The Last Judgement and Beyond
Franck, Rimsky-Korsakov and Rachmaninov as Composing Exorcists
France’s romanticists avoided the nirvana of eternal ideas. They longed for Napoleon, for a restoration of the national stature lost at Waterloo. The genres of the symphony, symphonic poem and sonata cultivated by the Germans were met with complete indifference, on the other hand. There was one exception, however: Hector Berlioz was extremely fond of large orchestral forms; he maintained close contact with the German music scene at times and attracted more attention on this side of the Rhine than in Paris. Berlioz’s music did not enjoy a renaissance in France until after his death in 1869, resulting in the rehabilitation of the symphonic poem, which had been viewed with disfavour until then. In the course of this reorientation French composers also increasingly turned to German themes, although this did not appear to be particularly opportune after the war of 1870/71.
César Franck: Le Chasseur maudit
Despite his German ancestry César Franck showed little interest in the literary works of the neighbouring country. Only at the suggestion of two students did he turn to Gottfried August Bürger’s Der wilde Jäger [The Wild Huntsman] in 1882. The ballad describes how a Count of the Rhine sets out for the hunt on a Sunday morning, showing no respect for people or animals, and is finally cursed by God. Franck’s synopsis of the story, written for the first edition of the orchestral score, concentrated on four sections: the sound of pealing bells and religious songs on Sunday, interrupted by the hunting horn of the sadistic Count. – His pack of hounds chases relentlessly through the fields; no appeals of his attendants or pleas by the peasants help; the Count leaves only ravaged ground in his wake. – Suddenly there is a long silence; the horse refuses to go further, the horn is silent, a voix lugubre (gloomy voice) announces to the aristocratic brute that as punishment for his sacrilege he will be chased through the world by demons forever.
The music follows the action closely, including onomatopoeic effects such as church bells, horn calls and horses’ hoofbeats. The deeply religious Franck shifted the emphasis of the horror story, however: he devoted less time to the Count’s wild ride than the curse and punishment. The composer was not content with depicting shocking events but accentuated the moral message of the material.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite op. 35, based on One Thousand and One Nights, also sends a message that goes beyond its obvious content. The oriental subject matter has a deeper political meaning: it reflects the increasing expansion of the tsarist realm as far as Tbilisi, Tashkent and Samarkand, but can also be regarded as an expression of sympathy for the people of the Caucasus and the Silk Road, who were even more severely oppressed by the Romanovs than the Russians themselves. As far as content is concerned, the four-movement symphonic suite follows a course similar to that of Franck’s tone poem: the depressing initial situation is reversed during the work.
A synopsis preceding the score briefly outlines the story of One Thousand and One Nights: “Sultan Shahriar, convinced of the falsehood and infidelity of all women, has vowed to put each of his wives to death after the first night. But the Sultana Scheherazade saves her life by entertaining him with wonderful tales for a thousand and one nights. Overcome by curiosity, the Sultan postpones her execution from day to day and finally abandons his cruel plan. Scheherazade recounts many marvellous tales to Shahriar, drawing from the verses of the poets and the words of folk songs, connecting fairy tales and stories.”
Two not exactly insignificant details are missing from this scenario. For one thing, the most famous book of fairy tales in the world, translated from Persian into Arabic, probably originated in India. The action takes place “in the peninsulas of India and Indochina”, that is, not in Arabia but in an Orient as seen from Damascus or Baghdad. Secondly, Scheherazade deliberately asks her father for permission to marry Shahriar because she wants to put an end to the Sultan’s murderous practice. Thus, the women are saved thanks to a woman, not because of autocratic magnanimity.
Rimsky-Korsakov had no intention of composing a symphonic manifesto for the emancipation of women. Nor was he interested in correcting ingrained clichés of Western perceptions of the Orient – on the contrary, “despotism” and “sensuality” left their imprint on both leitmotifs: the Sultan’s theme at the opening, with three imperious trombones, and the Scheherazade motif in the solo violin, which follows immediately.
The first movement takes the listener to the South Seas, where Sinbad must endure a violent storm, while the second presents the adventures of the Kalendar prince, the most impressive of which is his flight with the roc, a giant bird. The following Andantino quasi allegretto, with a prince and princess as protagonists, is full of vibrant eroticism. The finale culminates in another storm at sea, from which Sinbad – magically drawn to the bronze horseman on a rocky island – this time cannot escape. In the end Scheherazade survives without an exorcistic resolution – good triumphs humanely, even though Sinbad goes down in the roaring waves.
In later years Rimsky-Korsakov dispensed with descriptive movement titles; he wanted the listener to hear Scheherazade as a symphonic fantasy with a magical character and not as actual programme music. His attempt to avoid lapsing into a descriptive aesthetic was carried to absurd lengths by the choreographer Michel Fokine in 1910, when he favoured the Paris Opera with a ballet version of Scheherazade.
Sergei Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Sergei Rachmaninov would have liked to have seen his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini op. 43 on the stage, but when Michel Fokine presented the concertante variations for piano and orchestra as a ballet in 1939 the composer was not able to make the journey to London because of a fall. Rachmaninov may have intended his rhapsody as a stage epic from the beginning. In particular, the introduction of a second basic motif, the medieval hymn to the dead Dies Irae, might suggest that. It is heard several times during the work at fateful turning points and ultimately prevails over the Paganini theme, which is taken from the famous Caprice in A minor.
The legend of the “devil’s fiddler” had long fascinated Rachmaninov, although he did not hesitate to depict the tragic virtuoso using popular stereotypes, even exposing him to ridicule. The very idea of having the violinist of the century appear in a kind of piano concerto is comical. The opening also reveals Rachmaninov’s sense of humour: the rhapsody is introduced with a skeletal version of the main theme, which even in the first variation does not initially appear in its original form. It dominates the following events all the more strongly. The Dies Iraeis heard for the first time in the seventh variation, then enters almost blasphemous realms of expression in the tenth variation, a satirical march. The eleventh variation, which resembles an improvisation, is followed by an extremely meditative minuet, contrary to every tradition; a woman ensnared by Paganini appears in number twelve. The climax of the love story is the passionately lyrical eighteenth variation. The virtuoso’s decline, depicted with nightmarish intensity, follows in the last five variations, beginning with Paganini’s diabolical pizzicato. Like Franck’s “wild hunter” he must inevitably face the Last Judgement.