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Composed: 1885
Length: c. 55 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (bass drum, chimes, cymbals, tam tam, tambourine, triangle), timpani, 2 harps, harmonium, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 25, 1929, Alfred Hertz conducting

Initially put off by the idea of composing a programmatic symphony on the subject of Byron’s tortured Manfred, Tchaikovsky finally adopted the concept and brought it to completion in the summer of 1885. He assured both his publisher and his patroness that it was probably the very best of his symphonic creations.

Or was it? “About Manfred, I can tell you without trying to pose as being modest that this is a repulsive work, and I hate it, except for the first movement,” Tchaikovsky wrote to the Grand Duke Constantine. “By the way, I must tell Your Highness that, with my publisher’s consent, I intend shortly to destroy the three remaining movements, which are quite poor musically, and the finale especially is deadly, and then turn this long-winded symphony into a symphonic poem.” Not exactly a vote of artistic confidence.

Inspiration is hardly ever made to order, and it is not surprising that Tchaikovsky refused the initial proposal of a vast programmatic symphony on the subject of Manfred, Lord Byron’s enigmatic, equivocal hero. Compounding his reluctance, it was a hand-me down project, for which he was only the third choice.

In the winter of 1867-68, an aged and ailing Hector Berlioz had returned to Russia on a second tour. Among the pieces he conducted was his Harold in Italy, a concerto-as-tone-poem originally composed for the legendary virtuoso Paganini and based on another Byron poem, complete with motto theme for its titular subject. Much enthused by these performances, the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov came up with a program treatment for Manfred. This he offered to his friend Mily Balakirev, the self-appointed and industriously interfering dean of Russian composers. Always better at conceptualizing projects than at completing them, Balakirev was not interested, but he tried diligently to find a home for Stasov’s idea.

First he tried Berlioz himself, who had conducted six concerts for the Russian Musical Society, of which Balakirev was the nominal leader. With only a few more months to live, Berlioz was unmoved by either the topic or Balakirev’s flattery.

There the matter rested. Balakirev’s own life was soon in turmoil, but somehow he never completely lost the Manfred impulse. Years later, Tchaikovsky wrote to him about a new edition of Romeo and Juliet, which would bear Tchaikovsky’s dedication of the work to Balakirev. In sending back belated thanks in 1882, Balakirev took the opportunity to offer an idea for a symphony program. Tchaikovsky replied quickly, expressing his interest. Balakirev responded with Stasov’s Manfred program, mentioning that he had previously offered it to Berlioz and not mentioning Stasov at all. Balakirev also provided a complete musical plan for the proposed work, with the keys and tempos of each movement laid out, and he even suggested numerous scoring details.

“You would carry it out brilliantly,” Balakirev wrote, “provided that you exert yourself, criticize your work severely, allow your imagination to ripen in your head, and not be in too much hurry to get the thing finished. For myself, this magnificent subject is unsuitable, since it doesn’t harmonize with my inner frame of mind; it fits you like a glove.”

Tchakovsky was disappointed, and said so plainly. “In all probability your program would indeed serve as an outline for a symphonist disposed to imitate Berlioz,” he wrote. “I agree that, by following it, one could construct an effective symphony in the style of that composer. But it leaves me absolutely cold, and when imagination and heart are unwarmed, it is hardly worthwhile to try to compose.”

Tchaikovsky did not condemn “program music à la Berlioz,” nor was he antipathetic to Balakirev, despite the rather condescending and admonitory tone of Balakirev’s encouragements. He indicated two stumbling blocks: the inhibiting power of his affection for Schumann’s Manfred music, and, most important, a lack of any familiarity with the Byron poem.
Two years later, Balakirev was able to press his proposal in person, when Tchaikovsky came to St. Petersburg for the first performance of his opera Eugene Onegin at the Imperial theater. Charismatic and forceful, Balakirev was vastly influential – counting Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin among his disciples – and highly persuasive. The only person who ever got Tchaikovsky to rewrite a piece several times over, he was the catalytic force behind Tchaikovsky’s first masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet.

He was near to success now. After intense discussion of religion and music, Balakirev gave Tchaikovsky Stasov’s original scenario, now 16 years old, with his own revised annotations. On his way to visit a dying friend, Tchaikovsky finally bought a copy of Manfred. A few weeks later he advised Balakirev that he read Manfred and had been thinking about it much, and that, “If I am still alive, the symphony shall be written not later than the summer.”

He delayed starting until April 1885, but then worked quickly. He had the massive work fully sketched by the middle of May, and then spent the summer orchestrating it. By the middle of September he was writing again to Balakirev in premature triumph. “I have fulfilled your wish. Manfred is finished, and in a few days they will begin engraving the score.... It was very difficult, but also very pleasant work, particularly when – after beginning with some effort – I became absorbed in it.”
Actually, the instrumentation was only completed a week later. That was not his only overly optimistic information for Balakirev. To others that summer, he had emphasized the difficulty of the work, not the pleasure. “After some hesitation I decided to write Manfred, since I feel that that until I have fulfilled the promise incautiously given to Balakirev in the winter, I shall know no peace,” he wrote to his student, the composer Sergei Taneyev. “I don’t know what will become of it, but up to now, I’m dissatisfied with myself.”

However oppressive the labor was, he allowed himself hints of hope for the piece. “The symphony has turned out vast, serious, difficult, swallowing up all my time, sometimes wearying me extremely,” he wrote to the opera singer Emiliya Pavlovskaya, “but an inner voice tells me I am not laboring in vain and that the work will be, perhaps, the best of my symphonic compositions.” Tchaikovsky wrote to his cousin Anna Merkling the same day he wrote to Balakirev: “I am now ending the work to which I have devoted the entire summer. It has cost me unusual effort, as the problem was very complicated. At last I am finishing it and gradually, as I finish, my spirit grows lighter and breathes more freely.”

According to Stasov’s scenario, as amplified slightly by both Balakirev and Tchaikovsky, the first movement depicts Manfred wandering in the Alps, tormented by a guilty past. A magician, Manfred has even talked with demons, but nobody can give him the oblivion he seeks. His undefined guilt is clearly tied to memories of his “ruined Astarte, whom once he had passionately loved.”
Byron wrote his dramatic poem under the influence of his attraction to his half-sister Augusta, and the assumption is commonly made that Manfred’s despair is over an incestuous relationship with Astarte. From there it is an easy leap of conjecture to imagine Tchaikovsky, always struggling with his own sexual identity, identifying with a hero haunted by breaking a sexual taboo.
That seems plausible in a glib, amateur pyscho-analysis sort of way. Tchaikovsky hardly needed a one-to-one identification, however, to empathize with the brooding Manfred, searching for elusive grace. He created a stark theme for Manfred, a striding plunge into the depths, followed by a sinuous chromatic rise. The whole piece is darkly scored, and the opening statement of this theme comes immediately from the low woodwinds, bass clarinet and bassoons. Associated with it is a searing theme in the strings.
Contrasted with the grim, self-absorbed power of this theme is the delicate vision of Astarte, introduced by muted strings. The only response available to Manfred is intensified pain, and the movement ends in a spasm of despair. This is tough music for a tough situation. The harmony is full of strong dissonances and the form a unique blend, dominated by distortions of the Manfred theme.

Tchaikovsky uses this theme throughout the work, much as Berlioz used a theme for the title character in Harold in Italy. The second movement is a Scherzo, in which an Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of a waterfall. Manfred intrudes just at the end of this lithe, flickering movement, which is ballasted by a substantial trio.
The third movement contrasts Manfred with simple Alpine hunters. He enters in the middle of this “quiet, idyllic adagio,” as Stasov described the movement, dividing it neatly into a two-part form of exposition and recapitulation. “Of course, at the beginning you’ll have to have something suggesting hunting, but in doing so you must be careful not to fall into the banal,” Balakirev warned. “God preserve you from vulgarities in the manner of German fanfares and Jägermusik.”
The Finale, as Stasov imagined it, would be “a wild, unrestrained Allegro,” and that pretty much is what Tchaikovsky delivered. The scene is an infernal orgy in the underground palace of the demon. Manfred appears and raises the spirit of Astarte, who foretells the end of his earthly torments. Manfred dies, and does find peace (this being Tchaikovsky’s hopeful interpretation of Byron’s far less rosy text), first in a stentorian blaze of C-major glory, then in quiet intimations of paradise over a repeated bass figure.

Manfred had its premiere at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in March 1886. He told his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, “it seems to me that this is the best of my symphonic compositions.” He shared a similar remark with his publisher Jurgenson, while at the same time offering him the work free, since “owing to its unusual complication and difficulty, it is likely to be performed only once in ten years or so.”

In that suspicion, Tchaikovsky was close to the mark; it is a rare piece. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky never contacted Jurgenson about the idea he had of removing the last three movements and converting the first into a symphonic poem. The program does become something a burden by the end, but it inspired some of Tchaikovsky’s most characterful writing along the way, in a piece like no other in his catalog. Even he seemed unsure what to make of it.