Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 1

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, and wrote his first symphony at the age of 26. This symphony is considered to be his first notable work, written at the same time that he had accepted a professorial post at the Moscow conservatory.

Tchaikovsky started writing this symphony in March 1866. Work proved sluggish. A scathing review by César Cui of the cantata he had written as a graduation piece from the St. Petersburg Conservatory shattered his morale. He also composed day and night. All these factors strained Tchaikovsky’s mental and physical health tremendously. He started suffering from insomnia, from pains in his head which he thought to be strokes, and became convinced he would not live to finish the symphony. A successful performance of his revised Overture in F in St. Petersburg lifted his spirits. So did a change of scene for the summer with his family. Nevertheless, he soon worked himself again into nervous and physical exhaustion by continuing to compose day and night. A doctor declared him “one step away from insanity”, ordering complete rest. Tchaikovsky complied. The first full performance took place in Moscow on February 1868.

A typical Moscow winter is 3 to 5 months of snow and continuous sub-zero temperatures, often around minus 10 degrees celsius, with a record minus 42 recorded in 1940.

The symphony is in 4 movements as follows:

  1. Dreams of a Winter Journey. Allegro tranquillo
  2. Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. Adagio cantabile ma non tanto

This is an essentially mono-thematic structure, based on subtle gradations and variations on a single melody.

  1. Scherzo. Allegro scherzando giocoso

This was the earliest movement to be written. Salvaged from a piano sonata in C-sharp minor that he had written as a student, Tchaikovsky transposed the movement down a semitone to C minor and replaced the trio with the first of a whole line of orchestral waltzes.

  1. Finale. Andante lugubre — Allegro maestoso

Tchaikovsky uses the folk-song “Распашу ли я млада, младeшенка” (Raspashu li ya mlada, mladeshenka) as the basis for both the introduction and the second subject. This song also colours the vigorous first subject.