The Firebird’s Feather

Russian Romantic Harp Music

The Firebird’s Feather – CD notes

notes written by Danielle Perrett
These notes are an extended version of those found in the CD booklet.

Russia has enriched the world with a notable canon of harp literature in the last two hundred or so years, but partly due to communist rule, the attitude of composers themselves and partly due to the place of the harp in European music history, this repertoire has not all gained international status or note. Tschaikovsky said that the harp was incapable of playing melodies and if one thinks of the wonderful glittering harp parts in his ballets, these substantiate his belief in that. However, in my opinion the repertoire in this CD goes a long way to refute Tschaikovsky’s statement.
The CD begins with a vivacious example of this …

Click on title to see individual programme notes

At a Festivity (Mchedelov)
Mikhail MCHEDELOV (1903-1974) composed and arranged extensively for harp and wrote a collection of scales and arpeggios for the instrument which was used by subsequent generations of Russian harpists. He was taught by Parfenov whose music is to be heard later on this disc.

At a Festivity is a movement from a four movement suite, but the music for the other movements is not readily available in this country today and even in Russia, this movement was usually the only one performed. As the pieces are not linked (the others being the evocatively named In the Atosan Valley, A Reedpipe and A Castle in the Mountains) and because this piece is bright and brimming with display, it stands well as a piece in its own right. The opening of the piece portrays a men’s dance whilst a more gentle and romantic musical idea evokes a ladies’ dance. These can readily be pictured in the mind’s eye on hearing the music.

Mozart Variations & Nocturne

The earliest Russian Romantic repertoire of note for harp was by Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857). He was hugely influential to subsequent composers of his country such as Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Tschaikovsky, Prokofiev and Stravinsky. He was the first composer noted for forging a truly Russian musical language influenced by folk melodies and having ‘Russian’ recitative in his operas.

In the context of this CD the Variations on a theme of Mozart was the earliest to be published and appeared in 1822, long before Glinka’s first indigenous Russian opera which appeared in 1836 and actually predating what is considered to be Russian nationalism in music. Neither of the two pieces on the CD therefore sound Russian although they are a delicate synthesis of Romantic and classical elements and are influenced by cantilena melody of Italian opera, popular in Russia at that time. Glinka himself said that he was ‘a jay bedecked with other birds’ plumage.’ At that time in Russia, composition was generally considered to be a dilettante pastime but Glinka went beyond this to become known as the ‘Father’ of Russian music.

Although Glinka wrote a few chamber works including harp, the Nocturne is one of the only two solos which he wrote for the instrument and it was published in 1828 predating the earliest publication of any of Chopin’s Nocturnes. However, the Nocturne was already a well established genre and there had been many Nocturnes for harp and horn or harp and flute by French harpist-composers such as Naderman and Bochsa as well as the romantic piano Nocturnes by John Field, Glinka’s teacher, who visited St. Petersburg salons. Like Field’s Nocturnes, this has a lyrical and romantic sounding melody, although the textures owe more to the classical period in style.

The theme of the Variations on a Theme of Mozart is allegedly the magic bell music from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, in itself, a sign of the influence and importance in Russia of Italian opera. However, it is somewhat modified. This may be due to the fact that purportedly, Glinka’s house burned down and the manuscript of this piece, together with others of his compositions, was destroyed. We understand that his sister wrote it down long after from memory. After the theme, there are five variations exploring lyricism in most of these. Do listen out for the bell-like harmonics which are used for the melody in the third variation.

Preludes (Erdelyi)

Much of the fine Russian repertoire which exists for the harp was written by harpists themselves.
Ksenia ERDELYI (1878 – 1971), was actually born in Ukraine but of Russian parents and they moved back to Russia when she was 11 years old. She was a harpist who strove to popularise the harp and transcribed, edited and composed for the instrument.

Although she wrote more than 40 works, mostly collections of pieces and studies, she describes the Three Preludes (Andantino-Agitato-Andante) on this CD as her first compositional experience and calls them ‘artistic-pedagogical literature.’ They were first published by Muzgiz in 1948. Erdelyi studied with the German/Russian harpist Walther-Kuhne and later taught at the Moscow conservatoire. She has a strong link with harp playing in the UK through her student Maria Korchinska who came to live and work in England. One of the main tenets of her technique which most players in Britain share with her is the articulation of the whole finger into the palm of the hand.

Nocturne (Ipolitov-Ivanov)

Erdelyi is also another link with the next piece on this CD – Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Nocturne. This piece was dedicated to Erdelyi and again, this may somewhat account for the lush virtuosity that it has in common with Gliere’s Impromptu. Indeed, given that Gliere studied with Ippolitov-Ivanov, he probably knew his teacher’s piece.

Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV (1859-1935)studied composition with Rimsky-Korsakov at St Petersburg Conservatoire, then taught in the Caucasus where he developed his interest in Caucasian folk music and many of his works were coloured melodically and rhythmically by these semi-oriental inflections. In 1893 he became professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatoire on Tschaikovsky’s recommendation and became its director from 1906 – 1922.
Amongst other positions which he held, he was conductor of the Bolshoi.

Impromptu (Gliere)

Erdelyi also edited Gliere’sImpromptu and may well be partly responsible for the lush virtuosic character of the writing. She advised him when he wrote his better known harp concerto.

Reinhold GLIERE (1875-1956) studied at the Moscow Conservatoire and amongst other teachers, he also studied with Ippolitov-Ivanov. His life took him to Berlin for two years then he was director of the Kiev Conservatoire. Subsequently, he was on the faculty of the Moscow Conservatoire for over twenty years himself. He was a collector of folk melodies and a conductor apart from his composition and was a successor of the Russian Nationalist School. His students numbered Prokofiev and Miaskovsky and he won two Stalin prizes for his compositions.

Elegy (Erdelyi)

Erdelyi’s Elegy was written in memory of Glinka. Poltareva says that the Elegy was conceived by Erdelyi after a concert of Glinka’s emotional music. B.V. Dobrohotov who edited a book by Erdelyi describes the Elegy, together with the Three Preludes as being “noble musics, real classics of Russian harp. How much joy the Elegy gives to the listener – a poetical reflection about great Glinka, homage to the memory of the genius and at the same time a celebration of the beauty of Russian nature, the Russian soul.” This piece has a three part form with a brief cadenza before the expressive melody returns for the last time at the end.

Little Suite (Parfenov)

Yet again, Erdelyi links us to the next piece on this CD. Originally this work was called Miniatures when it was performed before its publication at a special concert of his music at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1935 by Erdelyi, but it later became known as Little Suite. Although Nikolai Gavrilovich PARFENOV (1893-1938) is scarcely known today, he holds an important position in the world of the harp in Russia in the twentieth century, having composed the first Soviet harp concerto which Erdelyi premiered in 1932 and the first Russian harp method which was based on notes by his harp teacher, Slepushkin, and therefore significant in the chain of what we call the Moscow School of harp playing (Slepushkin also taught Maria Korchinska); Parfenov’s brochure entitled ‘the Technique of Playing the Harp’ was first published in 1927, but then reissued in 1960 by his disciple, Mchedelov. Parfenov’s family say that he was arrested in 1938 and executed at Lubianka, the KGB headquarters.

In the South has a pastoral, lilting six-eight time signature, but presumably does not venture south of the Soviet border. Fireflies is light in texture and highly evocative of its subject whilst the Eastern musician of the third movement, Bayatti, is clearly an Eastern European performer. Glissandi evoke the sea’s waves in the final miniature here, entitled The Sea. Because the movements are thematically and in subject matter unrelated, they have not often been performed as a complete suite but are more often performed as individual pieces.

The Firebird's Feather (Gough)
Ironically, it is the single non-Russian piece on this recording which provided the CD’s title. The Firebird’s Feather was however written to complement the other works on this disc and as an homage to their composers. As such, it uses the Russian fairy-tale ‘Princess Vassilissi and The Firebird’s Feather’ as its programmatic basis and utilises techniques from the Russian Romantic tradition such as an episodic type structure, textural variation of the various themes and, with a particular nod to Rachmaninov, inclusion of the Dies Irae theme. Because the composer’s style is very evocative it is easy to visualise the images of the archer riding his horse on his quests and the severe commands of the king captured in this piece.

Here is a brief resumé of the fairy-tale:

An archer, riding in the woods, discovers a firebird’s feather. Against the advice of his horse, he decides to present the feather, seeking his favour, to the King. However, although the King is indeed pleased, he commands the archer to bring him the firebird itself, or he will chop off his head. The archer becomes somewhat scared but his horse reassures him and hatches a plan to capture the firebird, which they succeed in doing.
The King is pleased & so impressed that he then commands him to find the beautiful Princess Vassilissi and bring her to the King for him to marry. If he fails, it’ll be ‘off with his head!’ Eventually, with his horse’s help, he succeeds, but the Princess refuses to be married without her special wedding dress, which is at the bottom of the sea. The archer rides off and yet again, with his horse having obtained the help of some sea-creatures, he returns eventually with the dress.
However, the Princess then insists that before she weds the King, the archer should jump into a cauldron of boiling water. The archer knows that this time he will surely die, but his horse again reassures him by telling him that he will give him a magic spell which will protect him. Sure enough, the archer climbs into the cauldron, but is unharmed and climbs out more handsome than ever. The King seeing the effect this has had on the archer, jumps into the cauldron and dies. The Princess marries the archer and they live happily ever after.

David GOUGH (b. 1959) spent the early part of his musical career in pop/rock music as songwriter, singer and bass guitarist, releasing recordings, performing extensively and receiving much exposure on national and local radio and TV as part of the Liverpool music revival of the 1980s. A change of direction towards classical music led eventually to the London College of Music, where he studied composition with Martin Ellerby and gained a BMus with First Class Honours. A lifelong interest in film music took him back to the renamed London College of Music & Media where he gained a Master’s degree in Composing for Film & Television. His many musical activities include running Beartramka with his wife Danielle, the music publishing label on which this recording is released, and making recordings in his own studio in addition to composing for film, tv and the concert stage.

Prelude (Rachmaninov)
The Prelude op 23 no 4 by Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943) is the only piece in the programme which was not originally written for the harp, but transcribes without any amendment for the instrument. One of a set of ten piano preludes each in a different key, written between 1901-3, this Prelude was written between the time of his marriage and the birth of his first daughter and radiates a sense of fulfilment in the personal and contemplative writing. The link with Erdelyi is not entirely absent here, either, for she often played under Rachmaninov’s baton. The piece uses a typically Russian 19th century technique of changing accompaniment to its wonderful limpid melody.

Paganini Variations (Mchedelov)
To conclude the CD in rather more bravura style we return to Mikhail MCHEDELOV.
Variations on a Theme of Paganini is probably Mchedelov’s most performed piece and is more widely known outside Russia than his other repertoire, being set for international competitions due to its virtuosic challenges. It was first published in 1962, indicating how romanticism persisted without break in Russia long after it has passed out of vogue in other European countries. The theme is the famous motif from Paganini’s 24th Caprice for solo violin and there are eleven variations, exploring differing sonorities and techniques on the harp

Back to Top