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Terez Mertes

Creating The First

April 30, 2012 at 7:52 PM

While a longtime fan of Tchaikovsky, I must confess that, up to a year ago, I’d never heard his Symphony no. 1, subtitled Winter Daydreams. Further, a lot of times you have to hear a symphony a few times before it impacts you. You sit in your symphony seat and think, Hmm. Interesting. Possibilities. Not this one. The music slipped right past my inner-music-critic, through the back door of my heart and settled right into place with an uncanny familiarity and sense of rightness. It produced a palpable thrill, a quickening in my heart. All I could think, that night at the San Francisco Symphony, was, “where have you been all my life?” And to think it had been there all along, overlooked, tucked beneath the majesty and weight of Tchaikovsky’s later symphonies.

My fondness for Winter Daydreams has only grown since that first listening experience. Interesting, then, to learn that such a lovely, assured, balanced symphony actualized only after a tremendous struggle. Program notes, CD liner notes and the Internet have provided me with a fascinating (if conflicting) history of this symphony’s creation. The story has it that Pyotr, twenty-six, newly graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, struggled terribly with it, partly owing to his challenges with writing in the era’s accepted symphonic style. His former tutors, Anton Rubinstein, founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and Nikolai Zaremba, were slavish followers of the symphonic model established by Haydn, Mozart, reinforced by Beethoven. It’s also what they wanted to see from their Russian students. Tchaikovsky had tried, of course, to emulate the masters, their Germanic form with its rules of exposition and proper development, but kept falling short. His efforts sounded melodic, not symphonic. They sounded Russian, imbued with folkloric character and flavor. When Tchaikovsky tried to make his music sound like Beethoven, all that came out was Tchaikovsky. The symphony work challenged him, taunted him, stressed him to the point of near-breakdown, but he persevered.

Finally, he had a quasi-finished product. Aware of what he would come up against, Tchaikovsky nonetheless made his way back to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to seek the opinions of his former tutors, Rubinstein and Zaremba, resulting in an exchange that might have sounded like this:

Rubinstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] It’s lame. Fix it.
Zaremba: Yeah. What he said.
Tchaikovsky: Okay.
[Months pass, the young Pyotr works tirelessly on it, and finally returns.]
Tchaikovsky: Okay, so how’s this?
Rubinstein: [Shoves Tchaikovsky’s score back across the desk.] Meh.
Zaremba: Meh.
Tchaikovsky: Why am I trying to mold myself in the image of your conservative, Germanic-based standards when it’s just not what I’m good at? I am so out of here. I gotta be my own person. [Storms out of room, score tucked under his arm.]
Rubinstein: [Shrugs.] Typical, know-it-all, new conservatory graduate.
Zaremba: [Shakes head.] Kids.
Rubinstein: No kidding. Kids.
Zaremba: Don’t worry. History will eventually prove whose is the greater talent.
Rubinstein: Well, except you might not like how short your Wiki is.
Zaremba: [Hesitates.] What’s a Wiki?
Rubinstein: That’s exactly the right attitude to take, my good fellow!

Tchaikovsky went home, looked over the revisions he’d made to suit his former tutors and realized they were as “meh” as they’d accused. Over the next few months he switched it all back to the original, 100% Tchaikovsky version. Well, 95%, because, as it turns out, he’d thrown away some of his original notes and therefore, within the first movement, had to keep the revised second thematic voice, incorporating Zaremba’s suggestions.

It worked. Pieces had previously been considered performance-worthy: the Adagio, then the Adagio and Scherzo, but only now did the full symphony find favor, with Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai, in charge at the Moscow Conservatory. In February 1868, it was performed, and deemed a success. Oddly, Tchaikovsky whisked it back into his possession, pulling it out to revise again, years later, and its second performance wasn’t until 1874.

Winter Daydreams is a delight: fresh, assured and just plain fun to listen to. The violins introduce the first movement with a shimmering, sweet tremolo, giving it a dreamy, gossamer texture, that perfectly illustrates the movement’s subtitle, “Daydreams of a Winter Journey.” Listening, a shivery magical feeling comes over me. I’m a child again, listening with wonder as the music conjures the excitement, the thrill of dreaming, a young person’s imminent discovery of the wonders of the adult world. The second movement, the Adagio, subtitled “Land of Gloom, Land of Mists,” is not gloomy in the least. It’s lovely, pensive, evocative. Images come to mind, a winter twilight, being indoors with a fire crackling in the grate, roasting smells wafting from the kitchen and outside, snow gently falling. Yeah, that kind of feeling. The third movement, the Scherzo, more lighthearted and jaunty, offers melodic little precursors to Nutcracker’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” and displays the broad, sweeping expansiveness of Tchaikovsky’s music, so perfect for dance. What challenged Tchaikovsky so much in the symphonic form is decidedly spot-on for the ballet.

The fourth and final movement develops from somber into wildly triumphant. Its flavor is exuberant and proud, as if to state “this is me, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and you’ll never mistake my music for anyone else’s.”

You’ve got to admire the man’s spirit and tenacity, not to mention his musical genius. You’ve got to love his Winter Daydreams. Or at least get out there and give it a listen. If you’re a Tchaikovsky fan, it won’t disappoint.

© 2012 Terez Rose

Here is the second movement, "Adagio cantabile ma non troppo," from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Bernard Haitink conducting, 1994:

From Tom Holzman
Posted on April 30, 2012 at 9:33 PM
Wonderful blog, especially the imagined conversation between Tchaik, Rubinstein and Zaremba. I think Debussy had a conversation with his professor, Cesar Franck if I recall, that would have been along those lines about his composing. However, I think Franck recognized that Debussy was moving beyond him and simply said something to the effect that he could not really follow where Debussy wanted to go. I confess that I really dislike most of what Tchaik wrote. However, I will give this one a try at least once on your recommendation.
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 2:24 AM
What a lovely essay! Tchaikovsky is the next symphonist after Bruckner in the Grout textbook, so he'll be my next focus of study... I'll be sure to give Winter Dreams a listen.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 2:53 AM
Emily - ooh, send me a PM when you post anything on him, so that I don't miss it. I've had a lot of fun over the past few days, researching him.

Tom, wow, that's a strong reaction! Does his music seem too sentimental or emotional to you? I could see that in a way - I was really, really into Tchaikovsky as a teen girl, through my early 20's. But those were also my serious ballet years. I listened to Symphonies 4,5 and 6 over and over and over. Bizarrely, I also equate them with Africa, because they were among the dozen cassettes (remember those?) I took with me when I served in the Peace Corps. Can't count the number of times I played 4, 5 and 6. Enough that I got heartily sick of them, particularly #6. I think that's what stunned me about hearing #1: it truly was like discovering #4 or 5 for the first time. I think it's charming, really, that I've sort of come full circle, after so expanding my listening tastes over the last decade. It helps, too, that I've recommenced ballet classes, am at work on a ballet-based novel, and that musical impulse deep within me is certainly making the connection.

Interesting that Debussy and Cesar Franck had that kind of relationship as well. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky dedicated several of his pieces to Rubinstein, so it was a relationship both loving and contentious. Zaremba, however, sounded like he was full of a lot of hot air. (His Wiki is indeed short. And I had a good chuckle including that line in the dialogue. A writer's gotta have a little fun with his/her writing now and then...)

From Thomas Gregory
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 8:24 AM
Thanks for the recommendation, I too have neglected his first symphony so will revisit it. In some cases I think Tchaikovsky absolutely benefited from Rubenstein's editorial suggestions. There is an original Romeo and Juliet overture worth looking up. In my humble opinion, the revisions turn a talented piece into a masterpiece. Likewise but to a lesser extent the Rococo Variations for Cello and orchestra. But as with pizza, even bad Tchaikovsky is good.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 1:16 PM
Tchaik 1 isn't a bad Starter Symphony. His proverbial sea legs get steadier with #2. We all have to start somewhere...

I have a fondness for "Manfred", even if it drags on a bit. Nice tunes, beaten to death. (Smile)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 2:54 PM
>In some cases I think Tchaikovsky absolutely benefited from Rubenstein's editorial suggestions.

I agree, Thomas, and the fact that Tchaikovsky worked and worked at trying to fit his work into the traditional form surely upped the quality of his own natural style. Nothing like slaving over what you're not very good at, to make the stuff you ARE good at, shine even brighter. I did a little research on Rubinstein, as well, as some of the program notes for the No. 1 referenced only one Rubinstein and there were two involved in Tchaikovsky's professional life at that time. Anton, the elder, was the founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and his brother did the same thing in Moscow. Upon Tchaikovsky's graduation, Anton was the one to refer Tchaikovsky to his brother for hiring as a teacher of harmony or something - my knowledge gets hazy here. So. A good guy. Further, Anton Rubinstein (and his brother as well) was a tremendously accomplished pianist, apparently, in addition to being composer, administrator and pedagogue. He, unlike Zaremba, has a long, interesting Wiki. (Oh dear, that sounds very wrong...)

I like the image of comparing Tchaikovsky to pizza. : )

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:02 PM
>His proverbial sea legs get steadier with #2.

Oh, no, no, no, no, no! #1 is much more interesting. Longer shelf life, too. #2 wears on me; I can't listen to it 100 times in a row the way I can #1. ((Maybe the latter is not an admission to share...)) But I think I'm onto something with the ballet business. #1 is ballet, #2 is more traditionally symphonic. Less mysterious.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:08 PM
>I have a fondness for "Manfred", even if it drags on a bit.

Wow. Never heard of this one. Cool - another to discover! Have also, I must confess, never heard #3, nor anything about it. Some Tchaikovsky expert I am.

Okay, all you chamber music players: what do you think of his "Souvenir de Florence" (String Sextet in D-min, op. 70)? I'm crazy about it. Another member of the "Terez has listened to it over 100 times and doesn't even feel embarrassed to admit it" club.

Tom H.? Your opinion here?

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:28 PM
I'm still trying to decide if even bad pizza is good....;)

Thanks for a great blog, Terez!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 3:27 PM
Terez - With me, Tchaik has a couple of strikes against him. I am not a particular fan of ballet or dance music (sorry, I know that is an important aspect of your background), and he tends to be too Romantic for my taste. Last winter, my orch played a Tchaik waltz from one of the ballets at its concert. My comment to my stand partner was, "it's a trifecta. I dislike waltzes, I dislike ballet, and I dislike Tchaikovsky." That said, the slow movement of his violin concerto is one of the most beautiful, haunting pieces I know. When I go to our summer house every summer where my mother's ashes are scattered, I play it for her/in her memory. I have not listened closely enough to Souvenir de Florence to have a strong opinion. I will give it a listen and let you know.
From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 4:15 PM
The orchestra I play in did the 1st a few years back. There was some grousing that the 1st wasn't as good as the 4th, 5th, or 6th. The conductor said to think of the 1st as "baby pictures." I loved that analogy, as the symphony does indeed show glimmers of where Tchaikovsky was going.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 5:00 PM
Thanks for your comments, Lisa, Tom and Laurie! Tom, I laughed over your trifecta comment - would have loved to see your expression as you said it. Lisa, enjoyed the "baby pictures" image. Here's something Michael Steinberg said in his program notes for the San Francisco Symphony's performance. In fact, I'll stick the whole first paragraph here:

We tend to think of most first symphonies as initial excursions toward greater things. But Tchaikovsky's No. 1 also merits attention and honor in its own right. At its best, it is bold, inventive, and assured in a way that the composer would not capture again until the first movement of the Fourth Symphony (1877-78) and indeed not manage through an entire symphonic span until the Pathétique (1893). Tchaikovsky remained fond of Winter Daydreams. John Warrack quotes him telling a friend in 1883, the year it was first heard in its final form, that “for all its deficiencies, I have a soft spot for it as one of the sins of my sweet youth.”

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 5:05 PM
This, by the way, was lovely and touching, Tom:

>That said, the slow movement of his violin concerto is one of the most beautiful, haunting pieces I know. When I go to our summer house every summer where my mother's ashes are scattered, I play it for her/in her memory.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 6:47 PM
I don't know Tchaik #1, but now I'm glad to have a recommendation to seek out. In orchestra we just played Beethoven #1 and I like the image of "baby pictures" for that one too . . . and then we played the Choral Fantasie which is kind of a baby picture for the 9th.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 1, 2012 at 7:00 PM
Wouldn't "baby pictures" be a great thread topic? Love the image of it. : )

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