Tchasing Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a

Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake (1877) was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premiere, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score. The ballet itself was dropped from the repertoire after 1883 and was only revived in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, and even then in modified form.

By 1888, with his reputation firmly established, such shabby treatment would have been unthinkable. The Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg commissioned Sleeping Beauty, promising the composer a lavish staging paid for through the personal patronage of Tsar Alexander III.

The story, based on a French seventeenth century tale, was the work of the director of the Imperial Theaters. The famous choreographer and ballet master, Marius Petipa, specified the details of the individual numbers, including tempo, meter and duration.

Through Tchaikovsky’s imaginative orchestration and Petipa’s spectacular staging and choreography Sleeping Beauty became the model for the Russian imperial style. The story was definitely secondary or, as Tchaikovsky commented: “Going to the Ballet for the plot is like going to the opera for the recitatives.” Sleeping Beauty was premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in January, 1890. The Tsar, who was at the premiere, was less than enthusiastic: “Very nice” was his tepid comment. However the rest of the audience – and the rest of the world – thought otherwise.

As in many suites derived from ballets, the sequence of numbers in this suite does not follow the sequence in the ballet. The order emanates, rather, from the musical sensibility and taste of the compiler of the suite. The Suite, Op.66a opens with the original introduction but concludes with the celebrated “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” from the middle of Act I, as courtiers celebrate Princess Aurora’s sixteenth birthday. Nevertheless, this Suite includes signature moments from the Ballet, despite the non-chronological rearrangement of the dances.

The Introduction foreshadows the curse of the evil fairy Carabosse, Example 1 immediately followed by the mitigating blessing of the Lilac Fairy. Example 2 The “Rose” Adagio is one of the most famous moments in the Ballet during which the Princess Aurora is courted by four suitors, each bearing a rose; she remains on pointe as she is slowly handed off from one to the other.Example 3Le chat botte et la chatte blanche” (Puss in Boots and the White Cat) appear on stage scrapping, among the fairytale characters invited to Aurora’s wedding in Act 3. Example 4 The “Panorama” is the opening number to Act 2, showing the forest around Aurora’s castle where everyone has been asleep for a hundred years. Example 5 And finally comes the so-called “Sleeping Beauty Waltz” from Act 1. Example 6
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840-1893
Paolo and Francesca by Gustave Doré
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32

Dante’s Inferno served as a great inspiration to artists of the Romantic era. The story of illicit love of Francesca da Rimini from the Fifth Canto had a special appeal to Tchaikovsky, whose illicit homosexual loves tortured him throughout his life. Francesca, married to the domineering hunchback Gianciotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, is seduced by Gianciotto’s brother Paolo while the two are reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. When Gianciotto, returning from the hunt, catches the lovers in their illicit tryst, he slaughters them both.

Francesca da Rimini started in 1876 as a project for an opera when Tchaikovsky received a libretto on the subject from his friend the writer and music critic Hermann Laroche. But other projects intervened, including his work on the ballet Swan Lake, and Tchaikovsky abandoned it for lack of time. Instead, at the suggestion of his brother Modest, he decided to compose an orchestral work around the story. He wrote to his brother: “I wrote it with love and think that love has come through the music quite well.”

Tchaikovsky followed Dante’s description of his encounter with the souls of the lovers in the second circle of Hell, which the poet designated as the site for the punishment of sins of the flesh (Other residents were Helen of Troy, Paris and Cleopatra.) The composer was also influenced by the illustration by Gustave Doré for an 1861 edition of Dante’s Commedia, depicting the eternal tempest which buffets Paolo and Francesca, eternally physically conjoined to each other but unable to consummate their love.

Tchaikovsky’s score is a musical dramatization, not of the actual incident that condemns the two lovers, but rather of Francesca’s recalling it to Dante in Hell. Therefore, the whirlwind is a constant dominating presence in the music. The first part of Canto V describes how the monster Minos judges and condemns each damned soul to a circle of Hell meting out appropriate punishment (contrapasso) for his or her sin. Because Tchaikovsky was so meticulous in his setting of each part of the Fifth Canto, we have decided here to give the entire canto in a translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, somewhat archaic but accurate. The musical icons are placed where Tchaikovsky "quoted" the text.

In a slow, threatening introduction, Tchaikovsky introduces a "damnation" Leitmotif. Example 1 The tone poem begins with the musical portrayal of the wailing souls before Minos's throne as he hurls each one to its doom. After Dante and Virgil descend to the Second Circle, by Divine Will the tempest abates only as Francesca, portrayed in a mournful clarinet solo, begins her story. The love theme is poignantly seductive – as was the story of Lancelot for the doomed lovers and of Francesca’s tale to Dante. It takes up most of the central part of the tone poem, but at the sound of a hunting horn, the murder quickly ensues and the lovers are instantly judged and cast into the whirlwind, while Dante faints in morally inappropriate sympathy for the damned lovers. In this manner, the tone poem becomes cyclical, the end circling back to the beginning – symbol of the concentric circles of Hell and Minos's tail of doom.

Inferno: Canto V
Thus I descended out of the first circle
Down to the second, that less space begirds,
And so much greater dole, that goads to wailing. Example 2

There standeth Minos horribly, and snarls;
Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
Judges, and sends according as he girds him.

I say, that when the spirit evil-born
Cometh before him, wholly it confesses;
And this discriminator of transgressions

Seeth what place in Hell is meet for it;
Girds himself with his tail as many times
As grades he wishes it should be thrust down.

Always before him many of them stand;
They go by turns each one unto the judgment;
They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled. Example 3

"O thou, that to this dolorous hostelry
Comest," said Minos to me, when he saw me,
Leaving the practice of so great an office,

"Look how thou enterest, and in whom thou trustest;
Let not the portal's amplitude deceive thee."
And unto him my Guide: "Why criest thou too?

Do not impede his journey fate-ordained;
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and ask no further question."

And now begin the dolesome notes to grow
Audible unto me; now am I come
There where much lamentation strikes upon me.

I came into a place mute of all light,
Which bellows as the sea does in a tempest,
If by opposing winds 't is combated. Example 4

The infernal hurricane that never rests
Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;
Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.

When they arrive before the precipice,
There are the shrieks, the plaints, and the laments,
There they blaspheme the puissance divine. Example 5

I understood that unto such a torment
The carnal malefactors were condemned,
Who reason subjugate to appetite.

And as the wings of starlings bear them on
In the cold season in large band and full,
So doth that blast the spirits maledict;

It hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them;
No hope doth comfort them for evermore,
Not of repose, but even of lesser pain.

And as the cranes go chanting forth their lays,
Making in air a long line of themselves,
So saw I coming, uttering lamentations,

Shadows borne onward by the aforesaid stress.
Whereupon said I: "Master, who are those
People, whom the black air so castigates?"

"The first of those, of whom intelligence
Thou fain wouldst have," then said he unto me,
"The empress was of many languages.

To sensual vices she was so abandoned,
That lustful she made licit in her law,
To remove the blame to which she had been led.

She is Semiramis, of whom we read
That she succeeded Ninus, and was his spouse;
She held the land which now the Sultan rules.

The next is she who killed herself for love,
And broke faith with the ashes of Sichaeus;
Then Cleopatra the voluptuous."

Helen I saw, for whom so many ruthless
Seasons revolved; and saw the great Achilles,
Who at the last hour combated with Love.

Paris I saw, Tristan; and more than a thousand
Shades did he name and point out with his finger,
Whom Love had separated from our life.

After that I had listened to my Teacher,
Naming the dames of eld and cavaliers,
Pity prevailed, and I was nigh bewildered.

And I began: "O Poet, willingly
Speak would I to those two, who go together,
And seem upon the wind to be so light."

And, he to me: "Thou'lt mark, when they shall be
Nearer to us; and then do thou implore them
By love which leadeth them, and they will come."

Soon as the wind in our direction sways them,
My voice uplift I: "O ye weary souls!
Come speak to us, if no one interdicts it."

As turtle-doves, called onward by desire,
With open and steady wings to the sweet nest
Fly through the air by their volition borne, Example 6

So came they from the band where Dido is,
Approaching us athwart the air malign,
So strong was the affectionate appeal.

"O living creature gracious and benignant,
Who visiting goest through the purple air
Us, who have stained the world incarnadine, Example 7

If were the King of the Universe our friend,
We would pray unto him to give thee peace,
Since thou hast pity on our woe perverse.

Of what it pleases thee to hear and speak,
That will we hear, and we will speak to you,
While silent is the wind, as it is now.

Sitteth the city, wherein I was born, Example 8
Upon the sea-shore where the Po descends
To rest in peace with all his retinue.

Love, that on gentle heart doth swiftly seize,
Seized this man for the person beautiful
That was ta'en from me, and still the mode offends me.

Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving,
Seized me with pleasure of this man so strongly,
That, as thou seest, it doth not yet desert me;

Love has conducted us unto one death;
Caina waiteth him who quenched our life!"
These words were borne along from them to us.

As soon as I had heard those souls tormented,
I bowed my face, and so long held it down
Until the Poet said to me: "What thinkest?"

When I made answer, I began: "Alas!
How many pleasant thoughts, how much desire,
Conducted these unto the dolorous pass!"

Then unto them I turned me, and I spake,
And I began: "Thine agonies, Francesca, Example 9
Sad and compassionate to weeping make me.

But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
By what and in what manner Love conceded,
That you should know your dubious desires?"

And she to me: "There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery, and that thy Teacher knows.

But, if to recognise the earliest root
Of love in us thou hast so great desire,
I will do even as he who weeps and speaks.

One day we reading were for our delight
Of Launcelot, how Love did him enthral.
Alone we were and without any fear.

Full many a time our eyes together drew
That reading, and drove the colour from our faces;
But one point only was it that o'ercame us.

When as we read of the much-longed-for smile
Being by such a noble lover kissed,
This one, who ne'er from me shall be divided,

Kissed me upon the mouth all palpitating.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it.
That day no farther did we read therein." Example 10

And all the while one spirit uttered this,
The other one did weep so, that, for pity,
I swooned away as if I had been dying,

And fell, even as a dead body falls Example 11.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto raises for the first time the ghastly idea that there are pieces of music that one can hear stinking... [the finale] transports us into the brutish grim jollity of a Russian church festival. In our mind’s eye we see nothing but common, ravaged faces, hear rough oaths and smell cheap liquor.” This politically incorrect assessment comes from the pen of the dean of nineteenth century music critics, Eduard Hanslick, reviewing the Concerto’s Vienna premiere.

Why did the first performance take place in Vienna and not St. Petersburg? It is difficult to believe that this Concerto, probably the most popular in the literature, was declared to contain passages that were “almost impossible to play” by its first dedicatee, the famed violinist and violin teacher Leopold Auer, concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. Completed in 1878, it had to wait for three years for its premiere in Vienna where Hanslick was not alone in his opinion.

What Hanslick and the other critics disliked most is what makes the Concerto so appealing today: its athletic energy, unabashed romanticism and rousing Slavic finale. Without diminishing our own enjoyment of the Concerto, attempting to hear it with the ears of its first audience is a fascinating exercise in cultural relativity. First of all, consider the sheer difficulty of the piece. What defeated Russia’s leading violin virtuoso is the stuff teenage prodigies cut their teeth on at Juilliard and Curtis, practicing the killer bits ad nauseam until they get it right or find some other career.

Then there’s the fact that there was no love lost between the two great nineteenth-century imperial behemoths, Russia and Austria-Hungary, who continued to slug it out until the end of World War I. That Tchaikovsky disliked Johannes Brahms, Hanslick’s favorite composer, probably also added fuel to the fire.

At the time of the Concerto’s inception, Tchaikovsky was just emerging from under the black cloud of a disastrous marriage to an emotionally unstable woman who had threatened suicide if he refused to marry. The marriage was also undertaken to quash rumors about his homosexuality; it ended two weeks later with his attempted suicide, although they were never legally divorced. The vibrant energy of the Concerto, however, seems to have been inspired by the visit of Josif Kotek, a young violinist, pupil and protégé who managed to raise the composer’s spirits and helped him with the Concerto, giving advice on technical matters.

The Concerto opens with a brief, gentle introduction with motivic germ of the main theme. Example 1 & Example 2 After some virtuosic fireworks, the emerging second theme is surprisingly similar in mood to the first. Example 3 The development, full of technical acrobatics, leads into the very difficult cadenza that the composer wrote himself.

The current slow movement was Tchaikovsky's second try; he discarded his first attempt, eventually publishing it separately as a violin and piano piece, Méditation, Op. 42, no. 3. The second version opens with a gentle melancholy song on the woodwinds that pervades the movement. Example 4 The violin enters with an equally wistful counter-melody Example 5 that renders the seamless merge into the raucous Final such a surprise. Example 6 Hanslick’s appraisal of the movement: “The adagio with its gentle Slav melancholy [note the stereotyping] is well on its way to reconciling us and winning us over.”

It is the unabashed use of Russian peasant dance rhythms in the third movement that so upset Vienna's critics was, even at the time, becoming a signature of much Russian orchestral music. Another peculiar bit that must have raised a few Viennese eyebrows is the spectacular cadenza that follows immediately on the fiery orchestral introduction Example 7 & Example 8 and leads right into the main theme. This quick-footed dance demands of the soloist enormous agility and rhythmic control. After a second dance that ramps up on speed like a typical Cossack trepak, Example 9 there follows another slower lyrical section introduced by solo oboe and taken up by clarinet, bassoon and finally the violin. Example 10 The Concerto concludes, of course, with flash and flamboyance.

Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016