Some reflections on Tchaikovsky’s Seasons
In these notes I don’t intend to give an exhaustive overview. They rather are an attempt to sum up my personal experience of practicing and performing this masterpiece of Tchaikovsky.
My musical background as well as my musical disposition and understanding took root in the tradition of Igumnov’s piano school. Constantin Igumnov (1873-1948) was one of the greatest Russian pianists and pedagogues of the first half of the 20th century and was in particular considered as the best performer of Tchaikovsky. A few of his Tchaikovsky recordings, among them The Seasons, but also live recordings of the Piano Trio with David Oistrakh and Svyatoslav Knushevitsky (unfortunately only the first movement was captured), the Grand Sonata opus 37 and several other pieces, even if not always perfect technically, should enter in the choicest collection of performing masterpieces and remain for me unequalled in their deepness, passion, poetical inspiration, natural and simplicity.
Both my father and mother were Igumnov’s students. During more than ten years my father also was his assistant. Some of the performance suggestions and tips for The Seasons I received directly from them.
The history of The Seasons creation is well-known and all the details can be easily found in accessible sources. In short, the whole cycle was composed at the end of 1875 and in 1876. It was commissioned by the monthly music magazine « Nouvellist ». Nikolay Bernard, the editor, decided to publish in each issue a new piece by Tchaikovsky, as a musical image of the month. It was also Bernard who proposed the titles and provided short poetical epigraphs for each piece, which were obviously to Tchaikovsky’s taste. Thus, throughout the whole year of 1876, month after month, all the pieces were published.
Thinking about the well-known Tchaikovsky’s affinity with Schumann’s music and spirit, we could suppose that Tchaikovsky was pleased with the idea of composing a piano cycle unified in one program, a colorful and characteristic suite of pieces, a mixture of picturesque and deeply emotional, of brilliance and intimacy (Schumann’s Innigkeit).
From the numerous recollections of Igumnov’s and my father’s students we know how long they could work on a short phrase, a few bars or even just a few notes, sometimes throughout the entire lesson, searching for the true intonation, the most natural and expressive connection between notes which would give this phrase an unique taste of true life. Not necessarily but often these short phrases were at the beginning of the piece or in one of the decisive moments of its dramatic development (climaxes, brutal changements of character, etc).
The reason of this insistent focusing on small parts of the piece is obvious. I would liken these parts to keys opening locked doors of an imaginary palace hiding a treasure, which you would find and reveal to the world. Somehow the search and discovery of these keys is one of the most essential part of the performer’s practice. These keys could be very personal and yet aiming at the same purpose – finding your way to the heart of the piece and trying to unveil its inner life. The following lines are thus just an attempt to describe some of my personal keys issued from the performing tradition of Igumnov.
JANUARY. AT THE FIRESIDE.
Calmer and dreamier than Schumann’s homonymous composition from the Kinderszenen op.15, the opening piece of The Seasons is in perfect harmony with Pushkin’s lines accompanying the piece, describing a peaceful and tender evening, growing dusk, intimacy, dreams and hopes. The proximity of the music to the poetical epigraph let us suppose that in the today lost letter of Bernard to Tchaikovsky, in which he commissioned The Seasons, he suggested not only the titles but also some of the poems.
The tempo indication also is an indication of the general character : «Moderato semplice, ma espressivo». The melodic line made of short but expressive intonations (mostly two or three notes, connected by legato or portamento) should be played as an unified phrase throughout its four bars. I would like to note the importance of the crescendo leading to the upper F# (climax of the phrase, then calming down). Both the dominant with the culminating F# and the B minor chord in the third bar are on the same level of tender expressiveness (not too much diminuendo before the next bar):
A very important key to this opening phrase was suggested to me by my mother: to listen attentively and shape (without rushing the sixteenth notes!) the first three notes (freely articulated, singing-speaking). And in general, no rush in the following 16th notes.
Mildly fluid and flexible movement. A surprising first C Major chord is starting the middle part, deep, and tenderly melancholic. The connection between the first and the middle parts as if to suddenly fall into this C major, then switch gradually through a calando to the much darker E minor (light, arpeggio-like rising line), like shadows in the growing dusk, the lightest wind blowing:
Igumnov played these ascending sextuplets apparently without pedal, almost non legato and with an extremely, incredibly light touch.
His words about January are – “(…) near the fireside, how we laid down on the floor, chatted and dreamed”. And Tchaikovsky’s own words : “nothing in the world inclines more to fantasy and sweet dreams than a burning fireplace”. This dreamy mood, mixing hope and melancholy, is for me the main character of the whole piece.
All the pieces of The Seasons are composed in an A-B-A form, sometimes simple, sometimes freer and more elaborate. The contrasting characters between the different pieces of the cycle, between the different parts of one piece, the different themes inside one part and, sometimes, even inside one bar, seem to be an extremely important element in Tchaikovsky’s process, and the performer should pay attention to it. Even in the most peaceful pieces the drama is not far away.
There is a version with a cut in the middle part (there are two bars missing in the autograph) that is not really organic and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be played. These two bars were most probably added by Tchaikovsky himself in the first edition.
This piece offers a totally contrasting mood compared to the dreamy tranquility of the first piece.
Sparkling energy and dancing, leaping, whirling fast movements, kaleidoscopic changing images. It is important to remember that the original Russian title “Масленица” signifies Shrovetide, la « Semaine grasse », a week preceding the Lent. In fact we find the same title in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, describing the same feast although in a much more grotesque and disturbing way.
Tchaikovsky’s tempo indication Allegro giusto is unfortunately often understood as «Allegro molto». This piece is often suffering a lot from its too direct, primitively percussive execution. The complicated harmonic life, the numerous details of the articulation, dynamic and phrase markings, everything is erased by an exaggerate rushing.
It seems to me that the natural limit for the tempo is given by the possibility to play the sixteenth-notes staccato (in a way it could be played by some woodwind instruments) as Tchaikovsky explicitly requires in many places:
Here are Igumnov’s words describing the piece: “Revelry, reckless people, masks, tame bear’s show…”. Igumnov spoke also about the image of a drunkard in the middle part of the “Carnival”. The man is trying to find his way, running into the walls, etc. All these images are completely irreconcilable with a straight, too fast, strictly metronomical and “sporty” execution of the piece.
The harmony is extremely rich and moving. It is interesting to note rise the substantial amount of minor-colored harmonies (resulting from the use of the harmonic major scale or quick modulations to minor keys) from the very beginning and throughout this supposedly joyful piece.
The important keys to me technically were the use of the full weight of the arms, seeking a powerful, energetic but never harsh sound switching quickly to the light fingers energy for the staccato notes.
Here is Igumnov’s fingering facilitating the otherwise quite uncomfortable rising passage of sixteenth-notes :
MARCH. SONG OF THE LARK.
Probably the simplest, pianistically speaking, and also the shortest piece of the cycle. The “Song of the Lark” is often given to children as the first piece to study from The Seasons. The tempo Andantino espressivo suggests a not too slow movement. The ornaments imitating the birds trills should be played quite fast but always as a part of the cantabile melodic line. The left hand, when accompaniment, is polyphonic: the pedal bass G should be played as tenuto as possible, the inner chords, with two and three contrapuntal voices also tenuto and molto legato.
I remember how my teacher at the Central Music School of Moscow, Anaida Stepanovna Soumbatian, strongly insisted on this way of playing. I was given a quite complicated fingering for the upper line of the left hand:
When the melody goes to the left hand, it is better to avoid a heavy, exaggerate expressive sound, as if a cow was trying to imitate the lark. It should be more a reflection of the bird’s song into your soul.
The beautiful poetical epigraph by Maïkov describing the flourishing meadow is a bit incoherent. In Central Russia, the meadows in March are still frozen and under the snow. But the larks are indeed the first songbirds coming back from the southern countries.
And the first flowers come out in April: snowdrops.
If the “Song of the Lark” is overwhelmingly melancholic, the “Snowdrop”, even with its touch of sadness (so typical for Tchaikovsky), presents a very contrasted character to the preceding piece – aspiring, moving, intimate. It is in perfect harmony with the poet’s lines: “the last tears of the past sorrow and the first dreams of the future happiness”. A truly spring mood.
Igumnov’s words – “it’s an awakening of new life. In my childhood in Lebedyan we used to go to the monastery to gather the snowdrops; they were nowhere else but in the monastery yard, where there were lots of them”.
The tempo is fluid and flexible – Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato. Continuously and totally melodious, overwhelming cantabile. But the sound is light and by no means thick; the left hand continues to go forward even in ritardando moments, tenderly quivering. When the melody comes in the lower register, both hands alternatively taking it, the legato and the unity of the phrase become quite a problem:
To practice this place without pedal looking for an inner, lively, true legato line could be really helpful.
MAY. WHITE NIGHTS (could also be translated as MIDNIGHT SUN).
The piece is referring to the famous white nights in Saint-Petersburg which are beginning at the end of May. It almost never gets dark during several weeks, and the city becomes particularly, poetically beautiful in this very special lighting. The range of emotions we could feel in the music goes from the quiet, silent admiring contemplation to the breathtaking delight brought by the F-sharp Major climax at the end of the middle part.
The tempo is not too slow (Andantino), calmly fluid, and the middle part (Allegretto giocoso) is quite animated though not extremely fast. It is easy to imagine the piece orchestrated with its clearly harp-like arpeggiati as well as the portamento descending single flute-colored voice (or another woodwind instrument when in lower register), etc.
Intense but not heavy legato cantabile in what is in general a 4-voices polyphony. At the same time naturally spoken phrases, always being aware of the longer line. Tchaikovsky ingeniously expressed this wish for an ample and flexible phrasing by composing a theme in two while using a three-beats time signature (9/8). All this could result in a quite elaborate fingering, a frequent use of finger-substitutions, etc.
I would like to underline once more the vocal roots of Tchaikovsky’s themes. Being one of the greatest opera and romance composers, his melodies in instrumental music are so natural that they could be easily imagined with words behind the notes, which you could sing or declaim. One of the most important components of the practice should be, I think, this research for the most expressive, true intonations, creating lively connections between notes.
After a moving and animated middle part the recapitulation is an exact repeat of the first part except for the last bar of the conclusion.
One of the most popular pieces of the cycle. “It has to be on the river, – Igumnov said -” not really a big Russian river, a summer evening, small waves splashing, a starlit night”. The general movement is not too slow but certainly not rushing at all (Andante cantabile). The left hand in the first two bars should find this very calm, slightly monotonous rhythm of paddling. A well-chosen tempo could be very helpful.
The melody is fluid. It is itself so natural that you can nearly let it live its own life. It shouldn’t sound at all artificial.
There is a beautiful polyphonic dialogue between the soprano and the middle voices. It is important to keep a good balance between all the elements. One should think of the use of the natural weight of your hands, of the feeling of deepness in the touch, especially in bar 12 and similar, when all the notes of the scale-shaped melody are marcato under the legato mark – a kind of deep and intense portamento (but always fluid!):
This B-flat Major middle part of the A section seems to me possible in a pochissimo piu mosso tempo.
The middle section (B) in G Major is a sort of Intermezzo, an intersection with a different world – the song could be issued from Russian folklore with its syncopated, a bit accordion-like accompaniment (Poco piu mosso) leading to a joyful popular dance (Allegro giocoso).
This short intermission is broken by an ascending suite of the harp-like arpeggiati (ff till the end of the rise, no diminuendo!).
And after a short recitativo full of true bitterness, the recapitulation begins with a developed and enriched contrapuntal voice. The nostalgic coda is entirely based on a G Minor pedal chord, the music flowing away as a farewell.
Serguei Milstein, Lyon, 2020