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8.555923 - TCHAIKOVSKY: 1812 Overture / Romeo and Juliet / Capriccio Italien
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Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 • Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture (1880)

Dance of the Tumblers • Marche Slave, Op. 31 • 1812 Overture, Op. 49


Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, the second son, by the second wife, of a mining engineer, manager of a metal works. At home he showed musical precocity and in 1848 he had his first experience of school in St Petersburg. Two years later he entered the School of Jurisprudence, where he remained for nine years, later entering the government service. In 1863 he resigned from his position in the Ministry of Justice and became a student at the newly established Conservatory in St Petersburg, following this with appointment to the staff of the new Conservatory in Moscow. He remained on the staff of the Moscow Conservatory until 1878, when a pension from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he corresponded for years but whom he never met, gave him independence to continue a career as a composer. He died when he seemed at the height of his powers, in 1893.


This bald account of the course of Tchaikovsky’s life ignores aspects that caused him a great deal of misery. The departure of his beloved governess in 1848 and the death of his mother in 1854 moved him deeply, affecting a nature that had already proved morbidly sensitive and diffident, while an imprudent and short-lived marriage caused him much anxiety. Tchaikovsky was well enough liked by his contemporaries at the School of Jurisprudence and was never one to withdraw from social contact. Nevertheless, as a musician, he was easily depressed by harsh criticism and remained intensely critical of what he wrote. His death in 1893 has been variously explained as suicide or accident. It was officially attributed to cholera, whether the result of carelessness or a reckless disregard for his own life.


The Italian Capriccio was written in 1880. Tchaikovsky had started the work in Rome, where he spent part of the winter of 1879/1880 with his brother Modest and the latter’s young pupil Kolya. Originally envisaged as an Italian Suite on folk melodies, the work was modelled to some extent on Glinka’s Spanish fantasias. The Capriccio opens with a fanfare that echoes the sound that the composer heard every morning in Rome from the barracks next to his hotel. Four other Italian melodies are used, the last a Neapolitan tarantella known as Ciccuzza. The work received its first performance in Moscow in December, 1880, under the direction of Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory.


In 1868 Tchaikovsky had written a symphonic poem Fatum and this had elicited from Balakirev, in St Petersburg, harsh and detailed criticism. Balakirev was the self-appointed leader of the group of nationalist composers, Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. He had taken over the direction of the Russian Music Society concerts in St Petersburg after the resignation of their founder, Anton Rubinstein, in 1867. In 1869 Balakirev was dismissed by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, and Tchaikovsky gallantly published an article deploring this. Tchaikovsky’s defence of Balakirev and his ready acceptance of the criticism of Fatum led to the renewal of Balakirev’s influence over him, and it was from him that the idea of writing an orchestral work on the subject of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet came. Balakirev was always ready to offer criticism of the music of his contemporaries, but was equally generous with ideas.


The story of Romeo and Juliet is too well known to need repetition. Tchaikovsky makes no attempt to follow the events as they occur in Shakespeare’s play. There is the solemnity of Friar Laurence, whose well-intentioned intervention is the indirect cause of the tragedy, a theme recreating the traditional enmity of the houses of Montague and Capulet and a sensuous melody expressing the love of Romeo and Juliet. The overture is in traditional sonata form, the exposition, with its principal thematic material, followed by a central development and a final recapitulation, in which love ends in death. The original Overture was revised in 1870, on the suggestion of Balakirev, and underwent further revision in 1880, when it became an Overture Fantasy.


Tchaikovsky’s incidental music for the play The Snow Maiden, by Alexander Ostrovsky, was written for the first staging of the work in Moscow in 1873. The fairy tale tells the story of the Snow Maiden, who seeks human warmth, only to melt, as Spring comes. The Dance of the Tumblers is part of an entertainment for the Tsar in a work that combined drama, music and ballet.

The Marche Slave was completed early in October 1876, in response to a request from Nikolay Rubinstein for a work to be played at a Moscow concert in aid of victims of the Turks in the Balkans, where Montenegro and Serbia had declared war against Turkey, and Russian pro-Slav feelings were running high. The original title of the work was the Serbo-Russian March, and Tchaikovsky used in it fragments of three Serbian melodies, with a reference to the Russian Imperial anthem before the reappearance of material of the opening in a final, third section. The anthem appears in fuller form at the climax of a march that was well calculated to appeal to the patriotic emotions of the day.

About the 1812 Overture Tchaikovsky was diffident, describing it, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, as “Without any serious merits”. The overture was written in response to an official commission from Nikolay Rubinstein, and was to celebrate the opening of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, an event timed to coincide with the Moscow Exhibition of Industry and the Arts and the silver jubilee of the Tsar. Since the building of the Cathedral was designed to commemorate the events of 1812, when the armies of Napoleon had been forced to retreat from Moscow, Tchaikovsky chose to make his overture a graphic description of the conflict, with the French represented by the Marseillaise and Russia by an Orthodox chant and a folk-song, and, in final victory, by “God save the Tsar”. The piece, therefore, aptly honoured a royal occasion as well as a religious and patriotic one. The inclusion of cannon in the scoring has made the overture a popular spectacle.


Keith Anderson

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