Length: c. 40 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle), harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 18, 1971, Lawrence Foster conducting
The Third Suite was created at a time when life should have been relatively stress-free for its composer. Behind him was his brief, disastrous marriage and the composition of the opera Mazeppa, which caused him infinite difficulties, but whose successful first performances in Moscow and St. Petersburg provided him considerable satisfaction. He had begun his relationship – strictly via letters – with his generous and patient patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, and his fame was such, throughout Europe as well as at home, that he was personally presented by Czar Nicholas Alexander III with Russia’s highest civilian decoration, the Order of St. Vladimir.
In the wake of these positive circumstances, the composer decided to spend time resting (as much as his hypersensitive spirit would allow) at Kamenka, the country estate of his sister Sasha and her husband, Lev Davidoff. It was there that the Third Suite took shape. His diaries of the time at Kamenka are shot through with intimate details about the days spent walking in the woods, about meals and card games with Sasha, her husband and their circle of lively friends; musical performances at the estate; his studies of Mozart (particularly of The Magic Flute, which he came to value above all the composer’s works with the exception of Don Giovanni); his struggles with English lessons; his various ailments (in the hypochondriac’s estimation all near-death experiences)... and his growing infatuation, and the profound guilt associated with it, with his 13-year-old nephew, Vladimir (“Bob”) Davidoff.
And not least, the germination and composition of what for some time would be his most widely performed large-scale orchestral work, the present Suite No. 3 in G, of whose premiere in St. Petersburg in January of 1885, under the baton of Hans von Bülow, the composer wrote to Mme. von Meck: “Never have I had such a triumph. I could see that the greater part of the audience was touched and grateful. Such moments are the best in an artist’s life.” The Suite also provided Tchaikovsky with his first American triumph when he conducted it with the New York Symphony Society on May 7, 1891 – in Carnegie Hall, a few days after the hall’s dedication, in which Tchaikovsky also participated.
Typically, there were agonies along the compositional path, chiefly an opening movement, which he titled “Contrastes” and of which he said after its completion, “It is horrible. I detest it, and must destroy it.” It was replaced by the present “Élégie,” which satisfied him. Nonetheless, the basic materials of the “Contrastes” would shortly find their way into the flashy (and deservedly neglected) Concert-Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 56 – with the ink barely dry on the final version of the Suite, showing that Tchaikovsky’s negative opinions of his works could be as short-lived as his positive opinions of his masterpieces.
Still, the “Élégie” is a perfect fit for its companions in the four-movement Suite, an exquisitely lyrical outpouring with only the barest suggestion of the elegiac: the two principal themes would hardly be out of place in one of the composer’s ballets. If there are touches of a deeper sadness in the Suite, they are in the second movement, “Valse mélancolique,” and in a couple of the finale’s variations. The third movement is a lively tarantella. The finale – as long as the three preceding movements combined – is one of the jewels of Tchaikovsky’s mature orchestral writing, an arch-Russian theme with a dozen variations and a dazzling polonaise to send the audience home cheering. The composer would frequently conduct this final movement as an independent work, and it serves as the score for the hugely successful ballet entitled Theme and Variations, which George Balanchine choreographed for his New York City Ballet in 1947 and which has been in the repertory of the NYCB – and many other companies – ever since.
Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.