Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night, it says in the Psalms, but Tchaikovsky can teach you fear! One of the pieces that have been published only after his tragic death is called “The Storm” (Op. posth. 76). The opening is dark and violent – it could well feature in a horror movie. It is being balanced soon by a reassuring tune, but the darkness doesn’t go away. Then the reassuring melody, played by the strings and the flutes, takes over again, but not for long, the darkness comes back, like waves rolling over the countryside with violent showers and short breaks between them. You can almost hear the rain splash against the window panes. Very, very dramatic! Tchaikovsky wrote here a lovely symphonic poem, but wait, actually he wrote two!
The piece “The Tempest” Op. 18 was one of his earliest pieces, just like Op. 76, and it is interesting to compare both. Op. 18 starts with a melody full of forebodings: strings in the background, the winds playing a solemn tune, announcing the coming tempest. While in Op. 76 the storm has already caught up with the audience right at the first notes, in Op. 18 it takes a long time to arrive, and Tchaikovsky gradually raises the tension. When it’s all over, the orchestra takes a deep breath before it concludes with a triumphant finale, illustrating the relief and the pride of those who have survived the tempest without any damage.
Op. 76 saw the light between June and August 1864. It was inspired by a play of the same name by the Russian writer Alexander Ostrovsky. Tchaikovsky did not consider it worth publishing, it was meant as a vacation exercise! His teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, had tasked him to compose an overture for a symphony. But apparently Rubinstein was furious, when he saw the piece. “Never before in life have I been berated so violently for my mistakes”, Tchaikovsky confessed to a friend.
A storm without a storm?
Op. 18, published during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime, was composed in 1873 and performed for the first time that very same year under the direction of the St. Petersburg based composer and conductor Nikolai Rubinstein, brother to Anton Rubinstein. Actually, we met both not so long ago, didn’t we? The work was inspired by William Shakespeare’s novel of the same name. Curiously, although he wrote this piece after the posthumously published Op. 76, he only now interrogated himself about how to represent a storm in music. “Does ‘The Storm’ actually need to feature a storm? And if so, where does it intervene, at the beginning or in the middle?”, he asked Vladimir Stassov, a music critic and friend of the “Mighty Five”.
I actually prefer Op. 18 to Op. 76, it is more mature, its orchestration more elaborate. Op. 18 is available on a recording of the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev, while Op. 76 is available on Spotify on a recording of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi.
© Charles Thibo