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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Songs (Complete), Vol. 1
Pyotr ll'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Songs, Volume 1
Pyotr ll'yich Tchaikovsky retains his position as the most
popular of all Russian composers. His music offers obvious charms in its
winning melodies and vivid orchestral colours. At the same time his achievement
is deeper than this, however tempting it may be to despise what so many people
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a
mining engineer, 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 to a severe nervous
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 when, on the false
plea of bankruptcy, 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 given rise to further posthumous rumours.
It has been suggested that he committed suicide as the result of pressure from
a court of honour of former students of the School of Jurisprudence, when an
allegedly erotic liaison with a young nobleman seemed likely to cause an open
scandal even in court circles. Officially 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.
During the course of his life Tchaikovsky wrote a hundred
or so songs, the fIrSt before his entry to the Conservatory and the last in
1893, the year of his death.
 Pesnya Zemfiri (Zemphira's Song), a setting of
dramatic words from Push kin's poem The Gypsies, retains elements of
dramatic dialogue, as Zemphira rejects her stern old husband, in favour of her
lover. The Italian Mezza nolle (Midnight) , was written in the same
period, during the years between 1855 and 1860. This song, gently lilting as a
girl sings of night as a time of love, was published in St Petersburg in 1865.
Zabit tak skoro (To forget so soon) , was
written in 1870 and first performed in the following year at a concert in Moscow
devoted to Tchaikovsky's work. The singer on this occasion was the contralto Elizaveta
Lavrovskaya. The words of the song, a poignant reminiscence of past love, were
by Tchaikovsky's near contemporary and class-mate at the School of Jurisprudence,
Alexey Nikolayevich Apukhtin.
The Six Romances, Opus 16, of 1872 start with a setting
of words by Apollon Nikolayevich Maykov from his cycle of New Greek Songs, This
lullaby, Kolibelnayo pesnyo , was arranged for piano in 1873, It is
dedicated to Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov and is followed by  Pogodi
(Wait), dedicated to her husband, The words by Nikolay Perfilyevich Grekov urge
patience, as life moves on.
The setting of Unosi moyo serdtse (Carry my heart away)
, appeared in the periodical Nouvelliste in October 1873, The text is
by Manasy Manasyevich Fet, a leading Russian lyric poet of the century whom Tchaikovsky
eventually met in 1891, and deals with a mysterious and ethereal love.
The six songs that form Opus 25 were written between
the autumn of 1874 and early 1875, The second of the set, Kak nad goryacheyu
zoloy (As when upon hot ashes) , takes words by Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev,
a former diplomat and Pan-Slavist who had recently died.
1875 brought a further set of six songs, Opus 27, continuing
to serve a satisfactory market for works of this kind. These were dedicated to Elizaveta
Lavrovskaya. The third of the group, Ne otkhodi ot menyo
(Do not leave me) , is a setting of words by Fet from his cycle Melodies.
TchaikovskY's Opus 28, with six more songs, was published in 1875. The
fourth of these, On tak menyo lyubil (He loved me so much) , sets a
translation of a poem by Girardin, translated by Apukhtin. It is dedicated to
Tchaikovsky wrote the seven songs of Opus 47 in the
summer of 1880 at his sister's house at Karnenka and at Brailov, the Ukraine
estate of Nadezhda von Meck. He dedicated them to the soprano Alexandra Panayeva,
on whom his brother Anatoly had unsuccessfully set his heart. The first song, Kabi
znala ya (If I had known) , sets a poem by Alexey Konstantinovich
Tolstoy and tells of the girl whose lover rides by to the hunt and how she
might have awaited him in the evening, by the well. It is followed by  Gornimi
tikho letala dusha nebesami (A soul floated gently up to Heaven) by the
same poet. Here a soul, released from the body, longs for the earth again, the
song's inspiration, it seems, the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene in Massenet's
sacred drama Marie-Magdeleine. The third, Na zemlyu sumrak pal (Darkness
has fallen over the Earth) , takes N. Berg's version of words by Mickiewicz,
a sad meditation that has much to say in its prelude and postlude. Den li tsarit?
(Whether in the realm of day), Opus 47. No.6 , a poem by Apukhtin,
expresses the single-mindedoess of one in love, her thoughts centred on her
lover. Ya li v pole da ne travushka bila? (Was I not a blade of grass?)
, the seventh song, takes a version of Shevchenkos Ukrainian song by Ivan Zakharovich
Surikov and treats it in a very Russian manner. The words express the sad despair
of a young girl, married off by her parents to an old man for whom she has no
The last three songs included here are taken from the Twelve
Romances, Opus 60, published in 1886. The sixth of the set, Nochi bezumniye
(Wild nights) , with words by Apukhtin, is in a sombre G minor and reflects
the weariness of one sleepless through love. It is followed by Pesni tsiganki
(Gypsy's song) , with words by Yakov Petrovich Polonsky, the librettist of
the opera Vakula the Smith. Here there is the necessary element of
exoticism in the music. Opus 60 ends with a setting of Alexey
Nikolayevich Pleshcheyev's Nam zvezdi kotkiye siyali (Gentle
stars shone for us) . Pleshcheyev's verses had provided much of the substance
of Tchaikovsky's Children's Songs of 1883. Here the text offers a
poignant memory of the past and young love.
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TCHAIKOVSKY: Songs (Complete), Vol. 1