Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Tchaikovsky's "Fatum"

Continuing my series of program notes

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Fatum (Fate)

A strong argument could be made that Fate was Tchaikovsky’s great theme. For example, he said of the strident fanfare opening of his great Fourth Symphony of 1877 ‘This is fate...which hangs above your head like the sword of Damocles.’ It is not surprising, therefore, to find one of Tchaikovsky’s early works actually given ‘fate’ as a title, even though the work has no known specific program.
In 1868, Tchaikovsky had been nearly three years on the staff of what would become the Moscow Conservatory. He’d been headhunted from St. Petersburg by Nikolai Rubinstein when Rubinstein wanted to institute a Moscow branch of his brother Anton’s St.Petersburg-based Russian Musical Society. Tchaikovsky began Fatum in late September/early October 1868 and finished the scoring in December. Fatum’s first performance took place on 15/27 February 1869 at the eighth concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. 
Biographers have speculated that the emotional turbulence of this work stems from the ups and downs of Tchaikovsky’s short-lived relationship with Belgian soprano, Désirée Artôt. At the time of the first performance, however, Nikolai Rubinstein suggested giving the work a more obviously explanatory title and some lines by Konstantin Batyushkov were added as a kind of epigraph:

You know what grey-haired Melhisedek
Bidding farewell to life, uttered:
‘A man was born a slave
He will die a slave,
And death will hardly tell him
Why he walked through the poor valley of tears
Suffered, endured, sobbed and perished.’

It’s hard to see how this might have enlightened the first audience. After all, what is the exact correspondence between Tchaikovsky’s often buoyant music and these words?

Tchaikovsky was at first proud of the form he had created for this work. However, still seeking validation as a composer, he sent the score to Mily Balakirev back in St. Petersburg for feedback. The leader of the group of nationalist Russian composers known as the ‘Mighty Five’ wrote back: ‘It is not properly gestated....The seams show, as does all your clumsy stitching...’ Though Balakirev accepted the dedication and conducted the work’s first Saint Petersburg performance, Tchaikovsky was discouraged and destroyed the score. It had to be reconstructed after his death.

Is the work as seriously deficient as Balakirev seems to have believed? What we have in Fatum is an overture-length work in two fairly similar halves. It opens with a stentorian statement of what we might consider the ‘fate’ theme. This is then given canonic treatment beginning in the bassoon before opening out into one of those eloquent melodies that we might describe as panoramic if it were accompanying stage action in a Tchaikovsky ballet. There follows a fast section (Molto allegro), rather like a Russian dance, before a truncated return of the very opening.

After this return, the ‘panoramic’ section follows (melody this time given out by horns), and the Molto allegro section is recalled. There is not much here in the way of detailed ‘symphonic development’, often a point of serious criticism as far as Tchaikovsky is concerned, but the work exhibits the eloquent lyricism that audiences have always loved in Tchaikovsky despite the reservations of critics.

Cesar Cuí, one of Balakirev’s ‘Five’, praised this work’s orchestration (the much-loved Tchaikovsky of the later symphonies and ballets is obviously present in such details as the woodwind and harp gilding of the ‘panoramic’ melody). All was not lost with Balakirev’s trenchant criticism, however. In many respects, Fatum opened the door to his and Tchaikovsky’s fruitful relationship. Though Tchaikovsky was never a member of the Five, Balakirev played something of the role of a mentor. Late in 1869, Balakirev came to Moscow and began a custom of suggesting programmatic topics to Tchaikovsky. On one of their walks together he suggested Romeo and Juliet. It worked. On 7 October 1869, after Balakirev’s hint, Tchaikovsky began what would become his first undoubted orchestral masterpiece, the Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2013

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International (http://symphonyinternational.net/). Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013
Liszt's Hamlet, published 15 August 2013
Scriabin's Piano Concerto, published 18 August 2013
Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich, published 27 August 2013
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier selections, published  
Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, published 30 August 2013
'Traditional terms' - an interview with John Adams, published 5 Sep 2013
Berlioz' Waverley Overture, published 9 Sep 2013

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