Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s biggest composition for piano was the last of that type of work. And will you believe it, I was unaware of its existence! Shame on me! At the same time, I considered myself lucky. Daniil Trifonov was expected in town last Saturday night at the Philharmonie de Luxembourg to play a part of it. In April 1873, within a little over two weeks, Tchaikovsky wrote a piano cycle of the name of “18 Pieces” (Op. 72), and Trifonov would have performed “Un poco di Chopin” (nb. 15), a lovely, joyful tune… if he hadn’t fallen ill! The recital was canceled at the last minute. However, Trifonov’s programme had sparked my curiosity, and I bought a recording of the full set performed with Claudio Colombo. And what I got was a highly pleasant surprise. Such light-heartedness music from a notoriously depressed and self-pitying composer!
No less then 18 dedicatees
A number of international researchers have set up in 2006 the Tchaikovsky Research Project and according to their collective wisdom the composer dedicated each piece to a different individual, e. g. the niece of his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson (nb. 6), the wife of his friend Herman Laroche (nb. 8), the pianist Alexander Ziloti (nb. 10). “Un poco di Chopin” was dedicated to Sergey Remezov, a pianist and music teacher from the Moscow Conservatory. Initially Tchaikovsky had intended to write a set of 30 piano pieces, but that seemed too ambitious even for a highly motivated Tchaikovsky.
As a matter of fact, the composer was quite satisfied with himself when he had finished the “Scherzo-Fantaisie”, dedicated to Ziloti: “It’s remarkable that the further I get, the easier and more enjoyable the job becomes […] now I cannot stop my ideas, which appear to me one after another, at all hours of the day”, he writes to his nephew Vladimir Davydov. When he had finished number 18, he wrote to is brother Modest: “It seems that I won’t be able to write 30 pieces.” It didn’t matter actually, the background of his effort being of financial nature – once more Tchaikovsky was needed cash. The composer dispatched the pieces immediately after their completion to Moscow to Jurgenson who published them in September under the opus number 72.
Using symphonic sketches
According to the above mentioned researchers, the piece dedicated to Ziloti seems to be based on sketches for the third movement of a symphony in E flat major, a work that Tchaikovsky had abandoned in November 1892 after mulling for three years about it. He completed only the first movement. The piano piece he developed from this sketch is like “Un poco di Chopin” a jaunty tune with dramatic potential and if I imagine this theme performed by a string section… too bad, Tchaikovsky did not follow-up on his idea for a full-fledged symphony!
And here lies the biggest interest of Op. 72: Besides being a cycle of pleasant, mostly up-beat piano pieces, this work represents the different facets of the composer’s musical personality: elegiac and lyrical themes, dance tunes, the use of folk songs, symphonic constructions – a summary of Tchaikovsky’s strong points.
© Charles Thibo