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Corelli, Pachelbel, Bach & Tchaikovsky

Concerto grosso in G Minor, “Christmas,” Op. 6 No. 8
Arcangelo Corelli
b. Fusignano, Italy / February 17, 1653
d. Rome, Italy / January 8, 1713

Corelli was one of the leading violin soloists of the Baroque era, as well as a composer of music that is both appealing and historically significant. His sonatas for violin, for example, helped establish this instrument as the most important non-vocal element in music.

Although he didn’t invent the concerto grosso (“grand concerto”), one of the Baroque era’s most popular forms, he played a crucial role in the establishment of its popularity. It is founded on the interplay between two bodies of strings: a concertino (usually two violins and a cello), and a larger group, the ripieno.

Corelli’s Op. 6 (1714), his final published work, is a set of 12 Concerti grossi. All but the last movement of No. 8 present the array of brief sections in contrasting moods and tempos that is typical of a Baroque-period concerto. It is only the soothing, almost lullaby-like concluding Pastoral that has specific associations with Christmas. It is a sweet evocation of the joyful stillness of the events surrounding the Nativity.


Johann Pachelbel
b. Nuremberg, Germany / September 1, 1653
d. Nuremberg / March 9, 1706

Pachelbel won his greatest fame through his outstanding skill as an organist. He also composed prolifically, chiefly for organ. Pachelbel conceived the Canon in D Major as the opening section of a two-part chamber work, one which concluded with a lively gigue. Over the past 30 years, the sweet and eventually exultant Canon has become one of the most popular compositions dating from the Baroque period, a bestseller on recordings and an integral element of countless weddings and other ceremonies.

Suite No. 2 in B Minor, BWV 1067

Johann Sebastian Bach
b. Eisenach, Germany / March 21, 1685
d. Leipzig, Germany / July 28, 1750

The Baroque orchestral suite developed along parallel lines in several countries. Its principal origins lie in France. The first great figure in its history was Jean-Baptiste Lully, who developed the one movement overture (a name derived from the French verb ouvrir, to open) to introduce performances of other, longer works such as operas and ballets. The combination of the overture and further instrumental pieces extracted from the larger work, mainly dances, made up another form, the suite (from the verb suivre, to follow).

By Bach’s time, virtually every important German composer had written independent overture-suites for large instrumental ensembles. Some of his four surviving orchestral suites (it’s likely he composed more) probably date from his years in service to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723), others from the later period in Leipzig. The rather serious and stately No. 2 has two unique features: it is the only one in a minor key, and the only one with a concertante element: a solo flute is featured throughout. The sequence of dances that follows the overture concludes with a scintillating Badinerie (Banter), its fanciful character fully equal to its title.

Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, “Winter Dreams,” Op. 13

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

Compared with Tchaikovsky’s mature works, which can seem overly neurotic, his early music has an altogether winning freshness and lack of self-consciousness. The first symphony is a choice example of this appealing youthful style.

His first three symphonies lay under the shadow of the enormously popular second set of three for many years. Gradually they have come into their own, partly because of a reaction to the over-exposure of their siblings, partly due to a belated recognition of their own considerable virtues: melodiousness, instrumental sparkle, and sheer charm.

In March 1866, Nikolai Rubinstein, who had engaged Tchaikovsky as theory professor at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory, conducted a performance of one of Tchaikovsky’s student works, an Overture in F Major. Its reception was so warm that Rubinstein suggested to Tchaikovsky that he compose a full symphony. Fired by his first flush of success, the fledgling 26-year-old composer took up the idea with gusto. Naturally he couldn’t have known how much suffering it would cause him, and how long it would take to reach its definitive form.

He began the symphony in March. Its creation gave him a great deal of worry and concern, setting a pattern which would persist with many of his major compositions. Work continued during the summer at the country homes of friends. So too did Tchaikovsky’s bad nerves, which at one point in August resulted in a doctor being summoned to help pull him back from the brink of insanity.

Returning to St. Petersburg with the symphony still unfinished, he showed it to two of his former teachers. They condemned it, which only increased Tchaikovsky’s anxieties. Rubinstein agreed to conduct just the third movement, a scherzo, in December in Moscow. He also led the scherzo and the slow second movement in St. Petersburg the following February.

Another year passed before the first complete reading, once again under Rubinstein, in Moscow on February 15, 1868. The reception was highly positive. This seemed to come as a surprise to Tchaikovsky, since as an eyewitness recalled, “There were many calls for the composer, and he appeared, casually dressed, to bow very uncomfortably and inelegantly, nervously crumpling his hat in his hands.” Tchaikovsky was still unsatisfied with the piece, however. He made further revisions in 1874, just before the symphony was to be published.

He gave it an overall nickname, “Winter Dreams,” as well as subtitles for the two opening movements: Dreams of a Winter Journey, and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. Why he left the remaining two sections without subtitles remains a mystery.

Over gently murmuring strings, flute and bassoon introduce the opening movement’s first theme. The graceful second subject appears first on clarinet. Tchaikovsky’s treatment of these two ideas forecasts his mature style, if with perhaps less assurance. The following slow movement is without doubt the gem of the symphony. It is a melancholy, pastel-colored mood piece, drenched with the flavor of Russian folk song.

Tchaikovsky adapted the feathery-light outer panels of the third movement from the corresponding movement of the Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor which he had written in 1865. He created a fresh and much superior central trio section for this portion of the symphony. It is the first in his enchanting series of orchestral waltzes. The finale opens in a rather gloomy mood. The introduction includes hints of a melody (an authentic Russian folk song) which reappears as the second subject in the hearty, celebratory Allegro which follows.

To the end of his life, Tchaikovsky harbored a genuine affection for his first symphony. On separate occasions, he wrote, “It is a sin of my sweet youth,” and, “Although in many ways it is immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and it is better than many of my other more mature works.”

© 2011 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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