About this Recording
8.573543 - TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Piano Music - 12 Morceaux / Souvenir de Hapsal / Valse-Scherzos / Capriccio / Valse-caprice (Mami Shikimori)

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Piano Music


Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Pyotr Il’yich 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 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 allegedly 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 when, in 1890, perhaps under financial pressure from her children, 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 provoked further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of an impending homosexual scandal. Officially, however, his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water. 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, largely serving an amateur market. His first piano piece, a waltz, was written in 1854, when he was fourteen, and dedicated to Anastasia Petrova, the family governess; his last piano pieces were composed in the year of his death.

The Twelve Pieces of moderate difficulty, Op. 40, were completed in April 1878, during a stay at his married sister Sasha Davidova’s estate at Kamenka. The preceding year had brought great difficulties. Tchaikovsky’s marriage in July 1877 and his immediate separation from his wife, had led him to seek refuge abroad, and now there were divisions in his own family, with Sasha at first supporting Tchaikovsky’s wife, Antonina Milyukova, before disillusion aligned her with Tchaikovsky’s brothers against Antonina. The new piano pieces were written between 1876 and 1878 and were published in January 1879 with a dedication to Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest.

The first of the twelve pieces, clearly designed, as the title indicates, for the amateur market, is a rapid G major Etude. This is followed by a ternary form G minor Chanson triste and a solemn C minor Funeral March of characteristic rhythm, with an A flat major central contrasting section. The fourth and fifth pieces are Mazurkas, both with contrasting central trio sections. The sixth piece is an A minor Song without Words, with echoes of Mendelssohn, leading to an A minor piece, given the title Au village, coming to life in its Allegro molto vivace C major second half. The eighth and ninth pieces are Waltzes, followed by an A minor Danse russe that had found a place in the ballet Swan Lake, and a D minor Scherzo The final piece, the A flat major Rêverie interrompue (Interrupted Dream) introduces a Venetian folksong, transcribed by Tchaikovsky in 1877.

In the summer of 1867 Tchaikovsky had set out with his brother Anatoly on a promised holiday in Finland. Shortage of money compelled them to seek the hospitality of Tchaikovsky’s sister Sasha’s mother-in-law at Hapsal (Haapsalu) on the Estonian coast, where Anatoly’s twin brother Modest, ten years Tchaikovsky’s junior, was spending the summer. It was here that Tchaikovsky became unwillingly involved with Sacha’s sister-in-law, Vera Davidova, an entanglement that left Tchaikovsky accusing himself of misanthropy, while Vera Davidova’s feelings could only be strenghened by his dedication of three piano pieces to her, Souvenir de Hapsal, Op. 2. The first of these, Ruines dun château, paints an initially sombre picture of the ruined building, marked Adagio misterioso, framing a livelier Allegro molto ending in a cadenza, before the return of the solemn E minor opening. The second piece, a Scherzo, based on an earlier work, has a contrasting trio section, with the return of the Scherzo leading to a brief, halting quasi andante, before the final sprint to the finish. The group ends with the well-known Chant sans paroles.

Tchaikovsky’s Valse-scherzo, Op. 7, was published early in 1870 and dedicated to his sister Sasha Davidova. The period had brought its own disturbances to Tchaikovsky’s life. His perhaps unwitting flirtation with Vera Davidova at Hapsal had been followed in 1868 by his declared interest in the singer Désirée Artôt, with whom he contemplated marriage, a project that came to nothing when she married another soloist in the Italian opera company with which she had visited Russia. Possible complications arose when, during the course of his relationship with Désirée Artôt, Vera Davidova visited Moscow. The first Valse-scherzo is a work of some charm, a characteristic salon piece. It is followed here by a second Valse-scherzo, a much less substantial piece, written in 1889, a year that brought successful conducting engagements abroad. The previous year had brought a meeting, after twenty years, with Désirée Artôt, in Berlin, the occasion for the composition of a group of French songs.

The Capriccio in G flat, Op. 8, was published in 1870, a work that makes some demands on a performer. It was dedicated to the German pianist Karl Klindworth, who taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1868 to 1884 and did much to promote Tchaikovsky’s music abroad. Tchaikovsky’s Valse-caprice, Op. 4, was written in 1868, and dedicated to Tchaikovsky’s Conservatory colleague, the pianist Anton Door, who gave the first performance.

Keith Anderson

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