Please note that due to COVID19 lockdown this concert had to be cancelled and rescheduled for later in 2020
Giacomo Puccini (1858 -1924) was born in Lucca, in Tuscany, and represented the fifth generation of a family of professional organists and composers. Lucca had an active cultural life, including opera and spoken drama, and familiarity with the latter had a strong influence on Puccini’s subsequent compositions. Puccini began studying at the Instituto Musicale Pacini in 1874. In 1876, he saw a performance of Verdi’s Aida and this contributed significantly to his decision to concentrate on writing operas. From 1880 to 1883, Puccini was a student at the Milan Conservatory, where his main teacher was Ponchielli.
Puccini wrote the Preludio Sinfonico (1882) while studying at the Milan Conservatory. Most critics recognised that it contained good, original melodies, but considered that it drew too much from other composers, including Wagner and Ponchielli. Puccini’s other major work written when he was a student at the conservatory was the Capriccio Sinfonia (1883), from which the opening theme of La Bohème was derived.
Puccini excelled in the style of opera known as “Verismo”, a movement in Italian literature and then opera which involved, among other things, adopting a realistic, life-like approach to its contemporary subject matter. The first popular example of a Verismo opera was Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticano (1890). Puccini’s operas include Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), Il Trittico (1918) and Turandot (1926 – finished by Alfano after Puccini’s death). Puccini was among the first opera composers to use recalled themes and leitmotifs. He integrated music, words and acting to produce exceptional dramatic effect, and he could produce genuine comedy, notably in Gianni Schicchi, part of Il Trittico.
La Bohème was the first opera resulting from the collaboration between Puccini, Luigi Illica, who made the outline and wrote the dialogue, and Giuseppe Giacosa, who turned the dialogue into verse. The opera is based on a novel by Henry Murger. La Bohème was first performed in 1896, in Turin, conducted by Toscanini. The critics initially gave it a cool reception but the public, in and outside Italy, were rather more enthusiastic. In Vienna, however, the opera was excluded from the repertory for some years because Mahler did not approve of it; he considered Leoncavallo’s opera on the same subject to be much better. Nevertheless, La Bohème is one of the works which have resulted in Puccini being regarded as among the greatest of all operatic composers.
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840 -1893) was born in Votkinsk, in North East Russia. His family moved to St. Petersburg in 1848. Tchaikovsky was educated at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence and began his working life as a civil servant. He gave up his post aged 23 and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he was taught by Anton Rubenstein, He graduated from the conservatory in 1866, as a member of its first cohort of graduates. On graduation, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow, to teach harmony at the St. Petersburg Conservatory’s new branch in that city. In 1876, Tchaikovsky was able to resign from the Moscow Conservatory and work full-time as a composer, because he was given a generous monthly allowance by Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a rich businessman from Riga, who had made his money from railways. Tchaikovsky and von Meck corresponded frequently and she has been described as his best friend, but at her insistence, they never met in person. Tchaikovsky married, impulsively and disastrously, in 1877. The couple separated after 11 weeks and Tchaikovsky went off to Italy for a year.
Tchaikovsky’s compositions include ten operas, six symphonies, three piano concertos, a violin concerto and three ballets (Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker). His music is characterised by vivid colour, technical virtuosity, strong emotional expression, brilliant orchestration and great tunes. Tchaikovsky travelled widely in Western Europe. He was awarded a D. Mus. by the University of Cambridge when he was in the UK in 1893 and toured the USA in 1891, where he conducted the inaugural concert at the Carnegie Hall. Tchaikovsky died in 1893, as a result of drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. It was thought by some that he did so deliberately rather than as a result of carelessness.
The Fifth Symphony, in E Minor, Opus 64, was composed in 1888, 10 years after the Fourth Symphony (dedicated to von Meck), which had been coolly received. The first orchestral performance of the Fifth Symphony was in November 1888, in St. Petersburg, conducted by the composer, who also conducted the first Moscow performance in December 1888. Although his friends were enthusiastic about the symphony, characteristically Tchaikovsky himself expressed doubts about it. He changed his mind after conducting a well-received performance in Hamburg in March 1889. (Brahms prolonged his stay in Hamburg in order to hear the dress rehearsal; he liked it very much, except for the Finale.) Apart from Hamburg, there were several early performances of the symphony outside Russia, including in Prague, New York, Manchester (conducted by Charles Halle), London and Vienna.
Tchaikovsky was very successful in his lifetime, but he often felt insecure and unhappy. Partly because these feelings were reflected in the emotional intensity of his works, and because of his technical brilliance, his music is the most popular of all Russian composers.