About this Recording
8.550517 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 1 / Hamlet Overture

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

Symphony No.1 in G Minor, Op.13 "Winter Daydreams"
Hamlet, Op. 67 (Fantasy Overture)


Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.

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 course 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 he would, like his contemporaries Musorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another 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 by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, 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 only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.

The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally accepted.

Among the Russian nationalists C├ęsar Cui was an acerbic critic, and his view of Tchaikovsky's graduation cantata, a setting of Schiller's Ode to Joy, as very weak was not encouraging. His Overture in F, however, won greater success, and the approval of the Rubinstein brothers. After graduation Tchaikovsky took up his position at the Conservatory in Moscow, with an initial salary of fifty roubles a month, increased when the Conservatory was officially inaugurated in September. It was with the encouragement of Nikolay Rubinstein, now his guide and mentor, that he started work on his first symphony, working on it throughout the summer. At the end of August he visited St. Petersburg and showed the unfinished symphony to his former teachers, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolay Zaremba, both of whom regarded it with disfavour, as they did when Tchaikovsky again sought their approval during the Christmas holidays. The symphony was eventually introduced to the public piecemeal by Nikolay Rubinstein, who conducted a performance of the Schezo m Moscow in December, 1866 and the Adagio and Scherzo in St. Petersburg the following February. The whole symphony was eventually performed in Moscow a year later. Its composition had been fraught with difficulties, due, in part, to the irregular hours Tchaikovsky kept as a lodger in Nikolay Rubinstein's house and the necessity, all too often, of working late at night on the score. This had resulted in insomnia, hallucinations, a recurrence of what he referred to as apoplectic fits, and in July a nervous break-down. The symphony was dedicated to Nikolay Rubinstein, revised for publication in 1874 and corrected once more for a new edition in 1888.

The titles provided by Tchaikovsky for the first two movements of the symphony are largely irrelevant to a listener. The first, in which many have suggested the influence of Mendelssohn, carries the title Daydreams of a Winter Journey, the first theme emerging from the mist of the violins, played by flute and bassoon, and a second equally Russian theme introduced by the clarinet in a movement of classical sonata-form structure. The Adagio, which won particular approval from the Moscow audience at its performance in 1868, has the title Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. Here the trumpets and timpani of the first movement have no part to play, as the strings introduce the slow movement, leading to an overtly Russian oboe melody. The Scherzo, which has no other title, was adapted from the composer's C sharp minor Piano Sonata, with a new Trio section, while the final movement, with its mournful woodwind opening, is based on a folk-song that also lies behind the two principal themes that follow. In the last section of the finale the introduction re-appears briefly before the energetic conclusion.

Fantasy Overture Hamlet is the third of Tchaikovsky's works based on Shakespeare. In 1869 he had tackled Romeo and Juliet, followed in 1873 by The Tempest. Hamlet was written in 1888 and dedicated to Grieg, although it might have been suggested by the French actor Lucien Guitry, who asked for incidental music for the play for his final benefit performance in St. Petersburg in 1891. The incidental music eventually included material from the Fantasy-overture, which had its first performance in St. Petersburg in November 1888. The work was received coolly, while Balakirev, in private correspondence with the composer, objected to the intrusion of Shepherds from Vladimir at one point and what he considered the triviality of the love-theme-Hamlet pays Ophelia compliments and hands her an ice-cream. The overture is scored for a full orchestra with piccolo, pairs of flutes and oboes, cor anglais, pairs of clarinets and bassoons, four horns, cornets, trumpets, trombones and tuba, timpani, a percussion section that includes snare-drum, tamtam, bass drum and cymbals and the usual strings. Its opening is marked Lento lugubre, leading to a dramatic Allegro vivace. As in the earlier works based on Shakespeare, there is no attempt at a detailed narrative programme, a fact regretted by one critic at least at the first performance.

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