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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: 18 Morceaux, Op. 72 (Shamray)
Tchaikovsky completed his last set of piano pieces about six months before his death. Each bears a dedication to a friend or colleague including distinguished musicians such as Paul Pabst, Vasily Sapelnikov and Vasily Safonov. The 18 pieces are no mere salon effusions; rather they are richly characterised, sometimes virtuosic, and perfectly crafted miniatures. Schumann and Chopin are deliberately evoked, the music embracing a rich variety of dance, melancholy, fantasy and bravura. The set is played by the brilliant young prizewinner of the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2008, Konstantin Shamray.
By Steve Arloff
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Eighteen Piano Pieces, Op. 72
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, completing his studies there in 1859, to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that, like his near contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, he would keep music as a secondary occupation, while following his official career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established there by Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay. For over ten years he continued in Moscow, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky’s own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led allegedly to a severe nervous breakdown.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison and patronage only came to an end in 1890; perhaps under financial pressure from her children, she discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
Tchaikovsky’s sudden death in St Petersburg in 1893 gave rise to contemporary speculation and has provoked further posthumous rumours. It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of an impending homosexual scandal. Officially, however, his death was attributed to cholera, contracted after drinking undistilled water. Whether the victim of cholera, of his own carelessness or reckless despair or of death deliberately courted, Tchaikovsky was widely mourned.
Tchaikovsky wrote his last set of piano pieces, the Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72, mainly in April 1893, six months before his unexpected death. He had thought at first of publishing three groups of six pieces, but finally chose, instead, to issue all eighteen in one work, each piece dedicated to a different colleague, pupil or friend. These pieces are no mere pot-boilers, designed for a ready amateur market, but are on a higher level, something of which may be reflected in the dedications.
The set opens with the F minor Impromptu, dedicated to Varvara Maslova, a sister of Fyodor Maslov, a fellow-student with Tchaikovsky at the School of Jurisprudence and briefly his colleague. The Maslovs were friends, in particular, of the composer Sergey Taneyev. This first piece has a contrasted central section in D flat major, Poco meno, cantabile e dolce, while the outer sections are dominated by the opening figure.
The second piece, an A flat major Berceuse, is dedicated to Pyotr Moskalev at Odessa, a friend whose name is preserved in Tchaikovsky’s dedication. The music rocks gently, with a repeated accompanying pattern in the left hand, figuration altered at the heart of the piece, with its hints of melancholy.
Tendres reproches, the third of the set, is in C sharp minor and dedicated to Auguste Gerke, a former fellow-pupil at the School of Jurisprudence. The outer sections of the piece are in the form of a dialogue, the melody in the top part immediately answered in the tenor. The central section offers a contrast, with its rapid descending runs in the relative major key.
Danse caractéristique, the fourth piece, is dedicated to Anatoly Galli, who taught at the Moscow Conservatory. In D major, the piece, in its outer sections, has all the rhythmic vigour of a Spanish dance, while the central section, marked Pochissimo meno allegro, has the delicacy of a Schumann song.
The fifth piece, Méditation, is dedicated to Vasily Safonov, Director of the Moscow Conservatory, with whom Tchaikovsky had come into conflict in 1890 over Safonov’s refusal to appoint Tchaikovsky’s protégé, the cellist Brandukov, as successor to the cellist Fitzenhagen, who had died. Again in D major, the first section includes a passage of cross-rhythms, with an ascending duple metre accompanying figure, against the triple 9/8 of the melody. The piece mounts to a climax, before fading away to nothing.
The B flat major Mazurka pour danser, the sixth piece, is dedicated to Louiza Jurgenson, niece of Tchaikovsky’s publisher, at her father’s request. The dance is a lively one, if avoiding the usual accentuation of the Polish dance. It has a contrasting central section, marked Molto cantabile, con grazia.
The following E flat major Polacca de concert, the seventh piece, is dedicated to Paul Pabst, the leading teacher of the piano at the Moscow Conservatory, a pupil of Liszt and, possibly, an assistant to Tchaikovsky in the layout of the solo part of his Piano Concerto No. 1. Pabst’s own compositions include a piano paraphrase based on Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The Polacca calls for some virtuosity in performance. It frames a B major section and ends with a final Lisztian flourish.
In B major, the eighth of the set, Dialogue, is dedicated to Ekaterina Laroche, wife of the critic Hermann Laroche, a friend of Tchaikovsky since earlier days in St Petersburg. The soprano is heard first, answered by the baritone, when he can get a word in. All ends in final accord.
Un poco di Schumann, the ninth piece, is dedicated to Anna Maslova, a sister of Varvara Maslova, to whom the first piece was dedicated. In D flat major the piece starts, at least, in clear Schumann style.
The tenth of the set, Scherzo-fantaisie, in E flat minor, is dedicated to Alexandr Ziloti, distinguished as a pianist, conductor and composer, a former pupil of Liszt, and on the staff of the Moscow Conservatory. The piece offers him a suitable challenge and has a curious trio section that explores the extreme registers of the piano.
Valse-bluette, the eleventh piece, in E flat major, has a dedication to Nadezhda Kondratyeva, daughter of Tchaikovsky’s friend Nikolay Kondratyev, whom he had attended in 1887 as the latter lay dying. It was one of the three pieces orchestrated by the conductor Riccardo Drigo for Marius Petipa’s 1895 production of Swan Lake, the revival of which had been under discussion with Tchaikovsky. In the ballet it was used for a dance of the white and black swans in the fourth act.
L’espiègle (The Naughty Child), twelfth of the set and in E major, has a dedication to Alexandra Svetoslovskaya, the married daughter of the publisher Pyotr Jorgenson. This was arranged, with omissions, for Swan Lake, where it accompanied Odile’s Variation of the Black Swan in a pas de deux in the third act.
The thirteenth piece, Echo-rustique, in E flat major, has a dedication to Alina Bryullova, the mother of Kolya Konradi. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest had been employed as tutor to the deaf-mute boy and the relationship of the Tchaikovsky brothers with Alina Bryullova had been strained, particularly at the time of her divorce from Kolya’s father and then again at the terms of the latter’s will, from which Modest was to benefit. It seems that matters had been settled more or less amicably, with Kolya now an adult and independent. The piece offers a contrast between the heavier folk-like dance of the opening and the sound of a musical-box, quasi campanelli.
Chant élégiaque, the fourteenth piece, in D flat major, is in memory of Vladimir (Volodya) Sklifosovsky, a fourteen-year-old boy whom Tchaikovsky had met in 1889 on a voyage from Marseilles to Istanbul and whose chatter enchanted him. Already terminally ill, Volodya had died the next year. The piece is a gentle tribute to him.
The fifteenth piece, the C sharp minor Un poco di Chopin is dedicated to Sergey Remezov, who taught at the Moscow Conservatory. Opening with a mazurka, it leads, through suggestions of a waltz, to the kind of right-hand operatic decorative figuration of which Chopin was a master. It was used by Drigo in Petipa’s 1895 Swan Lake accompanying a pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette in the fourth act.
The sixteenth of the set, Valse à cinq temps, is in D major and dedicated to Nikolay Lenz, a graduate of the School of Jurisprudence and a talented pianist, who had assisted in the arrangement of Tchaikovsky’ Francesca da Rimini and Manfred Symphony for four pianists playing two pianos.
This is followed by Passé lointain (A Long Time Ago), in E flat major, and marked, at the opening, Cantabile, con noblezza ed intimo sentimento. It is dedicated to Rachmaninov’s strict piano teacher, a colleague of Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory, Nikolay Zverev, who was to die in September 1893.
The whole set ends with Scène dansante (Invitation au Trépak), a C major introduction to a dance of characteristic Russian panache. It is dedicated to the young pianist Vasily Sapelnikov, for whom Tchaikovsky had developed a particular liking, and brings to an end a series of tributes to members of Tchaikovsky’s circle with music that goes far beyond the range of the usual sets of piano pieces generally designed for the amateur market.
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TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: 18 Morceaux, Op. 72 (Shamray)