Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic Poems and Overtures

The middle part of the nineteenth century was extremely significant for the development of Russian traditions in the sphere of instrumental music because, previously, it was influenced by European musical culture. From this point, it is important to examine and discuss the figure of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, who focused on developing his talent in the context of the changed social attitudes to the profession of a composer (Komarov, p. 136). The only role model who could be followed by Russian composers during that time was Mikhail Glinka because he had succeeded in working as a professional composer (Schroeder, p. 1). The significant changes in the sphere of music were observed only in 1859 when the Russian Musical Society was founded by Anton Rubinstein. The focus of the Society was on developing Russian musical traditions and educating people, and this particular context of changing visions in the Russian society created the background for the development of Tchaikovsky’s talent (Schroeder, p. 1). The main questions that I want to discuss in this context can be formulated in the following way: What was the path of Tchaikovsky to creating his symphonic poems and overtures? What effects did these works have on recognizing Tchaikovsky’s talent?

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From this point, it is necessary to concentrate on the figure of the composer. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was born in the Russian small town Votkinsk in 1940 (Kearney, p. 4). Although the boy was interested in music, he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg after which he could work as a civil servant in the Ministry of Justice (Schroeder, p. 2). Tchaikovsky did not stop thinking about music, and he started to attend the classes at the Russian Musical Society. These classes allowed him to enter the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 and forget about the Ministry of Justice. Even though perspectives regarding the development of the career of a composer in Russia were rather illusory, Tchaikovsky did not plan to give up, and he was oriented only to working in this country (Kearney, p. 12). While studying at the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was interested in theory and composition, and he also succeeded as a virtuoso pianist. In 1866, Nikolay Rubinstein, the brother of Anton Rubinstein, proposed to him the position of a theory and composition professor at the Moscow Conservatory (Schroeder, p. 3). However, what were the real musical intentions and desires of Tchaikovsky who spent many hours while teaching other people instead of composing his pieces?

I should state that Tchaikovsky did not stop practicing in composition, and his efforts allowed him to create a unique approach to writing instrumental music. As it is noted by Schroeder, Tchaikovsky was not interested in writing music “purely for its own sake, but as a person with a complex and deep-rooted sense of the power of emotions, he determined that his music had to be meaningful both to himself and anyone listening to it” (p. 3). Thus, what aspects contributed to making his music highly emotional at that stage? It is possible to state that Tchaikovsky’s pieces could be perceived as an illustration of the personal conflict. According to Schroeder, the origins of this conflict could be in the composer’s homosexuality. Still, the author notes that Tchaikovsky did not accentuate the “survival through escape” in his works, but he emphasized, “finding ways of coping” (Schroeder, p. 3). It is possible to agree with this point because Tchaikovsky’s music was most energetic and expressive rather than pathetic. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky needed to add more drama to his music, and for this purpose, he had to add words in order to support impressive musical pieces.

As a result, Tchaikovsky focused on opportunities that were opened to him, and they were associated with writing operas. I should state that Tchaikovsky realized that the conflict typical of his musical pieces and the conflict observed in literary works could be combined in operas (Schroeder, p. 3). The only obstacle for Tchaikovsky was the scale typical of these musical pieces. It is important to note that many young composers do not succeed while creating their first operas because of their lack of experience. Therefore, it is possible to agree that Tchaikovsky’s first opera Voevoda (1867) was not successful (Schroeder, p. 3). What was another variant for the composer to combine the elements of literary and musical works in one piece?

In 1868, Tchaikovsky wrote Fatum, his first symphonic poem. Schroeder pays attention to the fact that the composer made the right choice, and he “could write a work of a distinctly personal nature, its drama in all likelihood relating to his own life, and present it as a work that could be moving for all listeners” (p. 4). Thus, it is possible to assume that Fatum was inspired by the composer’s personal story of relationships with Désirée Artôt, the Belgian singer, whom he planned to marry. Schroeder states in his work: “I will make the case that the affair with Mlle Artôt not only had a bearing on that work, but on other later ones as well, including his first piano concerto” (p. 5). However, listeners could be misled because of the absence of the program for the poem and because of the work’s title. From this point, this first symphonic poem remains to be one of the most interesting pieces composed by Tchaikovsky while discussing it from the perspective of the biographical analysis.

Nevertheless, more attention should be paid to analyzing Romeo and Juliet, the most famous overture-fantasy that was composed by Tchaikovsky in 1869. The idea to create such piece about Shakespeare’s work was developed by Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev (Kearney, p. 12). The composers chose to apply the sonata form to this piece with the focus on the main characters and conflicts depicted in Shakespeare’s work. Romeo and Juliet had an introduction, the focus on the topic of struggle, the described topic of love, and an epilogue. The main presented characters were Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence (Schroeder, p. 6). Still, the first version of the work with the focus on “B minor for the first subject depicting conflict and the very remote key of D flat for love” was revised several times (Schroeder, p. 7). Thus, what are the main features of this prominent work?

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It is rather surprising, but the introduction of Romeo and Juliet is focused on the figure of Friar Lawrence. Schroeder explains this point and states that Friar Lawrence can play a special role in the work “not only as of the one who marries the lovers” but also “as one who wishes peace between the Capulets and Montagues, seeing the marriage as a way to achieve that” (p. 8). The introduction is written to be played in andante to produce the “chorale-like feeling” (Schroeder, p. 8). The religious or spiritual aspect of the introduction is accentuated with the help of using “rising half-note figures” (Schroeder, p. 8). The rhythm changes when the exposition begins, and the focus is on using accelerando and allegro. This approach is effective to emphasize the conflict related to the families’ interactions. To accentuate the development of this conflict, Tchaikovsky destabilizes the picture and provides accents with the help of allegro Giusto.

The new theme in the work represents the shift to the topic of love. The melody played with the focus on dolce and espressivo seems to provide the “sense of musical growth, as though the love itself grows – just as it does in the play, from Romeo and Juliet’s first playful meeting at the festivities at her house” (Schroeder, p. 9). However, in his love theme, Tchaikovsky added not only the romantic element but also the reference to violence demonstrated with the help of syncopations. It is important to refer to the words by Schroeder who states that the used love melody is extremely dynamic, and the composer seems to accentuate that “this love must sustain itself against the most terrible odds” (p. 10). The increased conflict is presented with the focus on the deep and striking sounds of cellos, basses, and bassoons. The tension in the piece increases, and the ending point is the funeral march created by Tchaikovsky to accentuate the combination of the love theme with the friar’s theme. The focus on the described details allows for asking questions about the aspects that made Romeo and Juliet rather unique (Kearney, p. 22; Schroeder, p. 10). It is possible to state that the answer is in Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of program works, his reference to personal sufferings, vivid representations of conflicts, and dynamic shifts in rhythms.

The 1812 Overture is another piece that also has an interesting history to accentuate Tchaikovsky’s development as a prominent and widely recognized composer. However, according to Schroeder, the composer “had nothing but disdain for this piece” that was written “for a commission that did not appeal to him” (p. 13). Tchaikovsky discussed this piece as being “very loud and noisy” (Schroeder, p. 13). The overture is based on describing Napoleon’s invasion, the Russians’ struggle, and the further sufferings faced by the French forces that made them leave the country. The 1812 Overture begins with the prayer of the Russian people who ask God to stop Napoleon’s forces, and it is written as the six-part harmony for two solo violas, as well as four cellos. In other parts of the overture, Tchaikovsky combined folk songs, anthems, and parts of his own early or unpublished works (Leerssen, p. 608). It is important to pay attention to the fact that, in this piece, the military music is combined with folk music to create the unique orchestral work (Schroeder, p. 14). What is more important about this piece is the interpretation of the 1812 Overture that was proposed by conductors and directors in Boston.

I should pay attention to the following interesting fact: there is a tradition to perform the 1812 Overture in Boston on the Fourth of July, and this tradition is also followed in many other cities in the United States (Schroeder, p. 13). Igor Buketoff changed the introductory part of the overture, and in his variant, the orchestral part is changed with the choral part, and the prayer has performed a capella (Schroeder, p. 14). In the final part of the work, God’s mercy given to the Russian people is accentuated with the help of the orchestral part played in fortissimo. The authors of the variant performed in Boston added more cannons to make the final part of the 1812 Overture more vivid. As it is noted by Schroeder, “some may find it a little ironic that the premier musical work used to celebrate the Fourth of July is the commemoration of a Russian victory over a longstanding American ally” (p. 16). Still, I should state that it is important to refer to the historical context of the work and to the specific relationships between Russia and the United States in the nineteenth century to understand this phenomenon.

From this point, it is important to state that Tchaikovsky completed an interesting path to creating his first symphonic poems and overtures as a result of re-evaluating his experience in composing operas. I agree that such works composed by Tchaikovsky as Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture play the important role in creating the composer’s professional image. Furthermore, the history of the American public’s interest in the 1812 Overture is also interesting and requires additional discussion. Thus, Tchaikovsky’s overtures can be viewed as perfect examples of the composer’s style and his approach to adding personal visions to the depiction of conflicts with the help of the expressive musical language.

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Works Cited

  1. Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. Print.
  2. Komarov, Alexander. “Tchaikovsky’s Legacy to the World.” Museum International 65.1 (2013): 135-144. Print.
  3. Leerssen, Joep. “Romanticism, Music, Nationalism.” Nations and Nationalism 20.4 (2014): 606-627. Print.
  4. Schroeder, David. Experiencing Tchaikovsky: A Listener’s Companion. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. Print.
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