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Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

The Seasons, Op.37b • Twelve Pieces, Op.40

(orch. Peter Breiner)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.

Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, 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 of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.

For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability, and could only add further to Tchaikovsky’s own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.

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 was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

Tchaikovsky’s death in St Petersburg in 1893 was then and still remains a subject of rumour and gossip. Some have supposed that he took his own life to avoid a scandal involving the son of a member of the nobility. Others accept the official explanation, that Tchaikovsky had contracted cholera after drinking infected water. At all events, his death was sudden and led to widespread mourning, coming, as it dead, soon after the first performance of his final symphony.

As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the West European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal. Hanslick, in Vienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violin concerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russian element in the last of the six symphonies. In England and America there had been a heartier welcome, and in the latter country he had been received with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that at home. In his diary of the American concert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on the curious habit of American critics, who tended to concentrate their attention on the appearance and posture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51 he was described in the American press as "a tall, gray, interesting man, well on to sixty".

Throughout his life Tchaikovsky wrote music for the piano, much of it to supply the demands of an amateur market. Among the earliest such pieces are the three grouped under the title Souvenir de Hapsal, the third of which, the most famous Song without Words, concludes the present collection. In 1867 Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest spent some six weeks at Hapsal with the Davïdovs, the family of his sister Sasha’s husband. Sasha’s sister-in-law Vera Davïdova showed some interest in Tchaikovsky, feelings that he was unable to reciprocate. He nevertheless dedicated the three pieces to her after his return to St Petersburg.

The Seasons, Opus 37b, were written between December 1875 and November 1876 in response to a commission from Nikolay Bernard, editor of the periodical Nouvelliste. Each monthly issue was to contain an appropriate piece by Tchaikovsky, who had instructed his servant to remind him when each was due. The resulting collection, however reluctant the composer may have been, has much charm, as it takes the listener through the year, from the fireside in January, through Carnival, the song of the lark, April snowdrops and the nights of May, to the Barcarolle of June, the cutter of the hay, harvest, hunting, October autumn, the November Troïka and to Christmas. The collection offers occasional challenges to the technical proficiency of the amateur pianists for whom the pieces were intended.

Tchaikovsky began work on the twelve pieces of moderate difficulty that form Opus 40 at Clarens in the spring of 1878, planning at first to write one piece each day. In the event he wrote the last five pieces at Kamenka in the Ukraine, while staying at his brother-in-law’s estate, now recovering a measure of equanimity after his unfortunate marriage. He completed the set in May, including among them a song without words, Chant sans paroles, a melancholy Chanson triste, a Polish Mazurka and a Russian dance, Danse russe, based on a dance that he had written for the ballet Swan Lake, and Rêverie interrompue. The present arrangements for violin and orchestra is by Peter Breiner.

Keith Anderson

Item number 8553510
Barcode 730099451024
Release date 02/01/2003
Category Romantic
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Nishizaki, Takako
Nishizaki, Takako
Composers Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'yich
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'yich
Conductors Breiner, Peter
Breiner, Peter
Orchestras Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Queensland Symphony Orchestra
Producers Khouri, Murray
Khouri, Murray
Disc: 1
Reverie interrompue, Op. 40, No. 12
1 January: By the Fireside
2 February: Carnival
3 March: Song of the Lark
4 April: Snowdrop
5 May: May Nights
6 June: Barcarolle
7 July: Song of the Reaper
8 August: The Harvest
9 September: The Hunt
10 October: Autumn Song
11 November: Troika
12 December: Christmas
13 Chanson Triste, Op. 40, No. 2
14 Mazurka, Op. 40, No. 4
15 Chant sans paroles, Op. 40, No. 6
16 Danse russe, Op. 40, No. 10
17 Reverie interrompue, Op. 40, No. 12
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