Monthly Archives: June 2015

Tchaikovsky: [re]creating the First

 

Back in 2013, when this blog was but a fledgling, I thought it would be clever, as my very first post, to discuss Tchaikovsky creating his first symphony. The post, entitled “Creating the First” applied to both him and me, you see. I just love Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 and I love the story behind it. However, since it was the first post in a blog that had zero readers besides my husband, a few of my siblings and/or saintly friends, well, it didn’t get much reading coverage.

So, indulge me, dear reader. And do read on. It’s a great story and a great work of music. To this day, it’s one of my favorites among Tchaikovsky’s many treasures.

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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:

  • Rubenstein: [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?
  • Rubenstein: [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.]
  • Rubenstein: [Shrugs.] Typical, know-it-all, new conservatory graduate.
  • Zaremba: [Shakes head.] Kids.
  • Rubenstein: No kidding. Kids.
  • Zaremba: Don’t worry. History will eventually prove whose is the greater talent.
  • Rubenstein: Well, except you might not like how short your Wiki is.
  • Zaremba: [Hesitates.] What’s a Wiki?
  • Rubenstein: 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, textured, 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, pensive, 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.

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Henri Dutilleux & “Tout un Monde Lointain”

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“Tout un monde lointain, absent, Presque defunct, vit dans tes profondeurs, forêt aromatique,” (A whole distant world, absent, barely alive, dwells in your depths, oh scented forest.)

Mstislav Rostropovich commissioned this cello concerto. The poetry of Charles Baudelaire inspired it, albeit loosely. Pierre Boulez disdained its composer, Henri Dutilleux, and his work, which might be why Henri Dutilleux isn’t as famous as Pierre Boulez, who played such a big part in the contemporary classical music scene in post WW II France.

The concerto’s full title is “Tout un monde lointain… (‘A Whole Distant World…’) for Cello and Orchestra.” I heard it for the first time in 2011, performed by the San Francisco Symphony, featuring cellist Gautier Capuçon. It begins with an ever-so-soft, shimmery sound, a stiff metal brush against a drum head that commences the first movement. Dutilleux claimed that at the night of the concerto’s premiere in Aix-en-Provence, right as the concert began, in that instant, “a new breeze began gently to rustle the leaves of the plane tree, like the sound of waves and very similar to what I had been searching for when I wrote the score.” Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen. And thus, under that magic spell, the cello begins, offering its contemplative reply.

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Listening, I felt as if I’d been transported inside a movie. One of those older ones, the kind you saw first as a kid, and it utterly engrossed you, encapsulated you, and of course it had a great soundtrack; it was all about the soundtrack, and was likely a mystery, a black and white one, a thoughtful movie, something sort of Twilight Zone-ish.

French-born and trained Gautier Capuçon, as the soloist, was sublime. This was the second time I’d seen him perform and his efforts never fail to render me starry-eyed with admiration and infatuation. He had a thoughtful, intelligent way of playing the concerto, head angled in, as if he were finding the notes, the music, that was there, deep within the cello. He wasn’t making music so much as releasing it into the air. I can’t decide if his stellar playing is in part due to his charismatic good looks and demeanor or that the two simply go hand in hand with him. I first saw him perform the Schumann Cello Concerto in 2009 and, like this night, was completely wowed by him and his performance. My verdict: he is both sublimely talented and pleasing to watch perform. (Check back here at The Classical Girl in a few weeks’  time, when I’ll devote an entire blog post to the exceptional Mr. Capuçon.)

Dutilleux, a mid-to-late 20th century composer who died in 2013, was not a serialist, a twelve-tone-ist, a modernist, a sentimentalist. He shunned “isms” and set styles, and composed from his own well of individualism and carefully crafted creativity. His career was one of “quality not quantity” and won him many accolades and commissions from world-class musicians and ensembles, although he was certainly not a household name, even within the classical music world. Plenty of classical music aficionados have never heard of him or his music. Which is a shame, because this guy composed some damned incredible music. Which is why I’m glad I have The Classical Girl to give Henri Dutilleux a post-humous shout-out.

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His music is striking. Moody, evocative, conjuring up colors and complex feelings and moods that you’re not sure how to define. And yet, lest we all get too sentimental, in alternating movements of “Tout un monde lointain…” the cello gets feisty, the music harsher, more dissonant. The brass lets out a blast and there’s all sorts of drama going on. Like cockroaches crawling around in the night and you turn on the light in a room and they all scatter in a panic.

But just when the third movement of “Tout un Monde Lointain” had me thinking I didn’t really like the concerto that much, the fourth movement brought the strumming of a harp and a return of the dreaminess, albeit with an edge to it—an uneasiness, a mystery, but the kind that draws you in, captivates you. Like seeing a blood-red rose poking out of a snow-covered yard on an overcast winter twilight, and you don’t have shoes on, so you don’t go to check it out closer, you just marvel at the sight. It’s cold and you’re alone, but there’s that compelling, mysterious sight.

The concerto’s final movement brings the listener back to agitation, lively discord, melodic but not, with the cello’s final notes just sort of trailing off, as ambiguous an ending as they come. I left the concert hall an hour later, slightly discomfited, not sure exactly what I remembered, or would remember. Perhaps just the memory of Gautier Capuçon’s artistry, those slower, pensive moments where he was bent over his cello, finding those notes, releasing them into the air for the spellbound audience to catch.

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This article first appeared, in different form, at Violinist.com. You can read it HERE.