Esmail:  Vishwas

Original version, 2014; version for symphony orchestra, 2016, 2018

The word vishwas (विशवास) expresses the concept of fervent belief, or faith, in Hindi. Meera Bai, a celebrated saint-poet from 15th century India, is the quintessential embodiment of vishwas. She believes she is married to the Lord Krishna, a Hindu deity, and the events of her life are shaped around her devotion to this intangible but omnipresent figure. My work, Vishwas, picks up the story of Meera as a young adult, and explores her struggle to maintain her spiritual marriage in the context of a mortal one. As the daughter in a royal Rajput family, her but Meera’s devotion to Krishna.

I. Devotion/Duty:  Opening with three images of the deity Krishna, this movement provides a unique insight into the love between Meera and her Lord. However, as the daughter in a royal Rajput family, her duty to her father mandates her strategic marriage to create an alliance with a neighboring kingdom. As this earthly duty family encroaches upon her in the form of typical Indian wedding band music (the tune used here is based on the popular Bollywood song “Aaj Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai” – tr. ‘today is my good friend’s wedding’), Meera is torn away from her true love to marry a mortal prince.

II. Interlude:  Meera’s worldly marriage does not stop her from honoring her spiritual one. She consistently violates social norms in order to honor her role as Krishna’s wife, and in the process brings increasing shame on her mortal husband’s family. In an attempt to stop her from wandering freely outside the royal palace, the Krishna temple, to which she makes regular pilgrimage, is locked.

III. Testament:  In Meera’s stubbornness, she stages a hunger strike outside the temple, refusing to eat until the doors are opened. One night, after days of fasting, she is extremely weak and lays down to rest. A storm brews, and the high winds begin to swing the lamp outside the temple’s wooden door, causing the door to catch fire. As the storm builds, the door burns, eventually causing the entrance to the temple to reopen. Krishna has used the forces of nature to show himself, and to honor Meera’s faithfulness to him. Even as the flames surround her, Meera walks calmly into the temple to honor her Lord.

Vishwas makes use of traditional Hindustani raags, which are woven through the fabric of the composition. The last movement incorporates of one of Meera’s own bhajans (devotional songs), in Raag Malhar, the raag that beckons rain. It is fitting that all the information we know about Meera Bai and her struggles for self-expression are through her own songs.

Reena Esmail


Peter Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, “Passionate” (a.k.a. “Pathétique”), Op. 74 (1893)

World Premiere: 10/28/1893 (10/16, according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia), St. Petersburg, composer conducting

Let’s dispel a couple of myths about the final work Tchaikovsky was to write, complete and premiere in his lifetime. First, it is not the “Pathétique.”  Tchaikovsky never called it that. His brother Modest, who came up with the moniker, did not speak French. He came up with “Pateticheskaya,” a Russian word meaning “passionate” or “emotional” – involving a wide range of emotions, which one finds in the work. The closest word the French had for that was “Pathetique,” meaning “full of pathos” and “evoking pity” (and which segued into English as “pathetic,” meaning “feeling both sorrow and contempt for the disdained subject, deemed inferior”). For some reason, the French translation was universally adapted (without further translation) by the rest of the world. But it is incorrect. Both Tchaikovskys thought “Pateticheskaya” better than Peter’s more-vague original title, “Programmnaya” (Program [Symphony]). There is a program to the symphony, he readily admitted, but he never wanted to divulge that program, though he apparently revealed it to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davidov, to whom the symphony is dedicated – a military man who, like his uncle, was a homosexual and prone to depression, committing suicide at a young age.

Which leads to the other myth to dispel: Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony as his swan song, a sort of musical suicide note. Not true. It is true he was embroiled in a homosexual scandal involving a member of the tsar’s royal family and was told by the tsar to “do something about it” or the family will, and so took a drink of untreated tap water during a cholera epidemic and died shortly after. But he had no notion of any of this while working on the symphony. Even though the symphony received a lukewarm reception, he was confident (for one of the rare times in his angst-riddled life) that people would eventually “get it” and believed it to be “the best thing I have composed.” No one feeling this good could be capable of writing a “musical suicide note.” He was indeed at the summit of his compositional skills – and knew it.

He didn’t rush into this symphony after completing his Fifth in 1888. It wasn’t until he traveled to the U. S. in April of 1891 that he began to write down ideas and sketches for his next symphony. But this first attempt ended up mostly destroyed after a more typical Tchaikovskyan outburst amid feelings of doubt, being washed up as a composer, etc. What survived was then turned by him into his Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 75, of which he only completed the first movement. The other two remained in sketch form, which then were filled out by a former student, Sergei Tanaev, who published those two movements as the continuation of Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 79. (In 1951-1955, this concerto was reconstructed back to its original symphonic form by Semion Bogatirev, who published the results as Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 7.”)

He did write out a program for the E-flat Major Symphony, which could generally apply to the B-minor. “The ultimate essence . . . of this symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short).” True, this is not a precise scenario of what goes on in No. 6, but gives a good idea of what Tchaikovsky was grappling with and what was going through his mind while trying to make the E-flat be the realization of that program – and, when that failed, going onto his next attempt to realize that program (or a greatly modified version of it), which did succeed.

Presaging the works of 20th-century Russian symphonists Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, this symphony begins slowly, heavily, and doesn’t move away from this dark environment for the majority of the movement. Nonetheless, and incredibly, it is constructed in sonata form, albeit stretched almost beyond recognition, with a shattering climax just past midpoint, prior to the recapitulation (now lacking the main theme). The second movement, in ternary (three-part) form, has been described as a “waltz that limps,” being in 5/4 time, so that every measure feels weighted down with those “extra” two beats. The third movement is a scherzo to end all scherzos (giving Bruckner a run for his money), yet also is in sonata form (without a development section) – like a frantic march which ending gives the impression this symphony has come to an early but typically Tchaikovskyan boisterous end. The finale is the most original feature of the work: in sonata-rondo form, it is so full of pain, one can hear the orchestra crying out for help, for relief, for an end. Then, finally, slowly, and forever entrenched in the home key of B minor, it feels as if one’s life is ebbing away, one’s consciousness fading out into oblivion.

Michael Rydzynski