Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Program Notes

Overture to Manfred, Opus 115

Robert Alexander Schumann was born in Zwickau, Saxony, on June 8, 1810, and died in Endenich, a suburb of Bonn, on July 29, 1856. He wrote music for Byron’s Manfred—an overture and fifteen numbers, six of them musically complete, the rest serving as musical accompaniment to spoken text—during 1848 and 1849, himself conducting the first performance of the overture at a Leipzig Gewandhaus concert on March 14, 1852. The score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration of the overture is about 12 minutes.

Like so many romantic composers whose temperament was fundamentally undramatic, Schumann longed to write a successful opera. (For one thing, an opera would pay him fees for performance rights, which was not the case with almost any other musical genre; the few composers who became wealthy were successful on the operatic stage.) He did complete a full‑scale opera called Genoveva in 1848, but the work, for all its many musical beauties, was theatrically stillborn.

But Genoveva was by no means his only approach to dramatic writing. Soon after completing it, he turned to one of the most influential of Romantic poets, Lord Byron, to produce a musical setting of his poetic drama Manfred. When Schumann was inspired, he worked at white heat. He read Byron’s play (in a German translation) on July 29, 1848. Joseph von Wasielewski, his concertmaster in Düsseldorf recalled that on one occasion the composer read aloud from  Manfred, and “his voice suddenly failed him, tears started from his eyes, and he was so overcome that he could read no further.”

Byron’s play was written in 1816-17 after its twenty-eight year old poet had heard an oral recitation of Goethe’s Faust (which the German poet still had not yet finished) and found himself inspired by the image of a seeker, a striver, who never achieves contentment. In Manfred, though, the principle character is subject to an orgy of guilt and remorse for reasons that remain unexplained. (It seems to reflect Byron’s feelings about his own incestuous summer liaison in 1813 with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh, a fact that was not known to Schumann, who would have been horrified at the very idea.) But Byron’s romantic language struck him in the aftermath of the sudden death, just eight months earlier, of his good friend Felix Mendelssohn, and this emotion certainly affected him as well.

Within a week he began preparing an adaptation of the text for musical purposes, though not of opera. He kept much of the spoken dialogue, alternating it with fifteen brief musical numbers—vocal, choral, and orchestral. In mid-August he put the work aside temporarily for other duties, but when, in mid-October, he returned to Manfred, he worked on it steadily, composing the overture in the last weeks of the month and completing the rest of the score in November. It was finally performed in June 1852, only because of the generous championing of Franz Liszt, who directed the performance in Weimar. The hybrid nature of the work has prevented it from having many performances, but the overture has long been regarded as one of Schumann’s finest orchestral achievements, and he himself referred to it as one of his “most powerful children.”

The fast chords, played off the beat and suggesting a headlong rush, begin the piece, only to turn suddenly to a slow introduction with an intensely chromatic line and unstable harmonies. A few bars later, a melody in the violins anticipates what will be the main theme of the Allegro. The dark E-flat minor key and the intense thematic development both contribute to the success of this overture in capturing the personality of Byron’s anti-hero. An ending that restates the dark opening music rounds off the work musically even as it signals defeat for the principle character.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B‑flat minor, Opus 23

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, in the district of Vyatka, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on May 18, 1893. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 between November 1874 and February 21, 1875. The first performance took place in Boston on October 25, 1875, with Hans von Bülow as the soloist and B.J. Lang conducting. In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 32 minutes.

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had its premiere performance not in the composer’s native Russia (where, naturally, most of his work was first heard), but in the distant United States, a country that the composer himself would not visit for nearly twenty years. And thereby hangs a tale…

Nikolay Rubinstein, director of the Moscow Conservatory from its founding in 1866 to his death in 1881, was a younger brother of Tchaikovsky’s teacher Anton Rubinstein, then quite well known as a composer. Both Rubinstein brothers thought very highly of the young Tchaikovsky, and Nikolay actually the conducted the premieres of a great many of his works: the first four symphonies, Eugene Onegin, Romeo and Juliet, Marche Slave, the Capriccio italien, and the Rococo Variations. Tchaikovsky certainly planned his first piano concerto especially for Nikolay, intending that he should receive the dedication and play the solo part in the first performance.

It was not to be. On Christmas Eve of 1874, Tchaikovsky took the manuscript to Rubinstein to ask him about some technical details of the keyboard writing. He played through the first movement and received only stony silence. With mounting apprehension, Tchaikovsky played through to the end and turned to ask him, “Well?” As Tchaikovsky described it later, Rubinstein broke out in a torrent of abuse, saying that the concerto was fragmented, vulgar, clumsy, and imitative. “I was not just astounded but outraged by the whole scene. I am no longer a boy trying his hand at composition and I no longer need lessons from anyone, especially when they are offered so harshly and in such a spirit of hostility.” Rubinstein, attempting to pour oil on troubled waters, promised to play the piece—if Tchaikovsky reworked it in accordance with his demands. The composer’s response: “I shall not alter a single note; I shall publish the work exactly as it is.” Rubinstein eventually became a firm champion of the concerto, but in the meantime the composer dedicated it to Hans von Bülow, the distinguished German pianist and conductor who had written an important early review praising Tchaikovsky’s music. (Tchaikovsky evidently asked him to premiere it as far from Russia as possible, in case it should fail utterly.) Von Bülow happily accepted the dedication and prepared to premiere the piece at one of a series of concerts he gave in Boston late in 1875 with the orchestra of the Harvard Musical Association, a pickup ensemble that gave regular orchestral concerts in the years before the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The distinguished Boston composer George W. Chadwick, then just about to turn 21, heard the performance and recalled in a memoir years later, “They had not rehearsed much and the trombones got in wrong in the ‘tutti’ in the middle of the first movement, whereupon Bülow sang out in a perfectly audible voice, ‘The brass may go to hell.’ This was the first Tchaikovsky piece I ever heard and I thought it the greatest ever, but it rather mystified some of our local scribes [the critics], who could not have dreamed how many times they would have to hear it in the future.”

The Tchaikovsky concerto has long since become so popular that we forget how striking a work it is. Its famous introductory section has been patronized on the grounds that it has nothing to do with the rest of the work; but Tchaikovsky’s biographer David Brown has demonstrated that the opening section in fact provides a veritable anthology of harmonic progressions and melodic fragments that reappear in many guises throughout the concerto. Tchaikovsky surely did not calculate all these relationships in rational or mathematical ways. It is more likely that his mind was whirling with these gestures and that they coalesced in various ways satisfying to his inner ear. They are, in any case, quite subtle, but they set the stage suitably for the main body of the movement.

The concerto shows remarkable originality in its treatment of the “concerto problem,” the opposition and coordination of soloist and orchestra. Tchaikovsky finds imaginative solutions to the formal demands, too—even though he never believed that he had sufficient mastery of form, despite that fact that he regularly outshone his Russian colleagues precisely in the matter of musical architecture.

The popularity of the concerto begins precisely with the unusual introduction, a well-loved tune, made even more popular in the early ’40s when it was converted into a Tin Pan Alley tune called “Tonight we love” by denaturing the meter from 3/4 to 4/4. It is, surprisingly, in the relative major of D-flat, not the home key of B-flat minor. The main theme that follows is a Ukrainian folk song, but Tchaikovsky is not so much concerned with investigating Russian folklore as he is interested here in the dramatic opposition of soloist and orchestra.

The second theme is a poignant Tchaikovskyan melody with a gently rocking accompaniment familiar from his earlier Romeo and Juliet. This happens to begin with the notes D-flat and A. Tchaikovsky’s biographer David Brown argues that the concerto as a whole recalls the composer’s deep affection for the soprano Desirée Artôt, to whom Tchaikovsky was engaged in the winter of 1868-69, before she suddenly married another singer. Several musical references suggest that he still thought of Artôt, evidently the only woman that he ever loved, very warmly some five years after the end of their relationship. One clue, Brown maintains, is the prominence of the pitches D-flat and A, which in German would be called Des and A, as in DESirée Artôt. (This use of one’s initials spelled out in musical pitches is something Tchaikovsky might well have learned from the music of Schumann, who employed the device often, and whose music Tchaikovsky admired.)

The second movement combines elements of both a slow movement and a scherzo. The slow part features a flute melody with a reply by the soloist. The faster portion quotes a French song, Il faut s’amuser (“One must amuse oneself, dance, and laugh”); this song was in the repertory of Artôt and makes a particularly clear reference to her, since otherwise the tune has little overt connection with the other themes in the score.

For his finale, Tchaikovsky concentrates on the effective alternation of his materials, the first theme another Ukrainian folk song, and the second a tranquil string melody. He connects these by having the string melody enter over the soloist’s development of the first theme, but for the most part this finale aims at virtuosic excitement, and hits its mark.

CARL NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 4, Opus 29, The Inextinguishable

Carl August Nielsen was born in Norre‑Lyndelse, Fyn, Denmark, on June 9, 1865, and died in Copenhagen on October 3, 1931. He began to sketch the Symphony No. 4 in 1914 and completed the work on January 14, 1916. He himself conducted the first performance with the orchestra of the Copenhagen Music Society in Odd Fellows Hall, Copenhagen, on February 1, 1916. The score calls for three flutes (one doubling piccolo), three oboes, three clarinets, three bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings. There are two sets of timpani and two players, the second stationed opposite the first. Duration is about 36 minutes.

Carl Nielsen grew up in a rural environment and from early childhood developed a love of the natural world and a remarkably insightful perception of human beings and their role in the world. Though he had artistic leanings to both the visual arts and literature, his musical gift was even stronger. It was discovered early because his father played violin and cornet as a much sought-after village musician. His mother sang him simple songs, and he learned to imitate them, at the age of six, on a small violin. By nine he had become part of an amateur orchestra, thus extending his horizons to orchestral dance movements and a few symphonic excerpts from Haydn and Mozart. Yet he remained a product of the country, earning some of the family’s income by looking after geese during school holidays and developing a realistic and utterly down-to-earth character, which remained an important part of his music.

Though he long earned his living as an orchestral violinist, Nielsen’s real interest quickly turned to composing. His First Symphony (1894) revealed a strong Brahmsian influence, but his Second, The Four Temperaments, was already wonderfully personal, characteristic. To many of his symphonies he gave a title, intended to suggest the general character and no more. Like the others, the “Expansive Symphony” grew out of purely musical concerns and makes its dramatic and lyrical points with purely musical techniques. Most significant of these is Nielsen’s tendency to shape a symphony in what has been called “progressive tonality,” written not so much in a key as toward it. The Third Symphony, for example, begins undeniably in D minor, but it ends in A major; throughout its entire course, Nielsen sets up conflicts of tonality that eventually resolve in the latter key.

The Fourth Symphony was composed during two of the most harrowing years of the 20th century, from 1914 to 1916, when the vast European war broke out in August 1914 and quickly became a grinding, repetitive, murderous slog that wore away four full years of human history and changed forever our perceptions of “before” and “after.” Given the horrors that were unfolding only a few hundred miles from where he lived, it is astonishing that Nielsen retained his essentially positive view of life. He was by no means blind to the situation along the hundreds of miles of trench warfare, where one side might gain a few yards today only to lose them next month—and both advances and retreats taking an appalling waste in the lives of young men from Germany, France, Belgium and England.

Perhaps the strongest sign of Nielsen’s trust in the “life force” is the title he gave his Fourth Symphony. This is not the “Inextinguishable Symphony”—as if the title were an adjective intended to describe the music. No, in Danish the title is in the neuter, and it refers to that which is inextinguishable in human life and in the world of nature.

In a short epigraph to the score, Nielsen noted that the title was intended “to indicate in one word what the music alone is capable of expressing to the full: The elemental Will of Life.” This sounds highly poetic, but what is most impressive is the purely musical way that he achieves it.

In the Third Symphony, Nielsen had cast the music into the standard four movements, with a break between them. In the Fourth, the work unfolds with four sections that function and sound like the four movements of a traditional symphony, but that are linked directly from one to another. He had been immensely impressed by Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor, which was shaped in much the same way. And he had gotten well started on the new symphony by mid-July 1914, which he described in a letter to a friend as “a sort of symphony in one movement, which is meant to represent all that we feel and think about life in the most fundamental sense of the word, that is, all that has the will to live and to move.” Only a few days after the writing of this letter the world exploded with an assassination in Sarajevo and all the countries in Europe, with interlocking secret treaties of mutual support, found themselves facing one another in battle.

It is hard to know exactly how much the ground-plan of the symphony might have changed because of the war, but there is no change in Nielsen’s fundamental decency or his sense of the ultimate success of the “inextinguishable,” which wins out at the end of the work even though the war still had nearly three years to run (though no one could have realized this) as he penned the closing pages).

It is difficult to discuss Nielsen’s achievement without getting at least slightly involved in technical explanations. Essentially the piece begins with music that seems to be in D minor (or perhaps major—it changes often), but that key is undermined by a simultaneous suggestion of C. So even without a guidebook, it is clear from the opening measures that all is not well, that there is a state of struggle. Ultimately the symphony will end in a glowing E major, and the final end point can be glimpsed (or rather heard) briefly at various points in the course of the symphony until it finally becomes the only possible ending for the music.

The symphony opens with an outburst of great energy with the woodwinds and the strings emphasizing different keys (D and E respectively) but unfolding essentially the same musical ideas, rhythmically vigorous (with long and short notes appearing in surprising places to complicate our sense of the meter) and at a great speed. The argument gradually calms down. A pair of clarinets sings a sweet duet in thirds (later echoed by other woodwinds), but the rest of the orchestra objects to more of this and breaks out with a restatement of the very opening soon after with the introduction of a new idea in E—the first strong statement of the key that will be the final goal of the symphony.

First violins over a solo timpani rhythm link the first movement with the Poco Allegretto. This tempo, and indeed this whole movement, seem to reflect the kind of substitution for a scherzo that Brahms liked to employ—not too fast, not too slow, often quite charming and slightly old-fashioned in feel. The woodwinds are featured throughout, and the movement offers a splendid example of Nielsen’s ear for woodwind color.

As the last hint of the movement dies away in a faltering clarinet flutter, the violins enter with a passionately intense statement to introduce the slow movement (in E, though chromatic and not immediately stable). It becomes less stable when the woodwinds begin to return (solo flute first), agitating and building to a massive orchestral climax. A short statement lickety-split in the strings sounds as if it is going to turn into a fugue—but it suddenly stops in a grand pause and the finale begins.

The last movement begins with a vigorous waltz theme that is not allowed to dance because it is part of the final struggle of the life force to exert itself. The key signature suggests A major (which is closely related to E), but the timpanists—two players—begin attacking any sense of key by playing the “forbidden” interval of the tritone (F/B, or D-flat/G), once called “the devil in music,” to confound any sense of “home.” Eventually a clear A-major rings out as the orchestra—including timpani—the perfect fifth (E down to A), which banishes the “devil” (Nielsen marks this passage “glorioso.”) But it is still necessary to reach the destination, E major. Further struggle occurs, culminating in the arrival of the brass instruments pouring forth the melody that the clarinets had introduced in thirds back in the first movement—now climactically in E, a key that the rest of the orchestra confirms to bring the symphony to its glorious climax, celebrating all that is Inextinguishable.


© Steven Ledbetter (