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SASO Program Notes - October 1, 2016

Notes on the Program

Pietor I. Tchaikovsky (born Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia November 6, 1893)

Marche Slave (composed 1876; premiered Moscow, November 17, 1876)

Capriccio Italienne (composed 1880; premiered Moscow, December18, 1880)

Piano Concerto No. 1 (composed 1874-1875; premiered Boston, October 25, 1875)

Pietor Tchaikovsky was born into the family of a Russian civil servant and, even though he showed an amazing aptitude for music at an early age, was sent to a boarding school specializing in the preparation of civil servants by the time he had turned 10.  While music was not a priority at the school, he still managed to continue his musical training by attending operas and other performances.  His musical tastes ran to Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi.  After graduating from school in 1859, he completed a three-year term as a member of the civil service.  His musical genius, however, could not be denied, and he soon found himself as a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. 

Tchaikovsky spent many years teaching, composing, and traveling throughout Russia and Europe.  In fact, many Russian leaders were suspicious of the composer’s talents and output, often accusing him of being “too influenced by the West.”   However, as Russia, particularly the leaders in St. Petersburg, began to open trade and travel to Paris and other European centers, Tchaikovsky regained favor and in fact was held up as an innovator.  Throughout this time, he continued to travel throughout Europe and held positions in both Moscow and St. Petersburg.  While his compositions were regularly commissioned, well-regarded, and performed soon after they were completed, he struggled with teaching others the craft of composition, moving in and out of conservatory and other positions that required him to interact with students.

He went on to compose some of the best-known pieces in a variety of genres, including ballet, symphonic repertoire, and concerti. His career saw him garner awards from governments throughout the world.  He died of cholera shortly after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony in November, 1893 and was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery, along with other influential Russian composers, including Mussorgsky, Borodin, Glinka, and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Marche Slave (originally titled Slavonic March, but more commonly known by its translation into French) was commissioned during the war between Serbia and the Ottoman Empire.  Russia openly supported the Serbs, both because of the Slavic roots of both regimes, and the religious overtones of the conflict, Orthodox Christians versus the Muslim Turks.  Tchaikovsky was asked to compose a work for the benefit of wounded Serbian soldiers and produced the work in a relatively short span during the summer of 1876.  Thematically, the piece uses two Slavic folk songs to represent suffering, as well as Russian National Anthem and other triumphant melodic fragments.  Some of these musical elements are shared with the more famous 1812 Overture.  The piece is a triumphant work, allowing the orchestra to show off in musical and technical ways and the audience to get a glimpse of the genius of one of the greatest composers of the late Romantic era.

By the time Tchaikovsky had reached his late 30s, he was both well-known and financially comfortable enough to travel extensively.  On one of his extended trips through Europe, he spent a good deal of time in Rome, where he was inspired by everything from a street carnival, to an Italian Cavalry bugler calling the troops to order, to a variety of folk music performed in taverns and on the streets.  To these memories, he added a desire to produce music “similar to the Spanish Fantasias of Glinka.”  The result is the wonderful Capriccio Italien, which weaves five different melodic elements into a warm, rich and exciting fantasy, all while showing the composer’s mastery of orchestration and ability to produce tone colors that are unique to his style.

In December, 1874 Tchaikovsky showed his Piano Concerto in B-flat to Anton Rubenstein, the preeminent Russian pianist of the day, hoping that he would not only praise the work, but be willing to champion its performance.  Unfortunately, Rubenstein was utterly unimpressed, to the point of recommending that Tchaikovsky not keep a single note of the work.  While the composer was filled with self-doubt throughout his career, we are fortunate that he ignored the performer’s comments, keeping the piece intact and instead asking Hans von Bulow to premiere the work the next year in Boston.  Von Bulow, the audience, and the musical world immediately accepted the work, and Rubenstein later admitted that he had made a mistake, performing the work regularly late in his career.  The concerto has traces of Ukrainian folk songs throughout, particularly in the first and third movements and many listerners may be familiar with introductory theme as the melody from the popular song from the 1940s, Tonight We Love.  The piece is also the one on which Van Cliburn vaulted to fame in the 1950s and 1960s.  The opening movement is one of the more familiar in classical music, with the pianist moving between powerful, chordal sections and lyrical, almost plaintive themes requring the most delicate interpretation.  Also included are bouncy passages requiring both reach and dexterity from the soloist’s hands, and a closing section that brings both orchestra and soloist to the fore.  The second movement is quite elegaic, as many of the composer’s later works became.  The pensive, almost restrained passages bring a totally different feeling than either of the outer movements.  The closing movement returns to excitement and passion, with quick scale passages, bouncing sections and full, celebratory themes shared by the soloist and all members of the orchestra.

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