A year ago, I decided to start learning to play the piano – after mulling over this secret wish for many years. I am extremely motivated and that’s why I am sorry to realize that over the past 200 years, piano lessons have been a headache for pupils and teachers alike. At least that is the impression I get from reading biographies of composers. All complain about untalented, unmotivated and/or undisciplined pupils, while the pupils themselves lament over monotonous lessons and uninspired teachers. In the 18th and 19th century, many composers had to earn their living by giving lessons. This was not exactly the best motivation, I guess. Today however, music schools produce dedicated teachers with at least some pedagogical training, training material is abundant, and it still seems to be hard to motivate pupils to stick with their lessons.
The Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote in April 1878 in a letter to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, that there were few pieces suited for teaching a young pianist, and that he would embark on composing some of his own. He had retreated to a cottage in Kamenka (in today’s Ukraine) to find some peace as he was going through a difficult time. While being gay, he had married a woman he didn’t love and was now in the middle of a murky divorce. Nevertheless Tchaikovsky managed to write in July 1878 Op. 39 “Children’s Album”, a collection of short piano pieces, very pleasant to the ear and meant as teaching material. The pieces are not that easy, if you’re asking me, but then again Tchaikovsky had a different standard as he was a precocious pupil himself. Following the fashion of the time and with explicit references to the German composer Robert Schumann, he gave the different pieces catchy titles. My all time favourite of this cycle is No. 18 “Neapolitan Dance-Tune”. Other gems are “Winter morning”, “Dolly is poorly”, “Russian Song”, “Italian Ditty” and the “Walzer”. And I am looking forward to the moment when I will feel ready to play some of those pieces. I will celebrate that day with a bottle of champagne!
Tchaikovsky dedicated his “Children’s Album” to Vladimir Davydov, his 7-year-old nephew. “Bob”, as Tchaikovsky used to call him, was the son of his sister Aleksandra and was taught by him while he stayed in Kamenka, where Aleksandra and her husband had a cottage. The Davydovs were considered by Tchaikovsky as his true family, and “Bob” became Tchaikovsky’s confidant after the composer had lost the financial and emotional support of Mrs. von Meck. “Bob” suffered a sorry fate though: He became a morphine addict and at the age of 31 he committed suicide, 13 years after Tchaikovsky’s death.
I’ll close this post with a rough translation of part of the mentioned letter to Mrs. von Meck: “How happy I am to be an artist! In a sad era like the present one, art alone can distract us from the severe reality. Sitting at the piano in my hut, I am totally isolated from all the painful issues gravitating around us. Am I selfish? Everyone serves the common good in his own way. Art, in my opinion, satisfies an essential need of humanity. Outside the scope of my music, I am unable to serve the common good.”
Now, if you want to listen to some of the pieces of Op. 39, here’s a link to Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vy3pMQ-jLDA
The recording that I prefer is the one made by the Claudio Colombo in 2011.
© Charles Thibo
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