Today, we mark the 125th anniversary of P. I. Tchaikovsky, who is one of the most important and influential Russian composers. Stravinsky, for instance, called him his greatest influence and his ballet Le Baiser de Fee is an hommage to Tchaikovsky.
We all know that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that he had to preserve his sexuality throughout his relatively brief life. 53 years would have been a lot in Shakespeare’s times, but not at the end of the nineteenth century. I don’t want to talk about his personal trauma, but about his literary influences today. Well, I mentioned Shakespeare, so let’s talk about the influence of the greatest English dramatist on the greatest Russian composer (I know that I’m walking on thin ice by saying that).
When we talk about Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare, we have to talk about the former’s tone poems or, in some cases, fantasy overtures, as the composer called them. Don’t get too confused about that, it’s roughly the same thing. So, we talk about three major works:
-Romeo and Juliet Overture Fantasia
-The Tempest overture
Now, none of these do want to talk about a specific narrative. For example, Romeo and Juliet does not talk about how the lovers fell in love and how Romeo poisons himself and Juliet stabs herself at the graveyard. It’s more about musical mirroring, as I like to call it. Tchaikovsky wanted to represent emotions, which renders him as a genuinely romantic composer: He is interested in character development and feelings, but briefly describing the context. Just imagine the violence of the Montagues and the Capulets, the chorale type music that represents Friar Lawrence, the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. There is only a vague reference to any kind of story in those works.
For instance, in the program notes to Hamlet, Tchaikovsky defines three sections: Hamlet until the appearance of the ghost; the scherzo section (Polonius, the rat) and the adagio (Ophelia); Hamlet after the appearance of the ghost, his death and Fortinbras (the future king of Denmark). It kind of has a symphonic form, doesn’t it?: an introduction, a scherzo, an adagio and a finale. Very interesting, especially of Tchaikovsky, who initially despised any kinds of form. Just look at his first symphony, which is more or less written in a style of a fantasia (free form, to be plain). However, afterwards, he went on to be more traditional.
Overall, we have quite a different idea from the Straussian tone poem, in which a whole fairy tale or story is pictured. Just take Don Juan or Tod und Verklärung as examples. This emotional representation reminds me more of Franz Liszt, who also wrote a tone poem called Hamlet and had similar ideas of representing characters through music. Hamlet is said to be a psychological study of Hamlet with short glimpses of Ophelia, but I will leave that to your own listening and enjoyment.
(I know that I didn’t write anything about The Tempest, but I don’t want to stress you with too much information. Just use your imagination and build an enchanted island in your head. That’s what the beginning and the ending are all about!)
Here are the examples of the three tone poems and Liszt’s Hamlet:
Jonatan Horvat (Wagnerjabin)