Of the more than hundred pieces for cello written for Mstislav Rostropovich and premiered by him, the great maestro himself distinguishes six pieces with orchestra: Prokofiev's "Sinfonia Concertante"; Britten's Cello Symphony; two Concertos by Shostakovich; "Tout un monde lointain" by Dutilleux, and Concerto for Cello and orchestra composed by Boris Tchaikovsky. The fact that Tchaikovsky's Concerto is listed among these works is rather significant, as is the surprise that many music lovers may feel upon seeing this practically unknown name listed amongst the greatest composers of the 20th century. This surprise suggests that one of the quintessential figures of the last fifty years Russian music is almost unheard of by the world's listeners. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that Tchaikovsky's music has been performed by such famed musicians as Alexander Gauk, Kirill Kondrashin, Rudolf Barshai, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Igor Oistrakh. It is possible that the silence which surrounds Tchaikovsky's name is because audiences, caught in the hubbub of contemporary music, have not had the chance to glimpse his originality behind the seemingly traditionalist facade of his works. While modern music had come to the conviction that the ideas and concepts are more important than individual notes and tones, Tchaikovsky's creations always proved the opposite, which may have made them appear too "old-fashioned" to arouse significant interest.
The music of Boris Tchaikovsky is among the most notable phenomena in 20th century Russian music. He composed four symphonies, four instrumental concertos and a number of other large symphonic works, six string quartets, piano quintet, numerous chamber compositions, vocal cycles, and music to more than 30 motion picture soundtracks. Tchaikovsky created his inimitable musical language. His refined, poetic music, inspired by high moral aspirations was always free of both official ideology and volatile fashion.
To understand the essence of Tchaikovsky's works, one must understand one of the basic qualities of Russian music and Russian art in general, namely, an underlying attempt at objectivity. Russian art is meant to be taken as a fact of reality (whether that reality is past, present, legendary or fantastical makes no difference), rather than a fabrication or the play of someone's imagination. This objectivity means that the main character in Russian music is not the creative will of the composer, but, rather, the mysterious, self-sufficient intrinsic life of the melody itself. Russian composers (at least until Shostakovich) were not inclined to musical musings. Trying to avoid subjective, personal creativity in the organization of sounds and listening to what the melody itself demanded they, perhaps surprisingly, made their music particularly emotionally moving.
All of the above fully applies to the music of Boris Tchaikovsky. The sounds of his works are connected to one another in such an intuitively powerful way that they can exist independently of whether or not one finds them modern enough. The composer himself never tried to seem especially extravagant and was, generally, far from the avant garde of Russian or world music. But despite this (or, perhaps, because of this), his work does not borrow a single tune or chord from anyone else. Being incredibly inventive in everything related to musical mastery, he never allowed himself to substitute illusion for true inspiration.
Tchaikovsky's musical style underwent several evolutionary stages during the several decades of his musical activity. His works from the 1940s-1950s, such as Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1953), Clarinet Concerto (1957), Piano Trio (1953) and several sonatas for different instruments demonstrate an inspired and individual following of his teachers, Myaskovsky and Shostakovich. However, by the 1960s, American musicologist Louis Blois wrote of him that "if a hint of a Shostakovich or even a Britten influence can be discerned, Tchaikovsky's new lyricism and the unique rhythmic and harmonic framework in which it is cast are distinctly recognizable as his own. Tchaikovsky had found his mature voice, which allowed him to create a powerful new language that was distinctly Russian in sound, thoroughly up-to-date, and capable of a wide range of expression". Speaking about the uniqueness of Tchaikovsky's voice, Blois notes a "set of curiously Sphinx-like ideas that, by making oblique references to the familiar rhetoric, tantalizes the listener with a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Even the nature of the motivic material itself yields a harvest of unfathomable mysteries. Very often this ideas are centered on music's most basic building blocks: a particular interval, a triad, a simple rhythmic cell, etc". The works of the 60s and 70s - Second Symphony (1967), Cello Concerto (1964), Violin Concerto (1969), Piano Concerto (1971), Theme and Eight Variations (1973) etc. - reveal a brightly individual composer in possession of a broad arsenal of means of expression.
The creation, in 1980, of the Sebastopol Symphony was preceded by a four year-long pause, the longest break in Boris Tchaikovsky's creative work. Evidently, these four years were a time of intense self-searching. The appearance in 1980 of the Sebastopol Symphony and the vocal cycle "Last Spring" marked the beginning of a new stage in the composer's work. As the composer Andrei Golovin notes, "This latest collection of Boris Alexandrovich's work is the quintessence of his creativity. In his late works his style has crystallized into being, into super-solid matter." And, indeed, such works as "Music for Orchestra" (1987), "Symphony with Harp" (1993), the symphonic poems "Juvenile" and "The Wind of Siberia" (both 1984) are distinguished by a new, unique blend of simplicity in musical expression and a deeply enlightened worldview.
The Sebastopol Symphony is written about the port city on the Black Sea in Crimea, at the very south of Russia (today the Crimea is considered part of the Ukraine). During the 19th and 20th centuries, Sebastopol, which served as a base for Russia's Black Sea fleet, underwent two tragic periods. In 1855, the city was besieged by the united English and French squadron, and in 1942, the city was seized by the German troops. Formally, the Sebastopol symphony belongs to the relatively broad category of the world's sea music. It begins with the portrayal of seagull cries and the tranquil rhythm of the waves, and is full of instances in which the visual image is evoked incredibly vividly. But what is interesting is that Tchaikovsky himself had never visited Sebastopol prior to writing the symphony. Apparently, the composer did not care for pictorial or historical accuracy. He says, "The Sebastopol Symphony has no chronology. One does not need to figure out whether the Sebastopol portrayed in the first theme, or in the end, is the Sebastopol of 1942, or of today, or of the Crimean war of the 19th century. It's all of them. I was more imagining that I can speed time forward, or backwards, or I could freeze it, or I could do all three at once".
The construction of the form of many of Tchaikovsky's works is influenced largely by his tendency to express his ideas through brightly outlined, completed episodes. Suite-like formulation is a characteristic of his thinking. Whether the piece becomes a multi-movement composition, like, for instance, "Music for Orchestra", or single-movement, like the Sebastopol Symphony, depends on the self-sufficiency of an episode. The composer himself says about constructing the symphony: "Any educated person will say that every element in a piece must be repeated. But I have broken that rule rather often, like, for instance, in the Sebastopol Symphony. It starts just from the first theme, and then it's all new material. And then, after a false recapitulation, the music begins to repeat itself, but some things that were obvious disappear without a trace. I knew that I had "sinned", but then decided that something has to go and not come back".
Exploiting the capabilities of the orchestra plays is a huge movement of the symphony. The conciseness and brightness of the melodycal ideas creates a uniquely pure and original orchestral style. The composer gravitates to clear timbres and sharply defined roles for the individual instruments and orchestral groups, which he uses in unpredictable and paradoxical combinations. Tchaikovsky achieves special effects of timbre through uniting the sounds of related instruments into unison. The main theme of the symphony, which appears after a slow opening and which consists of a multitude of repetitions of a short three-tone motif, is particularly remarkable in this regard. It is played in the third octave by four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, and a soprano saxophone, all in unison. Just as remarkable is the calmer extension of this theme, assigned to the cellos in their highest register (up to d3). One of the most impressive episodes of the symphony is the alto flute solo, gradually developed at first by three regular flutes, and then by all the high woodwinds.
"Music for Orchestra"
is Tchaikovsky's next-to-last major work (the Symphony with Harp
is last). This work solidifies the author's tendency to set forth
autonomous, self-sufficient ideas which do not need some vast
development. The name itself, "Music for Orchestra,"
speaks of the victory of spontaneous inspiration over the formal
rules of this or that musical structure. The piece consists of
seven movements, the names of which suggest the trajectories
taken by the composer's mind. All movements of the cycle follow
each other without pause, and it's not the only hint that the
"Music for Orchestra" is one single piece. The piece
consists of several main themes that continue throughout the work.
These include the initial motif and the theme of "Far Road."
Especially important is the theme with the characteristic uneven
rhythm which first appears in the first movement in three
piccolos. Its transformation, in the fourth movement, into the
menacing repetitiveness of three trumpets, suggests that this may
be some unique representation for the theme of destiny in
twentieth century music.
Some of the movements - "Far Road", "Thirds and Quarts", "Epilogue" - are rather self-sufficient, while others can be seen as small intermediates. Particularly interesting is the movement entitled "Shadows," which is a miniature development of the main themes of the whole work.
"The Wind of Siberia", written in 1984 (dedicated to Vladimir Fedoseyev), is one of Tchaikovsky's most original scores. The program of this symphonic poem, as suggested by the name, is not solid. In it are the huge, scarcely populated breadths of Russia's north-east, with their unique, stern beauty, and the fact that Siberia, for many years, served as the prison for political and criminal exiles. The composition of the work appears, at first glance, to be a random assortment of various fragments, but in actuality contains a rather clear tripartite structure with some traits of a sonata. The impressive culmination of the poem is the coda, built almost according to minimalist principles in repeating segments in the E-minor scale. At this moment, the meaning of the work seems to transcend into a different plane, which Golovin defined as "the Wind of spiritual dimension". In his words, Tchaikovsky's latest music "started to solidify imagery as a natural category, as obtaining a different dimension. Freeing itself from the influence of the norms of symphonic thinking, which come from the depths of time and are so strongly expressed in our century in the music of Shostakovich, the composer obtained, or, rather, freed, that quality which he, likely, possessed from the very beginning". The composition of the orchestra is highly unusual, which allows it to portray the cold colors of the north. The wind section is composted of two flutes, two alto flutes, two clarinets, two alto clarinets, four trumpets, and four trombones. The heterogeneous percussion group, with the exception of the crotali, is focused on bland, low timbres. It is headed by six (!) timpanis, capable of forming powerful six-sound chords. The strained tragedy of the poem is alleviated by the open, bright major chord which rolls from the trumpets to the high violins.
"I always thought that sunny music is difficult to write," said Boris Tchaikovsky. But when asked whether he contemplates the overall direction of his music, "You mean, that my works are mostly sunny? Not only do I contemplate it, but I want it that way."
© Pyotr Klimov, 2005
[ written for the Chandos Records CD]