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Peter Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)


1812 Overture, Op. 49

It is, on the face of it, a little surprising that one of the most popular of all composers for the orchestra should be the tortured figure of Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. The features of his character and career are well documented: his extreme sensitivity verging on morbidness; his homosexuality which he repressed so strongly; his disastrous marriage which lasted only 9 weeks, after which he tried to drown himself; his intimate correspondence with the widowed Nadejda von Meck, whom he never met, and her financial support to him;and his death from cholera during an epidemic in St.Petersburg, from drinking unboiled water - an act so rash it has sometimes been called suicidal. But more important than his life is his music which, with its combination of the passionate and bombastic, the sublime and the banal, goes straight the heart of the human condition.

The "Festival Overture : The Year 1812" celebrates the defeat of Napoleon and the French Army in the winter campaign of 1812. It is the same chapter of history as that graphically chronicled by Leo Tolstoy in "War and Peace", which culminated in the Battle of Borodino, the Russian evacuation and burning of Moscow, and the consequential French retreat westwards in the depths of winter, which resulted in the loss of some 90% of Napoleon's army.

After a solemn introduction on the lower strings, the music gradually gains in animation, until after a climax a quiet section ensues. But this does not last, and a fast fugal passage builds up to a large climax, incorporating both Russian and French national anthems, with the Marsellaise prominent on the trumpets. This again gives way to calmer and more serene music. The same pattern is repeated a second time, until a huge descending scale passage, getting gradually slower as it gets lower, leads into the final peroration, in which the bells of celebration and victory salutes of cannon play full part.

March Slav, Op. 31

Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slav in 1876 for a charity concert to support a war effort in the Balkans. He composed and fully scored the march in the short time of just 5 days. (Quick for anyone, but amazing for Tchaikovsky) The themes are loosely based on three Serbian folk songs, each with a quite different character, and it aisc incorporates the Russian national anthem. At the first performance its impact was such that it had to be encored in full, receiving a tumultuous reception - twice!

Overture Le Voyevode, Op. 78

Rather confusingly, Tchaikovsky wrote two works called Voyevode. The first Voyevode was his first opera, written in 1868 when he was 28. It was not a success and he abandoned it. Only the overture still survives as his Op.3. More than 20 years later, he came across a ballad by Pushkin with the same name, and decided to write a short tone poem based on it. He composed it in 1890, at a time of crisis. His patron and supporter, the Countess Nadezhda von Meck, who had supported him emotionally and financially for 13 years with a stream of correspondence, commissions and money, withdrew her support. Tchaikovsky was devastated and bitter, and never really recovered from the blow.

The story of Voyevode is simple and harsh. A Provincial Governor (we might call him a Sheriff, the Russian word is a Voyevode) returns home to find his wife in the garden with her lover. Giving his servant a gun and ordering him to shoot his wife, the servant shoots the Voyevode instead. Pushkin’s ballad is ironic, dry and unemotional, but Tchaikovsky’s version is full of intense emotion. Perhaps the story of a man deceived and abandoned by a woman, and his unexpected death, carried a resonance for him in feeling abandoned by Nadezhda von Meck? Whatever the truth, within three years Tchaikovsky himself was dead, in unexpected and (still to this day) unexplained circumstances.

The first performance was conducted by the composer in 1891 and was quite successful, but Tchaikovsky decided the piece was no good, and after the concert he tore up the score, and would have destroyed the orchestra parts too had the librarian not gathered them up and refused to hand them over to the angry composer. As a result the work was only published in 1897, four years after Tchaikovsky’s death, from the preserved orchestral parts from that first performance. (It has been suggested that maybe one of the percussion parts went missing after that first performance, because the percussion scoring now is surprisingly thin – only timpani and side drum, where one would expect at least cymbals and triangle too).

The work is in three sections – the two outer sections representing the urgent stormy tensions between the Voyevode and his wife, and the central section being the love affair between the wife and her lover. The final section concludes with the fatal shot, and a dark sombre ending that looks forward to the darkness of the 6th symphony.

Fantasy Overture "Romeo & Juliet" in B minor

Tchaikovsky was a late starter as a composer - he had studied law as a young man, and worked as a clerk in a law office before taking up music as a profession. Romeo and Juliet was the fourth of Tchaikovsky's published works, written in 1869 when he was 29. He composed it in the aftermath of a mild love affair with a Belgian soprano who was visiting Moscow - the only woman to whom Tchaikovsky ever admitted feeling a sexual attraction. But it was a brief affair: she soon married a Polish singer from Warsaw and Tchaikovsky was not heartbroken.

A stronger influence was the composer Balakirev. He was just a few years older than Tchaikovsky but, having been writing music since his teens, was a more prolific and experienced composer. Balakirev, who had already composed an overture on Shakespeare's King Lear, suggested both the subject matter and the overall shape and key structure of Romeo and Juliet.

The idea found favour with Tchaikovsky, who wrote the complete work in a matter of a few weeks in the autumn of 1869, and arranged for its first performance in Moscow in March 1870. He revised it later the same year, completely rewriting both the introduction and the ending. This revised - and greatly improved - version was first performed in 1872, and Tchaikovsky made further minor changes in 1880. This final version is the version played today.

The opening section depicts Friar Laurence in his cell, sorrowfully contemplating the tragic tale. In the fiery allegro we hear the warring families of the Montagues and Capulets, followed by the first appearance of the great love theme on the clarinet. After a virtuosic development, the love theme swells to a huge climax, but is brutally swept away by the warring families. In the moving final bars, a hymn-like lament for the dead lovers is hammered home by the brutal reality of the final chords.

Suite - The Sleeping Beauty
Adagio, Pas d'action

It seems to me, my dear friend, that the music of this ballet will be one of my best creations. The subject is so poetic, so grateful for music, that 1 have worked on it with enthusiasm and written it with the warmth and enthusiasm upon which the worth of a composition always depends." - Tchaikovsky, in a letter of 6th August, 1889 to his patron Nadia von Meck.

The story is the classic fairy tale: The wicked fairy Carabosse, angry at not being invited to the christening of the Princess Aurora, lays a curse: that one day she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. The good Lilac Fairy can only modify the curse, not revoke it, so that Aurora will not die, but sleep for a hundred years, and will be woken by the kiss of a young Prince. Events turn out as foretold, and the Prince (named Desire) duly wakes her, marries her, and they all live happily ever after. Incidentally, the good fairy's name refers to the lilac tree, which signifies wisdom in Russian folklore, not the colour!

Current opinion mostly agrees with Tchaikovsky; no score of his possesses a finer flow of brilliant, attractive, memorable ideas, and does so in the context of a coherent large scale dramatic structure.

The movements in the suite are: (1) The opening of the ballet, which contrasts the fierce theme of the wicked Carabosse with the tender theme of the Lilac Fairy, (2) The "Rose Adagio", in which Aurora dances with four suitors who each give her a rose, shortly before she pricks her finger, (3) a gentle Andantino, in which the Lilac Fairy leads Prince Desire in her boat through the rivers of the enchanted forest to the castle where Aurora lies sleeping, and (4) a splendid waltz for the whole company, a wonderful expression of warmth and relaxation.

Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky's three great ballets - Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker - were written at well spaced intervals during his turbulent and passionate life. Swan Lake was the first of the three to be written, dating - just like Carmen - from 1875. This may be no coincidence, since Tchaikovsky is on record as saying that "Carmen is perhaps the finest opera of the century'. He loved its direct emotional impact, the brilliant and exotic colour, and the wealth of fine tunes - all characteristics of his own music, too.

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