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Roll over Tchaikovsky - The Seasons & Piano Concerto No 1

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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The Seasons, Op. 37a (also seen as Op. 37b; published with the French title Les Saisons), is a set of twelve short character pieces for solo piano by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Each piece is the characteristic of a different month of the year in the northern hemisphere.

The Seasons was commenced shortly after the premiere of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and continued while he was completing his first ballet, Swan Lake.

In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write 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. The January and February pieces were written in late 1875 and sent to Bernard in December, with a request for some feedback as to whether they were suitable, and if not, Tchaikovsky would rewrite February and ensure the remainder were in the style Bernard was after. March, April and May appear to have been composed separately; however the remaining seven pieces were all composed at the same time and written in the same copybook, and evidence suggests they were written between 22 April and 27 May. The orchestration of Swan Lake was finished by 22 April, leaving the composer free to focus on other music; and he left for abroad at the end of May. This seems to put the lie to Nikolay Kashkin's published version of events, which was that each month the composer would sit down to write a single piece, but only after being reminded to do so by his valet.

The epigraphs that appeared on publication of the pieces were chosen by Bernard, not by Tchaikovsky. In 1886 the publisher P. Jurgenson acquired the rights to The Seasons and the piece has been reprinted many times.

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:

I. January: At the Fireside (A major)
II. February: Carnival (D major)
III. March: Song of the Lark (G minor)
IV. April: Snowdrop (B-flat major)
V. May: Starlit Nights (G major)
VI. June: Barcarolle (G minor)
VII. July: Song of the Reaper (E-flat major)
VIII. August: Harvest (B minor)
IX. September: The Hunt (G major)
X. October: Autumn Song (D minor)
XI. November: Troika (E major)
XII. December: Christmas (A-flat major)

Poetic epigraphs
Following is a translation of some of the poetic epigraphs contained in the Russian edition (all chosen by the publisher Nikolay Bernard):

Janvier (January): Au coin du feu (At the Fireside)
A little corner of peaceful bliss,
the night dressed in twilight;
the little fire is dying in the fireplace,
and the candle has burned out.
(Alexander Pushkin)

Février (February): Carnaval (Carnival)
At the lively Mardi Gras
soon a large feast will overflow.
(Pyotr Vyazemsky)

Mars (March): Chant de l'alouette (Song of the Lark)
The field shimmering with flowers,
the stars swirling in the heavens,
the song of the lark
fills the blue abyss.
(Apollon Maykov)

Avril (April): Perce-neige (Snowdrop)
The blue, pure snowdrop — flower,
and near it the last snowdrops.
The last tears over past griefs,
and first dreams of another happiness.
(A. Maykov)

Mai (May): Les nuits de mai (Starlit Nights)
What a night!
What bliss all about!
I thank my native north country!
From the kingdom of ice,
snowstorms and snow,
how fresh and clean May flies in!
(Afanasy Fet)

Juin (June): Barcarolle (Barcarolle)
Let us go to the shore;
there the waves will kiss our feet.
With mysterious sadness
the stars will shine down on us.
(Aleksey Pleshcheyev)

Juillet (July): Chant du faucheur (Song of the Reaper)
Move the shoulders,
shake the arms!
And the noon wind
breathes in the face!
(Aleksey Koltsov)

Août (August): La moisson (Harvest)
The harvest has grown,
people in families cutting the tall rye down to the root!
Put together the haystacks,
music screeching all night from the hauling carts.
(A. Koltsov)

Septembre (September): La chasse (Hunting)
It is time!
The horns are sounding!
The hunters in their hunting dress are mounted on their horses;
in early dawn the borzois are jumping.
(A. Pushkin, Graf Nulin)

Octobre (October): Chant d'automne (Autumn Song)
Autumn, our poor garden is all falling down,
the yellowed leaves are flying in the wind.
(Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy)

Novembre (November): Troïka (Troika)
In your loneliness do not look at the road,
and do not rush out after the troika.
Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart.
(Nikolay Nekrasov)

Décembre (December): Noël (Christmas)
Once upon a Christmas night the girls were telling fortunes:
taking their slippers off their feet and throwing them out of the gate.
(Vasily Zhukovsky)

The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, was composed by Tchaikovsky between November 1874 and February 1875. It was revised in the summer of 1879 and again in December 1888. The first version received heavy criticism from Nikolai Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's desired pianist. Rubinstein later repudiated his previous accusations and became a fervent champion of the work. It is one of the most popular of Tchaikovsky's compositions and among the best known of all piano concertos.

The concerto follows the traditional form of three movements:

I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso - Allegro con spirito (B flat minor - B flat major)
II. Andantino semplice - Prestissimo - Tempo I (D flat major)
III. Allegro con fuoco - Molto meno mosso - Allegro vivo (B flat minor - B flat major)
A standard performance lasts between 30 and 35 minutes, the majority of which is taken up by the first movement.

I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso - Allegro con spirito

The first movement is initiated with four emphatic B flat minor chords, which lead to a lyrical and passionate theme in D flat major. This subsidiary theme is heard three times, the last of which is preceded by a piano cadenza, and never appears again throughout the movement. The introduction ends in a subdued manner. The exposition proper then begins in the concerto's tonic minor key, with a Ukrainian folk theme based on a melody that Tchaikovsky heard performed by blind beggar-musicians at a market in Kamenka (near Kiev). The second subject group consists of two alternating themes: the first is mournful and plaintive, featuring some of the melodic contours from the introduction. This is answered by a smoother and more consoling second theme, played by the strings and set in the subtonic key (A flat major) over a pedal point, before a more turbulent reappearance of the woodwind theme, this time re-enforced by driving piano arpeggios, gradually builds to a stormy climax in C minor that ends in a perfect cadence on the piano (V7-i). After a short pause, a variation of the consoling theme closes the exposition in A flat major.

The development section transforms this theme into an ominously building sequence, punctuated with snatches of the first subject material. After a flurry of piano octaves, fragments of the "plaintive" theme are revisited for the first time in E flat major, then for the second time in G minor, and then the piano and the strings take turns to play the theme for the third time in E major while the timpani furtively plays a tremolo on a low B until the first subject's fragments are continued.

The recapitulation features an abridged version of the first subject, working around to C minor, in which key the second subject group proceeds as before. In the recapitulation, the consoling second theme is omitted, and instead the first theme repeats, with a reappearance of the stormy climactic build that was previously heard in the exposition, but this time in B flat major. However, this time the excitement is cut short by a deceptive cadence (V7-bVI) which abruptly ends the recapitulation, and then a piano cadenza is heard, the second half of which contains subdued snatches of the second subject group's first theme in the work's original minor key. The B flat major is restored when the orchestra re-enters with the second subject group's previously omitted consoling theme from the beginning of the coda, as the tension gradually builds up and leads to a triumphant final plagal cadence in B flat major (IV-I).

Question of the introduction

Introduction's theme, as played on the piano
The introduction's theme is notable for its apparent formal independence from the rest of the movement and from the concerto as a whole, especially given its setting not in the work’s nominal key of B flat minor but rather in D flat major, that key's relative major. Despite its very substantial nature, this theme is only heard twice, and it never reappears at any later point in the concerto.

Russian music historian Francis Maes writes that because of its independence from the rest of the work,

For a long time, the introduction posed an enigma to analysts and critics alike.…The key to the link between the introduction and what follows is…Tchaikovsky’s gift of hiding motivic connections behind what appears to be a flash of melodic inspiration. The opening melody comprises the most important motivic core elements for the entire work, something that is not immediately obvious, owing to its lyric quality. However, a closer analysis shows that the themes of the three movements are subtly linked. Tchaikovsky presents his structural material in a spontaneous, lyrical manner, yet with a high degree of planning and calculation.

Maes continues by mentioning that all the themes are tied together by a strong motivic link. These themes include the Ukrainian folk song "Oy, kryatshe, kryatshe…" as the first theme of the first movement proper, the French chansonette, "Il faut s'amuser, danser et rire." (Translated as: One must have fun, dance and laugh) in the middle section of the second movement and a Ukrainian vsnyanka or greeting to spring which appears as the first theme of the finale; the second theme of the finale is motivically derived from the Russian folk song "Podoydi, podoydi vo Tsar-Gorod" and also shares this motivic bond. The relationship between them has often been ascribed to chance because they were all well-known songs at the time Tchaikovsky composed the concerto. It seems likely, though, that he used these songs precisely because of their motivic connection and used them where he felt necessary. "Selecting folkloristic material," Maes writes, "went hand in hand with planning the large-scale structure of the work."

All this is in line with the earlier analysis of the Concerto published by Tchaikovsky authority David Brown, who further suggests that Alexander Borodin's First Symphony may have given the composer both the idea to write such an introduction and to link the work motivically as he does. Brown also identifies a four-note musical phrase ciphered from Tchaikovsky's own name and a three-note phrase likewise taken from the name of soprano Désirée Artôt, to whom the composer had been engaged some years before.

II. Andantino semplice - Prestissimo - Tempo I

The second movement, in D flat major, is written in 6
8 time. The tempo marking of "andantino semplice lends itself to a range of interpretations; the World War II-era recording of Vladimir Horowitz (as soloist) and Arturo Toscanini (as conductor) completed the movement in under six minutes, while towards the other extreme, Lang Lang recorded the movement, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim, in eight minutes.

After a brief pizzicato introduction, the flute carries the first statement of the theme. The flute's opening four notes are A flat-E flat-F-A flat, while each other statement of this motif in the remainder of the movement substitutes the F for a (higher) B flat. The British pianist Stephen Hough suggests this may be an error in the published score, and that the flute should play a B flat. After the flute's opening statement of the melody, the piano continues and modulates to F major. After a bridge section, two cellos return with the theme in D flat major and the oboe continues it. The "A" section ends with the piano holding a high F major chord, pianissimo. The movement's "B" section is in D minor (the relative minor of F major) and marked "allegro vivace assai" or "prestissimo", depending on the edition. It commences with a virtuosic piano introduction before the piano assumes an accompanying role and the strings commence a new melody in D major. The "B" section ends with another virtuosic solo passage for the piano, leading into the return of the "A" section. In the return, the piano makes the first, now ornamented, statement of the theme. The oboe continues the theme, this time resolving it to the tonic (D flat major) and setting up a brief coda which finishes ppp.

III. Allegro con fuoco - Molto meno mosso - Allegro vivo

The final movement starts with a very brief introduction, after which the exposition's first theme, in B flat minor, is fast and rhythmic, and the melody is played by the piano, until when the orchestra plays a variation of the piano melody ff. The second theme, in D flat major, is more lyrical and the melody is first played by the violins. A set of descending scales lead to the development section.

The development section begins similarly as the exposition, but then a new theme is heard until the melodies based on the exposition is heard again.

The recapitulation features the exposition's first theme in the tonic key, but the orchestra variation is replaced by an extended climatic episode. Then the second theme is heard triumphantly in B flat major. After that, there is a coda marked allegro vivo, which draws to a heroic conclusion.


released May 7, 2018


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