January 25, 2008
The Philadelphia Orchestra’s bringing Tchaikovsky’s first symphony to New York amounts to innovative programming, since concert-goers are so accustomed to the more emotionally complex later symphonies. I’m taking it as an excuse to revisit that fresh work myself.
TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 1
However much Tchaikovsky extended and refined his musical vision through the years, he never ceased to refer affectionately to the “sweet sin of my youth” that was his First Symphony. Just before he set about composing it, he had spent a good deal of time at the piano with symphonies of Mendelssohn. They showed the young Tchaikovsky that an intensely personal Romantic vision could be reconciled with symphonic procedures. Mendelssohn’s “Italian” and “Scottish” Symphonies in a sense gave permission for the emotional outpourings of the symphony Tchaikovsky called “Winter Dreams.”
But those outpourings were a little too spontaneous — and far too copious — for Tchaikovsky’s friendly but outspoken critics. The descriptive atmosphere of the music fortunately survived the extensive revisions that followed, calling forth much admiration from Russian audiences. The work then went unheard, except as an occasional curiosity, until the latter half of the 20th century; but both it and the Second Symphony highlight facets of the composer’s musical personality that appear in a very different light in the later symphonies.
For Tchaikovsky never stinted in his strivings after improvement in his art. His serious musical training began only in adulthood, and he was still a clerk in the Ministry of Justice at the age of twenty-two. The astonishing fact that he wrote the First Symphony only four years later illustrates how a steep trajectory of self-improvement was basic to Tchaikovsky’s view of himself as a practicing musician.
Despite his creative zeal and the obvious talents that justified his late change of career, Tchaikovsky did not have an easy time of it. In fact, his first symphonic efforts were accompanied by hallucinations, numbness in his limbs, a general sense of panic, and a fear of impending madness. These were to become recurring features of a remarkably unhappy life.
But even the most troubled existence has some admixture of what can be experienced as happy times, and fortunate is the artist who can capture visions of such moments in his work, however anguished his feelings during the creative process. Such is the blissful vision conveyed by the “Winter Dreams” Symphony: even the bleakness implied in the second movement’s title — “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists” — is manifestly the enjoyable bleakness of art, not the negative imagery of depression. (In fact, the movement was a popular concert piece on its own long before the complete First Symphony was known to modern audiences.)
The first movement brings before us an idealized horse-drawn ride through pure snow that sparkles in the light of moon and stars — a picture that belongs to so much Northern art. There is no discomfort here: the chill of winter is purely picturesque, experienced from the depths of fur rugs upon comfortable sleigh cushions. The second movement then builds its climax out of the mysterious opening matter, into which the music subsides at the end as well. The salutary influence of Mendelssohn is most marked in the Scherzo, for which Tchaikovsy didn’t feel obliged to invent a descriptive title. The music had already appeared in one of his piano sonatas, and its fortunate reincarnation here gives us one of the imaginative waltzes at which the composer would notably excel. But the atmosphere still feels pleasingly wintry.
Tchaikovsky’s veneration for the Russian orchestral tradition shines bright in the last movement of the symphony. It may seem a little less distinctly Tchaikovskian on that account, but we can hardly mistake the composer’s joy at subsuming himself in the vastness of the Russian manner, with the folk-song themes, the slightly glum slow introduction, and the unaffected exuberance of the fast section. Remembering that the generation of Glinka had hoped to combine their folk elements with the most cultivated forms of art music, he threw a fugue into the mixture. Yet the whole hangs together successfully. And, while Tchaikovsky did not give this finale a title, Richard Freed has felicitously called it a “Winter Carnival.” One imagines that the composer not only would have approved, but would have been deeply gratified that we are still (or, at least, again) able to enter into the spirit of the sweet sin of his youth.