Perhaps one of the most renowned Russian composers around the world is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). His composing genius flourished in the late nineteenth century and seemed to comprise most of the romantic music genres that had developed by that time. Author of multiple operas, ballets, symphonies, symphonic poems, and numerous minor pieces, Tchaikovsky artfully combined the professionalism of classical writing, ingenious orchestration, and elements of truly Russian national melody in his works.
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The present report comprises a review of three large-scale works by Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (1880) performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic and The Leningrad Military Orchestras under Yuri Temirkanov, Piano Concerto #1 (1874–75) with the solo part played by Martha Argerich, and Symphony #4 (1877–78) presented by Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim.
Among Tchaikovsky’s creative heritage, 1812 Overture stands out by its rich imagery deployed by musical means. Written to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, it represents a typical example of program music that is based on a certain event or story (Kavanaugh 50).
1812 Overture opens with the warm sound of strings expressively reciting a Russian hymn “Save, O God, Thy People” that is symbolic of Russian Orthodox Christianity (Kavanaugh 50). The wood winds join in this prayer, and the emerging dialogue with the strings reminds of an Orthodox service. This peaceful fragment is suddenly interrupted by a strike of timpani and intrusion of an agitated theme against a background of strings reiterating harmonies in a tense rhythm.
Culminating in the sounds of brass, the agitation slowly fades, giving way to a counterpoint of a military theme in the wind woods and a broad lyrical melody of the strings. This in turn leads to a conflict fragment where the whole orchestra engages in syncopated motion and swirling passages, through the sounds of battle songs break. After this follows another peaceful episode with two themes reminding of Russian tradition: a lyrical and a lively one.
And again the peace is broken by collision of battle songs against dissonant harmonies and disquieting signals of the brass. After a recapitulation of the lyrical and the lively Russian melodies, Tchaikovsky brings together the latter one with the battle song as if illustrating a battle scene in the end of which the battle song is crushed and the initial hymn appears in a triumphant sound of brass winds and carillons, later joined by sounds of canons.
Since Tchaikovsky did not associate himself with piano playing, his Piano Concerto #1 was by large inspired by Tchaikovsky’s contemporary, a great Russian pianist Nicolay Rubinstein (Lindeman 114). The composer’s initial dedication to the prominent virtuoso can be traced from the very beginning of the concert: the first movement opens with a lush melody of the whole string group accompanied by massive chords of the soloist spanning the whole keyboard.
The second time the theme is conducted by the pianist, varying it in amazing octave passages and crushing it into smaller motives that lead to a recapitulation by the orchestra. After that follows a bit ‘jumpy’ theme led by soloist and carried on in the imitations of the orchestra.
A dialogue of piano’s martellato and the orchestra’s thoughtful phrases leads to a lyrical, as if conversing, theme in a slower motion. This theme is exalted by the orchestra into a section developing small parts of all previous themes in one dramatic motion. The second movement of the Concerto opens with solo sounds of flute that lays out the key melody carried on by the piano.
The theme is further varied in different orchestrations, with the piano and orchestra suddenly bursting out in a chase of each other rapidly stopped by a loud bang returning the initial theme. The final movement is supposedly based on a national Ukrainian dance theme captivating in its syncopated flow (Lindeman 115). But to balance the grandiose beginning of the concert, Tchaikovsky writes a none the less majestic theme for the final Code.
When conceiving his Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky was pondering over the dramatic role of Fate in human life, and his music seems to reflect the transition from a deep emotional crisis to the bright ray of optimism (Steinberg 627). The Fate motive opens the first movement in the menacing sound of brass winds.
The strings reply in a disturbed melody that signifies the human confusion in view of almighty Fate. Those two principle motives struggle throughout the whole movement. The oboe melody opening the second movement reminds of the meditative Russian songs, as if taking a break from the twists and turns of life. The following Scherzo as if plays with the audience, approaching and moving away in a series of crescendos and diminuendos performed throughout by pizzicato strings.
In the context of tragic events of the first movement, the final of the Symphony appears the resolution of the conflict between the natural human optimism and the severity of Fate. To emphasize the human sphere, Tchaikovsky employs a Russian folk song “There Stood a Little Birch” which he develops in images raging from lyrical to dramatic (Steinberg 629). The Fate theme reappears again but the conclusion is optimistic, with an unprecedented use of cymbals to emphasize the life-asserting idea of the symphony.
All in all, the three compositions by Tchaikovsky reveal his composing versatility. He embraces large-scale genres easily and develops them accordingly to unique semantic concepts ranging from patriotic glorification to proclamation of the prevalence of optimism over dramatic fatalism.
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Kavanaugh, Patrick. Music of the Great Composers: A Listener’s Guide to the Best of Classical Music. Great Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996. Print.
Lindeman, Stephen D. “The Nineteenth-Century Piano Concerto.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Concerto. Ed. Simon P. Keefe. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 93–117. Print.
Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.