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The Most Russian Of Them All

The MHS Review 376 Vol. 10, No. 16 • 1986

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Julie Jordan


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By 1866 the Russian, Peter 1. Tchaikovsky (1840-93) had graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory with a di­ploma and silver medal and faced the grim reality of find­ing a job. He had even considered resuming his position as a clerk in the government's Ministry of Justice, which he had recently given up in hope of achieving his modest goal: to become "a good musician and earn my daily bread ... " His exceptional talent was evident, and the direct­or of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, recommended Tchaikovsky to his brother, Nicholas, who was looking for a harmony professor at the new Moscow Conservatory. During his 12 years at Moscow, Tchaikovsky taught, travel­ed, and composed some of his most successful music. He especially loved to write and used his work to escape his personal depressions. Although Tchaikovsky was accus­tomed to hiding his dark fear and neuroses from most people, he confided his monumental unhappiness in his diary and in many letters to a few close friends. He once wrote: "The thought that I am good-for-nothing, that only musical work redeems my defects and raises me to man­hood in its truest sense, begins to overwhelm and torture me ... "

And the music itself reflects this sensitive man as if con­tinuing the personal revelations found in his diary--soulful confessions full of supersensuous melodies that are Rus­sian, introspective, and glorious. Tchaikovsky steadily composed symphonies, operas, chamber music, songs, and piano music; however, he had not dealt with concerti until 1874. On Christmas Eve of that year there was a famous scene when Tchaikovsky finally presented his First Piano Concerto in B-flat minor to Nicholas Rubinstein in a private hearing ma Conservatory classroom Not being a Pianist, Tchaikovsky admitted that he " ... considered it necessary to consult a virtuoso as to any point in my concerto that might be technically impractical, awkward or ineffective." Apparently, Rubinstein behaved abominably anti among other things said the Concerto " ... was worthless and absolutely unplayable ... and that the composition itself was bad, trivial, and commonplace ... that only two or three pages had any value and all the rest should be either destroyed or entirely remodeled ... " Tchaikovsky replied that he would not alter a single note, and that it would be printed exactly as it was. His intention to dedicate this piece to Rubinstein was crushed; he sent the manuscript to the noted pianist, Hans von Bulow, who consequently received the dedication and performed its world premiere in Boston on October 25, 1875. Tchaikovsky was ecstatic over the German musician's letter of praise, which read: "I am proud to have been honored by the dedication of this splendid work of art, ravishing in all its aspects." The B-flat minor Concerto has remained a gloriously popular work; and with it, Tchaikovsky's reputation steadily grew. To complete this story, Nicholas Rubinstein eventually changed his mind and used the work as one of his principal showpieces on concert tours.

The enormous popularity of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto is partly because of the opening. Its slow intro­duction presents, an unforgettable melody as the orchestral strings sing out a Ukrainian folktune called "Song of the Blind People" against the majestic piano chords in ¾ rhythm. The second subject is one of Tchaikovsky's in­credible lyrical statements, providing a striking contrast for his well-staged orchestral exposition. The second move­ment contains a special delicacy of refined elegance. Here, Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest, discovered the second borrowed tune, a little French chansonette occurring in the prestissimo middle section. The grandeur of the Finale soars with a Russian flavor, again utilizing a typical dance tune. Presenting the performer with a fair share of tech­nical challenges, Tchaikovsky cleverly employs an aston­ishing variety of keyboard devices that are most reward­ing for the piano soloist as well as the listener

There are two other concerti for piano (G major-1880, revised in 1893, and E-flat major in one movement-1893) in addition to a Concert-Fantasia for piano and orchestra (1884). These are somewhat neglected compared to the magnificent B-flat minor Concerto, perhaps due to a Jack of distinctive Tchaikovskian invention. However, his only Violin Concerto (1878) ranks with his best creations and is inevitably another box-office success, along with his principal orchestral works (his last three symphonies: no. 4, F minor, (1877}; no. 5, E minor, (1888); no. 6, "Pathet­ique," B minor (1893); and Romeo and Juliet (1869). Tchai­kovsky described the symphony as "the most purely lyri­cal of musical forms" and said that a symphony without a program was a "symphony that meant nothing."

There is a vital spontaneity in the music of Tchaikovsky which portrays his marvelous lyric nature, often balletic in spirit and which tugs at the heart despite his self-criticism of form. Saint-Saens called Tchaikovsky "the kindest and gentlest of men" Stravinsky said that Tchaikovsky ",the most Russian of them all. It's tragic that throught his life he suffered from such heavy distress. He was a precocious child with a crippling ,shyness that he once described as developing "a mania, possibly a complete lack of need for human society." He had hoped to maintain some de­gree of stability by marrying Antonina Miliukov, a Conser­vatory student, a disastrous, short-lived relationship that pushed him to the verge of a serious breakdown. Perhaps his saving grace was the already mentioned Nadejda von Meck, a fabulously wealth1y woman who adored Tchaikov­sky's music and subsidized him with the understanding that they should never meet. Their relationship was of the deepest emotional level for both yet it remained one of let­ters until three years before Tchaikovsky's death when Madame von Meck mysteriously broke off their corre­spondence.

Review of Tchaikovsky'Paino Concerto no 1 pg 5

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