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Listening With Les        

Series Premiere (April 23, 2020):

Happy Birthday, Will Shakespeare!   

Featuring the First Version of Tchaikovsky's
Romeo & Juliet Overture-Fantasy (1869)
While the MSO remains on hiatus, I've been asked to share my thoughts on the orchestral repertoire with you by our parent organization, the Mariposa County Arts Council. 

From time to time, I'll send out an e-mail like this, with a particular piece or composer highlighted, along with links to performances available on YouTube by some of the world's great orchestras.

Some may remember when I presented pre-concert talks in person at the Sixth Street Cinema in Mariposa, a week before our concerts - complete with examples.   This will be something like that, and I hope you'll find these offerings interesting - and enjoyable.   

For the most part, I'll write of music the MSO has performed in the past - and will hopefully be able to perform for you in the future, too!   And what better way to kick things off on this day - the presumed birthday of the greatest dramatist in the English-speaking world: William Shakespeare - believed to have been born on this date in 1564.  And ironically, it's believed he also died on this very date, exactly 52 years later in 1616.
One of the most famous plays of all time; one of the most famous pieces of music ever written.  But not many people realize Tchaikovsky wrote three versions of what's become one of the most-recognized works of music ever.   Though the MSO has performed the final 1880 version most constantly heard in concert halls in at least two of our past seasons, a year ago I decided it would be nice to let our audiences hear Tchaikovsky's first take on that classic story.  Below: my notes on Tchaikovsky's life as well as sound links to both the first (1869) version and the well-known final 1880 "Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy."

And yes, there are a LOT of words here - it's how I write.   But feel free to skip to the bottom, to where the sound links are.  After all: if you don't have time to read, just listen.   Because let's face it: the music is all that matters in the end.

   
(Photo: 29-year-old Tchaikovsky - at the time of the original version of "Romeo & Juliet")


PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893):
How to define Tchaikovsky?   Well, he was certainly one of the greatest melodists ever.  And not surprisingly – one of the most famous composers of all time, if not always by name, simply due to the ubiquity of his music – music known not only to concert audiences, but to just about anyone who’s ever heard music.  Anyone who’s ever watched films, or seen television programming or enjoyed cartoons; from the love theme from Romeo and Juliet, to 1812 Overture, to the Nutcracker Ballet (and especially the suite) – and also his Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake ballets and the first piano concerto and, well: it goes on and on.   He’s one of the world’s most beloved composers, hands down.  Period.  But he was also one of the greatest of all orchestrators, a wonderful music theorist, a harmonist of incredible imagination – and, especially in his final works: in some ways a musical revolutionary.   THAT’s not a word often applied to Tchaikovsky, but in the case of his 6th Symphony (the “Pathetique”) and other late compositions – it’s true. 
 
Now I may sound a bit biased, and well: I am.  To me, great music must touch our hearts as well as our minds.  With nearly no exceptions, we don’t sit back and appreciate structure, or musical architecture, without the content of a piece of music also reaching out to us, into us - from a composer to the audience.  Music, or at least memorable, great music must: connect to our emotions and not merely our intellect alone.  Sure – one can admire the technique of a composition, even if it’s conceived along flat-out academic or theoretical lines alone.  But it’s tough to love such music if it doesn’t also stir passion, or touch the soul, or make one chuckle or feel sadness or giddiness or melancholy or any other of the myriad emotions which we all share and which ultimately make us HUMAN.  Which may help to explain why the composers who rank among my favorites are those who could do just that.   And Tchaikovsky is high in that pantheon.   Few composers could so brilliantly tap into the universal emotions we all experience and then – miraculously: share those emotions so clearly through their music.  Even those listeners not conditioned to, or raised with the sound of so-called Western music recognize human emotions in well-written music.   And amazingly perhaps: the music of Tchaikovsky continues to touch us across the centuries, certainly across national borders and by bridging continental differences.
 
Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in the Votkinsk region of Russia, a largely metallurgically-important industrial area even to this day - then a largely rural and remote area of central Russia about 700 miles east of Moscow.  Fortunately, the boy’s father (Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky) was considered to be Russia’s leading metallurgist, and as the government bureaucrat in charge of mine inspections in the region, the family was consequently quite well-off.   Tchaikovsky’s mother Alexandra (d'Assier) – to whom the boy was utterly devoted: was some 18 years younger than her husband and of French ancestry.   Besides the second-born Pyotr, the offspring consisted of his elder brother Nikolai, the younger Ippolit and lastly the twins Anatoly and Modest.  Modest would prove to be closest to Pyotr and ultimately, his librettist, biographer and chronicler.  In addition to the five boys, there was the one girl (also named, like her mother) Alexandra, born one year after Pyotr in 1841 – and all the Tchaikovsky children were raised with the best education possible.  The children were brought up (particularly) with great respect for, and wide-ranging knowledge of the arts, which both parents valued highly.   Additionally, Father Ilya had a daughter – Zinayda – from his first marriage, which had ended with the death of his first wife in childbirth.
 
Young Pyotr was high-strung and highly sensitive.  He was also a Francophile not only due to the maternal blood running through his body but also because of the children’s French governess Fanny Dürbach, who was Pyotr’s senior by only 19 years and to whom Pyotr would remain close until his death.  He demonstrated great love and very high aptitude for music at the earliest age but was also plagued at times by music he heard in his head – and wasn’t able to stop hearing: it would at times prevent him even from sleeping.  When the child was eight years old, the family moved to St. Petersburg, and then Moscow a few months later.   The following year, they moved yet again (all due to Dad’s work) to the Ural Mountains town of Alapayevsk, about 250 miles further east past Votkinsk, where the boy had spent his earliest years.   And then, two years later: it was determined the child would have a career in law, and at the very tender age of only ten he was summarily packed off across that vast country to the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg: shunted abruptly some 1300 miles due west, and alone: from the sticks of the Ural Mountains all the way to Russia’s grandest, most European city.  For two centuries St. Petersburg was also the capital of Imperial Russia, until 1918.  As glorious a place as St. Petersburg was, the 10-year-old’s world was turned upside down.  From his sheltered, protected family home with his siblings and beloved parents in central Russia to the most modern, and second largest of Russia’s cities.  It’s a city long described as Russia’s window on the west – even during the Soviet years when the city would be renamed Leningrad (after a few years as “Petrograd” in the waning days of Tsarist Russia.)  The shock and loneliness were devastating to the boy, but his parents thought it the best thing for him.  A future in the field of law, life in a cosmopolitan big city.  
 
Music at that time was not fathomable as a career other than as a professor or instructor, which was – seriously – deemed to be nearly as low on the societal totem pole as it was to be a serf or peasant.  When the boy was age 14 he had another terrible, huge shock when his mother suddenly died of cholera back home.    The young Pyotr was hugely devastated – it was a pain he would carry to the end of his life, noting not long before his own death the mental remembrance of that event 40 years earlier was just as fresh and painful to him as it had been at the time.  Perhaps as consolation, in 1855 Tchaikovsky’s father did establish private music lessons for his son as Pyotr continued the study of law at the School of Jurisprudence.   And I do have to say that despite all this, when – years later – Pyotr yearned to be released from law in order that he might become a professional composer, father Ilya understood and was supportive of his son.   But for now, the young Tchaikovsky’s music teacher pronounced him (in a letter to his father) as not possessing any traits or talents which (in his eyes) could see a future in music for the boy.  All I can say about that is: wow.  History is littered with so many incorrect pronouncements.
 
Pyotr graduated from the School of Jurisprudence at 19 and immediately began a career as an assistant in the Ministry of Justice – but during that humdrum tenure he (at age 21) continued his musical studies in 1862 at an accelerated level at the just-established Russian Musical Society’s Music Conservatory in St. Petersburg.  At the same time, he also developed the image of a social gadfly: a hard-partying, perhaps-irresponsible young man who began to dabble in a number of questionable activities - a fashionable if kopeks-bereft rake who became well-known within the city’s gay nightlife.  He never allowed the lack of funds to stand between himself and a good time, sometimes to the horror of his friends.  Money simply puzzled him – and he was never able to comprehend finances throughout his 53 years.  And so he just kept living as if he HAD money when – at least for the first few decades of his life: his pockets were empty.
 
The Royal Music Society and consequently its Conservatory were the creation of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (Tsar Alexander II’s aunt) and the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein – perhaps the most famous Russian musician of the day.  Rubinstein was to play a pivotally important role in Tchaikovsky’s training and future.   Fortunately, this was a time of renaissance in Russia when it came to the arts – as the importance of all the arts which Peter the Great had initiated was now coming back into vogue, some 140 years after that forward-thinking Tsar’s death.   And St. Petersburg was considered to be Russia’s most culturally/artistically important city.
 
Anton Rubinstein’s younger brother Nikolai was also to become an extremely important proponent, advisor and at times, critic of Tchaikovsky’s music – and to compare those brothers, fiery first-born Anton was considered to be an astonishingly gifted virtuoso pianist whose performances at the keyboard could leave an audience feeling physically drained, and he was also a prolific composer and conductor, while the younger brother Nikolai was the far more introspective pianist – and only composed a small number of pieces, noting that his big brother Anton composed “enough for three.”  As Anton had founded that first Russian Musical Society’s St. Petersburg conservatory in 1862, the younger Nikolai would later found the Moscow branch of the Conservatory in 1866 - becoming important in the career of Tchaikovsky, as I’ll write in just a little bit (see my background information on the Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn below.)

Tchaikovsky was in the right place at the right time.  The Russian government had decided to train its own and emphasize the Russian arts and as well, to raise the esteem of the arts in the country.   And so with that 1862 opening of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky continued his studies – at a new level of dedication and validity.   And it wasn’t just conservatory training: as the arts were blooming all over Russia, this was also the time during which the “Mighty Five” were planting their own “anti-conservatory” musical seed – as I’ve noted in past programs when we’ve presented the music of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin (the other members of that cadre were Cui and Balakirev.)  To make a long story short, Tchaikovsky quickly distinguished himself as a student – and during that pivotal year of 1862 left the Ministry of Justice for good following his three year career there: at the age of 22 he finally became a musician for life, albeit still a student one.  But in his final year as a student, his music received its first professional public performance on September 11, 1865 when his “Characteristic Dances” was conducted by none other than the visiting famed Johann Strauss (II) at a concert in Pavlovsk Park – yes, THAT Johann Strauss.  Tchaikovsky learned of the concert just a little too late to be able to attend, but from all accounts, the first public non-scholastic performance of Tchaikovsky’s music was a success.
 
Upon graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was hired in 1866 to teach at the newly-opened Moscow sister branch of the (RMS) conservatory under its founder: the younger Rubinstein brother Nikolai, at the urgings of his brother Anton.  Tchaikovsky taught while also serving as a music critic for many years; (late in his single decade career as a critic, he notably attended and reviewed the first performance of Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen from August 13 – 17, 1876 in Bayreuth, Germany.  He was not terribly amused.)
 
As noted earlier, money woes were to plague Tchaikovsky to the end of his life; he had no concept of living frugally.  But as his music became better known through the years and his admirers grew in numbers, he was contacted in 1876 by the rich railroad widow Nadezhda von Meck – who was enamored of his music, absolutely enraptured by it.  She offered him an annual income which would allow him to focus on composing music; his breakthrough fourth symphony was consequently dedicated to von Meck (“to my dearest friend”) and their relationship was one of the strangest in all history: his income was contingent upon their never meeting in person.  And aside from one brief, uncomfortable, wordless encounter during which Tchaikovsky nervously tipped his hat and they moved on without missing a step; (at a distance, mind you!) on the grounds of her estate (an estate that included the young Claude Debussy as resident pianist!), they never did.  But they corresponded constantly, leaving volumes throughout their 14 year association.  Their 1,200+ preserved letters (which I’ve read in their entirety) reveal a remarkable portrait of the man and his (as they referenced each other:) “Beloved Friend."
 
Early successes by Tchaikovsky included his “Romeo and Juliet Overture” of 1869 and his First and Second Symphonies (the latter subtitled the “Little Russian”) – both of which the MSO has performed over the past few years – as well as the final 1880 (famous) version of the “Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.”   As his fame grew, the works he composed were to become world-famous; from the eventual six symphonies to the Festival Overture “1812,” the three piano concertos (the first of which is probably the best-known and loved piano concerto ever written) as well as the violin concerto (ditto re: best loved/known for THAT genre,) innumerable orchestral works, the string quartets and much more chamber music, all the solo piano music, the “Swan Lake” and later “Sleeping Beauty” and “Nutcracker” ballets, the 11 operas including “Yevgeny (Eugene) Onegin,” “The Maid of Orleans,” “Mazepa,” “Cherevichki” and “The Queen of Spades:” he was a master nearly from the start.  In 1892, he was named a member of France’s distinguished Académie des Beaux-Arts, only the second Russian to be so honored.  By the end of his life, he had received honorary degrees from (among others) Cambridge University in England – and was truly an honored and respected composer of the first rank in his own lifetime.  In Russia, he was a national treasure – known and beloved quite literally throughout the vast country and amongst all its varied social classes.
 
In the 1880s, Tchaikovsky began studying a new (to him) discipline of music, and then slowly embarked upon a new career: as a conductor.  He was never wholly comfortable conducting symphony orchestras, and it was written by some of his colleagues (and by himself) that perhaps some of his own premieres suffered through his less-than ideal conducting.  But: the world wanted to see Tchaikovsky, and he could earn needed money by showing himself to the world.   Early on, he wrote of having to use only one hand to conduct, the other being necessary to hold his head in order to prevent it from falling off.
 
As a man?   He was described by all who knew him, in all the scholarship I’ve read: as remarkably charming.   A magnetic, glowing personality, but one who wasn’t necessarily aware he possessed such attraction and charm.  He had a childlike naiveté – which may seem surprising considering the level of sophistication of his music, of his world travels, his knowledge, the circles in which he traveled.  The cosmopolitanism of the man.  But he seemed totally unchanged by fame and success; never becoming cynical but always approaching life with eyes-wide-open wonder.   Small things could evoke joy in him – and nature was one of those things.   He walked every single day, rain or shine, snow or sleet – and usually up to ten miles each day.   Whenever he was in a major city, he reveled in the opportunities, spending every night at the theatre, or enjoying opera – a non-stop social life.   But his greatest joys were reserved for home life in a house he rented in the town of Klin, outside Moscow – where he only occupied the upper floor of his own home, giving the lower floor over to his loyal servant Aleksey Sofronov, and Sofronov’s family.  It was in that house, incidentally: that Tchaikovsky touched up and edited his 1866 “Festival Overture on the Danish National Hymn” which is on our program – final refinements to a work composed 25 years earlier by a man in his twenties - in order that the piece could finally be published in 1892.
 
By 1891, he was so celebrated throughout the world that he became the star attraction when Carnegie Hall opened in Manhattan and he was feted there like the legend he had become, conducting his own music at the opening; his time in America took him to Niagara Falls and Baltimore, in addition to those few days in Manhattan.  But at that time – at the age of 50: he looked and sounded more like a man of 70.  He no longer smiled for photographs because – as he wrote: he had lost some of his teeth and he declined from public speaking as well.  His hair was starkly white and he felt old and tired.  At times, he also felt himself (incorrectly, of course) to be “written-out” – to have no more music in him.  How wrong he was; some of his greatest, most accomplished music was to come in those final couple of years.  He did, however: plan to stop composing altogether before the turn of the 20th century, before he turned 60.   Although I very much doubt he actually WOULD have stopped writing.   The need to express himself in music was just too strong.
 
He had written 11 operas ranging from his first: 1867-8’s “The Voyevoda” to 1877-8’s “Yevgeny Onegin,” 1878-9’s “The Maid of Orleans” (Joan of Arc) and 1890’s “The Queen of Spades” – with perhaps the greatest of his operatic output based upon the works of Pushkin (“Onegin” and “Queen of Spades”) though I have to say there’s really not a weak work in all of his operas.   Tchaikovsky was born to compose for the stage, with an inner sense of the drama of music, one of the greatest natural abilities to compose for ALL aspects of dance beyond any other composer I can imagine – and that talent wasn’t demonstrated only in his 11 operas and three ballets.   The sense of rhythm, of dance: runs throughout all his music, and perhaps that’s another reason it speaks so well to us – to OUR sense of rhythm – our heart beats, our toe-tapping – the need to move in all of us.      
 
That sense of drama and of movement came to a final demand when Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose a two-act ballet and a one-act opera – both to premiere on the same evening’s bill at the Mariinsky Theatre on December 18, 1892.   The subjects of both works were to be of Tchaikovsky’s own selection, and he opted for two stories he’d always enjoyed and thought would be appropriate for Christmastime performances.  The ballet was to be “The Nutcracker” (based upon the E.T.A. Hoffman tale of the Nutcracker Prince and the Mouse King) and the opera was “Iolanthe,” based upon “Kong Renés Datter” (“King René’s Daughter”) – a Dutch play by Henrik Hertz, with the opera’s Russian libretto written by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest.   Tchaikovsky wrote after the premiere performance: “Apparently the opera gave some pleasure but the ballet not really and as a matter of fact despite all the sumptuousness it turned out to be somewhat boring.”   And as I hope you know from our past performances of the Suite from that Nutcracker Ballet, he wrote some of his most exquisite music FOR that work.

In 1892 he began a symphony in Eb, which he subtitled “Life” – but by November of that year had abandoned it.  He wanted to write a grand, meaningful capstone of a symphony, but came to realize this WASN’T it.  My opinion?   He had already done so!   His 1888 fifth symphony is an incredible exhibition of a masterful, grand and spectacular symphony – as is his 1885 symphony-in-all-but-name “Manfred” – which had been composed 8 years after the breakthrough 1877 fourth symphony dedicated “to my best friend” – Nadezhda von Meck.   But still that need burned within him.

He’d later (in his final months in 1893) rewrite the first movement of that abandoned 1892 Eb Symphony into his third (one-movement) piano concerto and after his death, his one-time student and extremely well-trained composer Serge Taneyev would turn the second and fourth movements into the Andante and Finale for Piano and Orchestra.  In the 1950s, the Soviet musicologist Semyon Bogatyrev actually reconstructed the entire symphony from Tchaikovsky’s notes and the extant piano works.   It’s interesting, but Tchaikovsky was definitely correct to abandon it as “uninspired.”  I’m sure his experience of trying to conjure something meaningful from his need to simply work every single day, to compose during his work hours whether he felt the muse or not: had shaken his self-belief, and had added to his feeling of being “written-out.”
 
But then: genius struck with a lightning bolt.  And Tchaikovsky rapidly planned and then executed an amazing symphony – one that would NOT end – as symphonies always had: with an impressive, grand or loud, fast movement.   No, instead, THIS symphony would end quietly, dying away – a requiem of sorts.  A fulfillment of Tchaikovsky’s obsession with fate, with life – and with death. Tchaikovsky conceived of the idea of a “programme” symphony that would be written around a subjective theme – one which, as he mentally planned the symphony, caused him “to weep” as he wrote his nephew Bob Davidov, who would eventually become the dedicatee of this symphony.  Quickly written from mid-February and March of 1893 and then orchestrated in a little over three weeks that July and August, it was premiered under the composer’s baton on October 16/28, 1893 (Julian Calendar/Gregorian Calendar.)  An innovative, revolutionary symphony that would make possible the later works of Mahler, inspire Shostakovich – and countless other composers to come.   A symphony nearly unimaginable as having been conceived by the relatively conservative monarchist Tchaikovsky.  And yet, an astonishing work that could ONLY have been written by Tchaikovsky.  A composer who had just scaled an ever-higher peak in his creative powers; a man by no means “written out.”
 
In his final months, he was eagerly planning travels both in and outside Russia to conduct his music, as well as the music of other composers.   And despite his plans to wind down his composing career, he was planning many more pieces, including a concerto for two pianos and orchestra, a flute concerto, a cello concerto – and revisions of some of his earlier operas.   He was also tantalizingly considering new operatic works, including an opera on a subject that had captivated him since 1869 – and which had already provided him with the inspiration for an Overture (in its three incarnations:) Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.   He had assiduously studied English for years, and apparently had become quite fluent in the language.  His favorite author in that final year or two?  Mary Ann Evans, who of course is far better known under her nom de plume: George Eliot.   And Tchaikovsky was seriously considering beginning composition of an opera upon Eliot’s “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton” – but was also captivated by her “The Mill on the Floss,” “Adam Bede,” “Silas Marner” and “Middlemarch.”  And after reading Eliot’s “Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story,” THAT bit of Eliot’s writing knocked “The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton” out of contention, becoming the composer’s new favorite intention for musical adaptation.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.


Tchaikovsky was to die on October 25 (JC)/November 6 (GC), 1893 – nine days after conducting the premiere of his remarkable 6th Symphony, which he subtitled “Pathétique” - and which stands as my favorite work of music – and not just of Tchaikovsky’s music, but of all music.   (Incidentally: “Pathétique” does NOT translate into “pathetic.”  In French – the language that was a second tongue to the composer – it means “passionate” or “poignant.”)  That premiere of the 6th – was to an audience that didn’t really get it.   The normally-sensitive Tchaikovsky, who would have usually taken the lack of interest by both audience AND his musicians in his final symphony very badly: didn’t.  For once, he retained confident in his latest musical child (he usually DIDN’T) and he was of course correct: at a memorial concert during which the 6th was offered under the baton of his friend Eduard Napravnik, they now UNDERSTOOD it.  They GOT it, this novel symphony that ended THAT way, and contained THAT remarkable music, and from that moment, from that second performance: the “Pathétique” has become a favorite of audiences everywhere.   As it became my own favorite work from the first time I heard it, immediately: 50 years ago when I was a pre-teen. As noted: my favorite work by any composer, any era.


And just what WAS the cause of his death?   Cholera – the very same water-borne disease he had despised and feared since the age of 14 when it took his beloved mother away.  And despite the sensational third-hand whispered, unsubstantiated – and ultimately disproven rumors that came out of Russia 40 years ago: Tchaikovsky did NOT commit suicide after being found guilty by some sort of “court of honor” at the School of Jurisprudence he had attended as a youth.  Found guilty of some sort of homosexual scandal; the details of that story are absolutely ludicrous – and have been all totally refuted.  Matter of fact, I just finished reading a fascinating book dedicated solely to Tchaikovsky’s final weeks, and in the virtually minute-by-minute documented activities of the composer, there was no time for that alleged “hours long” secret hush-hush court of honor (and the males-only School of Jurisprudence itself was a hotbed of sexual escapades, and not to conflate the two, but while technically illegal, “homosexuality” was an acknowledged part of 19th-century Russian society, with many high-profile gays including some right in the royal family) – the bottom line being: if you’ve heard this silly story well, it’s false.   Tchaikovsky died ultimately of uremia due to cholera’s devastation of his body; St. Petersburg was in the throes of one of its someone common cholera epidemics, and his four physicians (including those who were usually the doctors of the royal family) gave detailed reports (confirmed by those close to Tchaikovsky who were allowed into brother Modest’s apartment where the ailing Tchaikovsky spent his final few dying days) of all the symptoms and epidemiology of cholera.   Period.

In 1893, in those final months Tchaikovsky had left him, he went from the unbridled, wide-eyed youthful joy of The Nutcracker to (ultimately) that final, brilliant masterpiece – the Pathétique.  What might he have produced had he lived beyond 53?   He was at the absolute height of his creative powers, of fame, of mastery of music – what else might he have had in him?   Unfortunately, we’ll never know.   Tchaikovsky was by nature a bit of a sober man, despite that childlike love of and fascination with simple things, despite his love of having a good time.  And despite his generally upbeat personality, he could be somber - even for a Russian in the waning decades of the Tsarist regime.  But he could—and frequently did: write music that is uproariously happy, even when his personal life was in devastated turmoil.  Just between us: he was far more than a penner of great tunes.  Though he broke down few doors in the manner of a Beethoven, he truly knew what to do with those tunes, with form, with harmony. 
 
His death was a national – and even international loss.  Seriously.  Tchaikovsky’s name and music were known and beloved the world over, already.   Front-page news in New York, in London – and in all other world cultural meccas.   Back home in St. Petersburg, he received a massive state funeral, with all expenses paid by the ailing Tsar Alexander III, who wrote (with regal reserve, of course) “we have many counts and barons, but only one Tchaikovsky.”  And from the Tsar’s son, Tsarevich Nikolai Alexandrovich, the man who would become the final Tsar of all the Russias: the ill-fated Nicholas II, only a year later – well, he could only write in his private diary upon hearing the news: “A terrible misfortune happened yesterday – our wonderful composer Tchaikovsky died.”  
 
As for Nadezhda von Meck – the woman who endowed upon spendthrift Tchaikovsky the great gift of financial security? In 1890 she suddenly, with no warning, painfully cut Tchaikovsky off from further endowments, claiming bankruptcy.  She wasn’t, though her empire was suffering fiscal loss. She was, however—at age 59: dying of tuberculosis and knew it. The 49-year old composer was devastated, wondering why?  WHY?  Had he had offended her?  Though by now world-famous and able to support himself, he never knew the true reason for the break. They were rumored to be reconciling (vicariously) in late 1893, though not back in communication, when Tchaikovsky succumbed to cholera at the age of 53 just nine days after the premiere of that final, brilliant Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique.”  And von Meck followed him to the grave some six weeks later from her terminal consumption – (tuberculosis as we now call it) —as her daughter wrote: unable to survive the death of her “Beloved Friend” - that beloved friend she never met.
Geoffrey Simon conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in the rarely-heard original (1869) version of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (First Version, 1869)
Three of Shakespeare’s plays would become the focus of Tchaikovsky’s compositions: “The Tempest” Fantasy, “Hamlet” – for which Tchaikovsky composed his “Hamlet Overture-Fantasy” and then nearly immediately afterwards, composed about an hour’s worth of incidental music to accompany performances of the play (with a condensed version of the “Hamlet Overture-Fantasy” as part of that incidental music,) and finally: Shakespeare’s famous love-tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” – which would result in the three versions (1869, 1870 and 1880) of Overtures/Fantasy-Overtures, a duet scene using themes from the overture(s) in the late 1870s for tenor and soprano (finished by his student Serge Taneyev after Tchaikovsky’s death with the addition of a role for a mezzo as the Nurse) and even a proposed opera on the tragic tale, for which the duet scene may have been a trial run.
 
And FWIW, Tchaikovsky ALSO considered a fourth Shakespearean work – “Othello” – as an opera subject in 1876-77, but abandoned the idea.
 
But “Romeo and Juliet” seemed to have resonated the most fully with Tchaikovsky, and why not?  It’s got it all: a beautifully poetic setting in Verona (and Tchaikovsky loved his time spent in Italy,) spiteful vengeance, passionate young love, moments of light humor, memorable characters all through the story, deep-seated hatred directed between two families who are not all that different, the death of both innocents AND innocence – and ultimately, the power of love to triumph over hate and bring peace between former enemies.   I won’t recount the too-familiar tale here, but Tchaikovsky did a magnificent job of capturing key elements of that plot both in their specifics (think of the street tumult between the Capulets and Montagues – which Tchaikovsky really nails) and in the generalities of sheer, mere mood: the composer came up with love themes representing both Romeo AND Juliet, and brilliantly interwove them in their development section.  And of course, much more.

The idea of composing a work based upon “Romeo and Juliet” was foisted upon Tchaikovsky in the summer of 1869 by the composer (and constant nag) Mily Balakirev, during a meeting in Moscow.   Balakirev was one of the “Mighty Five” or “Might Handful” I referenced far above; they were the anti-conservatory, anti-formalist nationalist composers and at this point in his career, they felt the young Tchaikovsky was closer to their cause than what he really was: a formally-trained, traditionally European/Western-method trained composer who – while he could and did use Russian folk and traditional music, really WASN’T one of the “Might Five.”  But that didn’t stop Balakirev, and he even went so far as to provide Tchaikovsky with a detailed programmatic structure for the intended piece.  When – by early October, Tchaikovsky admitted to Balakirev that he hadn’t yet been inspired to compose a single note, Balakirev chewed him out (in Tchaikovsky’s words: Balakirev wrote an “abusive letter” to him) and Tchaikovsky responded to that chastisement by very swiftly sketching out the entire piece before the end of October and then finished the orchestration less than three weeks later.  He sent the piece to Balakirev, who had some small compliments – particularly about some of the now-famous tunes, but many more complaints about the piece.   In the ensuing months, he continued to nag Tchaikovsky to rewrite the piece; in the meanwhile, Tchaikovsky was delighted when the piece, AS composed: was scheduled for its world premiere on the eighth concert program of the Moscow Russian Musical Society.   It was performed on March 4th, 1870 under the baton of Nikolai Rubinstein and: promptly made no impression whatsoever. In its one and only performance during its composer’s lifetime.   The members of the “Mighty Five” however: we thrilled (even Balakirev, whose recommendations for revisions to the piece had fallen on deaf ears.)  Tchaikovsky was – against his will – even branded as one of that “Mighty Handful” by the critic Vladimir Stasov, who wrote that the “Mighty Five” was now the “Mighty Six”!    Stasov, incidentally: would become, and remain: a close friend of Tchaikovsky, even though Tchaikovsky would disappoint Stasov by NOT following that nationalist path Stasov SO supported.   In 1873, it would be Stasov who suggested to the composer that he write a piece on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – and he would subsequently be named the dedicatee of THAT piece.   But back to Romeo and Juliet.

Tchaikovsky’s self-doubt plagued him nearly throughout his career.  He was always in love with a new composition while he wrote it, proclaiming it to be the best thing he had ever written, but then – after its completion, usually was embarrassed by his latest “child” and sometimes went so far as to destroy the piece.   Fortunately, at least one revoked, destroyed piece – “The Voyevoda” of 1890: would be re-constructed from its orchestral parts, and it’s a doozy!   The one major exception in Tchaikovsky’s composing career – the one “child” whom he remained in love with and truly KNEW to be “the best thing I’ve ever composed”?   That final masterpiece, the Sixth (“Pathétique”) Symphony.  But in the case of Romeo and Juliet, he did decide soon after that premiere to revise the piece radically.   He kept the main love themes, fight music, most development – and other essences of the piece, but totally re-wrote the introduction: instead of that 1869’s rolling, sober tune in the cellos, basses and bassoons which may be completely new to you, our audience: Tchaikovsky created an entirely different chorale, representing Friar Laurence.  He trimmed some of the exposition, extended other sections – and wholly re-wrote the ending.   That became the second version of 1870.   And then a decade later, Tchaikovsky re-visited the piece one last time, and essentially, just re-wrote the ending – the final section from measure 460 to the conclusion.  And THAT version is the famous one, the one that’s usually played today, as it has been for the past 140 years.   The beloved Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture.
 
So why unearth the first version?   A few reasons.   We’ve played the final, famous version in the past, on more than one occasion.   It’s magnificent, and shows the mature 40-year-old composer at his finest.   But: the first version is inspired, too – it may be a little rough here and there, the ending may be weak, but: this 1869 version represents the passion of a decade-younger man, a young composer in the first flush of inspiration (albeit after being “abused” into action,) and there’s a freshness in his initial efforts at interpreting Shakespeare’s tragic love story.   And – especially to those who know that final (1880) version well: the first version just may have some surprises in store.   In some ways, it’s like hearing a brand-new piece by Tchaikovsky, while at the same time being a comfortable old friend due to those wonderful tunes.   In the 1869 version, as a matter of fact: the famous love theme is actually hinted at prior to its first full statement, and it makes for a wonderful, touching little moment.   And in all three versions: that most famous love theme – the tune that’s become so ubiquitously used to represent love, or even a parody on love: that’s actually Romeo’s theme.   And the muted, divisi section of murmuring strings, almost a lovely lullaby?  That’s Juliet.   And when he combines those two tunes – literally, as well as symbolically: he’s bringing the magic of young passionate love together.  Making one out of two.   And it’s just breathtaking, in all three versions of the piece.
And just for a refresher, here's the final 1880 (third) version, the one most often heard and known for the past 140 years all over the world.  Valery Gergiev conducts that very same London Symphony Orchestra heard in the original version, though now you can see and hear them in concert at the BBC Proms Concerts in 2007.
I hope you enjoy this new offering we're calling "Listening with Les" - my notes, with some of my favorite music played by great international symphony orchestras.  Presented to you by the Mariposa County Arts Council and the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra, until WE can return live, in concert - and in person - when we can offer you the MSO itself.

Stay safe, stay healthy - and stay in touch with your MSO.
            
Les Marsden,
Founding Music Director and Conductor,
The Mariposa Symphony Orchestra 
Mariposa, California: the smallest town in all America with its own Symphony Orchestra!   

    

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