Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, op. 37a

performed by Đặng Thái Sơn or below by Vladimir Ashkenazy

And here he is! Like I mentioned in the article on his first quartet over the weekend, it’s been nearly a whole year since we’ve touched on anything of one of the most famous composers in classical music history. Oops. But here he is.

Tchaikovsky’s famous for operas, ballets, symphonies, the violin concerto and ‘the’ piano concerto (even though he wrote two others), but solo piano might not be what comes to most people’s minds when they hear this name. For reasons other people may or may not agree with, I think the form of this work suits Tchaikovsky swimmingly. His set of twelve character pieces in in somewhat a similar vein to Mussorgsky’s of Monday, but in a more abstract nature, representing times of the year (the months, actually) and how he apparently perceived them.

It’s interesting that these works were taken as a commission, and written ultimately rather independently, like a book published serially, installations of a drama, episodes of a series, and Wikipedia makes this comment about it:

Tchaikovsky did not devote his most serious compositional efforts to these pieces; they were composed to order, and they were a way of supplementing his income. He saw the writing of music to a commission as just as valid as writing music from his own inner inspiration, however for the former he needed a definite plot or text, a time limit, and the promise of payment at the end. Most of the pieces were in simple ABA form, but each contains a minor melodic masterpiece.

It speaks to the talent of a composer who can write twelve character pieces with really very little inspiration, working from the “plot or text,” which obviously is subjective to not only the listener, but to their location. The article makes mention that the piece is in reference to the seasons (actually the twelve months of the year, not the four seasons) in the Northern Hemisphere. But even so, an individual listener might expect different interpretations or expressions from specific months, like the interesting contrast between February and March, etc. It’s not meant to be absolute music, though, is it?

Released over the course of a year, sort of, they’re individual sketches. In 1875, one Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, editor of a music magazine in St. Petersburg, suggested the idea, even giving him subtitles for each of the months. Tchaikovsky accepts the commission and finishes his first two installments (January and February, obviously) in the autumn of the same year, delivering them to Bernard in December for some feedback to inform the composition of the subsequent installments. Wiki says that “March, April and May appear to have been composed separately; however the remaining seven pieces were all composed at the same time and written in the same copybook,” and finished before summer of 1876. Swan Lake coincides with (or precedes) this work, but it was finished by April, leaving the composer time to focus on the commission. It seems there’s some rumor that Tchaikovsky procrastinated and was barely able to finish each of the next month’s works in time, but this is fictional.

I find this serialized approach interesting. There were no recordings at the time, so people weren’t downloading someone’s performance or listening to Tchaikovsky himself play, but I suppose it is the 1876 version of an artist releasing singles from an as-of-yet unreleased album, and doesn’t that speak to the musicality of people at the time? Maybe it doesn’t, because I don’t know how big the magazine was, but it seems like a pretty solid idea to draw readers, to have people getting their hands on these scores and running home to play his music. That’s how I envision it, and what a different era it must have been…

As mentioned above, most of the pieces contain relatively straightforward structures, but the musical material can stand on its own beauty rather than on some large-scale form or transformations. The twelve pieces are as follows:

  1. January: At the Fireside (A major)
  2. February: Carnival (D major)
  3. March: Song of the Lark (G minor)
  4. April: Snowdrop (B-flat major)
  5. May: Starlit Nights (G major)
  6. June: Barcarolle (G minor)
  7. July: Song of the Reaper (E-flat major)
  8. August: Harvest (B minor)
  9. September: The Hunt (G major)
  10. October: Autumn Song (D minor)
  11. November: Troika (E major)
  12. December: Christmas (A-flat major)

Lots of G major and G minor. A quick look at that lineup shows that despite the twelve-ness of the work, there was no attempt taken to do anything with the 12 keys, major or minor. They’re just character pieces, and there were epigraphs for each of the works, little snippets of poetry, like a caption for the image that the music conjures. They can be found here. 

January: At the Fireside– What a way to start the set. It’s spot on to me, warm and cozy, friendly, like the most at-home, comfortably, familiar, warm-hearted feeling you could have in a warm room with friends and loved ones, after a delicious meal, enjoying time together. It’s sweet, pleasant, lyrical, but also wintry. Very pianistic. Delicious. It’s also notably the longest of the set, a really gorgeous piece. I’d be very excited to get the next month’s installment after this.

February: Carnival– an example of not quite getting the reference to February. The epigraph mentions Mardi Gras and a large feast. It’s not what I’d have thought of for a Russian February, but I suppose we can’t keep riffing off the ‘cold weather’ atmosphere of January. That’d last half the year. It’s cute, playful, cheery and bright for what I expected to be a dismal, dreary cold month. But then again, maybe the composer isn’t directing his interpretations at Russia. It’s certainly very festive, busy and chipper. One starts to wonder why Tchaikovsky didn’t write more for solo piano, or rather why his solo piano work isn’t more common.

March: Song of the Lark– a more melancholy sketch for what must also be a cold month in most parts of the world. This lark’s song is broad, spacious, a bit melancholy, distant sounding, in shades of gray and blue, maybe dark greens. Quiet and pensive.

April: Snowdrop– See. We’re still in winter. Actually not. The ‘snowdrop’ refers to the Galanthus genus of perennial flowers, but April does seem to be about ends and beginnings. Its epigraph states in part:

The last tears over past griefs,
and first dreams of another happiness.

There is a very optimistic melancholy about the work, in a tender, delicate but spirited way, one of the more beautiful of the sketches, in my opinion. It displays the charms of both January and March.

May: Starlit nights- It’s the exact sound of twinkling stars across the blackest backdrop of a beautiful sky, perfect weather, a cool breeze here and there, where everything else around you stops or else is forgotten, and you live in the moment. A star-studded sky unpolluted by nearby lights, as you might see on a rural beach, is a scene that can bring me to tears.

June: Barcarolle- “Let us go to the shore / there the waves will kiss our feet.” The quiet melancholy of this, one of the more famous of the set, is more placid and peaceful than somber or mournful. It’s broad and endearing, but also bears some more spirited and very pianistic elements, absolutely embodying the Romantic-era piano writing you might hear from Chopin or Schumann.

July: Song of the Reaper– Something about summer? I’d use the word ‘catchy’ if it weren’t so cheap-sounding. The piece opens cheerfully. It has a very light but still noticeable swagger in its meter, a subtly spirited rhythm, but turns from the bright yellow and green pastoral sunshine sound to something slightly darker, and even more spirited. It’s an absolutely stunning little ditty, and by far the shortest of the set. I wonder why this isn’t at least as famous as the others. I love it.

August: Harvest- Harvest time, obviously. It’s busy, a bit hectic, but not overbearing. There’s a strong forward push to this one, with some wonderful pianistic flourishes, a showy piece that also seems like it would be a perfect little encore piece. Here is as good a place as any to mention that I think plucking one of these works out of the set for performance is far less a crime than playing selections of the Chopin preludes or movements of Mussorgsky, since they’re legitimately parts of a cohesive whole, while these works are only segments that make up parts of a collection, without any (musically) thematic or narrative dependence.

September: Hunting- Can’t you hear horns ringing out the beginning calls of this movement? I certainly can. It’s a handsome, strong, chipper thing. Those calls go on for a while, and pretty much stick with us for the duration of this hunting song, accompanied by a heroic, epic kind of galloping drive. What else would you expect from a hunting song?

October: Autumn Song- One of the more overtly melancholy episodes in the set, and while this specific month (that we’re currently in) is a time when I heave a sigh of relief at the cool weather finally coming (I live on a tropical island in the Pacific), the impending winter may be a less cheerful time for some. This is one of the longer episodes in the set, and it would be perfectly at home as the slow movement of a three- or four-movement work like a sonata or something.

November: Troika- Perhaps the most famous of the set, its melodies may be instantly recognizable. Despite its opening broadness and calm, it shows some of the greatest contrast of any work in the set, building to some pianistic fireworks that make for “the most challenging piece out of Tchaikovsky’s very own selection of The Seasons because of such a rapidly moving melodic flow…” as Wiki states. It feels to be one of the most full-bodied works of all the seasons, with greater contrasts, but still small-scale. A look at the epigraph for this work may reveal a surprising melancholy. It says in part:

Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart.

December: Christmas- The December piece titled Christmas isn’t sleigh bells and festivities galore like you might think, but rather a polished, polite waltz-like piece. In its charm and warmth, it recalls the endearing atmosphere of January, here played in A flat major instead of A major. I suppose there’s nothing there to read into, but it does seem like a similar mood in which to end this 45-ish minute work. After all, what comes after December but January?

It’s really a very charming collection of works, but as I mentioned above (in August), I think these pieces are quite amenable to individual performances. I quite dislike hearing ‘selections’ or individual movements of larger works. I understand it isn’t very feasible to play all the Chopin preludes in one sitting, but… for pieces that were written as a cohesive whole, that’s how I’d like to hear them. Obviously, with these works, readers (and/or performers) would end up waiting an entire month for the next installment to come around, and while the argument could be made that this creates huge anticipation for the next work in what was meant to be a long unified series, I think it rather means that each work should be able to stand on its own merits as a charming character piece, and listening to it as a whole, or in part, it’s obvious that Tchaikovsky adapted his lyrical and melodic talents to the piano in an outstandingly effective way, even if the ultimate goal was monetary. It was, after all, his livelihood.

There’s one more thing from Tchaikovsky coming this week, and it makes for a great first week of Russian piano music for October. Stay tuned.

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