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8.570787 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Seasons (The) / Piano Sonata in C-Sharp Minor (Rachkovsky)
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Piotr Il’Yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
The Seasons • Sonata in C sharp minor

 

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky retains his position as the most popular of all Russian composers. His music offers obvious superficial charms in its winning melodies and vivid orchestral colours. At the same time his achievement is deeper than this, offering an early synthesis between the Russian and the cosmopolitan.

Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studies there in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official career.

For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky’s own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous breakdown.

Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

Tchaikovsky’s sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and has given rise to further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open scandal even in court circles. Officially his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water, and accounts of the treatment he underwent in his final brief illness are well documented. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.

Throughout his life Tchaikovsky wrote music for the piano, much of it to supply the demands of an amateur market. The Seasons, Op. 37b, consists of twelve pieces written between December 1875 and November 1876 in response to a commission from Nikolay Bernard, editor of the periodical Nouvelliste. Each monthly issue was to contain an appropriate piece by Tchaikovsky, who had instructed his servant to remind him when each piece was due, an indication of a certain reluctance towards the commission on his part. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s attitude may have been towards a bread-and-butter project, the work has much charm. The series of pieces, each with its appropriate French title, takes the listener through the year, from the fireside in January, through Carnival, the song of the lark, April snowdrops and the nights of May, to the barcarolle of June, the cutter of hay, harvest, hunting, October autumn, the sleigh-bells of the November troika and to Christmas. The pieces offer occasional challenges to the technical proficiency of the amateurs for whom they were intended.

Tchaikovsky’s Sonata in C sharp minor, Op. 80, was written in St Petersburg during his final months before graduation at the Conservatory and immediately before his new appointment in 1866 to the parallel institution in Moscow. The spirit of Schumann hangs over the sonata, not always to its advantage. The first movement opens with a series of solid chords, marked Allegro con fuoco and echoed in two Andante bars, before the appearance of a lyrical theme. The E major second subject is introduced over a sustained pedal note, with the closing theme of the exposition over a triplet crotchet accompaniment, resulting in cross-rhythms. In the recapitulation the second subject returns in D flat major, the enharmonic equivalent on C sharp major, with the original key restored in conclusion. The A major second movement offers a simple melody, its progress briefly disturbed by a Presto flurry of notes, before it resumes its course, to move forward to a version of the theme in the middle register, with a repeated accompanying rhythmic pattern above. The theme appears in a more elaborate form as the movement draws to a close. C sharp minor returns with the Allegro vivo, a scherzo movement that Tchaikovsky was to use again, transposed down a semitone, in his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13. The central Trio, in A major, is an insubstantial piece and finds no place in the symphony. The sonata ends with an Allegro vivo in which the presence of Schumann, not always at his best, is again evident. The second subject is marked Tranquillo ma energico and is presented in a series of chords that, like other passages in the sonata, do not always lie easily under the hands. The themes return, after the central development, in recapitulation and the sonata ends in the positive key of D flat major. The work was published posthumously, in 1900. It was written very early in Tchaikovsky’s career as a musician, but nevertheless, in spite of certain infelicities, has much to be said for it, not least in the signs it offers of what was to come.

Keith Anderson


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