Thursday, 3 December 2015

Tchaikovsky: The Seasons (1876)

The Seasons, Op. 37a is a set of twelve short character pieces for solo piano by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The work was commenced in 1875 shortly after the premiere of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and continued while he was completing his first ballet, Swan Lake. Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write the 12 short piano pieces, one for each month of the year. Bernard suggested a subtitle for each month's piece. Tchaikovsky accepted the commission and all of Bernard's subtitles, and in the December 1875 edition of the magazine, readers were promised a new Tchaikovsky piece each month throughout 1876.

Tchaikovsky did not devote his most serious compositional efforts to these pieces; they were composed to order, and they were a way of supplementing his income. He saw the writing of music to a commission as just as valid as writing music from his own inner inspiration, however for the former he needed a definite plot or text, a time limit, and the promise of payment at the end. Most of the pieces were in simple ABA form, but each contains a minor melodic masterpiece.

The 12 pieces with their subtitles are:

January: At the Fireside (A major)
February: Carnival (D major)
March: Song of the Lark (G minor)
April: Snowdrop (B-flat major)
May: Starlit Nights (G major)
June: Barcarolle (G minor)
July: Song of the Reaper (E-flat major)
August: Harvest (B minor)
September: The Hunt (G major)
October: Autumn Song (D minor)
November: Troika (E major)
December: Christmas (A-flat major)

I find Tchaikovsky's symphonies somewhat unctuous most of the time. When you’re in the mood for a Romantic hurricane of course, they hit the spot. Very often, however, I find him too much. That’s what makes these delightful piano pieces so enjoyable. Constrained by his commercial brief, Tchaikovsky was unable to indulge himself with overblown histrionics and instead reveals a more ordered, rational style, which balances out perfectly.

In researching this blog, I found out in all probability Tchaikovsky died of cholera rather than throwing himself off a bridge, wrought with conflicts over his sexuality. I suppose this is consistent with the message that flamboyant gestures aren't always the best way to go through life.

North Utsire

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