by David Perkins
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s festival overture, The Year 1812, (popularly known as the 1812 Overture), is probably one of his most famous works. Tchaikovsky didn’t think much of it as it was a commission piece to open the All-Russian Arts and Industry Exhibition. “It is impossible to set about without repugnance music that is destined for the glorification of something that delights me not at all,” he grumbled. To his patron he wrote, “The Overture will be very loud and noisy…I wrote it without any warm and loving feelings, and consequently it will probably be lacking in artistic merit.” The Year 1812, much to Tchaikovsky’s chagrin, was a great success—and continues to be. But it also demonstrates his uncanny facility as a musical craftsman, able to create music that stirs human emotions, even if his heart was not in it.
His letters and his diaries reveal that the works he was most proud of were those pieces that deeply engaged his emotions, which evoked those “warm and loving feelings.” This was true when it came to literature as well. He was a voracious reader: philosophy, poetry, novels, and plays. Fluent in many languages, he adored Pushkin, Dickens, Schiller, Dante, and Shakespeare; and even once considered writing an opera based on George Eliot’s Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story. In literature and in music it was imperative that something should stir his soul.
It is by the symphony, however, that composers are often measured, and Tchaikovsky’s six numbered symphonies place him among the world’s greatest. His first symphony, Winter Daydreams (or Winter Reveries), and his sixth symphony, the Pathétique, have made their way into being ranked among the 50 Greatest Symphonies according to Tom Service, music critic for The Guardian. No one has ever claimed that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are devoid of emotion. His first symphony was a brave act for a young composer in Russia. It wreaked havoc on his health, as he attempted to reconcile his unique Russian vision to the form while yet striving to be true to his academic conservatory training. His second and third symphonies developed his skills and expanded that vision. His fourth, fifth, and sixth symphonies are regarded as masterpieces of the Romantic genre.
There is an outlier among those numbered symphonies, however. His bewitching and magnificent Manfred Symphony, based on Lord Byron’s poem, was created between his Symphony No. 4, which arguably propelled him into the pantheon of great symphonists, and his Symphony No. 5, which confirmed that standing.
The idea for a symphony based on Byron’s poem was initially proposed to him in 1882 by his friend and fellow composer Mily Balakirev. Tchaikovsky was not inspired by the detailed outline Balakirev proposed, saying it left him “cold,” and furthermore “when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composing.” He also admitted that the shadow of Schumann’s Manfred, which he admired greatly, might be an undue influence. The matter rested for two years until they met again in Saint Petersburg. Balakirev had been of tremendous inspiration, help, and influence to Tchaikovsky in the composition and revision of the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, and Tchaikovsky trusted his musical judgment. It would seem, up until this point, that Tchaikovsky had not actually read Byron’s poem and had only encountered the idea of it through Schumann and through Balakirev’s outlines but he was at last convinced to reconsider it, and promised to purchase a copy to read as “I will soon be in the Alpine mountains, where the conditions for successfully portraying Manfred in music will be very good, were it not for the fact that I am going to visit a friend who is gravely ill.”
The “friend” was actually more than a friend; he was an important pivotal person in Tchaikovsky’s emotional life, the talented young violinist, Iosef (Joseph) Kotek. Kotek had studied music theory and composition under Tchaikovsky, and following graduation had become resident violinist in the household of the extremely wealthy widow, the now famous Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, who ultimately became Tchaikovsky’s patron. Kotek, who also adored Tchaikovsky’s music, was instrumental in acquainting her to Tchaikovsky’s music. Beyond that, Tchaikovsky consulted Kotek’s expertise on the violin and they worked together often on various works (Tchaikovsky dedicated his Valse-Scherzo, Op.34 for violin and orchestra to him). Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s famous violin concerto was brought into being at the suggestion of and collaboration with Kotek. Tchaikovsky considered dedicating the concerto to him—but demurred, as he was afraid it would stir up gossip. Gossip, because their noticeably very close relationship might have been interpreted as not entirely professional—which it wasn’t. For a time, he was deeply infatuated, and as he confessed only to his brothers, “I am in love, as I haven’t been for a long time…I love him endlessly…” and “I love him very, very much. He is kind and has a tender heart.” This love it seems was never physical, their age differences making the idea disgusting to Tchaikovsky, but the emotion was deep and genuine—and Tchaikovsky, with the text of Manfred in hand, went to Davos, Switzerland among the snow-capped Alpine peaks to see Kotek, who was dying from tuberculosis.
In the third volume of David Brown’s massive biographical Tchaikovsky tetralogy, he somewhat coyly remarks, “Something occurred to revive the Manfred project. Exactly what we will probably never know, though we may guess.” It would seem simple, however. Tchaikovsky took “great pleasure in the wild landscape” during this visit, as he reported, and it was at Davos in the company of Kotek where he read Manfred in full. This encounter with his hopelessly ill and cherished friend; the eerie, harsh magnificence of the scenery; and the rueful torment of Byron’s Manfred over the death of Astarte, all moved Tchaikovsky to begin to shape the symphony in his mind. The idea of a tortured hero, longing for oblivion and consumed by lost love and an unnamable sin, had taken hold and flowered in the thin air of Davos, and in the rich soil of Tchaikovsky’s emotional imagination.
On his return to Russia and in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck, he said, “In April I began to make sketches for a program symphony on the theme of Byron’s Manfred…I am so captivated… [It] requires tremendous effort and labour from me as it is a most complicated and serious assignment.” And later on in the process, Manfred “happens to have such a tragic character that occasionally I become somewhat of a Manfred myself…I am having to squeeze every last drop of effort from myself…[I] am using up all my strength and as a result, I am absolutely exhausted. Never before have I expended such labour and exertion as on the symphony I am now writing.”
“And loved each other as we should not love…”
Manfred, Act I, Scene 2
Two other earlier programmatic works by Tchaikovsky influenced by literature should be noted here—along with the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet, there is his other famous orchestral fantasia, Francesca da Rimini, based on Canto V of the Inferno from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both of these works, along with Manfred, are intensely emotional—is there any other love theme in music more famous than that found in Romeo and Juliet? And love is the subject of all three, but it is, more to the point, forbidden love, proscribed love, that intensifies the anguish, that magnifies the tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet were separated by the warring families, Francesca and Paolo’s love forbidden by Francesca’s marriage to Paolo’s brother. It is also notable that Romeo and Juliet was composed around the time that another former love of Tchaikovsky, Eduard Zak (Sach), a former student, committed suicide. It is plain that the incestuous love hinted at in Manfred, paralleled by Byron’s own similar shocking scandal, is yet another form of that “forbidden” love, “as we should not love.” These elements all sound not only notes of pain and sorrow, but notes of great soaring beauty as well.
Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini are shorter works, fantasies in one movement, but Manfred is a full-fledged symphony—and not only that, but Tchaikovsky’s largest purely orchestral work, calling for a prodigious and virtuosic orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony is epic in scope, exploring the heights and the depths of the theme of tragic love—and yet another form of love that in society, “dare not speak its name.”
Although it was Balakirev’s persistence and his detailed outlines that drew Tchaikovsky to the work, it was Byron’s poem itself and the circumstances under which it was read that propelled Tchaikovsky into undertaking the symphony, and Tchaikovsky developed his own scheme for the work (later apologizing to Balakirev for taking his own path). He followed his heart into the work, and wrote to his friend, the Russian soprano Emiliya Pavlovskaya, “I had been for a long time planning to write a symphony on the subject of Manfred…and became so carried away, as often happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious, and difficult; it is absorbing all my time and sometimes wearying in the extreme, but an inner voice tells me that I am not labouring in vain and that this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.”
Manfred’s three acts are divided into four movements, and Tchaikovsky interpreted the poem not in a strict incident-by-incident fashion, but as an emotional landscape as he also did with Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini. Some have indeed called it more of a tone poem in four movements rather than a symphony, although all the characteristic building blocks of a symphony are in full force, filtered through Tchaikovsky’s own unique compositional skills. The critic John Warrack called it “one of the great programme symphonies of the nineteenth century.” One can see Tchaikovsky’s translation of Byron’s poem in the four prefaces he wrote for each movement:
I. Lento lugubure:
Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fatal questions of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers terrible spiritual yearnings. He has delved into the occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved by him, gnaws at his heart, and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred’s despair.
II. Vivace con spirito:
The Alpine Fairy appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of a waterfall.
III. Andante con moto:
Pastorale. A picture of the simple, free and peaceful life of the mountain folk.
IV. Allegro con fuoco:
The subterranean palace of Arimanes. An infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the midst of a bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the spirit of Astarte, who pardons him. Death of Manfred.
One need not have read Manfred to enjoy the symphony—musically the symphony stands on its own—however, knowledge of the poem enhances it immeasurably. The listener enters the landscape of despair at the very first notes of the first movement, the initial melody of the bass clarinet and three bassoons are joined by sorrowful, descending viola and cello. Immediately, the heart is engaged in Manfred’s anguish. It is a movement haunted by gloom and portrays not only Manfred’s travail, but his strength as well as he struggles onward with the burden of his pain, visited by the recurring, spectral, and lovely memory of Astarte.
Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake ballet precedes Manfred by a decade; his ballets, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are in the future, but the second movement of the symphony is in the best tradition of all three, full of all the magical touches endemic to his ballet skills, lightening the mood with its charming, eldritch sorcery as the Alpine Fairy (Byron’s “Witch”) makes her kaleidoscope appearance beneath the rainbow of a waterfall—and unable to relieve Manfred’s agony, disappears finally in a high skittering flurry of violins and harp.
The Alpine scenery is the setting for the third movement, as Manfred seeks respite in the beauty of his surroundings and from the free and simple life of the environment’s habitants, “My soul would drink those echoes,” and
…Oh, that I were
The viewless spirit of a lovely sound,
A living voice, a breathing harmony
A bodiless enjoyment—born and dying
With the blest tone which made me!
His desire is in vain, as once again, the memory of Astarte returns along with the ferocity of his tortured passion, and discovering he will find no solace here, the initially pleasant pastoral themes fade as an echo into a melancholy retreat.
Many critics, including Tchaikovsky himself, have erroneously stated that the last movement is the weakest. Multiple hearings in the light of Byron’s poem belie that assessment. The longest of the four movements—as long as Romeo and Juliet, almost as long as Francesca da Rimini—it covers many elements and has much to say as it conjures up not only an orgiastic bacchanal in the palace of Arimanes, it directs itself to the universal themes of forgiveness, transfiguration, mortality, and death. And here, again, Tchaikovsky devotes himself not to the letter of the poem, but its spirit, the landscape of Manfred’s soul. Tchaikovsky portrays the evil palace of Arimanes in a dark, feverishly driving and ultimately raucous (but delicious) fugue. Manfred appears and appeals again to Astarte, her achingly sweet theme finally promises him deliverance from the agony of his tortured mortality in soaring strings and double harp.
‘Tis over—my dull eyes can fix thee not;
But all things swim around me, and the earth
Heaves as it were beneath me. Fare thee well—
Manfred’s dying moments are signified by announcing tympani, the full orchestra rising beneath him, lifting and delivering his battered spirit toward transcendence and transfiguration—and release, the moment of Manfred’s death, proclaimed with immense and powerful, towering chords in the organ, followed by a solemn orchestral postlude, a dying fall into peace.
The Manfred Symphony is a sublime tribute to Byron’s hero—filled with passion and insight and emotional daring, indeed one of the greatest program symphonies of the nineteenth, or any other century. Tchaikovsky was initially very satisfied, and then, as was all too often his wont, it fell out of his favour, and he declared that he would destroy it all save the first movement. Tchaikovsky was always his own harshest critic and all too often wrong in his severe self-assessments—but the symphony has thankfully survived. For many long years the Manfred Symphony was rarely performed—part of those reasons being its length and difficulty. In the last few decades however, it has been rediscovered by conductors and orchestras to the delight of audiences worldwide. Enjoy it if you have the opportunity—but to fully savour this resplendent musical achievement, begin by rereading Manfred and follow the footsteps of Byron’s tragic hero as he wanders the Alps in search of the lovely, lost Astarte.
Iosef Kotek died, alone, in Davos shortly after Tchaikovsky finished composing Manfred. A year and a half later, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, “Kotek’s letters. Tears.”
“Tchaikovsky Research.” Edited by Brett Langston, Tchaikovsky Research, www.tchaikovsky-research.net/.
Wiley, Roland John. Tchaikovsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (New York: Schirmer Books/Macmillan, 1991).
Warrack, John. Tchaikovsky (London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973).
Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky Through Others’ Eyes (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999).
Kearney, Leslie. Tchaikovsky and His World (Princeton, New Jersey; Princeton University Press, 1998).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering, 1878-1885, Volume III (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1986).
David M. Perkins is an amateur Tchaikovsky scholar, and a retired book publishing executive, formerly with Oxford University Press (USA), the University of Illinois Press, and Georgetown University Press. He has had many hundreds of book reviews, some various articles, essays, and poetry published hither and yon; and he is owned by a blue-point Siamese cat named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (“Mr. Petes”).