Length: 9 minutes
The accepted structure of the modern piano recital (first and second half divided by an intermission) may be responsible for the exclusion of Tchaikovsky's Dumka for piano, Op. 59, from the standard concert repertory. It is difficult to place on a program. At nearly nine minutes, it shares the duration of a Chopin Ballade, but has no suitable companion pieces to accompany it. It is not part of a set of compositions, and Tchaikovsky wrote nothing similar that might pair well. By itself it is too short to occupy an entire half of a recital. So, by default, it begins the program. Given the intensity and range of emotions contained in this small masterpiece, the Dumka deserves a contemplative pause to isolate it from the rest of the program.
By April of 1885, Tchaikovsky had sought refuge from hectic metropolitan life and taken up solitary residence in the countryside far north of Moscow. The previous decade had taken its toll. The tragedy of his failed marriage, coming to terms with his homosexuality, the deaths of mentors and family, and a hectic schedule of work, left the composer prone to occasional periods of depression and drinking. The financial support of his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, eased his circumstances to some degree and after intermittent travels abroad, Tchaikovsky found much in his new environment inspiring and comforting. He wrote to von Meck:
"I love our Russian countryside more than any other, and for me the Russian landscape in winter has an incomparable charm… It's a marvelous day, sunny, the snow is glistening like myriads of diamonds and is thawing slightly, my window gives me a wide view right into the distance. It's wonderful and spacious, you can breathe properly in these immense horizons."
The Dumka, published the following year, bears the subtitle "Rustic Russian Scene."
A form of Polish or Ukrainian ballad, a dumka is characterized by a predominantly sad or plaintive tone contrasted with a central celebratory section. Given the biographical events leading up to its composition, it is difficult not to hear the composer's personal narrative in this music. The opening chords establish an immediate mood of intense melancholy and solitude. A pleading repeated pattern leads into the central "con anima" section and its dance-like folkloric exuberance. But the darkness of the opening is not dispelled, and a desolate resignation closes in, concluding the emotional journey more sadly than it began. Tchaikovsky wrote, again to von Meck:
"You want to know my methods of composing… the circumstances under which a new work comes into the world vary considerably in each case.
"(1) Works I compose on my own initiative - that is to say, from an invincible inward impulse.
"(2) Works that are inspired by external circumstances: the wish of a friend, or publisher, and commissioned work.
"Works belonging to the first category do not require the least effort of will. It is only necessary to obey our inward promptings, and if our material life does not crush our artistic life under its weight of depressing circumstances, the work progresses with inconceivable rapidity. Everything else is forgotten, the soul throbs with an incomprehensible and indescribable excitement, so that, almost before we can follow this swift flight of inspiration, time passes literally unreckoned and unobserved."
The Dumka is an epic on a small scale, its emotional charge no less potent than that of the Pathetique Symphony to be composed six years later.
-- Grant Hiroshima is Executive Director of a private foundation in Chicago and the former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.