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