I am challenging you: What is the name of that instrument sounding like a combination of bells and horns at 2:07, 2:11, 2:16 and 2:18 of the third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 2 in C Major, op. 53? If you come up with a sensible answer 1, I will send you a bottle of that excellent white wine we grow in Luxembourg no matter where you live. I have listened countless times to that suite, each time with utmost delight, but for a long time, I had no clue how the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Järvi produced that sound. Looking at the score would have been too easy and no fun, and I am curious to hear your scientifically sound replies, educated guesses, crystal ball reading and oracle mutterings!
The further I delve into Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, the more I am impressed by his versatility. The four suites, op. 43, 53, 55 and 61 stand out in my opinion as a reflection of pure joy, or what the French call joie de vivre. For a composer marked by episodes of desperation, self-doubt and pessimistic brooding, that is quite an exception to the rule.
1877 will be our starting point today. Tchaikovsky had just married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, although he must have known that this would lead to a disaster. He was homosexual, but he hoped to “cure” this by getting married. He had insisted that their relationship would be platonic only. Tchaikovsky would see to it, that he would always be far from his wife. Over the winter of 1877/78, Tchaikovsky stayed in Italy and upon his return in spring, he kept busy with the 4th symphony, the opera “Evgenij Onegin“, the violin concerto, the “Album for Children” Op. 39, piano romances and liturgical music.
Searching for new forms
In October 1878, he left his post at the Moscow Conservatory and this new freedom translated into a new composing liberty. Suite No. 1 (1877/78) is such an experiment. Oxford Music Online says “Tchaikovsky seemed to be groping to define the genre”. The first movement has elements of a fugue while the fourth movement initially had the titles like “March of the Lilliputians” and “Dance of the Giants”, suggesting a burlesque style.
Suites No. 2 (1883) and No. 3 (1884) are a clear testimony to Tchaikovsky’s new freedom. He wrote the second one after a stay in Paris, where he had taken care of his morphine addicted sister. Oxford Music Online has the details: “These circumstances […] may explain the work’s eccentric expression, unusual demands of ensemble and scoring […], striking image (a touching ‘Rêves d’enfant’) and blatant contrasts. These components can produce an impression of strangeness, randomness, even vulgarity. The pleasing expression of one movement may not survive juxtaposition with the next – the Scherzo burlesque followed by the ‘Rêves d’enfant’ followed by a Dargomïzhskian ‘Wild Dance’. […] This work represents Tchaikovsky’s inspiration at its most wilful, its furthest remove from the integral logic of Western models.”
Suite No. 3 uses elements from Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings that I will discuss in a later post, and the Piano Trio. While in Suite No. 2, different styles came in a sequence, Tchaikovsky has succeeded in Suite No. 3 in weaving different styles together to a harmonious whole. I find it of striking beauty, and as I said at the beginning, I am still very much intrigued by that instrument I am not able to identify.
Mozart meets Tchaikovsky
At the time Tchaikovsky wrote Suite No. 3, he was also translating Mozart’s opera Le nozze de Figaro. This sparked the idea to orchestrate four pieces of Mozart, a brilliant initiative given Tchaikovsky’s talent for lovely melodies and a rich, colorful sound. In 1887, Suite No. 4 “Mozartiana” flew out of his pen. It is very different from the first three suites in form and style: four traditional movements are followed by ten variations. All parts show a direct stylistic parenthood with Mozart. Genius united! And to end this post, I would like to quote Anne Frank: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”
© Charles Thibo
1 The first five correct answers mailed to me within 24 hours from publishing time (0730 UTC) on will be considered. Otherwise I will run out of wine!
POST-SCRIPTUM: Congratulations! The bottle goes to fellow blogger Scribe Doll.