The Seasons

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Tchaikovsky's piano cycle The Seasons (Времена года), subtitled '12 characteristic scenes', Op. 37a (TH 135 ; ČW 124), was written between December 1875 and May 1876, and was first published in monthly instalments in the Saint Petersburg journal Nuvellist (Нувеллист).

Contents

Movements and Duration

The twelve numbers last around 40 to 45 minutes in performance [1]:

  1. By the Hearth: January (У камелька: Январь)
    Moderato semplice, ma espressivo (A major, 103 bars).
  2. The Carnival: February (Масленица: Февраль)
    Allegro giusto (D major, 169 bars).
  3. Song of the Lark: March (Песнь жаворонка: Март)
    Andantino espressivo (G minor, 46 bars).
  4. Snowdrop: April (Подснежник: Апрель)
    Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato (B-flat major, 86 bars).
  5. White Nights: May (Белые ночи: Май)
    Andantino (G major, 88 bars).
  6. Barcarole: June (Баркаролла: Июнь)
    Andante cantabile (G minor, 99 bars).
  7. Reaper's Song: July (Песнь косаря: Июль)
    Allegro moderato con moto (E-flat major, 56 bars).
  8. The Harvest: August (Жатва: Август)
    Allegro vivace (B minor, 198 bars).
  9. The Hunt: September (Охота: Сентябрь)
    Allegro non troppo (G major, 90 bars).
  10. Autumn Song: October (Осенняя песня: Октябрь)
    Andante doloroso e molto cantabile (D minor, 56 bars).
  11. On the Troika: November (На тройке: Ноябрь)
    Allegro moderato (E major, 83 bars).
  12. Christmas-Tide: December (Святки: Декабрь)
    Tempo di Valse (A-flat major, 263 bars).

At the time of their first publication in Nuvellist, the names of the months were not given before the title. In the manuscript score, pieces Nos. 8 and 12 have subtitles: The Harvest (Scherzo) and Christmas-Tide (Waltz) respectively. On the manuscript score of Christmas-Tide, someone (perhaps the publisher?), crossed out Tchaikovsky's indication that the start should be completely repeated in the reprise (as with The Harvest, The Hunt, etc.), and written: "'D. C. al segno e poi la coda" instead.

Composition

The Seasons were commissioned from Tchaikovsky by the publisher Nikolay Bernard, for publication in his journal Nuvellist (Нувеллист), which was issued on the first day of each month. Very little documentary information concerning the origins of the cycle has survived, but some correspondence between Nikolay Bernard and Tchaikovsky concerning the commission dates from the end of 1875.

On 24 November/6 December 1875, Tchaikovsky agreed to Nikolay Bernard's proposal that he should write the cycle The Seasons: "I have received your letter. I am most grateful for your courtesy and readiness to pay me such a high fee. So long as I am spared I shall endeavour to oblige you. I shall send you the first piece shortly, and perhaps the next two or three. If the circumstances are right then they will be done quickly—at the moment I am very much in the mood for piano pieces. Yours P. Tchaikovsky. I will retain all your titles" [2].

In December 1875, Tchaikovsky sent two pieces from Moscow to Nikolay Bernard. In a letter of 13/25 December 1875, the composer wrote to Bernard: "This evening, or possibly even tomorrow, I am sending you the first two pieces by post. It is not without some trepidation that I send them to you, for fear that you will think them too long or poor. I beg you to give me your candid opinion, so that I can keep in mind your requirements while composing the following pieces ... If the second piece is unsuitable, then write and tell me... If you want me to rewrite The Carnival, then please do not stand on ceremony, and you can be sure that by next time, i.e. by 15th January, I will have written you another" [3].

The remaining pieces in the cycle were probably composed in 1876, as indicated by Tchaikovsky's letter to Nikolay Bernard of 23 January/4 February 1876 from Saint Petersburg: "I wanted today to ask you a favour in person, but I was too embarrassed, and so I address you by letter instead. I very much need the 200 roubles, without which I am unable to leave here. If you could let me have the fee for the remaining pieces on account, then I would be extremely obliged and grateful to you; I do not linger over my pieces, and you can always fully expect them to arrive punctually" [4].

It is not known exactly when pieces Nos. 3, 4 and 5 were written, but Tchaikovsky wrote to Nikolay Bernard on 17/29 March 1876: "1 am very sorry that Naranovich has still not forwarded your piece, which I gave to him last Saturday the 12th [O.S.]. Apparently a telegram from me was insufficient. Tomorrow evening I shall try to find out why the piece has not been sent. Today... he assured me that it had been despatched" [5]. Here it seems that Tchaikovsky was referring to only one piece—Snowdrop(No. 4). It follows that pieces No. 3 to 5 must have been composed (and, evidently, sent to Bernard) separately, while the corresponding edition of Nuvellist was being prepared. The third number of the journal, which contained the piece Song of the Lark (No. 3), was approved by the censor on 17/29 February; the fourth—with Snowdrop (No. 4)—on 22 March/3 April; the fifth—with White Nights (No. 5)—on 20 April/2 May 1876.

The last seven pieces (from Barcarole to Christmas-Tide) were certainly written together, since they are all found together in a single copy-book, and could not have been separated. Each of them have various notes by the publisher (e.g. for the piece November. "Nuv[ellist] No. 11"). It is natural to conclude that Tchaikovsky began work on them in April, after finishing the instrumentation of the ballet Swan Lake (completed on 10/22 April), and finished composition no later than 15/27 May 1876, since the Barcarole (June) was published in No. 6 of the journal, which was approved by the censor on 18/30 May 1876. Evidently, Tchaikovsky hastened to write the pieces before his journey to the Ukraine and abroad, which took place at the end of May/beginning of June. On 23 October/4 November 1876 the collection was approved by the censor for separate publication.

In the light of the aforementioned evidence, it is difficult to substantiate the version of events described in the reminiscences of Nikolay Kashkin [6], namely that each month Tchaikovsky sat down to write a single piece, after being reminded to do so by his valet Aleksey Sofronov.

Epigraphs

The aforementioned letter from Tchaikovsky to Nikolay Bernard of 24 November/6 December 1875 suggests that the titles, and subsequently the epigraph for each piece, were suggested by the publisher to the composer.

In the surviving manuscript scores, only two pieces from The Seasons have epigraphs: By the Hearth (No. 1)—to Pushkin's poem Dream—and Lark Song (No. 2)—to Apollon Maykov's verses On the Volga. In both cases the epigraphs were written out by Nikolay Bernard, and not Tchaikovsky. None of the remaining pieces have epigraphs in the manuscript scores.

No. 1. By the Hearth (January):
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.

No. 2. The Carnival (February):

At the lively Mardi Gras
Soon a large feast will overflow.
Pavel Vyazemsky

No. 3. Song of the Lark (March):

The field shimmering with flowers,
The stars swirling in the heavens,
The song of the lark fills the blue abyss.

No. 4. Snowdrop (April):

The blue, pure snowdrop-flower,
And near it the last snowdrops.
The last tears over past griefs,
And first dreams of another happiness.

No. 5. White Nights (May):

What a night! What bliss is all about!
I thank my native north country!
From the kingdom of ice and snow,
How fresh and clean May flies in!

No. 6. Barcarolle (June):

Let us go to the shore;
There the waves will kiss our legs.
With mysterious sadness
The stars will shine down on us.
No. 7. Reaper’s Song (July):
Move the shoulders, shake the arms!
And the noon wind breathes in the face!
Aleksey Koltsov

No. 8. The Harvest (August):

The harvest has grown,
People in families cutting the tall rye
Down to its roots!
Put together the haystacks,
Music screeching all night
From the hauling carts.
Aleksey Koltsov

No. 9. The Hunt (September):

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.

No. 10. Autumn Song (October):

The autumn, falling on our poor orchard,
The yellow leaves are flying in the wind.

No. 11. On the Troika (November):

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.

No. 12. Christmas-Tide (December):

Once upon a Christmas night
The girls were telling fortunes:
Taking their slippers off their feet
And throwing them out of the gate.

Publication

The Seasons were published for the first time throughout 1876 in the journal Nuvellist. Their publication was preceded by a framed announcement in bold type on the cover of the December 1875 issue (No. 12): "Our celebrated composer P. I. Tchaikovsky has promised the editor of Nuvellist, that he will contribute to next year's issues a whole series of his piano compositions, specially written for our journal, the character of which will correspond entirely to the titles of the pieces, and the month in which they will be published in the journal..."

The Seasons were acquired and republished by Pyotr Jurgenson in 1886 as Op. 37a, evidently having chosen that opus number to emphasize that they were from around the same period as the Grand Sonata [7].

The set was published in volume 52 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works (1948), edited by Anatoly Drozdov, and in volume 69a of the New Edition of the Complete Works (2008), edited by Polina Vaidman and Lyudmila Korabelnikova.

Autographs

Tchaikovsky's manuscript scores of Nos. 1 to 3 and 5 to 12 are preserved in the Glinka National Museum Consortium of Musical Culture in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 114). The autograph of No. 4 has been lost.

Recordings

See: The Seasons: Recordings

Notes and References

  1. The English translations of the following numbers differ in ČW: 2. Shrovetide; 3. Lark's Song; 8. Harvest; 9. Hunt; 11. In the Troika  [back]
  2. Letter 419 to Nikolay Bernard, 24 November/6 December 1875 [back]
  3. Letter 426 to Nikolay Bernard, 13/25 December 1875 [back]
  4. Letter 440 to Nikolay Bernard, 23 January/4 February 1876 [back]
  5. Letter 454 to Nikolay Bernard, 17/29–18/30 March 1876 [back]
  6. Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1896), pp. 121–122. This version was also recounted by Modest Tchaikovsky in his biography of his brother [back]
  7. See Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 165, note 6 [back]