September 23, 2021

Tchaikovsky Begins

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thumbBy Lawrence Schenbeck, PS Tracks

Maybe he should have joined a Struggling Composers Support Group

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had an awful time getting support from anyone who mattered to him in his early years as a composer. He almost missed out on becoming a musician at all. In 19th-century Russia, music training was a hit-or-miss matter, and prospects for making a living at music as a grownup were considered slim to none. You could play in a theatre orchestra, perhaps, or teach Peter Tschaikovsky As A Student At Consemusic in a school.

But those occupations lacked security and paid badly. They ranked very low on the social scale as well. No wonder Tchaikovsky’s father, an engineer and officer in the tsar’s Department of Mines, determined that his son would enter a St. Petersburg school that prepared its students for lives in the civil service. This was painful on several levels: before he could become eligible for admittance to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, 10-year-old Piotr was wrenched away from his mother and forced to attend boarding school for two years.

Tchaikovsky eventually graduated and obtained a job as a low-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Justice. A year or so later, he leapt at the chance to study music theory privately with Nikolai Zaremba, a musician who had been brought in by a group of Russian aristocrats who wished to foster native talent. Soon after, Zaremba and his colleague Anton Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Tchaikovsky became one of its first students.

Zaremba and Rubinstein appear to have recognized Tchaikovsky’s enormous talent, but they apparently also felt that he had to be reined in at every opportunity, lest he develop dangerously independent modes of musicality. At any rate, he got a lot of criticism from the start, and he tended to take it rather too seriously. When his graduation piece, a setting of Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy, was performed, his elders took the opportunity to box him on the ears. Aleksandr Serov wrote, “I expected more from Tchaikovsky.” César Cui piled on, saying “Mr. Tchaikovsky is utterly weak. . . . If he had any talent, then somewhere at least it would have broken the chains imposed by the conservatory.”

Tchaikovsky took it hard.

“When I read this terrible judgment, I hardly knew what happened to me. I spent the entire day wandering aimlessly about the town repeating to myself, “I am sterile, I am a nonentity, nothing will ever come of me, I have no talent.”

GergievThis was, of course, not true. Even Tchaikovsky must have known it, because at the age of 28 he took a bold leap, leaving the dull security of the civil service and embracing the life of a creative artist. He had held on to his job at the Ministry for a year or so, but then Anton’s brother Nikolai hired him as Professor of Music Theory at the newly-founded Moscow Conservatory, and off he went. The new job didn’t pay well, but at least he was doing something he liked.

This is the backdrop against which Tchaikovsky wrote his First Symphony. He worked largely at night, because his duties at the Conservatory ate up his daylight hours. He was troubled by insomnia anyway, presumably due to anxiety about whether he was good enough to be writing an actual symphony. And his old mentor Rubinstein was not pleased with the music. Indeed, Rubinstein and Zaremba suggested numerous changes, which their former pupil studiously carried out, after which they still refused to play the complete work in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky then turned to the other Rubinstein—his boss Nikolai, in Moscow—and got the encouragement he needed. The completed symphony was performed in Moscow in February 1868 with considerable success. Tchaikovsky revised it again, anyway, in 1874.

Tchaik_1_PletnevSorry to trot out all this back-story, but it’s important, because when you hear the actual music, you may well ask yourself “why in the world would anyone have dealt so harshly with this? It’s pretty good.”

The value of these first three symphonies was borne home to me recently by listening to two sets of them, one from Mikhail Pletnev and the Russian National Orchestra (Pentatone PTC 5186 381/2/3) and one from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony (LSO Live 0710).

Pletnev’s performances, part of a now-complete symphony cycle, originated in Moscow at DZZ Studio 5. There must be magic in that room, which has hosted so many wonderful sessions over the years for Polyhymnia’s producers and engineers. Or hey, maybe it’s the Polyhymnia folks! In any case, Tchaik_2_Pletnevthese are immaculate performances, boasting chamber-ensemble intensity and precision. The sound is correspondingly transparent and immediate. It’s not a 10th-row perspective, but more like first-row, with a big, deep soundstage you’re going to love. (We’ll use clips from Pletnev to illustrate Symphonies 1 and 2 below.)

The Gergiev recording, a two-disc mid-price set recorded live mostly at the Barbicon, can also be recommended. Besides offering value for the money—none of the PentaTone discs contain more than 55’ worth of music—they feature live performances from another of the acknowledged living masters of Russian music. Gergiev’s strengths and weaknesses are well-known by now, but these readings hit the mark more often than not. This is big-band Tchaikovsky: tempi are generally broader, ensembles maybe not always razor-sharp but with a satisfying heft to the overall interpretations, which some listeners will prefer. (We’ll use clips from Gergiev to illustrate Symphony No. 3, recorded at the Tonhalle in Zürich.)

Let us begin at the beginning of Symphony No. 1, with a first movement both innovative in its use of melody and instrumental color and rather conventional in strictly formal terms.

And, after a transition that musters considerable urgency, here is the lovely second or “relief” theme, which receives a generous expansion.

There follows a development section, filled with the same attractive orchestration, satisfyingly built to a series of climaxes, and returning to a recapitulation that’s transformed just enough to render the materials fresh again. The movement ends with the wintry theme that we heard at the start.

For these are “daydreams on a winter journey.” They sketch the composer’s private thoughts while at the same time suggesting some sort of connection to the Russian landscape. So they are not all that private: perhaps something like Mendelssohn’s “Italian” or “Scottish” symphonies was intended. Here we find a young composer grappling with the special challenges that a symphony poses. It allows a workshop in which one can exercise one’s deeper feelings without the over-defining constraints imposed by an opera libretto or ballet scenario or song text. One may be quite personal and yet safely vague. One writes for the public—from its very beginnings, the symphony was considered an expression on behalf of the entire community—but may also try out intimate self-expression.

Or not. It seems clear that Tchaikovsky meant the picturesque subtitles of the first two movements as a sign that this music wasn’t all about him. The second movement, “Land of wastes, land of mists,” continues in this vein.

After that lengthy, soulful disquisition, the lively exchanges of the third movement are more than welcome. And with them we get the first of the many great orchestral waltzes that would spill from Tchaikovsky’s fertile imagination over the years to come.

The fourth movement may not come off with quite as much conviction as the others, but it contains some very fine orchestral writing, and its irrepressible energy finally pulls everything else—the fugal sections, the various folk themes—along in its wake to a bombastically triumphant ending. Before we get there, however, we have to endure our hero’s demonstration of his varied contrapuntal skills.

Luckily for him and for us, Tchaikovsky soon became much better at pulling off that sort of display. In that and several other ways, his Second Symphony (“Little Russian”; 1872, rev. 1879-80) shows his remarkable progress as a symphonic composer. Just listen to the opening.

As before, we are captured immediately by the composer’s sure sense of melody, color, and drama as he introduces the bare melody of the folksong “Down by Mother Volga” and proceeds to give it an intriguing modal harmonization, reminding us of the eternal strangeness of authentic Russian (in this case Ukrainian) song materials. The development section is worked out with a much defter contrapuntal hand this time.

The “slow” movement of the Second is actually a little march, developed largely as variations but with an overall ABA form. Its charm provides one more reason that this symphony has remained the most popular of the first three.

The scherzo that follows is reminiscent of Beethoven both formally and stylistically; it comes complete with a folksong-based trio. And the fourth movement is built around Tchaikovsky’s most elaborate treatment of a folk source yet, “The Crane,” which had been sung to him by one of the older servants in his sister Aleksandra’s country household. Here’s the opening:

Quite a start! First we get a hearty full-band treatment of the tune. With its repeated, irregular melodic cells and hymn-like solemnity, it sounds like something Mussorgsky could have used as a second promenade theme in Pictures at an Exhibition. (Mussorgsky and company, the “Mighty Five” nationalists, apparently voiced their hearty approval of Tchaikovsky’s folk usages in this work.) Then, using a motive drawn from the song, it launches into a fiery dance section, and things just get more and more exciting from that point on. The ending is enormous fun, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

And so we come to Symphony No. 3, written in 1875, a scant three years after the “Little Russian.” These were productive years in Tchaikovsky’s life: he created the score for Swan Lake, his first big ballet, and the great Piano Concerto No. 1 during the same period.

This work breaks with his earlier symphonic practice in several important ways. First, it does not rely on any folk materials. Second, it is centered in a major key—D major—rather than minor keys like its predecessors. Third, the composer seems to have put behind him all excessive concerns about “proper” development, echt Beethovenian use of motives and counterpoint, and the like. Above all, this is a dance-oriented symphony, which means that Tchaikovsky has created a symphonic environment perfectly suited to his talents.

We are going to skip the first movement of No. 3, not because it is undeserving of attention, but because so much of its style—the poignant melodies, glistening colors, dramatic rhythms—will seem quite familiar to you, trademark Tchaikovsky, the very first time you hear it. So let that first hearing take place in your own listening space, when you can enjoy the entire movement at once, rather than catching a snippet here and there from your computer speakers (which are undoubtedly better than mine, but still!).

Instead let’s sample some of the remainder—because this is a five-movement work that encloses its central adagio with two dance movements. In that regard it resembles the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique; in other ways it draws on Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony. A number of commentators have found a strong resemblance between the compositional plans of the Berlioz and Beethoven works and this one, because the slow movement in all three depicts a scene in the countryside (Beethoven: “Szene am Bach” or “scene by the brook”; Berlioz: “Scène aux champs” or “scene in the country”).

Does that sound especially pastoral to you? Me neither, although the way that he uses solo wind players here, calling to one another or offering gentle echoes within an extremely spare landscape, certainly does call to mind Berlioz’s lonely country scene. Toward the end there’s a little “storm” in which, as in the Berlioz, clouds seem to gather in the distance (strings tremolo, dynamic swells and decays). The weather never gets out of hand, but that moment does complete a lovely and perhaps quite personal diary entry from the composer, who had been spending another summer at another country house when he wrote this.

Otherwise, dance is the subject! The fourth-movement scherzo is a fairy ballet (and homage to Mendelssohn’s fairy music) if ever there was one.

And the finale’s grand polonaise, functioning here not as a nod to Polish nationalism, but like stage music, perhaps, for an imagined royal ceremony.

Still to come was the Fourth Symphony (1878). It stands at the center of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic output and very nearly at the sticking-point—the cruxis—of his emotional life journey, marked by the happy initiation of his relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, who would support him financially and psychologically for fourteen years without ever meeting him; and by his disastrous and nearly fatal decision to marry a former pupil from the conservatory, Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova.

But that’s a discussion that will need to delve deep, and so we should put it off for a while. In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider becoming better acquainted with these early symphonies. They’re well worth it.

For more on this story and to hear excerpts of my music discussed go to:


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