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A Russian orchestra that programs two works by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is doing something right. Born into a cultured family, Peter Ilyich was trained for the law and was in government service until, at 21, he decided to devote himself entirely to music, entering the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. As he gained a small foothold in his chosen field, his reluctance to become a card carrying member of the “Mighty Five,” Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, whose goal it was to foster Russian nationalism, set him apart from an important musical group in his beloved country. Yet, in spite of Tchaikovsky’s reverence for such Germanic composers as Mozart and Schumann and his adherence to German symphonic forms as the structural basis for his works, his music is permeated with unmistakable Russianness.
About the national identity of Tchaikovsky’s music, Igor Stravinsky set the record straight when he said, “Tchaikovsky’s music is often more profoundly Russian than music which has long since been awarded the facile label of Muscovite picturesqueness. This music is quite as Russian as Pushkin’s verse or Glinka’s song.” Tchaikovsky himself said, “I passionately love every manifestation of the Russian spirit. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.”
Quite apart from the character of Tchaikovsky’s music was the character of his inner life, and this was, in a word, a mess. Rebukes to his music caused this most sensitive of men deep suffering. And his efforts to keep his homosexuality from becoming public knowledge grew to nearly unbearable proportions. As a consequence of trying to throw the world off the track, he married. The result was very nearly ruinous, and he barely climbed out of the emotional abyss into which he had fallen. So it was that in October of 1879, Tchaikovsky was visiting with his sister at Kamenka, in the Ukraine. Only recently recovered from the trauma of his destined-to-fail marriage, he gave himself over to relaxation, “to read, walk, play, dream, to my heart’s content,” he wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck. Such a diversion as hemming and marking towels, however, satisfied him but briefly, as he admitted to his brother Modest. “These last days I’ve begun to observe in myself things which at first I didn’t understand,” he confided, continuing, “I experienced a certain vague dissatisfaction with myself, an over-frequent and almost irresistible desire to sleep, a certain emptiness, and finally boredom.... Finally, yesterday it became fully apparent what was the matter. I had to get on with something. I find myself absolutely incapable of living long without work. Today I began to create something, and the boredom vanished as if by magic.” The ‘something’ was the Second Piano Concerto.
He worked on the Concerto in fits and starts at Kamenka, took it up again in Rome in February 1880, and completed the scoring in May. Mindful of his experience with his friend and confidant Nicholas Rubinstein who had hurt him deeply by declaring the First Piano Concerto banal and unplayable (with friends like that...), Tchaikovsky still decided to offer the dedication of the new work to him. “Yet though Rubinstein may this time also be severely critical, this won’t matter if he plays it as splendidly as he does the First Concerto,” he explained to his publisher Jurgenson. “However,” he added with no little sarcasm, “it’s desirable that in this instance the gap between the denunciation and the performance should be shorter.” [After Hans von Bülow premiered the First Concerto – in Boston in 1875 – Rubinstein took up the piece and performed it frequently, albeit in a Tchaikovsky-revised version.]
This time, Rubinstein’s reaction was positive and he asked to premiere the new Concerto. But fate intervened. Rubinstein died, and Sergei Taneyev gave the first Russian performance of the work, in Moscow in May 1882; the conductor was Anton Rubinstein, brother of the late Nicholas. (Amazingly, like his First Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky’s Second Concerto premiered in America – played in New York by Madeline Schiller with Theodore Thomas conducting.) Although the Concerto was well received in Moscow, it quickly lost favor with the public; and new dilemmas vis-à-vis the work ensued. Taneyev communicated some reservations about it and suggested some cuts and revisions. The composer, having already made some changes for performances he conducted with the young pianist Vasily Sapelnikov, wrote to Taneyev: “I freely admit that [the concerto] suffers from its length, and I regret that those persons to whom it was entrusted two years ago for critical scrutiny (Nicholas Rubinstein and Taneyev) didn’t indicate this failing at the proper time. In this they would have been doing me a great service – one perhaps even greater than the superb performance of the concerto in its present, so imperfect form.”
Soon, another editor, in the person of Alexander Siloti, a former pupil of Tchaikovsky, was to get into the act, offering his own concerto prescription. Siloti’s knife fell mainly on the slow movement, which gives much prominence to a solo violin and cello, but he also cut material in the outer movements. Tchaikovsky violently disagreed with most of Siloti’s changes, yet, when a second edition of the Concerto was put out four years after the composer’s death, the Siloti revisions were preserved in print. It is this form in which the Second Concerto is frequently performed.
Whichever version is performed (the Siloti cuts about eight minutes off the original) discloses a solo part of big-boned virtuoso dimension, and musical materials which are wholly characteristic of the composer (if not as distinctive as those in the First Piano Concerto) while still at times being strongly suggestive of both Liszt and Saint-Saëns. For Liszt, one need look no further than the proud martial opening in the orchestra, with its ‘Hungarian Rhapsody’ embellishments, and the lyric second theme presented by clarinet and horn. These particular elements, plus a chromaticism that has the strong flavors of Liszt, are tightly woven into a first movement fabric that is still unmistakably Tchaikovskian. As to the French composer’s influence (by the time of the present Concerto, Saint-Saëns had completed the fourth of his five concertos and Tchaikovsky had heard and admired the French composer when he performed his works in Russia years earlier), it is most apparent in the last movement, where the spirit of the themes (including the quasi-exotic tune) and the treble sparkle of the piano impart a distinctly Gallic insouciance. When it came to bringing his Second Concerto to a fitting conclusion, however, Tchaikovsky reached back to the kind of coda dynamism of his First Concerto and, with blazing piano/orchestra flourishes, put his very distinctive concerto signature to the work.
Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano.