Several years ago, I spent some time in Stockholm. It was in the first half of December, it had snowed for several days and I walked along the Strandvägen. The sky was blue, the sun shining brightly and the city bathed in a golden morning light. Extraordinary! I thought of other cities on the Baltic Sea with a proud history: Hamburg, Lübeck, Tallinn, St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg! Tchaikovsky! His Symphony No. 1, op. 13 “Winter Rêveries”!
Tchaikovsky wrote this magnificent work in 1866. He had just finished his composition class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and wanted to capture his impressions from winter days in St. Petersburg and Moscow. But the job proved to be challenging. “I am at the end of my wits”, he wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly. “Those are the reasons: 1) I am struggling with the symphony 2) [Nikolai] Rubinstein and Tarnovsky [a dramatist] continue to scare me 3) I am obsessed by the idea that I will die any time soon before having finished the symphony.” Oh, dear!
However, within eight months, the piece was finished and what a piece it is. The first movement starts with flutes and bassoons, answered with a staccato played by the strings. The theme lets you imagine snow flakes floating in the air, first only a few, but then the it snows more and more, crescendo, pause… and the movement ends as it has started with the fading, enigmatic flute theme and the staccato. The second movement starts in a rather lyrical way. The strings paint a desolate, barren landscape, with few signs of life and a deep feeling of sorrow and helplessness. But then, at bar 24, the oboe starts a soft and elegant melody – one that I can sing by now – mmmmmh, what a delight! Schubert would have loved it, had he known it. But Schubert had died 38 years before.
The third and last movement starts with a melody that Tchaikovsky has already used in his Piano Sonata No. 1 composed a year earlier. And again, the snow flakes are dancing in the air. The final movement starts with a sumptuous melody and is based on a popular song, first the woods, than the strings, and finally the brass come along with plenty of boost! A second theme, a very joyous one, is introduced and gives the whole movement a more energetic allure than the beginning suggested.
Critics say the final movement as the symphony as such is constructed unevenly and lacks originality. As I am not a composer I will not judge whether this criticism is justified, suffice it to say that neither the fourth movement nor the symphony offend my ear. Perhaps I am biased, when it comes to Tchaikovsky!
Op. 13 has been recorded by the Russian National Orchestra, conducted by Mikhail Pletnev, and several others i.e. the Moscow, London, Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras as well as the Gürzenich Orchester Köln under Dimitry Kitayenko.
© Charles Thibo