Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Brief Chronology (ii) 1877-1893

Now events move much more quickly, so it will be necessary to be very precise about dates.  1877 is often said to be his year of crisis where two women enter his life…

1877  He begins work on the Fourth Symphony in F minor, after a successful premier of Francesca da Rimini.  The Slavonic March (also known as Marche Slave) also receives an overwhelming ovation.

7 April  He receives his first letter from Antonina Milyukova, a former student of his at the Comservatory (whom Tchaikovsky cannot remember), expressing her love for him.

May  He begins to write what will become his most famous opera, Yevgeny Onegin (often spelled as Eugene Onegin.)

1 June  He meets Antonina for the first time.

4 June  Without telling his closest friends, he proposes marriage to Antonina.  He informs his brother Modest and his close friends of the news as a fait accompli.

18 July  He marries Antonina in Moscow.


July The ‘happy couple’ spend their honeymoon in St Petersburg.

July 26  They return to live in Moscow but Tchaikovsky attempts suicide.

August  Tchaikovsky visits his sister’s family in Kamenka without his new wife.  He returns in September.

October  He leaves Antonina and is taken off to Europe to recover by his brother Anatoly.

He is granted a leave of absence by the Conservatory and starts to receive a monthly allowance from Nadezhda von Meck, a rich widow to whom he has been writing ever more intimately.  The money gives him some stability but is only given on the condition that the two never meet.


December  The Rococo Variations receives its premier in Moscow by the cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen, under the baton of Nicholay Rubinstein.

1878  In January, he retreats to San Remo to finish the Fourth Symphony and Yevgeny Onegin.

March-April sees him in Clarens with Iosef Kotek to write the Violin Concerto.

September  He returns to Moscow to resume his teaching duties but is forced to resign two months later because of ill health.

December  He goes to Florence, Italy, to begin work on a new opera, The Maid of Orleans.

1879  In March he returns to Moscow for the triumphant opening night of Yevgeny Onegin.

During the summer he takes a break from composition but starts his Second Piano Concerto in October.  December sees the premier of his First Suite and another revision of his Second Symphony.

1880  He composes the Serenade for Strings largely at Kamenka and von Meck’s estate at Brailov.  In complete contrast to the delicate and lovely serenade, he also writes his now infamous 1812 Overture.  In December he attends the first performance of his Capriccio Italien.

1881  In February, the final version of the Second Symphony in St Petersburg, followed by the premier of The Maid of Orleans.  He learns of the death of Nicholay Rubinstein in Paris, and travels there for the funeral.

In December the Violin Concerto finally wins its first performance in Vienna by his friend the concerto’s dedicate, Adolph Brodsky.  The critic Hanslick delivers a devastating review.

In honour of Nicholay Rubinstien, Tchaikovsky begins to sketch the Piano Trio.  He is offered the now vacant post of Head of the Moscow Conservatory (such was his esteem by this time in Russia) but Tchaikovsky turns the offer down.

1882  In June the Second Piano Concerto is premiered in Moscow by his great friend and fellow composer, Sergey Taneyev.

In September and back at Kamenka, he completes a new opera, Mazepa.  In August the 1812 Overture receives its first extended ovation and in October the Piano Trio is premièred.


1883  Between January and May, Tchaikovsky takes care of his niece, Tatyana, in Paris.  She has become pregnant illegitimately.  He is able to work on the final revision of his First Symphony, of which he continues to be very fond:  “A sin of my sweet youth!”  A performance of this early work is a great success.

In Kamenka during the summer months, he works on his Second Suite.

1884  February sees the premier of Mazepa.  While in Paris, he receives a summons to see the Tzar and to receive a prize from him.  Tchaikovsky sees this the as final word on his acceptance back to Russian society after the scandal of his marriage.  He is awarded the Order of St Vladimir.

In April he begins work on the Third Suite, keeping a fascinating diary of his daily work and social life.

Yevgeny Onegin is revived in St Petersburg with enormous public and critical success.


1885  In January, Tchaikovsky is overwhelmed by the public response to the Third Suite.  In March comes the premier of the Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra on which he had worked virtually in tandem with the Third Suite.  

In February/March he is busy revising the opera in which he has so much faith, Vakula the Smith, now reborn as Cherevikchki.

Between April and September he composes the Manfred Symphony, another piece, like Romeo and Juliet, suggested by Balakirev.

Still keen to work, he starts another new opera, The Enchantress.  

1886  Manfred  is premiered in Moscow.

In Paris he meets, and is delighted by, Gabrile Faure.

The summer is spent with his brother Anatole in Tiflis.  In August the sketches for The Enchantress are completed.

1887  Tchaikovsky finally overcomes his stage fright to conduct the first performance of Cherevichki.  This will start his career as a composer/conductor.

He completes the opera The Enchantress and conducts the premier in November.  By the end of the year he has completed and conducted his Fourth Suite in premiers both in St Peterburg and Moscow and is now ready to embark on his first tour as a conductor.

1888  His tour begins in Leipzig where he is delighted to meet Greig and also meets Brahms.  In Prague he enjoys the company of Dvorak, whom he invites to conduct in Russia.

Buoyed by the success of the tour and seeing how well known he is Europe, he returns to Russia and in May, begins to write the Fifth Symphony.  

He conducts in Britain for the first time at St James Hall.

In October he begins to sketch The Sleeping Beauty and returns to Prague in December to conduct Yevgeny Onegin.

Tchaikovsky again takes his increasingly confident baton to give the first performance of the Fifth Symphony in Moscow.

1889  In February he embarks on another European tour, becoming a great ambassador for Russian music wherever he goes.  He receives another boost to his finances when the Tzar settles a generous annuity on him.

In August he completes the score of The Sleeping Beauty.

In September he conducts another revival of Yevegny Onegin in Moscow with riotous success.

1890  In January, The Sleeping Beauty is premiered in St Petersburg.

T hands in pockets ca 1885

He starts to sketch a new opera, The Queen of Spades, which he will conduct with great success before the end of the year.

Nadezhda von Meck, after 13 years of continuous and intimate contact with the composer, suddenly withdraws her allowance and says that, although she loves him dearly, would write to him no more.  Tchaikovsky can live without the money but, despite his entreaties to her, he will never hear from her again.

In September he visits his brother, Anatoly, who now works permanently in Tiflis. Tchaikovsky is fond of his brother and his wife and he gives a concert of his own music there.

1891  In February, Tchaikovsky starts work on his last ballet, The Nutcracker,  a world away from his other two, being only two acts; the second set in the kingdom of sweets.

A concert in Paris is a success but while he waits there to set off on his first trip to the USA, he learns from  a Russian language paper that his sister, Sasha, is dead.  He contacts Modest immediately, who already knew but didn’t want to scupper Tchaikovsky’s tour.  He is devastated but, having already spent a large part of the advance, decided to see it through.

He is on conducting duties for the opening night of Carnegie Hall but also gives concerts in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  He is amazed by how well known he is over there and how often his pieces are performed.  “I’m better known here than in Russia,” he teases Modest.  “I’m a celebrity here!”  The press and the public are unanimous in their praise but many are surprised by his elegant manners and conservative attire.  “He looks like a Wall Street banker” wrote one.  And all of them guessed his age wrong;  “A man of about 60,” said one critic.  He was 52.

Back to Russia by June and starts to work on the companion piece for The Nutcracker, a similarly short opera called Iolanta.

In November comes the Moscow opening of The Queen of Spades, like Yevgeny Onegin, based on a story by Pushkin.

After conducting the premier of another orchestral ballad, The Voyevoda, he tries to destroy the score.

1892  January brings an early success with an all Tchaikovsky concert in Warsaw.  In Hamburg, he is impressed by a performance of Yevegny Onegin, conducted by Gustav Mahler.  Mahler described him as an elderly man, but very nice.

With work now completed on the Nutcracker, he compiles a suite of dances which Tchaikovsky himself premiers in St Petersburg in March.  Almost all the dances are encored.

In May, he settles into his last (and only real) home at Klin, about sixty miles north of Moscow.  Here he develops a meticulous attention to habits, like walking for exactly one hour every day.  He routinely walks much more and falls in love with the area.

There he begins sketching a Symphony in E flat major, which will never see the light of day in that form.

In December, Iolante and The Nutcracker are presented as a double bill.

He ends the year with a warm but unsentimental trip to see his old governess, Fanny Durbach. He promises to return. He never will.

1893  The year starts again with an all Tchaikovsky concert in Brussels.  He has his portrait painted by Nicholay Kuznyetsov.


In February, he starts to work on his final symphony, the Sixth Symphony in B minor.

June 1  He conducts the 4th Symphony in London.  Struggling with his English and trying to exhort the players to be less staid, he shouts, “More vodka!  More vodka!” at them.

June 12  He conducts Francesca da Rimini in Cambridge.

June 13  He receives an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.  Among his fellows are the composer Saint Saëns, whom he is pleased to see again, but Grieg is too ill to attend.


July 30  sees him back at Klin, trying to work the now abandoned E flat symphony into a third piano concerto.

After travelling to Hamburg to see a production of Iolante, he returns to St Petersburg to stay with his brother Modest.

October 28  He conducts the first performance of the Sixth Symphony (Pathetique)  which is warmly but not overwhelmingly received.

November 1  Tchaikovsky dines out with friends at Leiners Restaurant.

The events of the next few days are hotly disputed,  Modest recalls that at breakfast the next morning Tchaikovsky drinks a glass of unboiled water during an epidemic of cholera.  Yuri Davidov, present at Leiners the night before, insists that the glass of unboiled water was drunk there.

November 6 (5?)  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky dies, apparently from cholera.  His death certificate will confirm that he died of renal failure, brought on by cholera.

November 9  Tchaikovsky’s funeral takes place at Kazan catherdral St, Petersburg.  There is room for 6000 people;  60,000 apply for seats.


Thousands more turn out and line the streets.

A few days later, Eduard Napravnik. a close friend of Tchaikovsky’s, is seen to weep as he gives the Moscow premier of the last symphony.


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A Brief Chronology (i) 1840-1876

A brief and selected chronology of the major events in the life of Tchaikovsky from 1840-76


Six year old Pyotr Ilyich is seen on the far left of this photo.

1840  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is born to Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a prosperous mining engineer, and his second wife, of French extraction, Alexandra Andreyevna (nee Assier) in Votkinsk, some 800 miles east of St. Petersburg (then the country’s capital).  He has an older brother, Nicholay, born 1838, and a half sister, Zinaida, from his father’s first marriage, born in 1829.

1842  Birth of his sister Alexandra, known by the whole family as Sasha.

1843  Birth of his second brother, Ippolit.

1844  While their mother is away, Pyotr and Alexandra compose a short song, Our Mama In St Petersburg.  The Tchaikovsky family welcome a new governess, Fanny Durbach, who later recalled how warmly and simply she was greeted.  Although appointed to teach his brother and his cousin Lydia, young Pyotr, because of his gentle disposition and extreme sensitivity, soon becomes a favourite. She calls him, “a child of glass.”

1845  Begins piano lessons with Mariya Palchikova but her young student soon exceeds her own capabilities.

1848  Because of work, Ilya Petrovich has to take the family to St Petersburg.  Fanny Durbach leaves the family, to young Tchaikovsky’s great distress, but Pyotr (known as Petya) continues to write to her and will visit her forty years later.

1849  The Tchaikovsky family are uprooted again when Ilya is appointed as a manager of a metallurgical plant in Alapeyevsk.  Tchaikovsky falls ill, probably as a result of his separation from his mother in particular.

1850  Twin brothers Anatoly and Modest are born.  Tchaikovsky is destined to be closer to Modest than any other of his brothers; at least in part because of their shared homosexuality.

In September, Tchaikovsky is enrolled as a boarder in the prestigious Imperial School of Jurisprudence.  There are dramatic and pathetic scenes as his mother is driven away;  Tchaikovsky desperately tries to stop her by holding on to the wheels of the departing carriage.

1852  His family move back to St Petersburg to be closer to him.

1854  Tchaikovsky’s mother dies from cholera in June.  He is heartbroken and will remember the date in his diary and in letters to his family for the rest of his life.

Tchaikovsky’s first notated composition, a waltz for piano, is written.

1855  Tchaikovsky takes his first serious piano lessons with Rudolph Kundinger.  To his great credit, Kundinger was later to confess that although he thought the young Tchaikovsky to be a gifted student and an excellent sight reader, there were no signs then of the extraordinary talent which was later to make him world famous.

1856  Under the influence of his singing teacher, Luigi Piccioli, Tchaikovsky begins to attend the opera regularly.  Rossini was an early favourite but he was soon replaced by Mozart after a performance of Don Giovanni.  Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart was to last all his life, even calling him “The Christ of music!”

Encouraged by Piccioli, Tchaikovsky wrote his first published composition; a song called Mezza Notte.

1858  Tchaikovsky makes his first attempt to conduct the school choir.  It does not go well.  See what happens later when he first takes command of a full orchestra!

1859  He graduates from the school with an unremarkable grade and begins to earn his living for the first time.

1860  Sister Sasha marries Lev Davidov and she settles into life on his estate in Kamenka in the Ukraine.  Tchaikovsky was to write or draft many of his pieces there, in the warmth of the family, but with the isolation the family knew he needed.

By this time, Tchaikovsky is spending all his money on clothes – he was quite the man about town – and tickets to the theatre, concerts and the opera.  He was active sexually and one of his lifelong friends, the poet Alexey Apukhtin, was also a sexual partner.

1861  More than happy to get out of town and escape some of the scandal, he acts as a travelling companion and translator to a friend of his father’s.  This is his first trip outside Russia and they visit Germany, Belgium,  France and England.

Back in Russia by the Autumn, Tchaikovsky enrols in Nicolay Zaremba’s harmony classes at the Russian Musical Society, Russia’s first music school, founded just two years before by Anton Rubinstein and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna.  He works very hard, often late into the night, and produces far more work than is required.

T 1860s

1862  He enrols as a student in the new St Petersburg Conservatory of Music.

1863  In May he finally resigns his job to become a full time student, working with Zaremba and Rubinstein.  To boost his income he begins to teach piano.

1864  He spends the summer at a conspicuously wealthy friend’s house and writes his first orchestral piece;  The Storm, after the play by Ostrovsky.  He meets the composer Serov, whose opera Judith had much impressed him the year before.

1865  Ilya Tchaikovsky remarries.  The family, sceptical at first because of the age difference, grow to accept her and are glad to see their father happy.

The first public performance of any of his works, Characteristic Dances, is given by Johann Strauss II, no less.  He is now composing constantly and in November he reluctantly conducts the first performance of his Overture in F.   He will become a very competent conductor later in life – but not quite yet.

1866   He leaves St Peterburg to become a Professor of Harmony at the newly formed branch of the RMS.  By September, this has become Russia’s second music school and becomes the Moscow Conservatory, with Nicolay Rubinstein (Anton’s brother) as its Head.  He hears a performance of his revised Overture in F.

During the summer he works extensively on his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, but the strain of its composition costs him dearly.  He suffers a nervous collapse and from nightmares that he would die before finishing the piece.

1867  Tchaikovsky conducts a performance of his Characteristic Dances.  He amuses the musicians;  falling over music stands and completely forgetting his own music.  He believes his head might fall off unless he holds on to his beard!  This leads to a long absence from the conductor’s podium.

Begins to compose his first opera (of ten completed), The Voyevoda, while on holiday in Hapsal, Finland with his sister’s family.  Scherzo a la Russe becomes his Op. 1, No. 1 and the Souvenir de Hapsal is his Op. 2.

Vera Davidov, Lev’s sister, develops a crush on Tchaikovsky.

1868  His First Symphony is performed and is an immediate success.  He continues to work on the opera.  He is very attracted to Belgian opera singer Desiree Artot and the attraction seems mutual, at least for a time.

He meets Balakirev who for a time will have a significant role in Tchaikovsky’s music.

His summer is spent travelling in Europe with his friend, Vladimir Shilovsky who will, once again, remain a loyal and lifelong friend.

Begins work as a music critic as a way of raising funds.

1869  Despite there having been tentative talk of marriage (if only to silence the rumours of Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation) he learns that Desiree Artot marries an Spanish baritone.

Under Balakirev’s close supervision, he composes the first version of Romeo and Juliet, although it will receive two more revisions before it becomes the piece we know today.

Six Romances, his first set of songs, is published as his Op. 6.

He begins a new opera, Undine, while his first full opera, The Voyevoda  is staged in February in Moscow.

He meets and falls passionately in love with student Eduard Zak.

1870  Still awaiting news of the fate of Undine, he sets about his third opera, The Oprichnik.  He hears that Undine  has been rejected by the management of the Imperial Theatres and destroys the score.

Romeo and Juliet is performed but greeted with apathy.

Again, under close supervision, he reworks Romeo and Juliet.  He spends the summer is Paris where Shilovsky is ill.

1871  The first all Tchaikovsky concert is planned.  Having no money for an orchestra, Tchaikovsky quickly writes his String Quartet No. 1, although there is no sign of haste in the music and it remains a popular work, with the lovely Andante Cantabile often being performed separately, or sometimes with a full string orchestra.  Best to stick to the original.

Continues his work on The Oprichnik.

Spends the summer at Kamenka; most probably it was here, playing with the children, that the idea of Swan Lake occurs to him.  This most famous of ballets will only be performed once in his lifetime; it is just too complex and score for the ballet orchestra.  It will be revived (and completely restaged) by Marius Pepita after the composer’s death.

1872  He finishes work on The Oprichkik and writes the first version of his Second Symphony in C minor, known as the ‘Little Russian’, because of its use of a Ukranian folk melody in the Finale.   A performance of Romeo and Juliet meets with more success but Tchaikovsky will still make another revision.  He starts work as a music and theatre critic for the Russian Register, again, mainly because his funds were low.

T 1872

1873  His Second Symphony is premiered in Moscow and is received with much enthusiasm but the first movement is criticised and he will revise it.  He composes music for Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden and weeks later it is performed, again in Moscow.

He spends the summer at Kamenka, then on to Nizy, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France; his funds lamentably low (as he keeps telling everyone!).

In November, Eduard Zak commits suicide.  It is commonly thought that the love theme from Romeo and Juliet was composed with him in mind and Tchaikovsky is heartbroken.

The Tempest is sketched while in Usovo.

1874  He writes his Second String Quartet and there follows an immediate performance in Moscow.  Again on a shoe string, he makes a tour of Italy.  In April,  The Oprichnik is first performed but is not a success and Tchaikovsky tries to destroy the score.

He starts work on a new opera, Vakula the Smith, which he will revise much later and claim this to be his best opera.  It is still performed now, usually under the title The Tzarina’s Slippers.

He composes his First Piano Concerto, the now world famous piece and from this his international reputation will begin to grow.

1875  Tchaikovsky plays the sketches of the piano concerto to Nicolay Rubinstein, seeking advice on the virtuoso piano writing.  Instead, Rubinstein turns on the piece, calling it “bad and tawdry” and derivative.  No longer a student seeking guidance on composition, Tchaikovsky in naturally upset and declares, “I shall not change a single note!”  (Although he did, and Rubinstein later changed his mind about the music and became a strong advocate.)

During the summer, he composes (in great haste) his Third Symphony in D major.  Also in Kamenka he begins to start work on Swan Lake.

Hans von Bulow gives the world premier of the First Piano Concerto with great success, in Boston, USA.

1876  While in Paris, he sees a production of Carmen by the now prematurely deceased Bizet.  It has a profound effect on Tchaikovsky and his music is to be affected by it for the rest of his life.

In March, the premier of his Third String Quartet takes place in Moscow.

In August, in his role as a music critic, he attends Wagner first ever Ring Cycle in Bayreuth.  It does not impress him.  He meets Liszt.

Alarmed by the rumours of his homosexuality reaching his family in Kamenka, he decides that the best course of action would be to marry.

Throughout October and November he composes his symphonic fantasy, Francesca da Rimini, clearly influenced by Liszt.  And, as if that weren’t enough for one year, in December he writes the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra.

T letter

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Suite no 3 in G, Op 55: Theme and Variations

It is very fitting that my first article on this site should be about one of my all-time favourite Tchaikovsky pieces.  But it is not as popular now as it should be.  Don’t be at all intimidated  if you are new to the world of classical music.  This is not the solemn, profound composer of the later symphonies; this music is a delight and very easy to follow.  And it’s great fun!  The fact that I choose to write about it first should give you some idea how evangelical I am about it.

“I had intended to write a symphony,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend and fellow composer Taneyev at the time he was working on the suite, “but the title is of no importance.”

So  what we have here, in effect, is a Tchaikovsky symphony, in a lighter vein, chronologically set between Nos. 4 and 5 of the enumerated, formal symphonies.  It was composed at the family home of his sister, Alexandra and her husband Lev, where he is able to take part in family activities (and endless games of cards) during the summer of 1884.  The composer (a compulsive diary writer at the best of times) wrote us a detailed, day by day account of its composition, which makes fascinating reading, and reports delightedly on the evening of 4 June, “Finished the Suite!”, although its orchestration would take another month or so.  He also frequently frets about his terrible luck at Vint, a card game of which he was especially fond.

It is roughly the same length as his First and Second symphonies, although not as weighty as either, with a first movement in sonata form, a slow waltz as a second movement; a Scherzo of such charm and grace – Taneyev described it as “a tiny Lilliputian army… on parade” – and none of these movements should put off any new listener from listening to the Suite in its entirety but my focus here is on the Finale:  Tema con Variazione, Theme and Variations.  This is a real gem.

It is often supposed that Tchaikovsky had little sense of humour.  In truth, both in real life and in his music, he very often displays an impish sense of fun and given to childish outbursts of hilarity.  (He was always very popular with children.)   And to find his sense of fun at work here, we have to look no further than its dedicate,  Max Ermanndsdorfer, a German who was a great fan of his music (and even conducted the second performance of this Suite) but was constantly bemoaning the fact that Tchaikovsky would have been far better off had he been born and studied in Germany!  Such was Tchaikovsky’s fondness for the older man that he laughed off the suggestion as ridiculous but well meant and dedicated this piece to him.  And that is significant because each odd numbered variation (roughly speaking) is in a contrapuntal, sometimes Teutonic style, very much favoured by Bach and many Germans after him.  The point is that Tchaikovsky’s counterpoint in this movement is often very heavy handed – deliberately so – but written with such great affection that nobody should expect too much seriousness of intent here;  even when it sounds ‘deep’,  it is just playful and witty.

And so to the music.  I do recommend that the reader should try to follow this description while listening to the music itself;  YouTube has many fine examples, so it is very easy to find an good example (I do so at the end of this essay).  Or listen to it and never read a word of what I’ve written below!  I’m sure the music is its own advocate but I do hope that listeners will find what follows  helpful in following this rich and endlessly inventive score.

Theme:   A simple, almost Mozartian melody, played on the string section only.  The structure is ternary, ABA, where A is a simple statement of the theme and B is an altered statement in a new key.  Section A played again returns us to the original tune.

Variation (i)  Now the theme is played pizzicato (plucked rather than bowed) in the lower strings.  This being an odd numbered variation, counterpoint, an exquisitely constructed and refined series of phrases for the upper woodwind, is the central focus.  Tchaikovsky has been admired by many composers (Britten, for example) for his use of simple scales; note here, if you can, that the flute plays nothing more than a rising scale when it first appears.  The variation again being in ABA form, you’ll get a chance to listen out for it again when the A section is repeated.  It is a delight.

Variation (ii)  A dizzying, whirling scherzo, where the theme is very much still intact and audible, but this time decorated and speeded up on the violins.  Again, for readers who might be new to form, this is in ternary, ABA, structure; you’ll here the now frantic melody quite clearly, followed by a bit of something new, then another statement of A at the end.

Variation (iii)  The flute plays the tune this time; under it the woodwind section sounds playful counterpoint (this is an odd numbered variation after all!)  Short, simple and charming, and needs no further comment here.

Variation (iv)  The cellos now play a rather more solemn version of the tune, echoed by the winds.  The B section is longer this time, with the trombones even sounding the Dies Irae from the Requiem Mass.  But there is no room to dwell on that in this melodic variation and the longing cellos return us to a mood of quiet but never deep melancholy.

Variation (v)  This is a terrific, short variation.  Very Teutonic sounding (almost like a miniature fugue) it is, none the less, Tchaikovsky with his tongue firmly in his cheek.  Aimed squarely and very affectionately at Mr Ermanndsdorfer, in my view.  You have to keep your ears open for where the tune is, although this whole variation is for the strings only.

Variation (vi)  And in compete contrast, this has the feel of a Cossack dance.  The cellos play a version of the theme, accompanied by accented chords from other members of the orchestra.  The violins have their own, quieter B section but it isn’t long before the cellos return, fff, and with the snare drum now further accenting the chords, the variation is brought to a thunderous conclusion.

Variations (vii) & (viii)  A woodwind chorale (again quite Teutonic in origin) is followed quickly by high strings playing tremelando – repeating the same note as quickly as possible – to accompany the beautiful cor anglais variation which is to follow.  A place of quiet contemplation after the fun of what has gone before.  Beautiful.

Variation (ix)  A return to almost Cossack mode and in a new key entirely (A major), this variation concentrates on the opening contours of the first part of the original melody and brings the whole orchestra to a thrilling climax, in preparation for what is to follow…

Variation (x)  A short cadenza for solo violin brings us into the slow waltz variation.  Listen out for the echoes on the clarinet and oboe, and the lovely bass sound of the bassoon with a sweeping little gesture.  The B section is brought in by a trill on the violin and that beautiful little sweep from the bassoon.  Now the woodwinds take over and there is some unusual orchestration here; the lower woodwinds, cor anglais and bassoons make an almost unique sound, before we are lifted off for a return to the solo violin returning with a hopping accompaniment.  Again, notice the little touches from the woodwinds, just two notes each, then a final trill and flourish lead us into…

Variation (xi)  The violins, now playing together, prepare us for what is to come.  This variation, although lovely in itself, may sound a little bit like a bridge section to lead us to the Finale.  The strings play a slightly plangent variation on our now familiar tune, reaching a climax, and then falling away into the cellos and basses descending into almost stasis.  As soon as you hear the drum roll, soft at first, you will know we’ve hit the final section and we’re off to the races…

Variation (xii)  Finale:  Polacca, a Polish dance in 3/4 time.  ’Our’ tune will take its time to emerge as the orchestral crescendo is expertly handled.  You’ll be in no doubt when we reach the Polacca but where, you may ask, has the theme gone?  Tchaikovsky is very clever here and to understand that this final theme actually belongs in this set of variations, you may need to see the music; it actually begins just before the Polacca does; those notes, which sound like introductory ones, are actually the contours of the theme.  But this is a technical detail and you shouldn’t worry too much about it;  you’ll be swept up by the music anyway.

I hardly know what to say about this absolutely thrilling and exhilarating final section.  It is a locus classicus of scoring and those who are familiar with Tchaikovsky when he lets his hair down will need no further words from me.  If you are listening to the music as you read this, then please stop reading now, and just take joy in this most brilliant of Finales.  Once again, the music will descend into nothing and once again, Tchaikovsky will revive it.  The whole movement is in 3/4 but, if you have any experience of beating time, I challenge you to keep pace with its cross rhythms and syncopations.  Just try repeating 1-2-3 during the transitions and see how far you get.  A truly thrilling coda follows, never overblown, and the music ends joyously.

The whole Suite was far more popular in the composer’s own lifetime than it is now.  It seems to have fallen out of favour, although why that may be so is a complete mystery.  It is a ‘light’ symphony, with the Theme and Variations lasting longer than the rest of the Suite put together.  Indeed, the Finale was often played as a single piece.  Tchaikovsky approved this and conducted it many times in concerts all over the world.  It is masterful.  I cannot recommend it more highly.

The Suite was first performed in January 1885 in St. Petersburg under the eminent conductor and pianist Hans von Bulow (who had given the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Boston, some ten years before.)   Max Ermanndsdorfer conducted its Moscow premier a few days later.  It was a greeted sensationally  on both occasions with press and public alike, Tchaikovsky himself writing, “I have never before experienced such a triumph.   I saw that then entire mass of the audience was moved, and grateful to me.”  His friend and critic, Herman Laroche, declaring this to be the real music of the future.

Listen to the whole Suite, by all means, but consider the last movement as essential listening for any lover of Tchaikovsky or a glorious introduction for someone as yet unfamiliar with his music.

Here is a YouTube link to the entire Suite; the Finale begins at c. 21.01


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What Pyotr Ilyich had to say…

Tchaik 1885

The idea that one day people will try to probe into the private world of my thoughts and feelings, into everything that I have so carefully hidden throughout my life… is very sad and unpleasant

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1880

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January 28, 2014 · 1:49 pm