Sunday, March 26, 2006


Tchaikovsky: Instrumentation and nationalism

Tchaikovsky wrote this: Letter to Mme von Meck, Clarens, March 5 (17), 1878

You ask how I manage my instrumentation. I never compose in the abstract; that is to say, the musical thought never appears otherwise than in a suitable external form. In this way I invent the musical idea and instrumentation simultaneously. Thus I thought out the scherzo of our symphony [Fourth Symphony] at the moment of its composition---exactly as you heard it. It is inconceivable except as pizzicato. Were it played with the bow, it would lose all its charm and be a mere body without a soul.
As regards the Russian element in my works, I may tell you that not infrequently I begin a composition with the intention of introducing some folk melody into it. Sometimes it comes of its own accord, unbidden (as in the finale of our symphony). As to this national element in my work, its affinity with the folk songs in some melodies and harmonies comes from my having spent my childhood in the country, and, from my earliest years, having been impregnated with the characteristic beauty of our Russian folk music. I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In a word, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.

* * *

Tchaikovsky's 4th is probably one of the extreme cases. He took the most popular Russian song "Vo pole berezon'ka stoyala" and made it a theme of the last movement of the symphony. It's beautiful - no questions... But every time I leasten to it... it makes me smile. He really "borrowed" it from the Russian people. :)
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