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Composed: 1866; 1874
Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 31, 1973, Yuri Ahronovitch conducting
When Tchaikovsky entered the Moscow Conservatory as professor of harmony, with a diploma from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he had two strikes against him: his own equivocating nature and his lack of emotional security. In March 1866 he began working diligently on his First Symphony, work which caused him much anguish for the remainder of that year. By May, the First Symphony agony was full upon him, as indicated by a letter to his brother Modest. “My nerves are again as upset as they could be. This is for the following reasons: 1) my lack of success in composing the symphony; 2) Rubinstein and Tarnovsky who, noticing that I'm edgy, spend all day frightening me by the most varied means; 3) the ever-present thought that I shall soon die and won't even complete the symphony successfully.”
All was not dismal during that month, however, for his Overture in F had been performed with some success in St. Petersburg. This lift to his spirits carried over to his work on the Symphony for, in mid-June, he reported that he had begun scoring it. Still, in August the work was not yet finished, but he showed it in its incomplete state to his former teachers, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba, from whom he received nothing but the harshest of criticism. Finally, in February 1868, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 was performed in Moscow in its entirety, and the composer could report to his brother Anatoly, “My Symphony scored a great success, particularly the Adagio.”
In 1874, when the work was about to be published (with the composer’s own titles for the first two movements), Tchaikovsky made several revisions, most of them minor. Considering this was the firstborn of his symphonies, the composer’s affection for it was undiminished through the years. In 1883, he wrote to Mme. von Meck regarding his symphonic babe, “Although it is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than many of my other more mature works.”
In spite of this notably sentimental remark, there seems no question that the all but completely neglected First Symphony does not have quite the strength, conviction nor the substance of the last three symphonies. That said, it is also true that the work is genuine Tchaikovsky, not merely in embryo but fully formed, particularly in orchestration and thematic character.
“Winter Daydreams” is programmatic in an atmospheric rather than in a precise, story-telling way. The first movement has an invigorating sense of spaciousness that is enhanced by the opening flute and bassoon announcement of the main theme. This is surely Russian music, not with the earthiness of Mussorgsky or the fairytale imagery of Rimsky-Korsakov, but with a folk spirit that is not hidden by sturdy if unassuming compositional craft. In this first movement, as in the remainder of the Symphony, the Tchaikovskyan orchestral trademarks are clearly in evidence: the exploitation of woodwinds, the rushing, brilliant string passages, the antiphonal (call and response) procedures.
The second movement, in which he used material from his Overture The Storm of 1864, is again folk-like, wistful rather than dramatic and, like so much of Tchaikovsky – early, middle, and late – balletic in character.
Expectedly, the Scherzo, whose material is a reworking of the corresponding section of an early piano sonata, dances vibrantly and rustically if a bit self-consciously; at mid-point a waltz lilts pleasantly though not as memorably as some of the many later examples by Tchaikovsky.
For his finale, Tchaikovsky meditates a bit, then puts a zesty dance theme through extended orchestral choreography, some of it contrapuntal, some march-like, and finally heads for a grand climactic rush of stately, ceremonial grandeur.
Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.