The Seasons (Tchaikovsky)
"The Seasons", Op. 37b (published with the French title "Les saisons") is a set of twelve short
character pieces for solo pianoby the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky(1840-1893). The work is also sometimes heard in orchestral arrangements by other musicians.
The 12 pieces with their titles are:
# January: "At the Fireside"
# February: "Carnival"
# March: "Song of the Lark"
# April: "Snowdrop"
# May: "Starlight Nights"
# June: "Barcarolle"
# July: "Song of the Reaper"
# August: "Harvest"
# September: "The Hunt"
# October: "Autumn Song"
# November: "Troika"
# December: "Christmas"
Tchaikovsky composed "The Seasons" at the request of the editor N. M. Bernard, who commissioned him to write 12 short piano pieces portraying subjects and activities typical of the 12 months of the year. These were to be published, one per month throughout the year 1876, in the St. Petersburg music magazine "Nouvellist". According to
Nikolay Kashkin's memoirs, Tchaikovsky found the task simple and insignificant, and instructed his servant to remind him each month of the approaching deadline—whereupon he promptly produced the next installment in the series. Tchaikovsky no doubt welcomed this commission, which supplemented his salary as Professor of Harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, and the income he derived from his compositions and his activities as a music critic for "Russky Vedemosti". It was not until 1877 he began to receive an annual stipend of 6000 roubles from his patroness-confidant, Nadezhda von Meck.
The popularity and marketability of short piano pieces intended for amateur use made them lucrative items for both publishers and composers. Although Tchaikovsky joked to a friend about having to write such pieces ("I continue to bake musical pancakes. Today the tenth has been tossed."), he did not mind composing to order. He considered it essential that a composer develop as a craftsman, and admired this quality in the great composers of the past: "
Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann composed their immortal works just as a cobbler makes a pair of boots—by daily work; and more often not because they were ordered." He acknowledged "two kinds of inspiration: one comes from the heart freely, for some reason, the other comes to order. For the latter one needs a definite plot or text, a time limit, and a promise of several hundred rouble notes."
As character pieces, they create the musical atmosphere alluded to by their respective titles. Almost all of "The Seasons" are in simple ABA form, but this conventional simplicity should not be regarded as a weakness. Tchaikovsky usually had difficulties with the large forms, and confessed, "I shall go to my grave without having produced anything really perfect in form. There is frequently "padding" in my works; to an experienced eye the stitches show in my seams, but I cannot help it." Without the burden of formal complexity, and with the stimulus of a programmatic image, Tchaikovksy's melodic genius found a natural outlet in these charming miniatures. "Troïka" (November) was a favourite encore of
Sergei Rachmaninoff, and the enormous popularity of "Barcarolle" (June) resulted in numerous arrangements—for orchestra, violin, cello, clarinet, harmonium, guitar and even mandolin. "Perce-neige" (April), "Noël" (December) and "Chant d'automne" (October) could be pages out of "Swan Lake".
A number of musicians have orchestrated Tchaikovsky's pieces.
Alexander Gaukarranged "The Seasons" for symphony orchestra in 1942. More recent orchestral versions have been produced by David Matthews(for symphony orchestra) and Peter Breiner(for solo violin and symphony orchestra).
Following is a translation of some of the poetic epigraphs contained in the Russian edition:
# "Janvier" (January): "Au coin du feu" (At the Fireside)
#: A little corner of peaceful bliss,
#: the night dressed in twilight;
#: the little fire is dying in the fireplace,
#: and the candle has burned out.
# "Février" (February): "Carnaval" (Carnival)
#: At the lively Mardi Gras
#: soon a large feast will overflow.
# "Mars" (March): "Chánt de l'alouette" (Song of the Lark)
#: The field shimmering with flowers,
#: the stars swirling in the heavens,
#: the song of the lark
#: fills the blue abyss.
# "Avril" (April): "Perce-neige" (Snowdrop)
#: The blue, pure snowdrop — flower,
#: and near it the last snowdrops.
#: The last tears over past griefs,
#: and first dreams of another happiness.
#: (A. Maykov)
# "Mai" (May): "Le nuits de mai" (Starlit Nights)
#: What a night!
#: What bliss all about!
#: I thank my native north country!
#: From the kingdom of ice,
#: snowstorms and snow,
#: how fresh and clean May flies in!
# "Juin" (June): "Barcarolle" (Barcarolle)
#: Let us go to the shore;
#: there the waves will kiss our legs.
#: With mysterious sadness
#: the stars will shine down on us.
#: (Aleksey Pleshcheyev)
# "Juillet" (July): "Chant du faucheur" (Song of the Reaper)
#: Move the shoulders,
#: shake the arms!
#: And the noon wind
#: breathes in the face!
# "Août" (August): "La moisson" (Harvest)
#: The harvest has grown,
#: people in families cutting the tall rye down to the root!
#: Put together the haystacks,
#: music screeching all night from the hauling carts.
#: (A. Koltsov)
# "Septembre" (September): "La Chasse" (Hunting)
#: It is time!
#: The horns are sounding!
#: The hunters in their hunting dress are mounted on their horses;
#: in early dawn the borzois are jumping.
#: (A. Pushkin, Graf Nulin)
# "Octobre" (October): "Chant d'automne" (Autumn Song)
#: Autumn, falling down on our poor orchid,
#: the yellow leaves are flying in the wind.
Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy)
# "Novembre" (November): "Troïka" (Troika)
#: In your loneliness do not look at the road,
#: and do not rush out after the troika.
#: Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart.
# "Décembre" (December): "Noël" (Christmas)
#: Once upon a Christmas night the girls were telling fortunes:
#: taking their slippers off their feet and throwing them out of the gate.
The following is an alternate poetic reading:
# January – "By the Fireplace"
#: "The night threw a blanket of dusk over a peaceful nook, The flame is dying in the fireplace, and the candle has burnt." – A. Pushkin
# February – "Shrove-Tide" (Carnival)
#: "Soon a boisterous carnival will start a grand feast." – P. Vyazemsky
# March – "Larks Song"
#: "Field flowers bend with the wind, Waves of light pour from the sky, The blue of which is filled with songs of the lark." – A. Maykov
# April – "Snowflower"
#: "A blue and pure snowflower has woken up to meet the spring, A last reminder of foregone suffering And a fresh hope of happiness to come." – A. Maykov
# May – "White Nights"
#: "What a night! Serene and peaceful, I bless my native land, The kingdom of ice and snow Giving birth to a fresh and pure spring!" – A. Fet
# June – "Barcarole"
#: "Let’s walk to the shore, where the sea will gently kiss our feet, Stars with secret sadness will shine overhead." – A. Plescheyev
# July – "Hay-Cutter’s Song"
#: "Hey, shoulder, get ready for work, My arm, don’t let me down! Welcome, wind, blow in my face!" – A. Koltsov
# August – "Harvest Time"
#: "Families are harvesting Cutting clear tall rye. Sheaves of rye are piled in shocks, The night filled with music of squeaking cart wheels." – A. Pushkin
# September – "Hunting"
#: "It’s time! The trumpet is calling! Huntsmen in hunting attire Have mounted horses since the dawn, Hounds jumping in anticipation." – A. Pushkin
# October – "Song of the Fall"
#: "It’s fall, and our white garden is shedding, Yellow leaves floating on the quiet water." – A. N. Tolstoy
# November – "Troika"
#: "Don’t look at the road wistfully, Do not hurry to catch up with the Troika. And forget forever The burning sadness in your heart." – N. Nekrasov
# December – "Christmas-Tide"
#: "Once maidens got together at night For fortune-telling. A shoe taken off the foot Is thrown over the gate." –
Some of these miniatures reveal a strong influence of
Robert Schumann. Even the title, By the Fireside ("Am Kamin") has been used by the German composer in his " Kinderszenen". The openings of both pieces show a certain kinship in their declamative narration, but rhythm and articulation in Tchaikovsky’s declamation show a marked Slavic tinge lending it a greater epic breath. In Tchaikovsky there is a rather strange rhythmic displacement of the strong beat and we will certainly perceive the downbeatas an upbeat. But the third beat is equally strong, suggesting a certain exaggerated speech pattern used to give the narration an air of expressive significance.
Felix Mendelssohn’s "Venetianisches Gondellied" (Venetian Boat Song) comes to mind when listening to Tchaikovsky’s "Barcarolle" but whereas Mendelssohn places a monotonous song over an ‘undulating’ accompaniment, Tchaikovsky is more interested in developing the melodic flow.
"Chant du faucheur" (July)
Edvard Griegin his " Lyric Pieces", Tchaikovsky uses a very picturesque realism in some of the 'seasons.' In "Song of the Reaper" we can almost see the rustic figure of the serf, energetically "moving the shoulders" and "shaking the arms." The Mussorgsky-like pentatonic melody might as well be a Chinese folk song. The middle section has a certain "mechanic" quality (this passage could as well be by Béla Bartók) evoking the rattling of a bulky threshing-machine.
In "Troïka" one can literally hear the jingling sleigh-bells in the right hand. "Troïka" has become famous in the (rather mannered) interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninov, which has been adopted by Russian pianists as the ‘standard’ model interpretation. Together with "Barcarolle" this is the most famous piece from the cycle.
"Chant d'automne" (October), "Noël" (December)
Less known are October and December. The elegiac "Chant d’automne" and the elegant characteristic salon waltz "Noël" could be music right out of Tchaikovsky’s operas or ballets respectively.
"Chant d'automne" is currently in
Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music's 2007-2008 syllabus as an exam piece for Grade 7.
Once upon a time "The Seasons" enjoyed enormous popularity. Only recently have they been rediscovered by pianists. In recent years,
Vladimir Ashkenazyhas made a notable recording of the suite.
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