Tchaikovsky Symphony no. 1, op. 13, ‘Winter Dreams’

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bernard Haitink

“although it is in many ways very immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better than any of my other more mature works.”

So, here we are at arguably one of the most famous Russian composers thus far. If you’re like my other two readers, this might be the first name you recognize from our series here. Tchaikovsky is a pretty famous dude, and this is his first symphony, published just after he accepted his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory.
If you haven’t read the articles we’ve published earlier, please do, especially the one this week about Tchaikovsky’s relationships/associations with the two main composing circles in Russia at the time. While not concurrent (the Belyayev circle kind of picked up where The Five left off), Tchaikovsky preferred the later Belyayev group to The Five, who were ambivalent about including him in their club. He, too, was not entirely welcoming of their philosophies. In any case, Tchaikovsky was certainly not the earliest, but perhaps one of the greatest big names to come from mid-to-late 19th century Russia. We’ve already addressed his fourth and fifth symphonies (both of which written so long ago…), and we’re back to his early stuff.
So… Tchaikovsky seemed (despite what some of his music might suggest) to be a rather fragile creature. He suffered many times from crushing blows to his morale, notably during this time from a review by Cesar Cui (one of The Five) of a graduation piece Tchaikovsky wrote at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He seems, from reading about him at least, like a very nervous person. He struggled with composing, apparently working day and night, dealing with insomnia, headaches, and was even convinced he was dying, even after an overture of his had some small success that calmed his nerve. After this frenzied, maniacal writing, his doctor ordered that he rest.
Despite some lack of progress on the symphony, perhaps (and I speculate) looking for a kind word or some encouragement, showed some form or other of the score for the first symphony to his teachers at the conservatory, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba, apparently hoping for inclusion in a Russian Musical Society concert (an organization that Rubinstein helped to found).
No dice. Rejection again. Both men were critical of the piece and would perform not even one movement of the work. He moved on to another commission before
stubbornly completing the symphony, including the changes his former teachers suggested as criteria for considering the work for performance.
They still didn’t like it. As a whole, anyway. The two middle movements were approved for performance and were performed on February 23, 1867, and it was not a success. And it was here that Tchaikovsky faced an interesting crisis.
He’d focused on St. Petersburg as the city in Russia, and trusted the audience there would ‘get’ him. They didn’t, even after he applied the changes to his work that his two trusted teachers gave him. After ‘selling out’ didn’t work, he completely scrapped the men’s suggestions and went back to his own vision for the piece, with the exception of the second subject of the opening movement. He’d composed a new one at Zaremba’s suggestion and discarded his original, which he’d forgotten, so he had to stick with Zaremba’s new theme. No ‘save as’ back in those days.
Despite his disappointment in St. Petersburg, he was still insistent on a St. Pete premiere of the entire piece, even though Anton’s brother Nikolai was ready to perform the whole thing in Moscow. The scherzo was performed there, to another lukewarm reception. I’m a little confused about what Wikipedia says about the eventual premiere of the whole symphony:

This finally took place on February 15, 1868, to great success. Surprisingly, though, the symphony would have to wait 15 years for its next performance.[11] The first performance of the revised version took place in Moscow on December 1, 1883, under the baton of Max Erdmannsdörfer.

I’m not sure where this February 15 performance took place, and which version it was, but it finally saw the light of day and was finally a success, at least briefly, and now that all that (riveting) history and background is out of the way, let’s talk about the piece itself, and then some thoughts about Tchaikovsky’s actual challenges with Western form.
The first movement is fantasy-like, magical, ethereal from the beginning. It feels, almost cheesily, like a sleigh ride through wide open snow-covered fields, but the music begins to get more serious and build in intensity with low strings, continuing to blossom. This first movement jumps out to me as almost a symphonic poem rather than a sonata-form piece, and indeed, we will talk about Tchaikovsky’s approach here. Tom Service, in his article on this piece that we will reference below, says that from the opening, “you’re already in a symphonic world that a German composer simply couldn’t have conceived.” Maybe you can’t quite put your finger on why, but it is immediately unique, and it perplexed even the Russian circles of composers, as we have discussed, and this (in some ways) carving out of a new symphonic idiom obviously caused some trauma for the composer, but it was ultimately worth it. Let’s note also, that this was the composer’s first large-scale work, so like, cut him some slack. In any case, the first movement, subtitled ‘Dreams of a Winter Journey,’ is full of the Russian, large, dripping soaring melodies that seem so associated with Tchaikovsky nowadays. But where do they go? This first movement, somewhat surprisingly, ends quietly, no bang, no thunder, leading into the quiet movement. It was the beginning of a journey that was exciting, stormy, and entirely new as a symphonic adventure, and it leads us into a second movement that is also fiercely individual, in perhaps a very subtle way.
This second movement, the slow movement, is subtitled ‘Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.’ It sounds quite somber for what isn’t really a tragic piece. There is a suitably Tchaikovskian melancholy woven into this entire work, but desolation is quite a strong word, and there’s nothing desolate about this movement. It is essentially monothematic, working with only slight changes to a single melody, growing and singing for twelve minutes. It’s really a feat to work outside of any real architecture or structure for a movement, and only use lyricism as a tool for development. I agree completely with Service’s comments:

… this piece is in really a land of endless melody, of continual and seductive song, in which Tchaikovsky reveals that he can make a large-scale structure from a pure outpouring of the once-heard, never-forgotten tunes that he composed more brilliantly than any other symphonist of his time – or any other. The paradox is that this new kind of slow movement, something only Tchaikovsky could sustain, took more confidence and more compositional boldness to conceive than any of the other movements that are reliant on pre-existing models.

That’s a different kind of boldness, no? We’ll talk about that later.
The third movement is, to me, where the symphony begins to feel like a symphony. The first two movements felt much more ‘symphonic poem,’ to me. And that’s no criticism. In any case, the third movement is the scherzo. It was the earliest to be written, salvaged from a piano sonata written earlier in his (still young) career. Instead of a trio to go with the scherzo, we get a waltz, a pure, effortless thing of beauty, and it feels like something he worked in just because he wanted to write something really stinking pretty, without the melancholy of the long lyrical line in the second movement. It might also strike you as quintessentially Tchaikovsky. It’s lilty; Service mentions a “Mendelssohnian flightiness.” It is nothing like the German, heavy, serious scherzo that Bruckner would write.
The finale, almost like Balakirev’s first, after doing symphonic things for three movements, suddenly jumps in with really folksy, exotically Russian themes, and the finale is built around these. Might I say Tchaikovsky knows how to use a bassoon? And clarinets and horns (and strings and everything else, including cannons), but I love the way he opens this final movement with the woodwinds, introducing a rather somber theme. It’s more broad, long, spacious lines of melody, but there’s lots to look for here. After what feels like could become a funeral march, or something funereal, long pauses and low strings spring into something quite celebratory, with fanfare-ish horns and everything, almost overture-like. It almost reminds me of the fourth or fifth symphonies, a triumphant, confident, truly glorious moment. In contrast with the sheer Russianness of the movement, there’s lots of counterpoint, a decidedly German idea. Lots of strings doing busy things, then bam, something Slavic and exotic, almost Cossack? With plucked strings and accented offbeats, it feels suddenly very differently Russian. In fact, the introduction and the second subject are both based on a Russian folk song, Распашу ли я млада, младeшенка, and Wikipedia says that it also ‘colors the first subject,’ so … apparently it’s the basis for the entire final movement, which is something one would think got the attention of the members of The Five, perhaps overshadowed by his Little Russian symphony no. 2. In any case, Service says that the movement

descends into a “rhythmic stodginess” in its obsession with noisy fugal counterpoint – Tchaikovsky proving a point to Rubinstein that he knew all the tricks in the academic book – and ends with a “very noisy, and overblown” coda.

Maybe he didn’t really know when to quit. Tchaikovsky, not Service. What’s interesting, perhaps only at the suggestion of the titles of the first two movements, is that the piece, even in its quieter moments, feels sufficiently festive to live up to the ‘winter dreams’ subtitle, even if the composer abandoned that program idea after the first two movements. The first movement that had been written of the piece didn’t even have anything to do with this. Truth be told, the symphony is probably just as enjoyable without any program ideas.
But what is the real joy, the real value of this symphony? I’d agree with Service above, although I might not yet appreciate the significance or individuality of this work over other, perhaps more gripping symphonies, that Tchaikovsky is doing something new, carving out his own mold for what all of his symphonies would later do. If it was perplexing or odd, it was because he was doing what no one else did. Balakirev and his ilk didn’t quite know what to make of him, but neither did Rubinstein. In their minds, he might have been ‘wrong,’ but this could be a very good example of ‘breaking the rules.’ If you can do it effectively, then who cares?
I still don’t really hear any sonata form in the first movement, to be honest. I don’t hear the distinct structure of the symphony like I’d hear it in Beethoven or Brahms, but that’s not awful. There’s a fantastic section in the Wikipedia article about this piece entitled Struggles with Form where it describes what Tchaikovsky was up against if he were to strike some balance between Western and Russian ideologies and find some place for his talent for lyricism among it all. It says:

The First Symphony forced Tchaikovsky to face the facts in one very important way. Before beginning it, he had been content to mould his music as best he could to the practice of previous composers. Winter Dreams forced him to realize he would have to work “around the rules” for him to grow and develop as a composer.[15] This meant adapting sonata form and symphonic structure to accommodate the music he was gifted to write. He would often show tremendous resourcefulness in doing this, even in this symphony.

So even if I’m not in love with this symphony, one of the reasons I do enjoy it now and then is because one can hear, unquestionably, the beginnings of the voice that we would hear more completely, more spectacularly in the later symphonies, those pillars of the repertoire, they had their beginnings here, in this symphony where the young composer was getting his sea legs, facing opposition, and gaining the courage to blaze new trails.
As an influential composer, perhaps his greatest contribution was to reconcile Russian tradition with Western form in a way that no one had before. We will continue to see this in his later symphonies (and I’m thinking about revisiting the fourth and fifth after looking at how poorly I feel I treated them above), but needless to say, Russian (or just all) Classical music was never the same after Tchaikovsky did to it what he did. And we will see that as well.
But that’s all our Tchaikovsky for now. Next week, we’ll be seeing another very Russian composer who also did some Germanic things in his music, and we’ll be getting two symphonies from him in one week. See you then.

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