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Composed: 1873
Length: c. 20 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: August 22, 1986, David Atherton conducting

Shakespeare was the impetus through which Tchaikovsky first found his true voice as a composer, via the “fantasy-overture” based on Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1869. A few years later, in 1873, he turned again to the playwright for another broadly sweeping orchestral work – this time a “symphonic fantasia” modeled loosely on The Tempest. As with Romeo and Juliet, his imagination was sparked by selective elements within the play, while others are ignored wholesale. Tchaikovsky was drawn in particular to two aspects for musical evocation: the seascape surrounding Prospero’s island and the love that blossoms between Miranda and Ferdinand. Intermingled with these are portrayals of Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. Structurally, the piece plays out as a freely associating fantasia.

The critic Vladimir Stassov, one of Tchaikovsky’s artistic father figures, suggested the following basic program as an outline for the composer: “The sea. Ariel, spirit of the air, raising a tempest at the bidding of the magician Prospero. Ferdinand’s ship sinks. The enchanted island. The first shy awakening of love between Miranda and Ferdinand. Ariel. Caliban. The young couple’s love grows to overwhelming passion. Prospero renounces his magic powers and quits the island. The sea.”

A lengthy slow introduction sets the scene with melancholy minor arpeggiations in strings and far-ranging horn calls. Tchaikovsky’s placid sea shimmers with an almost proto-Minimalist sheen. Ariel emerges with rapid flickerings in high winds. The music quickens into a glorious, chorale-like brass fanfare that signals Prospero’s majesty and awesome power to work up the very elements. This is exactly what happens as Tchaikovsky gives us another face of the sea: a roll of the timpani lets loose the storm’s furious energy. Against surging strings, the brass graphically splinter the horn call theme from the opening into pieces and the survivors land on the island.

For the love music – which occupies a good part of The Tempest’s thematic content – Tchaikovsky adheres to the strategy which had proved so successful in his earlier Shakespearean venture (indeed, the music’s yearning at times echoes the famous Romeo and Juliet love theme). We first hear a subdued version of the music in a tenderly shy awareness of emotion. Its sprawling melody emerges in a series of hesitant statements that also contain questions. Much of the pleasure here comes from the varied ways in which Tchaikovsky orchestrates the love music – just as we think we’ve encountered its fullest expression, he outdoes it with an even more grandiose set of romantic gestures.

Meanwhile a scherzo-like interlude interrupts the young lovers: an especially elfin variant of Ariel’s music is contrasted with the elephantine, clumsy music for Caliban in low strings, which leads into a busy polyphonic detour and recall of the storm and shipwreck music. Finally, following the most extravagant triumph of the love theme, Prospero inserts his powerful presence once again in the brass fanfare. Tchaikovsky immediately deflates its pomposity with a ghostly fade to correspond to the magician’s renunciation of magic, returning us in a circle to the sea’s lonely beauty, as if untouched by all the illusions that have transpired.

— Thomas May writes and lectures about music and theater and is a frequent contributor to Los Angeles Philharmonic programs.