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8.550518 - TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 3 / The Tempest

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Symphony No.3 in D Major, Op. 29
The Tempest, Op. 18


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 often 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 Mussorgsky, 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.

Tchaikovsky wrote his third symphony, the only one in a major key, in the summer of 1875, sketching much of it while staying at the estate of Vladimir Shilovsky at Usovo. A month later he moved to Nizy, where in the space of ten days he orchestrated the last two movements. Then, after breaking his journey in Moscow and in Kiev, he went to stay with his sister and brother-in-law at Verbovka, where he was surrounded by members of his own family. In two weeks he had finished scoring the symphony, and felt ready to start on a new commission, the ballet Swan Lake. The symphony was performed at a Russian Music Society concert in Moscow in November, with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting. The fee for the right of first performance was 300 roubles. In February the next year there was a performance in St. Petersburg, well received by the critic Laroche, an enthusiastic supporter, although his criticism was misinterpreted by Tchaikovsky. Even Cui had something good to say about it, although he had to add that more was expected of the composer. Performance at the Crystal Palace concerts under Sir Augustus Manns seems to have provided the symphony with its inappropriate nickname, the Polish, a reference to the direction Tempodi Polacca that prefaces the last movement. The symphony was dedicated to Vladimir Shilovsky.

The introduction to the first movement of the symphony is marked Moderato assai, Tempo di marcia funebre, the funeral march proceeding with increased pace towards the Allegro vivace, its principal theme announced by woodwind and strings. The second movement, Alla Tedesca, is in fact a waltz with a colourfully orchestrated Trio. At the heart of the symphony is the slow movement, a pastoral idyll, evocatively opened by the woodwind. The Scherzo, with its fragmented melody and wonderfully orchestrated Trio, against a held French horn note, is followed by a more formal D major finale, its Polish dance rhythm emphatically introduced at the outset, but later the excuse for less inspired moments.

Tchaikovsky, in common with other artists and composers of the nineteenth century, found a ready source of inspiration in Shakespeare. The suggestion for a musical treatment of The Tempest came from Vladimir Stasov, mentor of the Mighty Handful of nationalist composers to which Tchaikovsky never committed himself. He wrote the work rapidly, over a period of some eleven days in the autumn of 1873. The first performance, under Nikolay Rubinstein, took place on 19th December, 1873, at a Russian Music Society concert.

The programme of The Tempest (Burya), Opus 18, described as a fantasia for orchestra, is derived from Stasov and was printed with the published score: The sea. Ariel, spirit of the air, obeying the will of the magician Prospero, raises a storm. Wreck of the ship bringing Ferdinand. The enchanted isle. First timid feelings of love of Miranda and Ferdinand. Ariel, Caliban. The lovers succumb to their passion. Prospero deprives himself of his magic power and leaves the island. The sea.

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