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Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)


Piano Concerto No.1 in Bb minor, Op.23
I. Allegro non troppo - allegro con spirito
II. Andantino semplice - prestissimo
III. Allegro con fuoco

Musically, Tchaikovsky was a late developer, having first trained as a lawyer. By 1874, at the age of 34, his main compositions of any consequence were two symphonies and the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. It is not clear what spurred him to write his first piano concerto, but he wrote it quickly in the autumn of 1874. As this was his first attempt at a concerto, he sought the advice of his friend Nikolai Rubinstein concerning the piano writing. He got more than he had bargained for! After hearing Tchaikovsky play the work through, Rubinstein let rip: the concerto was "worthless, unplayable … passages were trite and awkward … as a composition it was bad and tawdry … only two or three pages could be retained, the rest would have to be completely revised". Tchaikovsky was speechless with fury (understandably enough) and refused to change a single note. But Rubinstein was also head of the Moscow Conservatoire, and this made it difficult for Tchaikovsky to get a performance of the new concerto in Moscow.

So Tchaikovsky dedicated the piece to the young pianist Hans von Bulow, who was a great admirer of Tchaikovsky's music, and was about to embark on a concert tour of the USA. Thus Bulow took with him, on the steamer to New York, the new and unperformed concerto. Bulow's youthful energy and enthusiasm ensured several performances in America, the first being in Boston on 25th October 1875. This and all subsequent performances were a great success, and Tchaikovsky was delighted by the letters Bulow wrote to him describing the concerts. Rubinstein soon admitted he had made a dreadful error of judgement, and became a great advocate of the concerto. Despite his vitriolic outburst, their friendship was restored.

The concerto is interesting in its musical construction: the spectacular opening tune is just an introduction and is never heard again. The "proper" themes are the light tripping melody first heard on the solo piano and a legato tune introduced on the wind which carries a balancing phrase sung on muted violins. These form the basis for a long and subtle movement, which towards the end includes a fully written-out cadenza for the piano.

The slow movement is calm to begin with; the solo flute sings one of Tchaikovsky's most beguiling melodies. The central section is fast and delicate, and is based on a French folk song. A short cadenza leads to a reprise of the opening flute tune.

The finale is more straightforward, alternating two tunes. The second, lyrical tune is used as a massive and triumphal close to the concerto, where it forms a counterpart to the equally powerful tune which opened the first movement.

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
I. Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima
II. Andantino in modo di canzona
III. Scherzo (Pizzicato ostinato: Allegro)
IV. Finale (Allegro con fuoco)

1877 was a year of crisis for Tchaikovsky, for in this year he entered into two remarkable relationships with women. One sustained him physically and spiritually for many years to come, while the other came to a swift and catastrophic conclusion.

The first relationship was with Nadezhda von Meck. She was 45 years old, and had been married to an energetic and successful railway engineer. His death in 1876 left her a widow with a large fortune and a passion for Tchaikovsky's music. She and Tchaikovsky only ever communicated by letter and, despite occasional encounters in the Street or at a theatre, they never once talked face to face. Their constant correspondence - an average of two letters per week for more than ten years - was an emotional release for both of them, and Mrs. Von Meck's considerable financial support of Tchaikovsky was crucial to him.

The other relationship was Tchaikovsky's disastrous marriage to a young student and admirer called Antonia. There must be many reasons why Tchaikovsky drifted into this loveless relationship, despite (or because of?) his homosexuality, including feelings of sympathy and guilt, and a desire to convince himself he could have a "normal" relationship. The result - immediate separation, attempted suicide and a nervous breakdown - proved to himself as well as his colleagues and public, that he could do no such thing.

The sketches for the fourth symphony were written early in 1877 and in July 1877 he agreed to dedicate the symphony to Mrs. Von Meck, in the phrase "to my best friend". Later the same month he married Antonia. The next 10 weeks were a personal hell for Tchaikovsky, and after attempting suicide by immersing himself in a river, he fled to St.Petersburg and then Venice. Once away from Moscow and from Antonia, he began to recover, and by December was able to continue work on the symphony. He worked hard on the orchestration over Christmas, and by mid January it was finished. The first performance took place in Moscow on 10th February 1878. Unfortunately the performance was a poor one, being ill-prepared in the time available, and made little impression. The first performance in St. Petersburg later that year went much better, and the critics and audience were unanimous in their enthusiasm.

The opening fanfare represents fate, "overpowering and invincible, against which there is nothing to do but submit". The first theme of the allegro is a long, sinuous melody that couples an ability to change shape with a complete inability to escape from its hypnotic waltz rhythm. After a while, a gentler second theme appears; a lilting dance on clarinet, with drooping phrases from the other wind instruments. This develops into two other themes - the first, gently rocking is first heard on cellos, while the second is bold and assertive. A climax is interrupted by the fate motive, which heralds a short but complex development of several of these themes. A respite is provided by the dancing second theme, but the following climax is once more interrupted by fate. This time it is followed by an accelerating coda, which drives to a tempestuous conclusion.

The other movements are more straightforward. The second movement comprises a very beautiful and seemingly endless melody which begins on the oboe, is passed to cellos, is taken further by the full strings and then varied by the bassoons. A central section is faster, and works up quite passionately, before the original theme returns, this time decorated with drooping woodwind phrases from the first movement. The bassoon has the last word.

The scherzo is a remarkable invention. The strings are pizzicato throughout, while a central episode alternates wind and brass in a skittish theme, with brilliant piccolo flourishes.

The finale, which enters with a crash, is mostly fast and furious, with a contrasting second subject closely modelled on a Russian folk song. In developing these ideas, the folk song becomes full of the sound and fury of the main theme, until the whole flow is stopped in its tracks one last time by fate. But the flow this time is unstoppable: the music regains momentum and whirls to a triumphant conclusion.

Symphony No. 6 in B minor "Pathetique", Op.74
I. Adagio - allegro non troppo - andante - allegro vivo - andante
II. Allegro con grazia
III. Allegro molto vivace
IV. Adagio lamentoso

Unusual and original works of art are rarely popular. People generally prefer the comfort of the familiar and normal to the challenge of the innovative and unusual. But this symphony is an exception, and its great and wholly justified popularity easily blinds us to its astonishing originality.

The symphony was written during the first half of 1893, when Tchaikovsky was famous, successful, and recognised internationally. Writing to his nephew, to whom the work is dedicated, Tchaikovsky said "During my stay in Paris last December I had the idea of writing a programme symphony; but to a programme that should remain an enigma to everyone but myself: let them try to guess it! For my part, I intend to call it simply 'Programme Symphony'". To his brother he wrote in February "I am now wholly occupied with the new work and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it is being born as the best of my works". In August he was able to write to his publisher that he had finished "and I give you my word of honour that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy, in the knowledge that I have written a good piece".

The programme remained an enigma until a scribbled note by Tchaikovsky was found in the 1920s outlining the plan for a symphony based on life itself, with a first movement describing impulsive passion, confidence, a thirst for activity; a second movement referring to love; a third movement 'disappointments' and a fourth movement 'Death - result of collapse'. This is the programme Tchaikovsky was referring to for this symphony.

The symphony was first performed on 28th October 1893, with Tchaikovsky himself conducting. The reception was neither good nor bad, but puzzled and uncomprehending. The following day Tchaikovsky decided that the title 'Programme Symphony' was not good, and came up with the title 'Pathetique' instead. The modern English word 'pathetic' is unfortunate, now usually meaning 'feeble and inadequate' rather than its original meaning derived from the Greek pathos meaning suffering. Tchaikovsky's meaning includes all of 'passionate', 'emotional' and 'suffering'.

The second performance, three weeks later, was a huge success. Not only was the performance better, but the composer was suddenly in the public eye (so to speak) having died a few days before - a topical fact the audience could hardly ignore. It is usually said that he died of cholera, after drinking unboiled water, but there is another theory that he committed suicide by poison to avoid an imminent sexual scandal: it is unlikely that we will ever be completely sure.

The first movement starts slowly and quietly, the bassoon groping for a melody among the double basses and violas. The tempo soon accelerates, the violas and flute introduce the main theme which works up to an energetic climax, then subsides, and a glorious slower theme unfolds on the strings. A delicate flute counter-melody joins it, and again a rich climax works up. This dies away to a clarinet solo which becomes quieter and quieter … until a huge crash ushers in the development of the previous themes, with driving energy and frequently verging on hysteria. After a colossal climax this collapses exhausted, the slow theme is recalled, and the movement ends with a solemn brass chorale above descending scales in the basses.

The second movement is a simple and original contrast; it has the feel of a waltz, but is in five beats to the bar. [The critic Hanslick was not keen on this rhythm. He described this movement in the first London performance in 1895 as "loathsome … a disagreeable rhythm ... disturbing to listeners and players alike. It is, moreover, superfluous, since the piece could be adapted to six-eight time without damage".] The dance feeling is emphasised by the regular grouping of bars in eights, and the simple repetitions of the tune played by different instruments, though with varied accompaniments. A central section, still in five beats, comprises a descending tune above pulsating drum beats, still with the same simplicity as before.

The third movement is also unusual and original, starting like a swift intermezzo, and gradually turning into a march of terrifying insistence and power. The scurrying triplet rhythm of the opening suggests a lightness which is maintained for a while, but is gradually replaced by an insistent four-square military march. As time goes on, the persistent march rhythm, the tune which never develops and never modulates (i.e. is just repeated over and over) but just gets louder and louder all contribute to the panic which lies only just beneath the surface of this apparently joyful music.

The slow finale is the most dramatic of Tchaikovsky's innovations. The strings cry out with a desolate descending tune, shared with the woodwind, and later taken over by the bassoon. A more consoling second theme is worked up by the whole orchestra to a passionate climax, which after a dramatic pause leads back to the first theme, soon becoming even more anguished than before, and pierced by a brass scale that rises through the whole orchestra. After a short brass chorale, the second theme can manage no more than its first phrase and, above a faltering pulse in the basses, the symphony ends in the blackness whence it emerged.

Violin Concerto in D major , Op.35
I. Allegro moderato - Moderato assai
II. Canzonetta (Andante)
III. Finale (Allegro vivacissimo)

For what is now a highly popular and much loved work, Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto had a difficult start in life. Tchaikovsky wrote the concerto in March 1878, inspired by a visit from his violin playing friend Josef Kotek. He completed it in less than three weeks, and soon he and Josef played it for his brother Modest. They liked it except for the slow movement, so Tchaikovsky wrote a new slow movement that pleased them all much more. (The original one was published later as “Meditation” for violin and piano.) He then orchestrated it, and the concerto was completed by the end of the month. So far so good - and remarkably quick.

But who was to perform it? Tchaikovsky decided not to dedicate the work to his friend “in order to avoid gossip of various kinds”, but to the great violin teacher and soloist Leopold Auer. Unfortunately Auer was not impressed with the concerto: he thought it “called for a thorough revision, being un-violinistic and not written in the idiom of the strings”. He decided to undertake this revision himself but other tasks got in the way, and after two frustrating years Tchaikovsky gave up waiting for Auer. Because of the delay the concerto had begun to be spoken of as unplayable, until a younger violinist, Adolf Brodsky, took up the cause and learned the work, despite its considerable and genuine difficulties. Brodsky gave the first performance under Hans Richter with the Vienna Philharmonic in December 1881.

This was not the end of the problems. The concerto had a mixed reception by the public, though the applause was greater than the disapproval. But the critics almost all disliked it, especially the very influential Viennese critic Hanslick, whose review was appallingly abusive. “The violin is no longer played, it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue …” he wrote, and the concerto gave him “the horrid idea that there may be music that stinks …”. Tchaikovsky never forgot or forgave him. History does not tell if Hanslick changed his view, but Leopold Auer certainly did. He played the concerto often to great success, as did many of his famous pupils, and thereby helped establish it as one of the great violin concertos.

The first movement is the most substantial, though it starts innocently enough with a single line on the orchestral violins. This becomes an introduction, shared between orchestra and soloist, to the first main theme on the solo violin. This is quite flamboyant, and soon subsides to a calmer, but equally lyrical, second theme. Soon the full orchestra gets its turn with the first theme, and then the soloist discovers a virtuosic variant of the second theme. The full orchestra leads the soloist into a ferociously difficult but brilliant cadenza, which is followed by a recapitulation of the two main themes. A gradual acceleration winds up the excitement to a brilliant close.

The slow movement is a total contrast, being short, simple, and very calm. After an introduction on the woodwind, the soloist has the main tune which is discreetly decorated by woodwind soloists, especially the flute and clarinet.

It leads directly into the finale, which includes a short cadenza for the violin before it gets properly under way. The main theme is fiery and energetic, and it alternates with slower sections. These are treated differently on each reappearance, but the main mood is one of brilliance and excitement, all the way to the finishing line.

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