Among the universal geniuses of Romantic music, one of the most prominent personalities is the Russian composer of the late nineteenth century, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893). The uniqueness of his composing talent revealed itself in a multitude of works in different genres which combine in themselves both a high level of academic professionalism with the sparkle of fervent inspiration. Also, Tchaikovsky is known for his dedication to the national composing style and his overall patriotism. It appears that the most famous of his works are those he created for the orchestra since he was a brilliant master of orchestration, surpassed in this art perhaps only by Rimsky-Korsakov. Among the bright examples of Tchaikovsky’s synthetic style that combines high professionalism with creativity are, inter alia, 1812 Overture, Piano Concerto #1, and Symphony #4. These works are reviewed in the present report in the following rendition: 1812 Overture is conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, the piano part in the Piano Concerto #1 is performed by Martha Argerich, and the Symphony #1 is conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
Led by his patriotic feelings, Tchaikovsky wrote 1812 Overture (1880) to commemorate one of the key events in Russian history: the victory of the Russian army over Napoleon’s army seventy years before (Matz and Johnson 45). This is a typical example of the so-called program music that is designed to represent a story or a picture. To make the descriptive qualities of his work as obvious as possible, Tchaikovsky borrows certain melodies from real-life practice. Thus, the Overture begins with a Russian hymn “Save us, O Lord” played in an expressive sound of the strings, and later the woodwinds (Matz and Johnson 45). This melody emphasizes the significance of church services and prayer for plucking up the courage of the Russian army.
Succeeding this moment of spiritual meditation is an abrupt fragment of panic: the tension is created by repetitive rhythm and disquieting passages of the orchestra. To clarify the reason for the disorder, Tchaikovsky introduces a French melody, “La Marseillaise” that signifies the approach of the French troops Matz and Johnson 45). After another fragment of orchestral panic appears a lyrical song symbolizing peaceful Russian spaces. The main conflict of 1812 Overture occurs when two themes, the French and the Russian, collide in the final battle. “La Marseillaise” is gradually defeated and disappears in the triumphant proclamation of Russian victory. The initial hymn melody reappears again, now played by the whole orchestra with carillons and brass, and to reinforce the victorious effect Tchaikovsky introduces sounds of real canons in the final part.
Piano Concerto #1
The beginning of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 (1874–75) is often viewed as “Introduction” since the initial melody is played not by the soloist but by the orchestra (Steinberg 477). The pianist at this time engages into an accompaniment that is remarkable in itself: a whole cascade of full-blooded chords streams upon the audience and imparts an almost carillon-like solemn sound to the opening theme. The next fragment is based on a more ‘hopping’ piano theme in a faster motion and is further developed in its dialogue with the orchestra. Following is a gradual slowing down and introducing a new, lyrical theme that is further developed to a whole series of virtuosic fragments that result in a breathtaking cadence of the soloist. The sphere of the lyric is explored in the second movement which is opened by a tender solo flute melody. This melody further becomes the basis for variation in various orchestral groups and is finally interrupted by a scherzo-like fragment that reminds a swift waltz. A major contrast lies in the foundation of the final movement: on the one hand, Tchaikovsky employs folklore dance melody with a strong accent on the second beat; on the other hand, there is a broad lyrical theme (Steinberg 479). The latter is developed at the end of the movement to a grand apotheosis of the whole concerto.
Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony (1877–78) was his personal favorite: although it took great pains to create, the result satisfied the composer with its completeness of expression (Ewen 582). The personal attitude of the composer to the Fourth Symphony is obvious in the detailed comments he provided for each of its movements. The Symphony opens with a powerful proclamation of Fate which rules human life despite all the efforts to avoid its finger. In musical terms, this idea is rendered by the collision of a decisive motif of the Fate performed by brass winds, with the lyrical placid motif of human happiness. Both themes collide throughout the whole movement. After the dramatic events of the beginning, Tchaikovsky retires into sad meditation of the oboe melody that dominates the second movement.
The playful vision of the third movement is implemented by the pizzicato of the strings that comes and goes in increasing and diminishing sound. Tchaikovsky himself characterized this play as a “capricious arabesque” (Ewen 583). The conflict of the Symphony finds its resolution in the final movement. After the meditations of the second movement and the bizarre visions of the third, the final Allegro provides an answer to a person seeking repose from the inevitable Fate: Tchaikovsky calls the audience to find a distraction if not inside then around themselves (Brown 151). The distracting world around is expressed through another folk song, “In the fields there stands a birch tree”, that is developed to a dramatic collision with the motif of Fate (Ewen 583). The latter is conquered in the final part of the movement, and the music proceeds to a triumphant and life-asserting conclusion.
Tchaikovsky represents a unique example of a universal composer. His three works reviewed in this report show his high composing skill combined with artistic inspiration. Implementing deep ideas on the essence of existence, Tchaikovsky asserts optimistic principles and proclaims a positive attitude to life.
Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music. New York, NY: Pegasus Books, 2007. Print.
Ewen, David. Music for the Millions — the Encyclopedia of Musical Masterpieces. New York, NY: Arco Publishing Company, 2007. Print.
Matz, Carol, and Bernadine Johnson. A Night at the Symphony. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Publishing, 2006. Print.
Steinberg, Michael. The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.