The Tempest, op. 18

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           Most probably, no composer other than Beethoven has enjoyed the popularity in this country of that of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.  His reputation has been secure since his early maturity, and yet, it is equally true that no other major modern composer has endured the distortions and indignities as that imposed upon his personality and personal life after his death.  A welter of factors has been trotted out to “explain” his art and its personal genesis: his sexuality, politics, religious beliefs, and social class.  Every generation of musicologists--radical and otherwise--social commentators, and political ideologues has taken its shots at the man.   And it must be said, chief among the negative attitudes simply has been the implication that his music is vulgar, overly emotional, and void of intellectual attainment--all clearly a reflection of the composer, himself!

            That said, it is refreshing to see that much of the critical persiflage of the last century is now being replaced by a clearer, less ideologically freighted appreciation.   He is historically important for his integration of the symphonic tradition of Beethoven and Schumann into the colorful, nationalistic atmosphere of Russia.   But, ultimately it is the eloquence and technical mastery of his compositions that founded his lasting popularity.  He was blessed with an extraordinary gift for melodic imagination, and learned to use it in contexts of structural integrity--not a given among the world’s great melodists.

            The Tempest was written in ten days of August of 1873 when Tchaikovsky was thirty-three.  He was then residing at the estate of a friend in Usovo (about 250 miles south-east of Moscow) surrounded by deep forests and evocative steppes.   The composer, like many great composers of the nineteenth century, was profoundly influenced by Shakespeare, and a Russian art historian, critic, and friend of Tchaikovsky suggested a detailed “program,” or story line for a tone poem to be based on the dramatist’s play, The Tempest.  Tchaikovsky responded with alacrity, and the work that resulted is a colorful depiction of elements of the play.  You’ll initially hear the calm sea that quickly is turned into —well—a tempest by the magician Prospero.  The feminine Miranda and her storm-borne lover, Ferdinand inspire a “love theme” redolent of Tchaikovsky’s more famous work, Romeo and Juliet.  The man/beast Caliban appears, as do the enchanted spirit, Ariel, and a chorus of elves.  The work ends with Prospero renouncing his magical powers, and the blessing of the young couple.  The youthful composer’s mastery of orchestration comes to the fore in this colorful work.   Tchaikovsky spoke of writing this depiction of the supernatural as if he were under a spell, himself--such was the ease of its creation.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 Wm. E. Runyan