He was composing by age four and his musical talent was fostered as a child, but with no formal musical education available in Russia’s institutions, Tchaikovsky’s parents encouraged him to train for the public service instead. After several years as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice, however, he began taking classes at the newly established Russian Musical Society, and then enrolled in the St Petersburg Conservatory in its opening year.
Tchaikovsky studied in St Petersburg with Nikolai Zeremba and Anton Rubinstein, whose older brother Nikolai Rubinstein founded the Moscow Conservatory. It was Nikolai Rubinstein who invited Tchaikovsky to teach in Moscow in 1866 after he graduated, and there – still only in his mid-twenties, learning the ropes as a teacher – he set about composing his first symphony.
Tchaikovsky was breaking new ground in Russian music – there were no real Russian symphonic models to follow, so he turned instead to the Romantic symphonies of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Schumann’s Fourth Symphony particularly inspired him, and Tchaikovsky biographer Roland John Wiley notes that Tchaikovsky follows the same structure as Schumann’s symphony in ‘Winter Dreams’.
The music didn’t come easily, however, and Tchaikovsky described himself as ‘a step away from madness’ while composing the work (the experience also taught him that he was unsuited to composing at night). He drew on material from several of his student works, including a piano sonata he began writing in his final year as a student in St Petersburg, which became the Scherzo.
Tchaikovsky knew the power of words and stories to draw listeners into his music – we see it in the detailed scenarios he describes for later symphonies in his letters – but for ‘Winter Dreams’ we have only that title and the titles of the first two movements. It remains a mystery whether he had a concrete image in mind or if he was simply hoping to conjure a general atmosphere inspired by the Russian countryside, not unlike Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian Symphony’ or Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’.
Tchaikovsky’s old teachers in St Petersburg were highly critical of the symphony when he played them an early version, which was devastating for the composer, but after revisions Nikolai Rubinstein conducted individual movements on several occasions, then premiered the whole thing in 1868. Tchaikovsky reported to his brother Modest that the performance was a success and that ‘the Adagio was particularly admired’, but he still made further revisions.
Tchaikovsky would look back on his first symphony as ‘a sin of my sweet youth’, but he wrote that ‘although it is in many ways immature, yet fundamentally it has more substance and is better composed than many of my other more mature works.’
Dreams of a Winter Journey
Quietly shivering violins suggest a tranquil, snow-covered landscape, over which the flute and bassoon swoop in the opening of the symphony, the violas soon picking up their melody. The texture recalls Mendelssohn in the beginning, but the music quickly becomes grander, as the sweeping melodies we associate with Tchaikovsky take over. Though we can hear Tchaikovsky’s inspirations, we can also hear the future – the dramatic brass fanfares give us a taste of the thunderous ‘fate’ theme of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony.
Land of Desolation, Land of Mists
(Adagio cantabile ma non tanto)
The Adagio opens with the strings, whose gentle melody is at odds with the bleak title, Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. Listen out for the gorgeous oboe solo, adorned on either side by flute and bassoon, which shows Tchaikovsky’s mastery as an orchestrator even in this early work. The horns shine in the movement’s climax, before the music returns once more to gentle strings.
(Allegro scherzando giocoso)
There’s a lightness and energy to the Scherzo that recalls Mendelssohn’s own effervescent scherzos, such as in his incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But there is a darkness lurking just below the surface – even in the central waltz section – and it threatens to erupt when the timpanis enter at the end of the movement.
(Andante lugubre – Allegro moderato – Allegro maestoso)
Bassoons open the final movement, which begins in a sombre mood, the melody based on a Russian folk song. Tchaikovsky makes the most of the lower strings here, who suddenly pick up the pace and launch the orchestra into a boisterous, glittering finale. The sombre mood of the opening does return – following an energetic, fugue-like passage – but it’s ultimately dispelled with timpanis, cymbals and blazing brass.
© Angus McPherson, 2023