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ClassicsOnline Home » TCHAIKOVSKY: Songs (Complete), Vol. 4
Tchaikovsky’s songs represent a little-known but highly characteristic facet of his musical personality. In all he composed over 100 songs, most of which are set to poetic texts about the problems of emotional entanglement. Tchaikovsky takes these often sentimental verses and transforms them into miniatures, investing in them all his skill as an operatic composer.
By David Denton
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Complete Songs • Volume 4
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, thereafter taking employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician privately, but 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 to teach at 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 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, 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, 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.
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. The earliest to be heard here is 'O, spoy zhe tu pesnyu' (Oh, sing that song) [Track 15], a setting of a poem by Aleksey Pleshcheyev, based on a poem by the once fashionable early nineteenth-century English poet Felicia Hemans, remembered now principally as the author of Casabianca ('The boy stood on the burning deck'). It is the fourth of Six Romances, Op. 16, published in March 1873. Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik had been accepted by the Imperial Theatre, to which it had been submitted in December 1872, and the same month had brought approval of his Second Symphony 'The Little Russian' by Rimsky-Korsakov and his friends in St Petersburg. The song, dedicated to Tchaikovsky's Conservatory friend Nikolay Hubert, asks a mother to sing again the song she used to sing, a sad song the meaning of which the mother has now come to understand. 'Tak chto zhe?' (So what can I say?) , the fifth of the set, has words by Tchaikovsky and was dedicated to Nikolay Rubinstein. The singer declares that the angelic image of the beloved is with him day and night, the secret of this love concealed from the cruel ridicule of the beloved; the singer begs the beloved to kill him, but to love him. 'Glazki vesni golubiye' (The eyes of spring are blue)  takes a translation by Mikhail Mikhailov of a poem by Heine, 'Die blauen Frühlingsaugen', from the latter's Neuer Frühling. The violets, the eyes of spring, appear in the grass and are picked for the poet's beloved. Nightingales sing, telling of the poet's secret dreams, so that the whole grove learns the writer's secret love. This song was written in 1873 as a supplement for the January 1874 issue of the periodical, the Nouvelliste.
The Oprichnik was staged in St Petersburg in April 1874. Tchaikovsky had been working on his First Piano Concerto, dismayed at Nikolay Rubinstein's immediate and strongly stated disapproval. By early 1875, however, Tchaikovsky had completed the orchestration of the work and turned to the composition of a series of songs, in response to requests from his publishers. The first set of these was published in 1875 as Six Romances, Op. 25. The opening song of the set, 'Primiren'ye' (Reconciliation)  was dedicated to Aleksandra Krutikova, who had sung the part of Boyarina Morozova in The Oprichnik. The text is by Nikolay Shcherbina and bids the heart sleep and not try to awaken what is past; to try to forget in winter the roses picked in spring, and not to try to bring back what has gone, an elegiac reflection on the irretrievable past. 'Pesn' Min'oni' (Mignon's Song) , the third of the set, is a translation by Fyodor Tyutchev of 'Kennst du das Land', from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, a text familiar from settings by various other composers, from Schubert to Wolf. It will be recalled that Tchaikovsky had already won considerable success with his 1869 setting of Lev Mey's version of 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt', the Harper's Song from Wilhelm Meister, known in English as 'None but the lonely heart', published as Op. 6, No. 6, a song with which it cannot easily stand comparison. It was dedicated to Maria Kamenskaya, a young singer who had already bravely performed 'None but the lonely heart' at a St Petersburg Conservatory concert. 'Kanareyka'(Canary) , the fourth song, sets an orientalist poem by Lev Mey. It is dedicated to another singer from The Oprichnik, Wilhelmina Raab, who sang the part of Natalia. In the song, matched by an attempted oriental element in the setting, the sultan's wife asks her caged canary whether its life is better singing to her or flying in freedom to the West. The canary replies, telling her that he is homesick, and that she cannot understand that a song has a sister, which is freedom. The sixth and last of the set is 'Kak naladili: Durak'(They said: You fool, do not go) , a song in a very much more Russian idiom. The verse by Lev Mey is in the words of a drunkard, told to bow down to the river depths and drink water, which he thinks might distract him from the lure of vodka, a procedure that is more likely to end in his drowning.
'Khotel bi v edinoye slovo' (For one simple word)  is one of two songs provided for Nikolay Bernard's Nouvelliste, where it was issued as a supplement to the September 1875 issue. The text, by Lev Mey, is a translation of Heine's 'Ich wollt', meine Schmerzen ergössen / Sich all' in ein einziges Wort' (I would pour out my sorrows all in a single word, and let the wind carry them away). The second song for the Nouvelliste was 'Ne dolgo nam guiyat' (No time to take a walk) , with words by Nikolay Grekov, translator of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Here the lovers have only a short time to walk together, in the implied transience of life and happiness.
Two other sets of songs were completed and sent to publishers in 1875. From the Six Romances, Op. 27, comes the fourth of the group, 'Vecher' (Evening) , a setting of words by the Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko, translated by Lev Mey, in which he recalls the women returning to the village from the fields in the evening, to be welcomed by their families at the evening meal, before the children are put to bed, while the young women and the nightingale are still heard. The idyllic picture is depicted in the music, with the humming of insects in the first stanza and the song of the nightingale. The songs of Op. 27 were dedicated to the contralto Yelizaveta Andreyevna Lavrovskaya.
The Six Romances, Op. 38, were written after the disaster of Tchaikovsky's marriage, his escape abroad and return in 1878 to stay at Nadezhda von Meck's estate in the Ukraine, in its owner's absence. The second of the set, 'To bilo rannayu vesnoy' (It was in early spring)  takes a poem by Aleksey Tolstoy, a text among those suggested by Madame von Meck. The Russian poem is based on Goethe's Mailied and describes the early spring, with the beloved standing in front of the poet, smiling, an answer to the poet's love, now recalled in joy and sorrow. In the third song, 'Sred' shumnovo bala' (Amid the din of the ball) , a poem also by Tolstoy, the poet catches sight at a ball of the one he will love, admiring her voice, her figure, her look and her laughter, and recalling these alone at night, imagining that now he is in love. The Op. 38 Romances were dedicated to Tchaikovsky's brother Anatoly, who had been of considerable support during the difficulties of the past year.
From the Seven Romances, Op. 47, of 1880 comes the fifth song, 'Blagoslavlyayu vas, lesa'(I bless you, woods) , the words taken from an extended poem by Aleksey Tolstoy on the solemn pilgrim journey of St John Damascene.
The remaining songs are all taken from the Twelve Romances, Op. 60, published in 1886, and dedicated to the Empress Maria Fyodorovna. The first song, 'Vcherashnyaya noch'' (Last night) , with words by Aleksey Khomyakov, echoes in its text the idyllic scenery that Tchaikovsky now enjoyed in his country house at Maidonov. The second song, 'Ya tebe nichevo ne skazhu' (I don't tell you anything) , a setting of words by Aleksey Fet, has the poet keeping his feelings to himself, a love beyond words. The third, 'O, esli b snali vi' (Oh, if only you knew)  takes words by Aleksey Pleshcheyev, a translation of Sully Prudomme's Prière, dwelling on love that cannot be expressed in the writer's loneliness. The fourth, 'Solovey'(Nightingale) , is a setting of a version by Pushkin of a Serbian folk-song in which the singer has three sorrows: too early a marriage, a weary horse, and the loss of his beloved, now only to seek a grave. The fifth song, 'Prostiye slova' (Simple Words) , with words by the composer, praises the beloved, that he can only express in simple words. 'Prosti' (Excuse me) , the eighth of the set, with words by Nikolay Nekrasov, seeks forgiveness for fears of jealousy and a revival of the memory of early love. It is followed by 'Noch'' (Night) , praise of the beauty of the night by Yakov Polonsky, and 'Za oknom v teni melkayet' (In the shadow outside the window)  by the same poet, has the lover, outside, calling to his beloved to join him. The eleventh song, 'Podvig' (The exploit)  is a second setting of words by Aleksey Khomyakov, calling for heroism in battle and in love, in prayer and in life.
Transliterated sung texts and English translations may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/570409.htm
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