Flying into the sunrise with Tchaikovsky

A golden light at cruising altitude. © Charles Thibo

Flying into a sunrise – it’s always a fascinating moment. Having been a frequent flyer throughout my professional life, I have seen many such moments and they have never lost their magic. Anticipation, peace of mind, hope… Some time ago I flew to Finland. We took off at dawn and reached our cruising altitude just when the sun went up. I had unpacked my Pushkin novel and my tablet, I stared at the golden light, the clouds, I heard the humming of the two turboprops and more importantly, I listened to a great piece of music: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Grande Sonate in G major, Op. 37

A musical powerhouse

The opening chords of the first movement that define a theme that is developed through the entire sonata let my mind drift away, hover over those clouds, suspended, weightless. Those chords, they are massive, and the experienced pianist is careful enough not to drown Tchaikovsky’s melodic line, because the first movement is vigorous, forceful, bursting of energy, of will power. Armen Babakhanian has made a recording that shows you what I mean, the Armenian pianist keeps the melody and the b bass line in a perfect balance.

The second movement is the exact contrary. I imagine a young timid girl straight out of a Russian novel, a discrete beauty, a bit like Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s opera “Evgenij Onegin”. A girl in a melancholic mood, dreaming, innocent until an emotional storm breaks free in her heart, shakes her, confuses her, frightens her. Does the composer reveal here his sensitive nature, his vulnerable soul, his incredible loneliness? Perhaps.

Lyricism, trills and contrasts

The third movement is very short, allegro giocoso, fast-paced and joyous, marked by trills and a contrast between the keys G major and E flat minor. The last movement is written in the same vein as the preceding – a gallop, followed by a lyrical theme and again the contrast of the two keys.

Tchaikovsky wrote down the first bars of the Grande Sonate in early March 1878 but he made not much headway. “…mediocre little ideas, and I have to think about every single bar. But I will tackle it and I hope that inspiration will illuminate me again”, he wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly. He interrupted his work on the sonata however as the structure of what would become his Violin Concerto in D major (Op. 35) became clearer to him. In April however, inspiration apparently has struck since he wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck that he was about to finish the sonata.

Inspired by Schumann

The composer’s teacher, mentor and friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, would perform the premiere in Moscow on October 21, 1879. “The way he plays it is a miracle”, he writes later to von Meck, “I was taken aback by the artistic quality and the stunning energy of his performance of this somewhat dry and complex piece.”

Tchaikovsky’s biographer André Lischke mentions Robert Schumann’s style as a source of inspiration. Both Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky were admirers of the German Romantic composer. He opined that asserts that the second half of the 19th century would go down into music history as the “Schumannesque period” and to a young German conductor criticizing Schumann’s oeuvre he once replied: “As a Russian I am ashamed to see a German musician daring to insult the memory of one of Germany’s greatest composers.” But quoting Schumann directly or indirectly in the Grande Sonate probably is the biggest tribute to Schumann anyway.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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