TCHAIKOVSKY: Vocal Works
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Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Dances and Overtures
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky retains his position as themost popular of all Russian composers. His musicoffers obvious charms in its winning melodies and vividorchestral colours. At the same time his achievement isdeeper than this, however tempting it may be for thefew to despise what so many people enjoy.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second sonof a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his earlyeducation, in music as in everything else, at home,under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess.
From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School ofJurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studiesthere in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry ofJustice. During these years he developed his abilities asa musician and it must have seemed probable that, likehis near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as asecondary occupation, while following his officialcareer.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. Thefoundation of the new Conservatory of Music in StPetersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him tostudy there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 hemoved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the newConservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein'sbrother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued inMoscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow,Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave theConservatory and devote himself entirely tocomposition. The same period in his life brought anunfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of hiswork, a woman who showed early signs of mentalinstability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky'sown problems of character and inclination. Hishomosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbidsensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physicalrevulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severenervous breakdown.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate,still left practical and personal problems to be solved.
Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck,however, provided not only the money that at first wasnecessary for his career, but also the understanding andsupport of a woman who, so far from making physicaldemands of him, never even met him face to face. Thiscuriously remote liaison and patronage only came to anend in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, shediscontinued an allowance that was no longer ofimportance and a correspondence on which he hadcome to depend.
Tchaikovsky's sudden death in St Petersburg in1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and hasgiven rise to further posthumous rumours. It has beensuggested that he committed suicide as the result ofpressure from a court of honour of former students ofthe School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly eroticliaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to causean open scandal even in court circles. Officially hisdeath was attributed to cholera, contracted afterdrinking undistilled water. Whether the victim ofcholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair orof death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widelymourned.
Tchaikovsky wrote some twelve operas, from TheVoyevoda, completed in 1868 and subsequentlydestroyed by the composer, to the final Iolanta, stagedin St Petersburg in 1892. Two of his operas have foundan established place in international repertoire, EugeneOnegin and The Queen of Spades. The second of these,with a libretto by the composer and his brother Modest,based on Pushkin, was first staged in St Petersburg in1890. The plot traces the gradual decline of Hermanninto madness and suicide, as he seeks from the oldCountess, whose death he causes, the secret of the threecards that must win, the third card, the Ace, replaced, ashe gambles, by the Queen of Spades, in which he seesthe face of the dead Countess. The short Prelude withwhich the work opens includes themes associated withFate, with Hermann's love for Lisa, granddaughter ofthe Countess, and the three cards.
The symphonic poem Fatum, Op. 77, was writtenlate in 1868 and first performed in Moscow thefollowing February in a Russian Music Society concert.
Nikolay Rubinstein had suggested a more obviouslyexplanatory title, but the lines used, from KonstantinBatyushkov, did little to enlighten the audience.
Tchaikovsky was at first very pleased with the piece. Hehad made use of a free form, its two introductorypassages followed by an A flat major section that wonpraise from an otherwise critical Herman Laroche andeven from Balakirev, before establishing C minor as theprevailing tonality. These materials are modified andexplored, before the return of the opening. Balakirevconducted Fatum in St Petersburg, and was not sparingin his criticism of the work, while Cesar Cui, a fellowmemberof the Mighty Handful, could only find praisefor the orchestration. Tchaikovsky destroyed the scorethe following year and it was only re-assembled afterhis death.
Tchaikovsky's first opera The Voyevoda was givenan ill-prepared staging in Moscow in 1869, receivingfive performances, after which it was withdrawn, andlater destroyed by the composer, who drew from itmaterial for later works. Much of it has since beenreconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts. Basedon an extended play by Ostrovsky, the opera containsRussian themes, proclaiming its national identity in theOverture.
The Maid of Orleans, based on Schiller and othersources, was first staged in St Petersburg in 1881, andmarks Tchaikovsky's attempt to vie with thecontemporary opera of Western Europe. The Entr'acte,between the first two acts, echoes Joan of Arc's hymnfrom the first act, leading to the court of Charles VII,where the French King is entertained by gypsies, andthen by dwarfs and clowns, to be rewardedextravagantly, although the treasury is empty.
Tchaikovsky's only comic opera, Cherevichki (TheSlippers), based on a story by Gogol, was first given thetitle Vakula the Smith and so staged in 1876. It wasrevised in 1885, unter the present title, and staged firstin Moscow in 1887. Sometimes known as Les capricesd'Oxane and described as a comic-fantastic opera, itdeals with the village activities of the Devil and thewitch Solokha, and the coquetry of Oxana, whodemands that her lover Vakula bring her the boots of theTsaritsa. The Russian and Cossack dances form part ofthe third scene of the third act, where the chief ministeris entertained by dancers, before the Devil returns to flyback with Vakula to the village.
Mounted at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburgin 1887, The Enchantress, with a libretto written forTchaikovsky by Ippolit Shpazhinsky, failed to grip thepublic. The plot largely revolves around the widowNastasya, known as Kuma, hostess of an inn, where shecharms Prince Nikita, in spite of the court MalvolioMam?»rov, exciting the jealousy of the Princess. Theirson Yury plans to elope with Kuma, but she is poisonedby the Princess, aided by a wizard, who makes anopportune appearance, while the Prince kills his son, hisrival in love, before going out of his mind. TheIntroduction leads to an opening scene of celebration atKuma's inn, and she later offers the Prince theentertainment of a tumblers' dance.
Based on a poem by Pushkin, the opera Mazeppawas first staged in Moscow in 1884 and centres on theactivities of the Ukrainian hetman of the title,entertained by a Gopak in the house of Kochubey, acossack judge, later put to death by Mazeppa after hisattempt to reveal to the Tsar the latter's plans forsecession from Russia.
The Oprichnik was first seen in St Petersburg in1874, its title indicating the calling of the hero AndreyMorozhov, who becomes a mercenary in the service ofthe Tsar in an attempt to find justice for his mother andhimself against his oppressor Prince