Program Notes: All Tchaikovsky

With their soaring melodies, their luxurious harmonies, and their vivid instrumentation, the orchestral works of Tchaikovsky are among the most popular with concert-hall audiences. We’ll hear two perennial favorites, the First Piano Concerto and the 1812 Overture. Between them is the beguiling but seldom-heard Symphony No. 1. A dance from the Russian master’s opera Eugene Onegin gets the concert off to a pleasing start.


Polonaise  from Eugene Onegin

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
(Born 7 May 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia; Died 6 November 1893 in St. Petersburg, Russia)

Composed: 1877-1878

Premiere: 29 March 1879; Moscow, Russia

Last MSO Performance: MSO Subscription Premiere

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 4 minutes

All his adult life, Tchaikovsky struggled with his homosexuality and its attendant guilt. At age 37, thinking marriage, domesticity, and a sympathetic woman the possible solution, he made a rash and desperate decision: He married Antonina Milyukova, a Conservatory student from whom he had received a written declaration of love. Their union was a disaster that led Tchaikovsky to a nervous breakdown, an attempted suicide, a hasty divorce, and an escape to Western Europe.

His opera Eugene Onegin dates from this stormy period, 1877-78, the same time he was at work on the Fourth Symphony. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s “novel in verse,” its parallels with the composer’s life are obvious: the heroine, Tatyana, writes a love letter to Onegin, who rejects her. The opera’s rural Russian setting incorporates elaborate ball scenes, an ironic background to personal tragedies.

The convivial Polonaise—sumptuous and effervescent at the same time—opens Act 3, whose first scene is set in a spectacular ball in St. Petersburg. Here, Tatyana and Onegin meet for the first time in many years. But now the shoe is on the other foot: It is she, the former country girl now happily married to a prince, who will reject his advances. This is the stuff of which opera is made.

Recommended Recording: Valery Gergiev, Kirov Orchestra (Philips)


Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 23

Composed: 1874-1875; revised in 1876 and 1889

Premiere: 25 October 1875; Boston, Massachusetts

Last MSO Performance: February 2010; Rossen Milanov, conductor; John Lill, piano

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

Approximate Duration: 32 minutes

Surely one of the most beloved 19th-century piano concertos in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Opus 23 was penned in 1874-75, between the composition of the Third and Fourth Symphonies. Originally intended for Nicolai Rubinstein, the head of the Moscow Conservatory, who had encouraged Tchaikovsky to write the work, it was dedicated to and premiered by Hans von Bülow after Rubinstein rejected it as unplayable. (He later recanted and was counted among its most distinguished interpreters.)

One of the greatest pianists of his day, Bülow was also a composer and conductor. He was a champion of the music of Wagner and, later, of Brahms. In the spring of 1875, Tchaikovsky sent the concerto to him and soon received a warm response, with sincere gratitude for the dedication:

Perhaps it would be presumptuous on my part, being unfamiliar with the whole scope of your works and prodigious talent, to say that for me your Opus 23 displays such brilliance, and is such a remarkable achievement among your musical works, that you have without doubt enriched the world of music as never before. There is such unsurpassed originality, such nobility, such strength, and there are so many arresting moments throughout this unique conception; there is such a maturity of form, such style—its design and execution, with such consonant harmonies, that I could weary you by listing all the memorable moments which caused me to thank the author—not to mention the pleasure from performing it all. In a word, this true gem shall earn you the gratitude of all pianists.

Bülow was eager to unveil the concerto on his upcoming American tour. It stretches the imagination to learn that this über-Russian concerto was premiered in Boston, played by a German pianist on an American Chickering piano accompanied by an orchestra of Massachusetts freelancers conducted by a long-forgotten American maestro (Benjamin Johnson Lang). The piece was a source of excitement throughout the tour, and it remains so today.

It’s difficult to improve on Bülow’s description. As he noted, the concerto contrasts music of heroic strength and grandeur with soaring lyrical melodies. The deservedly famous opening pages—with the orchestra’s fortissimo theme, the piano’s crashing chords and cadenza-like passages—are followed by gentler melodies that mine the qualities of Slavic folk music. A solo flute introduces the romantic theme of the Andantino. A change of tempo and a dance-like melody provide contrast; a return to the initial material shapes the movement into a gratifying three-part form. Slavic flavor—and fervor—permeates the finale, a virtuosic showpiece that unquestionably delighted its dedicatee and an East Coast audience—one autumn evening during the Ulysses S. Grant administration.

Recommended Recording: Martha Argerich; Karill Kondrashin, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Decca)



Symphony No. 1, G minor, Opus 13 “Winter Daydreams”

Composed: 1866; revised several times with final revision in 1974

Premiere: 2nd version: 15 February 1868; Moscow;

3rd version: 1 Dec 1883; Moscow

Last MSO Performance: January 2008; Edward Gardner, conductor

Instrumentation:  2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), strings

Approximate Duration: 44 minutes

Of the four works on today’s program, the Symphony No. 1 is the earliest by several years. Begun in March 1866, the 25-year-old composer put his heart and soul into the task, but found it hard going. Years later he reported, in a letter to his brother Modest, that the piece had cost him many sleepless nights, frayed nerves, and not a little tobacco. Recalling the struggles of those days, he wrote in 1875, “Even now, when things are difficult, I smoke vast quantities of cigarettes and confine myself to my room, before coming around to formulate a basic motif.”

Hoping to have the symphony played in St. Petersburg, he showed the unfinished opus to his former teachers Anton Rubinstein and Nicolai Zaremba. After absorbing their harsh criticism, Tchaikovsky revised the work. The Adagio and Scherzo were then given early outings, and the symphony as a whole was well-received at its February 1868 premiere. The composer made several minor revisions when Opus 13 was published in 1874. These included his own titles for the first two movements (“Daydreams on a Winter Journey” and “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists,” respectively). Nevertheless, “Winter Dreams” is programmatic only in an atmospheric way; it doesn’t tell a story. 

The first movement’s opening theme—introduced by flute and bassoon—has a folk-like quality and spaciousness that informs the whole Allegro. Listen for what would later become Tchaikovskian orchestral trademarks: rushing, brilliant string passages; colorful use of the woodwinds; call-and-response textures. The serene Adagio borrows material from an 1864 overture to a play called The Storm (“Groza”). In the course of the movement, the oboe’s yearning melody is combined with the second theme, first introduced by the strings, to create a soundscape of wistful, misty expansiveness. For the third movement, the young composer adapted the Scherzo movement—Mendelssohn-like in character—of a piano sonata he had written the previous year, during his time as a student at the Conservatory. For the trio, the added a waltz, the first in a long line of such orchestral compositions. In the Finale, Tchaikovsky ruminates a bit, then uses a popular folksong—“Flowers Bloomed” (“Raspaschu li ja mlada”)—to paint a rhythmically energetic portrait of Russian peasant life. At times martial, at other times contrapuntal, the lively dance theme eventually rushes to its proud conclusion.

All his life, Tschaikovsky seems to have retained a soft spot for his symphonic firstborn. Near the time of the first performance, in 1883, of the 1874 version of the symphony, the master wrote to his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, “It is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than many of my other more mature works.”

Recommended Recording: Igor Markevitch, London Symphony Orchestra (Philips)


Program notes by J. Mark Baker.