TCHAIKOVSKY: Songs, Vol. 2
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Pyotr Il'yichTchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Songs, Volume 2
Russia's contribution to European song during the second half of thenineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth is of considerableimportance and interest With little or no tradition of their own, apart from avery distinctive folk-song literature, Russian composers inevitably turned toother Continental models - to Germany in particular, and to Italy - but quicklyevolved a national school that may be said to have produced some of their country'sfinest music. The greatest Russian song composer of the nineteenth century is,without doubt, Mussorgsky, closely followed by Balakirev and Borodin, but closebehind them comes Tchaikovsky, whose qualities as a lyricist are understandablyovershadowed by his stature as an opera composer (just as his many pieces forsolo piano are by his concertos).
Between 1869 and 1893 Tchaikovsky composed just over a hundred songs,most of them published in sets of six and settings of words by second-rateRussian poets. A change from the pervading drawing-room sentiment is offered bythe group of sixteen Children's Songs, Op. 54, which were composedbetween 1881 and 1883. Like the Schumannesque Children's Album, Op. 39for piano of 1878, the collection reflects his spontaneous love of children; hehad none of his own, of course, since his disastrous marriage of 1877 was neverconsummated and lasted barely three months, but his nephews, nieces and theiroffspring gave him great joy.
The words of all but two of the Children's Songs are by AlexeyNikolayevich Pleshcheyev (1825-1893), a minor poet whom Tchaikovsky had knownsince he first went to Moscow in 1866, and two of whose lyrics he used for the Romancescomposed in 1869 (Op. 6 No. 2) and 1872-3 (Op. 16 No. 4). In January 1881he had made a setting of Konstantin Sergeyevich Axakov's A Little Children'sSong, and it was apparently the appearance of this some weeks later in themonthly periodical Recreation for Children that prompted Pleshcheyev tosend Tchaikovsky a copy of his anthology for children The Snowdrop, inscribed'as a mark of affection and gratitude for his beautiful music to my poorwords'. On 5th November 1881 Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest: 'I haveset about composing children's songs and am writing one regularly every day...
this is very light and pleasant labour, for as my text I am takingPleshcheyev's The Snowdrop, where there are many delightful things'. On15th November he sent fifteen songs to his publisher Jurgenson, saying 'If youlike, you can add A Little Children's Song to it' - which Jurgenson did.
Most of the songs last less than three minutes, and nearly all of themare technically undemanding; Nos. 6, 14 and 16 are strophic. Children naturallyfeature prominently, most touchingly in A Legend (No. 5), where theChrist-child is crowned with thorns by children who have picked all the rosesin his garden (the theme, based on a well-known carol, was used in 1894, theyear after Tchaikovsky's death, by Arensky as the basis for a set of variationsfor string quartet and for string orchestra) No. 1 is a dialogue between asmall boy and his grandmother (each in a different key); On the River-bank (No.
6) is about a fisherman's anxious family; A Winter's Evening (No. 7)depicts a mother telling her children a story and playing the piano for them todance; and No. 10 is a lullaby. Animals feature in The Little Bird (No.
2), in which God's bird intercedes with the Almighty on behalf of the poorploughman; in My Little Garden (No. 4), with its buzzing bees; in thehilarious The Cuckoo (No. 8); and in The Swallow (No. 15, towords by Ivan Zakharovich Surikov). Seasons are referred to in Nos. 3, 9 and 13(Spring), 14 (Autumn), and 7 and 12 (Winter); and flowers and gardens in Nos.
4, 5, 11 and 13. A Little Children's Song (No. 16), a delightful pieceof nonsense verse, which started the whole process, appears as a gentleepilogue.
In August 1892 an amateur versifier, Danil Maximovich Rathaus(1868-1937) sent Tchaikovsky six of his poems, and having immediately sketchedthe voice-part of the first verse of We Sat Together and part of TheSun Has Set, Tchaikovsky promised to set the whole group. He did not beginwork in earnest on them until 5th May 1893, however, finishing them on 17th.
The cycle (if that is not too grand a word) was Tchaikovsky's last completedwork; he dedicated it to Nikolay Figner, the tenor who had created the part ofHerman in The Queen of Spades in 1890. In the words of Tchaikovsky'sbiographer David Brown, 'Rathaus offered simply schemed verses, descriptionsbased on stock imagery but prettily picturesque, and feelings uncomplicated andfamiliar Sentimentality reigned supreme and pointed a clear expressive paththrough verse which never encumbered the music.' In the slow-moving We SatTogether (No. 1) a couple sit sadly by a river, unable to resolve theirunhappiness by talking; in the closing bars the voice and the piano quote oneof Tchaikovsky's familiar 'Fate' motifs. Similarly, the melancholy descendingphrases in Night (No. 2) recall the closing bars of his Symphony No. 6.
A livelier musical note is struck in This Moonlit Night (No. 3), butalthough the song expresses a declaration of love it is tinged with sadness andresignation. In The Sun Has Set (No. 4) the mood is one of uncloudedrapture, matched by a lilting accompaniment, but unrest returns in On GloomyDays (No. 5), with its memories of happier times underpinned by theagitated piano part; and the peace achieved in Once More, As Before (No.
6) is that of resignation and solitude.