Tchaikovsky’s Winter Dreams

winter dreams

We have been listening Tchaikovsky a lot recently, owing in part to the often seasonally-themed motif in his orchestral works. While we’ve written in the past about the plague of The Nutcracker, it is nonetheless something we’re sure to listen to each December, as is his cycle of piano pieces, The Seasons. Perhaps simply by association, we’ve always found there to be a winter-y quality to each of Tchaikovsky’s three ballets — and we’ve felt a little proud of the fact that the first recordings of each in their complete form were made by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra during the Dorati era.

Today we listened to a much lesser-known work, his first symphony, which Tchaikovsky gave the subtitle Winter Dreams.

The symphony is partly programmatic in that its first two movements are given titles which reflect the influence of Mendelssohn’s romanticism (his Italian symphony was a favorite of Tchaikovsky’s at the time), but the last two movements are untitled and decidedly less evocative. When the twenty-six year old Tchaikovsky first presented the symphony to his former teachers, both offered only negative reactions. We can only imagine the anxiety this caused the notoriously emotional composer.

Portions of the symphony were received poorly at performances in St. Petersburg, where Tchaikovsky had hoped to have the completed work debut. Eventually, it was performed in Moscow instead, a compromise forced on the composer because it proved difficult to find anyone willing to conduct it in the former. Tchaikovsky felt pleased with the response, and in a letter to his brother Anatoly, called it “a great success, particularly the adagio.”

From the beginning, that adagio, the movement to which he gave the title “Land of desolation, land of mist,” has been the held in higher esteem than the rest of the symphony. Still, in spite of any success, the Winter Dreams symphony would wait fully a decade and a half for a second performance, and it remains today one of the least commonly played or recorded of Tchaikovsky’s large orchestral works.

The first movement, Allegro tranquillo, is given the title “Dreams of a Winter Journey.” It is sometimes cited by Tchaikovsky’s admirers to dispel claims the young composer lacked confidence and could not navigate the symphonic form. Still, the movement is deceptively simple, developing a single motif slowly over about eleven minutes. Tchaikovsky’s unique style, neither Russian nor European, is already beginning to form in this early work, particularly in the dynamic string passages and their delicate interplay with the woodwinds.

We imagine a winter journey in nineteenth century Russia was quite different than one in present day Minnesota, but our imagination is still inspired by this movement, which might offer the perfect soundtrack to an afternoon sledding trip at Matthews Park this afternoon.

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