Twelve miniatures for a handful of rubles

December. © Charles Thibo

The passing of the year – quite a number of composers took this as an inspiration. Antonio Vivaldi did it, of course, with his violin concertos known as “Le Quattro Stagioni”, then Fanny Mendelssohn leading us with her piano cycle “Das Jahr” from month to month. Just like Fanny Tchaikovsky leads us through the year in 12 piano pieces grouped in the cycle “The Seasons”, Op. 37. The pieces had been commissioned by the St. Petersburg music journal “Nuvellist” (Нувеллист). Each piece has a title emphasizing an emotion or an event, each is introduced in the original publication by an epitaph and accompanied by an illustration.

Title, epitaph and illustration

Tchaikovsky’s manuscript features only two titles: At the Fireside (No. 1 for January) and The Song of the Lark (No. 3 for March). The others were added by the editor Nikolay Bernhard, just like the epitaphs and the illustrations. The epitaphs originate from Russian poems of the first half of the 19th century, and it is open to debate how much guidance the composer had received from the publisher. Most likely Bernard had given Tchaikovsky just the name of month and the title for each piece.

The German linguist Reinhard Lauer has written an essay about the piano cycle for the German Tchaikovsky Society and he compares the cycle to other Romantic pieces that have a direct link to literary texts: “Pyotr Tchaikovsky may have emulated Robert Schumann’s piano cycles like the ‘Fantasiestücke’ (Op. 12), the ‘Kinderszenen’ (Op. 15) and the ‘Waldszenen’ (Op. 82), since the different pieces are conceived as small tableaux, independently of their musical form.”

A lack of coherence?

He notes that the epitaphs and the illustrations in Bernard’s journal lack consistence and often have little to do with the emotions expressed by the music such to the contrary what Vivaldi did when he had his “Four Seasons” published in 1723. Vivaldi published poems about the four different seasons along with the concertos and the poems explained in detail what the music is supposed to evoke or illustrate.

The pieces were written between December 1875 and May 1876 and most take a simple rondo* form, but each contains a little melodic masterpiece. The commission eased Tchaikovsky’s permanent financial difficulties and this seemed to him just as good a justification to compose as his own inner inspiration. However, as so often, Tchaikovsky doubted the quality of his work. “I am sending you the first two pieces by post. It is not without some trepidation that I send them to you, for fear that you will think them too long or poor”, he wrote in December 1875 in a letter to Bernard. “I beg you to give me your candid opinion, so that I can keep in mind your requirements while composing the following pieces.”

He had however no reason to worry. The cycle became popular quite quickly and has remained a favourite until our days. I can recommend the recordings by Claudio Colombo and Vladimir Ashkenazy. My favourite pieces cover April, July, September and December: The Snowdrop, The Song of the Reaper, The Hund and Yuletide.

© Charles Thibo

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