Music

Tchaikovsky’s ‘Winter Dreams’ Finally Come True

TIMEDecember 29, 2021

“Tchaikovsky appears to be the victim of the epidemic of the Music of the Future that wallows in torpor and time and time again collapses in dissonant convulsions.” (Wiener Fremdenblatt, Nov. 28, 1876)

“Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop.” (Novoye Vremya, St. Petersburg, Nov. 13, 1875)

“Difficult, strange, wild, ultra-modern is the composition of Peter Tchaikovsky, a young professor at the Conservatory of Moscow.” (Dwight’s Journal of Music, Boston, 1875)

Thus was the young Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s music generally regarded around the time he finished his six-year-long reworking of his Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, subtitled “Winter Dreams” (sometimes called “Winter Daydreams”). Remarkably, today’s fans of Tchaikovsky’s much more famous “Nutcracker” will find this symphony nearly as delightfully tuneful and easy on the ears.

Tchaikovsky started the symphony in 1866 as a 26-year-old professor of harmony at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory. He had only composed a handful of shorter orchestral works and was ready to make his mark with his first “major” work, a symphony. It went on, indeed, to become his first important work.

At that time, Russia was not particularly known for its symphonies or for what we think of as a distinctively Russian style. His teacher at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Anton Rubenstein, had written three symphonies, but they were very much in the older German mold and its formal conventions. Perhaps that accounts for the harsh reviews, above, from those who were accustomed to that style.

The general consensus was that Tchaikovsky was talented but had too strange a style to amount to much as a composer. The composer and music critic Cezar Cui, in a scathing review of Tchaikovsky’s graduation piece (a cantata), called his music “utterly feeble.” When Tchaikovsky showed some of this new symphony in progress to his former teachers, Anton Rubenstein and Nikolai Zaremba, they both criticized it severely and refused to endorse a performance of it. So he went back to work on it, at great mental cost.

Suffering for His Art

In his biography of the composer, his brother, Modest Tchaikovsky (1850–1916), wrote:

“No other work cost him such effort and suffering. … Despite painstaking and arduous work, its composition was fraught with difficulty, and while pressing ahead with the symphony, Pyotr Ilyich’s nerves became more and more frayed. As a result of this exceptionally hard work he began to suffer from insomnia, and the sleepless nights paralyzed his creative energies. At the end of July all this erupted into a terrible nervous attack, the like of which he never experienced again during his lifetime. … The most distressing symptoms of this illness were dreadful hallucinations, which were so frightening that they resulted in a feeling of complete numbness in all his extremities.”

The result was that “all his life he abstained from working at night. After this symphony, not a single note from any of his compositions was written at night.”

Modest_Ilyich_Tchaikovsky (Wikipedia)
Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1850–1916), brother of the composer. (PD-US)

It had already been a hard road before this. With doubts about his ability to have a successful career in music, Tchaikovsky’s childhood music teacher and parents had advised him to take the safer route of law school. He then worked as a government clerk for three years. Eventually, the pull toward music drew him to quit law, and he enrolled in the first class of the new St. Petersburg Conservatory.

After that, based upon his musicianship skills (not his composing) Tchaikovsky was appointed as a teacher at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory.

All of this would seem to paint a portrait of a composer determined to persevere and succeed against all odds, even while plagued with discouragement and bouts of depression. It might lead us to wonder how many other such talents may be alive today and struggling against all opposition to have a breakthrough.

Nikolai Rubinstein in 1872 (Wikipedia)
Tchaikovsky dedicated his first symphony to the Russian pianist, conductor, and composer Nikolai Rubinstein, the younger brother of Anton Rubinstein and a close friend of Tchaikovsky.

Gradual Success

Tchaikovsky’s breakthrough did happen, but over a period of time, in the more open climate gradually engendered by the so-called “mighty handful” of young composers: Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. These five had joined forces in opposition to the old style, searching for a truly Russian sound, yet within the mainstream of European classical music.

After some revisions, two movements of Tchaikovsky’s original version of the symphony were performed in 1866 and 1867, but according to the composer’s brother Modest, these weren’t well received. The full symphony in its original version was performed at the Russian Musical Society in Moscow in 1868 and was more successful, though Tchaikovsky was still dissatisfied with it and began an extensive reworking.

Finally, the revised version was ready, the version we now know, and premiered in Moscow in the fall of 1883, followed by performances in St. Petersburg in 1886, at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1896, and in London in 1902. It remained one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites among his own works, in spite of “such an unhappy existence,” as he wrote to his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson.

In another letter to his friend Karl Albrecht he wrote, “Despite all its huge shortcomings, I still nourish a weakness for it, because it was a sin of my sweet youth.” And in another letter to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote, “In many respects it is very immature, although fundamentally it is still richer in content than many of my other, more mature works.”

The symphony consists of four movements, lasting in total from 45 to 50 minutes. In spite of the first two movements’ pictorial titles, the work as a whole is in keeping with a coherent (if looser than his conservative teachers would have preferred) symphonic form rather than a collection of tone poems:

  1. “Dreams of a Winter Journey.” Allegro Tranquillo
  2. “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists.” Adagio cantabile ma non tanto
  3. Allegro scherzando giocoso
  4. Andante lugubre—Allegro maestoso
winter dreams bars
A few bars from “Dreams of a Winter Journey,” Allegro tranquillo (G minor). (Public Domain)

The title of the work as a whole took its subtitle “Winter Dreams” from the title of the first movement, and even then, one can only imagine the suggestion of the music actually sounding like winter. The frequent tremolo chords in the strings and woodwinds does give an effect of sleigh bells jingling, and so it seems fitting for this time of year.

But perhaps the word “Dreams” is even more fitting, as an example for our New Year’s resolutions of sticking to our dreams, no matter what hardship and fortitude may be required to do so.

American composer Michael Kurek is the composer of the Billboard No. 1 classical album “The Sea Knows.” The winner of numerous composition awards, including the prestigious Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has served on the Nominations Committee of the Recording Academy for the classical Grammy Awards. He is a professor emeritus of composition at Vanderbilt University. For more information and music, visit MichaelKurek.com