Rossini and Rimsky-Korsakov

Program Notes

Gioachino Rossini: Tancredi Overture
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Music for the Suppers of King Ubu
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36

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Gioachino Rossini

Tancredi Overture 

Work composed: 1813
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, timpani, and strings.
Estimated duration: 7 minutes 

Three weeks before his 21st birthday, Gioachino Rossini struck gold with his ninth opera, Tancredi. Rossini had had success previously with Il signor Bruschino, but it was Tancredi that established him as the foremost opera composer of his time. As Rossini scholar Philip Gossett points out, “No composer [in any genre] in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim, or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini.” 

Tancredi opened on February 6, 1813, in Venice’s La Fenice, less than a month after Il signor Bruschino premiered in the same theater. As the first performance of Tancredi approached, Rossini realized he would not have time to write a new overture, so he repurposed one he had composed for La pietra del paragone. Like most of Rossini’s early overtures, the music is full of energy and drive, and easily serves its intended purpose: to capture and hold the audience’s attention.

Tancredi is based on Voltaire’s 1760 play, Tancrède. Its plot centers on the doomed love between Amenaide, daughter of a powerful ruler, and Tancredi, a soldier. When Amenaide is wrongly convicted of treason and sentenced to die, Tancredi risks his own safety to return from exile and save her. Voltaire’s play ends tragically, with the gravely wounded Tancredi dying in the arms of Amenaide, but Rossini felt constrained by the conventions of opera seria to write a happier ending for the opera. Barely a month after Tancredi’s premiere, however, Rossini replaced the ending with one more in line with Voltaire’s original.

The French writer Stendhal adored Rossini in general and Tancredi in particular. He considered Tancredi Rossini’s best opera, because in it Rossini had created, in Stendhal’s words, “the perfect equilibrium between the ancient craft of melody and the modern craft of harmony.”


Bernd Alois Zimmermann

Music for the Suppers of King Ubu

Work composed: 1966
First Oregon Symphony Performance
Instrumentation: jazz combo (clarinet, cornet, electric guitar, amplified double bass), 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), tenor saxophone, 3 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano (doubling celesta), organ, 2 guitars (1 doubling electric guitar, 1 doubling mandolin), and 4 double basses.

Estimated duration: 17 minutes

Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s music stands out for its incorporation of short excerpts from other works. Upon first listening, it is easy to dismiss this technique as Zimmermann’s facile talent for pastiche, particularly in Music for the Suppers of King Ubu, whose numerous quotes are deliberately chosen for their familiarity. For Zimmermann, however, quotations served a more significant purpose: to illustrate how time manifests through music. In his 1974 essay “Interval and Time,” Zimmermann wrote, “Music is essentially understood through the arrangement or ordering of progressions of time … as an experience which occurs both in time while also embodying time within itself.” Quotations illustrated Zimmermann’s interest in the real-time and metaphysical occurrences of disparate events.  

Zimmerman composed the ballet score Music for the Suppers of King Ubu to mark his installation as a member of the Berlin Academy of Art in 1966. The topsy-turvy nature of the story reflects its origins in the 1896 absurdist play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry. “The piece is a ‘ballet noir,’ which is performed at a banquet at the Court of Ubu,” Zimmerman explained. “The Academy of the country in which the piece is set is commanded to attend the banquet – and at the end, in the ‘Marche du decervellage’ [Brainwashing March], is dispatched through the trap door – symbolic of the fate of a liberal academy under the reign of a usurper. In order to show up our absolutely disproportionate intellectual and cultural situation, musical collages of the most amusing and hardest tone are used; the piece is pure collage, based on dances of the 16th and 17th centuries, interspersed with quotations from earlier and contemporary composers. [The ballet is] a farce which is seemingly merry, fat, and greedy like Ubu himself; apparently an enormous prank, but for those who are able to hear beyond this it is a warning allegory, macabre and amusing at the same time.”

Listen for quotes from the “Dies irae,” Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, among others.


Dmitri Shostakovich

Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107 

Work composed: 1959
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: December 5, 2010; Carlos Kalmar, conductor; Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Instrumentation: solo cello, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (one doubling contrabassoon), horn, timpani, celesta, and strings
Estimated duration: 28 minutes

On June 6, 1959, Dmitri Shostakovich surprised the public by announcing his next composition, a concerto for cello. Upon completion, six weeks later, Shostakovich contacted cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who had waited a long time for Shostakovich to compose a piece of music for him. Rostropovich and his accompanist Alexander Dedyukhin left Moscow for Leningrad, where they received a copy of the score on August 2. Four days later, having memorized the complete concerto, Rostropovich and Dedyukhin performed it for Shostakovich at the composer’s summer home.  Shostakovich’s son-in-law, Evgeny Chukovsky, who was present at the performance, recalls thinking, “Who, if not God, has given the author such power over people?” This auspicious beginning marked the start of a long-standing creative collaboration between Rostropovich and Shostakovich; Shostakovich went on to write a second concerto and a cello sonata for his friend “Slava.” On October 4, 1959, Rostropovich gave the premiere with Evgeny Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic.

Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto, which Shostakovich admired, gave the latter direct inspiration for Opus 107. Fortuitously, Rostropovich had also worked with Prokofiev on the Symphony-Concerto and was intimately familiar with it. According to biographer Laurel Fay, Shostakovich told Rostropovich “he had played his record of [Prokofiev’s] work so many times that he had worn it out.”

By 1959, Joseph Stalin had died and Shostakovich was able to breathe more freely with regard to the reception of his work by the Soviet Composers’ Union. However, this relatively calm period in Shostakovich’s life is not reflected in the music of his first cello concerto. One author characterized it as “quite possibly the most neurotic piece Shostakovich ever wrote,” full of fidgety restlessness embodied in the masterful virtuosity of the cello part. The late music critic Michael Steinberg aptly observed, “The Cello Concerto is a work that feeds on grim memories.” In the first movement, a solo horn stalks the cello, as if spying. As musicologist Malcolm MacDonald noted, “In the outer movements especially, the agile, voluble soloist seems constantly on the run – pursued and harried, rather than supported, by the orchestra.” The second movement is a resigned elegy heavy with weariness. Even six years after Stalin’s death, Shostakovich seems haunted by his oppressive ghost. In the final movement, Shostakovich thumbs his nose at Stalin, albeit covertly, by incorporating fragments of Stalin’s favorite melody, “Suliko,” a sentimental Georgian folk song. Shostakovich strips the sentimentality away and presents the fragments in a demented repetitive whirl, but so altered as to render the song virtually unrecognizable. Shostakovich’s comment about using “Suliko,” that “I just took a simple, tiny theme and tried to develop it,” seems an ironic understatement at best.


Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36

Work composed: 1887–88
Most recent Oregon Symphony performance: March 15, 2004; David Atherton, conductor
Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, triangle, harp, and strings
Estimated duration: 15 minutes

“In order to appreciate my Overture even ever so slightly, it is necessary that the hearer should have attended Easter morning services at least once, and at that, not in a domestic chapel, but in a cathedral thronged with people from every walk of life, with several priests conducting the cathedral service.” – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

As a child growing up in Tikhvin, a market town 120 miles east of St. Petersburg, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov attended church services in a large, centuries-old cathedral.

The raucous, joyful nature of the Easter services in Tikhvin Cathedral made an indelible impression on Rimsky-Korsakov. In the summer of 1888, as he finished Scheherazade, Rimsky-Korsakov also completed a 15-minute orchestral work he titled “Svetlyi prazdnik” (The Bright Holiday), an Easter overture based on music from the obikhod, a collection of chants used in Russian Orthodox liturgy.

Families of instruments (winds, strings, brasses) take turns intoning different chants from the obikhod – their distinctive timbres reference the varied crowd, “people from every walk of life.” Duets abound – flute with cello, oboe, and bassoon – and provide further shadings and nuances of orchestral color, before the full orchestra explodes with a pent-up, joyful celebratory shout announcing the Resurrection.  

In his autobiography, My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote, “This legendary and heathen side of the holiday, this transition from the gloomy and mysterious evening of Passion Saturday to the unbridled pagan-religious merry-making of Easter Sunday, is what I was eager to reproduce in my overture … The rather lengthy slow introduction . . . on the theme ‘Let God arise’ [woodwinds], alternating with the ecclesiastical melody ‘An angel wailed!’ [solo cello], appeared to me, in the beginning, as it were, the ancient prophecy of Isaiah of the Resurrection of Christ. The gloomy colors of the Andante lugubre seemed to depict the Holy Sepulchre that had shone with ineffable light at the moment of the Resurrection in the transition to the Allegro of the overture. The beginning of the Allegro, ‘Let them also that hate Him flee before Him,’ led to the holiday mood of the Greek Orthodox service on Christ’s matins; the solemn trumpet voice of the Archangel was replaced by a tonal reproduction of the joyous, almost dancelike tolling of bells, alternating now with the sexton’s rapid reading and now with the conventional chant of the priest’s reading the glad tidings of the Evangel. The obikhod theme, ‘Christ is arisen,’ … appears amid the trumpet blasts and the bell-tolling, constituting also a triumphant coda.”


© 2019 Elizabeth Schwartz

Elizabeth Schwartz is a free-lance writer, musician, and music historian based in Portland. In addition to annotating programs for the Oregon Symphony, Chamber Music Northwest, and other arts organizations around country, she has contributed to the nationally syndicated radio program “Performance Today,” produced by American Public Media.