Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was written at the height of the Second World War and dedicated to the people of St Petersburg, which was named Leningrad at the time. Its performance by starving members of the orchestra in August of 1942 had an extraordinary impact on the audience’s spirits.
The Russian premiere took place in March in Kuibyshev (now Samara). Soon after, the score was photographed and smuggled to the West where it was performed in London under Sir Henry Wood as part of a BBC broadcast on 22 June 1942. The broadcast threatened to overlap with Big Ben’s chimes at 9pm, so it was decided in advance to stop the chimes of Big Ben if that happened. The piece fortunately finished with four minutes to spare.
Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony was written when Tchaikovsky was 26, soon after he accepted a teaching position at the newly opened Moscow Conservatoire (now named after Tchaikovsky). The idea behind it was to create an orchestral work that would be the first ‘Russian Symphony’, so a listener could trace the unmistakably Russians origins of the music.
Anton Rubinstein had previously composed several symphonies, but all of them were similar to those of the great German composers. Exceptionally beautiful melodies, slight naivety and the great sense of nostalgia so typical of Tchaikovsky make this symphony a true masterpiece.
Prokofiev’s First Symphony, known as the ‘Classical’ Symphony, is one the most charming and accessible works by the Russian composer. Despite being cited by Schoenberg as ‘a slashing attack on musical Romanticism’, Prokofiev was a great admirer of Viennese Classics and especially Haydn: ‘It seemed to me that if Haydn had lived to our day, he would have retained his own style. This is the kind of symphony I wanted to write: a symphony in classical style.’
The symphony was completed when Prokofiev was 26 (an interesting coincidence as this was Tchaikovsky’s age when he wrote his first symphony) at the height of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Nothing in this elegant, witty and very light symphony reflects the horrors of the political situation in the country at the time.
Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring is the one of the most extraordinary and innovative pieces of music ever created. Daring, dissonant harmonies, irregular and relentless rhythms, a distinct absence of melodies – nothing of this kind had been written before. Originally performed as a ballet, this work created a huge stir in at the time, thanks to its infamous premiere in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913. This explosive work is a fine example of real modernism in music.
The Scheherazade symphonic suite was composed in 1888, based on a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales known as the Arabian Nights. The story plays out within the colourful orchestration, which introduces melodies for each character and plays out their relationship throughout the piece, with elements of orientalism heard in the writing. This incredibly beautiful and rather exotic composition is always a joy to listen to.
Rachmaninov completed this orchestral suite in 1940 – his final major composition. This incredible work combines Rachmaninov’s late lyricism with elements of Prokofiev’s dissonances and Stravinsky’s rhythms, and is an astonishing example of Rachmaninov’s orchestral mastery. Written in 1940 and originally named Fantasy Pieces with movement titles ‘Noon’, ‘Twilight’, and ‘Midnight’, the dances are a true masterpiece. The work was one of Rachmaninov’s personal favourites among his own compositions.