- Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
- Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op. 17
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23
- Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36
- Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35
- Serenade for Strings, Op. 48
- Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64
- Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74
Tchaikovsky was not always the subjective romantic familiar from his best-loved works. Although he completed his academic training at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire founded by his mentor Anton Rubinstein in 1862, a move that was to contribute to his reputation as a composer with his feet firmly planted in the musical traditions of western Europe, he was quick to reflect the rising tide of Russian nationalism. The First Symphony of 1866, belatedly given the subtitle of 'Winter Daydreams', embraces not only a genuine Russian folksong in the finale but also Tchaikovsky's inspired homage to the folk style in the long and beautiful oboe melody of the slow movement. The Second Symphony, composed in 1872 and substantially revised seven years later, bears the nickname 'Little Russian' owing to its cluster of native Ukrainian melodies, the last of which launches a vigorous set of variations rapturously received by Rimsky-Korsakov and his fellow nationalists.
Paradoxically it was Balakirev, founding father of the nationalist circle, who laid down the programme for Tchaikovsky's first individual masterpiece, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
of 1869, perfectly encapsulating the different facets of Shakespeare's tragedy. Its love theme was the first of many suffused with poignant longing by a composer who, as he told his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, had never known 'complete happiness in love'. Others include the anthem for doomed love in Francesca da Rimini
(1876) and the yearning of the Byronic protagonist for his lost beloved in Manfred
(1885), a programme symphony which has claims to containing Tchaikovsky's most powerful first movement, though it loses its way in a prolix finale.
Tchaikovsky first poured his personal notions of a hostile, implacable fate into the autobiography of the Fourth Symphony (1877), a work which dances even as it laments in a surprising sequence of polonaises, waltzes and mazurkas. He divulged its 'programme' to Madame von Meck, who had just appeared on the scene, describing it as 'our symphony'. In the Fifth Symphony composed over a decade later, fate has become providence, capable of change from darkness to light, though to many listeners the final victory parade seems hollow in its self-assertiveness.
In the intervening period between the Fourth and Manfred, Tchaikovsky rested from the symphony in the dashing Capriccio Italien
and three still underrated orchestral suites which took their diverse cue from the variegated cast of the five-movement Third Symphony (1875). The title of the Second Suite's opening movement, 'Play of Sounds', gives some idea of Tchaikovsky's main preoccupations in these delightful and sometimes bizarrely scored works. Light-hearted homage to a past master Tchaikovsky revered above all others is to be found in the arrangements of the Mozartiana Suite. Mozart's example also suffuses the Variations on a Rococo Theme
with their charming role for solo cello and the seemingly effortless Serenade for Strings
with its bewitching patterns spun from portions of falling and rising scales. The Serenade was composed in 1880 back to back with an occasional work, the 1812 Overture
. Tchaikovsky was slightly ashamed of his commemorative overture's bombast, declaring that it was written 'without warmth or love' while the Serenade came from an 'inner compulsion', but as music composed to order 'the 1812' is skilfully knit together and perfectly representative of its subject matter.
Tailor-made concertos did not always please their dedicatees - Nikolay Rubinstein famously turned his back at first on the difficulties of the First Piano Concerto, with its vast first-movement cadenza - but in this genre, too, Tchaikovsky tried to break the mould. The Violin Concerto provides a stream of inspired melody and the Second Piano Concerto comes as a robust surprise after the romantic outpourings of its predecessor, while the Concert Fantasia
, offering another fiendishly taxing role for the pianist, is cast in two unorthodox movements.
In his last major orchestral work composed shortly before his death, the Sixth Symphony dubbed the 'Pathetique' or symphony of suffering by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, the composer returned to facing the emotional crises of his volatile private life with another unusual structure. This time he gave rise to rumours that he had composed his own requiem by ending with a tragic slow movement; but he was in full creative spate when he worked on the Sixth in the spring of 1893 and would no doubt have gone on to compose much more had his life not been cut tragically short.
Notes © BBC/David Nice
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