Winter Daydreams: A Guide to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1

Following the success of the recently opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first institution of its kind in Russia, a second conservatory opened in Moscow in 1866. Among the new professors was one of the first graduates of the St. Petersburg school: a young composer named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

"Pancake Week," by Kustodiyev Boris Mikhailovich (1916).

“Pancake Week,” by Kustodiyev Boris Mikhailovich (1916). Pancake week was a week of festivities celebrated before Lent, similar to Mardi Gras or Carnival in the West.

A large proportion of the Moscow Conservatory’s first students were young women, many of whom had no ambition to become professional musicians. Tchaikovsky wrote to his stepmother, “I confess I was terrified at the sight of such an enormous number of crinolines, chignons, etc. But I still hope that I shall manage to captivate these fays…” Captivate them he did, although not in the way he had hoped. One of his female students later remembered him as “young, with nice-looking, almost beautiful features, a deep, expressive gaze in his beautiful dark eyes, fluffy, carelessly combed hair, and a marvelous blond beard.” He had plenty of admirers, although the painfully shy, homosexual composer was frustrated by the lack of seriousness some of them displayed toward their musical studies. Imagining him as Apollo surrounded by the Graces, Tchaikovsky’s father wryly responded to his letter: “I should be very curious to see you sitting there, blushing in confusion.”

Tchaikovsky, photographed in autumn 1865, just months before he moved to Moscow.

Tchaikovsky, photographed in autumn 1865, just months before he moved to Moscow.

By March of 1866, the young professor embarked on a major project: his First Symphony, a milestone for any composer. He had composed about half-a-dozen shorter orchestral works thus far, only a couple of which had been performed, but felt ready to attempt something more ambitious. “No other work cost him such effort and suffering…Despite painstaking and arduous work, its composition was fraught with difficulty,” recalled his younger brother Modest.

Tchaikovsky became increasingly frustrated with his teaching responsibilities, which took time away from his composing. Thus, during his summer vacation, he joined his family at a small dacha outside St. Petersburg determined to make serious progress on his symphony. He worked late into the night, consuming numerous cigarettes, until he suffered a breakdown from exhaustion. He never composed after sundown again.

"The Azure of February," by Grabar (Khrabrov) Igor Emmanuilovich (1904 ).

“The Azure of February,” by Grabar (Khrabrov) Igor Emmanuilovich
(1904 ).

Before returning to Moscow, he showed his still unfinished score to some of his former professors at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, hoping they would agree to have it performed once it was finished. Unfortunately, they did not like his new work and offered many criticisms, most of which Tchaikovsky felt were unjustified. He would spend over a year more slaving over the symphony that refused to cooperate, and would make further revisions to it in 1874, some eight years after beginning it.

Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky had a special fondness for the work, regarding it as “a sin of my sweet youth.” Its charming melodies and vivid orchestration give little hint of the trouble it cost the composer, and the unmistakable Tchaikovsky sound is already in every measure.

Tchaikovsky gave the symphony the descriptive title “Winter Daydreams,” and gave atmospheric titles to the first two movements as well. The first movement, Daydreams of a Winter Journey, begins with an enchanting melody in the flute and bassoon:

The melody is developed and varied with new orchestral colors, leading to a fortissimo. A second, contrasting melody in the clarinet follows, leading to brilliant, brassy fanfares. The ensuing development becomes increasingly turbulent, until the music suddenly comes to a halt. The main melodies then reappear, and the movement ends quietly with a final reminiscence of the opening theme.

The slow second movement, Land of Gloom, Land of Mist, is one of his most inspired. After an introduction from muted strings, a dreamy melody appears in the oboe. A contrasting theme follows in the violas and flutes. The two themes alternate as Tchaikovsky creates exquisite, snowy orchestral effects around them. The main theme returns first in the cellos, then in the horns for a climactic variation. The opening string introduction then returns as the movement fades away.

The third movement is a scherzo, a fast, dance-like movement that showcases Tchaikovsky’s ingenuity as an orchestrator. The original, Italian meaning of the word scherzo is “joke,” and with a tempo marking of Allegro scherzando giocoso, or “fast and jokingly playful,” Tchaikovsky seems to have taken it literally, creating an unpredictable play of sonorities. The mischievous outer sections surround a more lyrical center, the theme of which briefly reappears just before the movement ends with a final joke.

The last movement is based on a variant of the Russian folk song “I will plant, young one,” which Tchaikovsky could have heard sung in towns throughout Russia. Here is a translation* of one version of the song:

I will plant, young one,
A few flowers,
The flowers will start blooming,
And tearing at my heart.

I gazed at the flowers,
With my heart fainting,
With my little heart fainting,
Waiting for my friend.

How is my joy coming along,
He’s not coming soon.
I see, I see, that my joy
Doesn’t want to love me.

Love, love, my joy,
Whomever you wish!
I said farewell to you,
Now you say farewell to me!

The movement’s slow introduction begins with the bassoons playing a fragment of the folk song, which gradually emerges in a lugubrious version played by the violins. The music then becomes faster and faster, leading to an exultant new theme for full orchestra. Tchaikovsky shows off his contrapuntal skill, weaving multiple melodies together in a kaleidoscopic texture. The folk song then returns in a faster, dancing version for bassoons and violas. After a contrapuntal development, the exultant theme for full orchestra reappears, but soon after the music breaks off. The slow introduction returns, but this time it builds up to a grand, regal statement of the folk song for full orchestra. Tchaikovsky then concludes with exhilarating orchestral fireworks, proving that even in his First Symphony, he was a master of the grand finale.

Don’t miss Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 at Rice University’s Stude Concert Hall September 28, 30 & October 1. Get tickets and more info here.

*Many thanks to Daniil Kabotyanski for providing this translation.

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