Monthly Archives: November 2015

A Guide to Sonata Form

Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works Michael Paul Smith

Now don’t go running away…!  In order to write about much of Tchaikovsky’s music I have to let you know something about how large scale works are built up.  I promise you, if you understand sonata form, it will greatly enhance your enjoyment of many pieces of classical music.

And, as an added bonus, I shall try to tell what the difference is between a sonata, a concerto and a symphony.  It’s not difficult, I promise you…

A symphony is for orchestra, usually in four movements (fast-slow-very fast-fast, at its most basic level).  That was the pattern established by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven and continued to be used by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Grieg, among many others; so we really are talking about a huge range of music here.

A concerto is music for orchestra with a solo instrument or instruments showing off in the foreground.  A piano concerto…

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The Tchaikovsky Problem

Any Tchaikovsky scholar is bound to know the work of British musicologist Dr David Brown.  He wrote a 4-volume study of the life and work of Tchaikovsky which took him sixteen years to complete.  It was seminal and nobody had ever undertaken anything like it before;  even the Russians said, “We have nothing like it.”

So, Dr Brown must have been a big Tchaikovsky fan?  Well, actually no – not at first.  David had been asked to write a single volume study of the composer before but had turned it down.  Then he was asked to write the Tchaikovsky entry in the prestigious Grove’s Dictionary of Music, and the temptation was too great.  So Dr Brown, who previously had thought of Tchaikovsky as only a gifted tune-smith with a talent for orchestral colour, set about researching his subject and his music.  And the most remarkable thing happened – the more he knew about the composer himself and the more he came to understand just how great a craftsman Tchaikovsky really was, Dr Brown became intrigued.  So much so that when he next spoke to his publisher, he said he would write a single volume after all.  Well, that single volume became four, and the two years he had asked to write it became sixteen.  The work is still unsurpassed in detail and ambition.  I think it superb.

I have gone into some detail in this story (perhaps too much so) to press home a point:  That Dr Brown’s initial view on Tchaikovsky was, and in some cases still is, the dominant view of high academia.  When I was growing up it was perfectly possible to say you liked Tchaikovsky but only in the sense of a guilty pleasure – the way one might admit to enjoying the music of ABBA.

I recently wrote a review of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto which I had seen on YouTube.  In it, I used the expression, ‘this much underrated concerto’ and as soon as I had posted it the YouTube brigade shot me down.  ‘It’s one of the most popular in the world!’ one person yelled at me.  Similar comments followed.  But the point I was making wasn’t that it wasn’t popular, but that it was underrated, still, by many performers and musicians alike.  ‘It’s just a string of pretty tunes’, some might say.  It is but it’s so much more than that.  It is an artfully crafted piece just as much as it is tuneful.  I will write about it at length in time but for anyone impatient to hear this marvellous music, you won’t find better advocates than Janine Jansen and Paavo Jarvi on this YouTube clip.  If you don’t fall in love with this, then you and I could never be friends…!

More to follow on this topic…

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