Such stuff as dreams are made on: Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest

Such stuff as dreams are made on: Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest

Above: Detail from John William Waterhouse’s Miranda–The Tempest.

On October 26, 27 and 28, acclaimed guest conductor Fabien Gabel leads Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, a program of musical storytelling featuring works by Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Bernard Herrmann. Learn more about Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest, a vivid tone poem inspired by Shakespeare’s famous play that will be featured on the concert.

Stasov
A portrait of Vladimir Stasov painted by Ilya Repin in 1873.

Vladimir Stasov was one of the preeminent cultural critics of late-nineteenth-century Russia, and he exerted substantial influence on the fields of painting, literature and music. Generally speaking, he wanted Russian art to stop imitating that of Western Europe and pursue its own path. Though he is more often associated with the group of composers known as “The Five” (Mily Balakirev, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and César Cui), Stasov did briefly take an interest in Tchaikovsky after hearing his Symphony No. 2, which of all Tchaikovsky’s works came closest to embodying his ideals.

In January 1873, Stasov sent Tchaikovsky an idea for a tone poem based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest with detailed instructions regarding the form and content of the piece. At this point in his career, Tchaikovsky welcomed such sources of inspiration (his Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture was similarly first proposed by Balakirev). After mulling it over, Tchaikovsky drafted the piece the following August while staying at a country estate near Tambov. “I found myself in an exalted and blissful frame of mind, wandering alone about the woods by day and across the immeasurable steppe as evening fell,” he would later recall.

Tchaikovsky, photographed in 1874.

In this ideal setting, Tchaikovsky was able to complete sketches for the tone poem in just ten days. His serenity was disturbed, however, when Vladimir Shilovsky, whose parents owned the estate, showed up (Shilovsky was Tchaikovsky’s friend, erstwhile lover and by all accounts a drama llama—more on Shilovsky when we discuss Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony later this season). “At once, all the charms of my direct communion with nature in all its ineffable majesty and magnificence fell away,” Tchaikovsky lamented. “The corner of paradise was transformed into a prosaic country estate.”

He completed the orchestration in October and the work was enthusiastically received at its premiere in Moscow the following December. The score is prefaced with a distilled version of the program Tchaikovsky received from Stasov: “The Sea. The magician Prospero commands his spirit Ariel to create a storm, of which a victim is the fortunate Ferdinand. The enchanted island. The first timid stirrings of love between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ariel. Caliban. The lovers are overwhelmed by their passion. Prospero renounces his magical powers and leaves the island. The Sea.”

The music follows this program closely and is divided into clear sections that correspond with its episodes. After a few sustained introductory chords in the woodwinds, we hear Tchaikovsky’s evocation of the sea with a long, melancholy melody for horns above an intricate accompaniment of divisi strings:

A grand brass chorale represents Prospero’s magical summoning of the elements, and a chaotic musical tempest follows. The music then slows for an extended love theme. Ariel’s music is fast and soft, with a fey, scherzando character, while Caliban’s music is loud and full of suitably uncouth dissonances. A reprise of the love theme leads to the return of Prospero’s brass chorale as he renounces his magic, and the piece fades away with the haunting return of the sea music. —Calvin Dotsey

Don’t miss Tchaikovsky’s The Tempest on October 26, 27 & 28, 2018! Get tickets and more information at houstonsymphony.org.

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