Previously in my "piano" thread, I have looked at books of piano pieces that could be taken in by kids somewhere along the process of learning to play the piano. In other words: Albums for the Young. For a long time, though, I've been dying to share some of my best recommendations for grown-up amateurs who are at least OK note-readers, and who feel a yearning now and then for a new and lovely adventure in classical piano playing.
In fact, I am so excited to begin this thread that I have to work hard to restrain myself from blurting out a list of the books I regularly play out of. I have already discussed Bach's Well-Temepered Clavier Books I & II, the French and English Suites, Partitas, Inventions, and Sinfonias, which are in that category; so unless I decide to devote a post to discussing them one piece at a time—yawn!—let's just say I've spoiled that segment for now. Otherwise, I want to take this one "album" at a time, and give each one the attention it deserves. If you can play pieces out of the above-named Bach books, without being totally overwhelmed by technical difficulties, the music discussed in this thread may be worth looking into. I may also discuss the works of some composers whose books, for whatever reason (mainly chance), have never joined my collection. But I'll start with the collections I know best. And so today's Album for the Mature is...
The Seasons, op. 37a
by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Recommended Ages: 14+
And now a bit of a catechism, by way of leading into the contents of this book...
What does "op. 37a" mean? Answer: "op." is short for "opus," the Latin word for "work." In the world of music publishing, successive works published by a composer are numbered sequentially so that you can tell one from another. Here is a list of Tchaikovsky's published works in order of opus-number. You'll notice that this sequence is not the same as a chronological list of the works by when they were written. You'll also notice that the "37a" designation makes The Seasons seem like a sort of appendix to the Grand Sonata, op. 37. Actually the two works have nothing to do with each other. So, don't worry about the opus number—unless you want to search online for The Seasons, in which case it might help to include the string "op. 37a" in your search parameters.
Who is this Tchaikovsky guy, anyway? Answer: P. I. Tchaikovsky was a Russian romantic composer who lived from 1840 to 1893. Many of his major works are still well-known today, such as his symphonies—especially the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth, the last of which was first performed only days before Tchaikovsky's sudden and premature death. Also particularly famous are his Violin Concerto; the first of his three Piano Concertos; his ballets The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty; his operas Yevgeny Onegin and The Queen of Spades; his cello-and-orchestra piece Variations on a Rococo Theme; his Serenade for String Orchestra; his Slavonic March (a.k.a. Marche Slave); and his concert-overtures Francesca da Rimini and The Year 1812. You are probably just now remembering at least a few pieces of his music that you have heard and enjoyed. There are many other pieces by him worth listening to, ranging from sacred choral music to chamber music to theatrical works, plus solo songs and pieces for piano.
What is "The Seasons" all about, then? Answer: One of Tchaikovsky's most beloved works for the piano is this collection of twelve single-movement piano masterpieces. According to an editor's note in the Peters Urtext edition, these pieces were commissioned by a St. Petersburg publisher (i.e., Tchaikovsky was paid in advance to write them), and they were published in a series of issues of a monthly magazine. The year was 1876, the magazine was called Nouvellist, and the pieces were named after the months of the year. Each piece was then, and is now, headed by a brief snippet of Russian poetry, which unfortunately gets translated no further than the German language in the Peters edition. The music is rich in melodic invention, harmonic color, and variety of mood and atmosphere. And though it sometimes pushes the amateur pianist of average skill to make refinements in his technique, it is all quite approachable and doable, even by a good sight reader with neither time nor inclination to do much practicing. On the other hand, it is a real treat to hear a polished performance of these pieces by a pianist with an excellent practice ethic.
The set opens with a moderately-paced 3/4 piece in the bright key of A Major (3 sharps). It introduces you quickly to the idea of chromaticism, pervasive throughout Tchaikovsky's music: this is to say, the frequent sharp, flat, and accidental signs lead the music through unexpected harmonic areas, seeming to journey over great distances and sometimes making it a bit tricky to pin down exactly where "home" is. The opening section is energetic and expressive, full of dynamic contrasts (soft, loud, crescendo and diminuendo, etc.). The contrasting middle section is marked "less fast," though in this slower tempo the rolling arpeggios in triplet sixteenth-notes require a certain lightness and nimbleness of touch.
The score includes markings that challenge the pianist to build his vocabulary in several languages. Meno mosso (less fast), leggierissimo (very lightly), and molto espressivo (very expressive), are phrases in Italian, which often serves as the international language of musical notation. But what does one make of the markings "m.g." and "m.d." sprinkled over these rolling arpeggios? Fear not, I've done the research for you. "M.g." stands for main gauche, which is French for left hand; "m.d." is main droite, or right hand. These markings are important when the hands are dividing the arpeggios between them and even crossing over each other; but they may add a new wrinkle to brains accustomed to the Italian markings "m.s." (mano sinistra) and "m.d." (mano destra), or the English "L.H." and "R.H." See? You learn music, you learn foreign languages!
The second piece in the set opens in D major (2 sharps) and a moderately fast 2/4 tempo. (The marking Allegro giusto could also suggest a certain mechanical strictness in the rhythm.) Almost immediately Tchaikovsky introduces a sense of major/minor ambiguity, beginning with the accidental B-flat on the second beat of the first measure. Whatever machine this music represents (hint: the title of the poem quoted in the epigraph is Carnival), it churns and puffs quite rapidly into distant tonal areas, such as A-flat major (bar 9), B-flat (bar 10), C (bar 11), D minor (bar 14), E minor (bar 18), F-sharp minor (bar 20), and G major turning to minor (bars 21ff.), before twisting smartly around and landing on D-major in bar 26. The first contrasting episode promptly takes off from the relative key of B minor, humming along with machine-like regularity while, at the same time, challenging the pianist with slippery chromatic slopes, off-beat accents, passages in bare octaves, and a rising run of sixteenth-notes that has something of a comical effect.
The opening refrain returns, followed bu a second refrain marked L'istesso tempo, which means that even though the rhythm seems slower, the pulse continues at the same speed as before. This is the noble, searching, passionate, expressive part of the piece, exploring still more territory but without so much of a sense of mechanical compulsion. The same funny, rising figure leads back to the third statement of the refrain, this time leading to a somber coda, a sustained pause, and a quick, super-loud, final statement in D major.
Headed by a poem titled "Song of the Lark," this relatively short piece (only two pages, in contrast to the six pages each of the first two numbers) is in a 2/4 meter marked Andantino espressivo. Solidly in G minor (2 flats), it spins a soulful, yearning, almost vocal melody over a darkly shaded background. I think the R.H. part is meant to remind one of a lonely bird's song, especially the parts decorated by grace-notes. It's a breathtaking, moving moment of melancholy beauty.
This four-page piece in B-flat major (2 flats) moves along in a sweet, graceful, rhythmically flexible 6/8 meter (two beats with a triple pulse in each beat). The melody surges passionately against a throbbing accompaniment of repeated chords; at times, the trick is to bring the melody out even when it's in the middle of those chords. Again, there is a lot of chromaticism, both in the opening section (which returns at the end) and especially in the middle part, which suggests the key of D minor in spite of its G minor key-signature.
This four-page piece opens in a moderate 9/8 tempo with a sound like bells chiming, sometimes delicately and sometimes swelling with nobility, though again the home key of G major (one sharp) is more implied than firmly asserted. The middle part switches to 2/4 time and a slightly faster, playful tempo marking—but this is a strangely moody playfulness, keyed to B minor (2 sharps). This middle section has a slightly slower middle section of its own, before its opening riff comes back and leads again to the gentle chiming of the bells in G major.
In a moderate 4/4, this piece opens under the epigraph of a poem titled "Barcarolle." There is indeed something sleepy and lullaby-like about this G minor melody, with a mildly drone-like touch in the bass line and a gently singing melody line, sometimes echoed by a middle voice, especially when the opening section comes back towards the end. The impression of a drone bass grows stronger in the slightly faster middle section, where the key switches to G major—but this only lasts a brief moment, before a stronger outburst in a joyfully fast 3/4 leads to a quick climax and a return of the opening theme. Most of the fourth page is an extended G minor cadence over a drone of G-D fifths in the bass. The piece ends with indescribable delicacy.
The E-flat major (3 flats) opening of this piece has a heavy, rustic feel, full of bright manly energy and an unusual lack of chromaticism, for this set. The second section drops into the relative key of C minor and an earnest marching tune. This climaxes in a phrase of thunderous chords, followed by the piece's one passage of nervous rhythms and adventurous harmonies. When the E-flat theme returns, it comes transformed by the addition of a triplet rhythm in the accompaniment, adding a layer of intricacy to the performance of the last half of the piece.
B minor (2 sharps) and a rapid, lively 6/8 rhythm give this piece a restless magical quality, like a late-summer evening haunted by buzzing insects or even, possibly, by little winged people. Towards the end of page 3, a gentler, more relaxed second section begins in the relative key of D major. Tempo I, B minor, and the opening theme return on page 5, to which Tchaikovsky felt a need to add only two bars of closing chords at the end of what turns out to be a 7-page piece.
Alas, my birth month is represented by the only piece in this book that I don't particularly care for. I believe its loud, fanfare-like stylings are meant to evoke the imagery of the hunt, as it was then practiced mainly by the aristocracy—with horses and dogs and horns, the whole magilla. Tchaikovsky sustains this exact mood for an unbelievable two whole pages, before relieving us with a more colorful middle section in a minor key. You'll notice I'm not saying which minor key, because it's hard to explain to musical laymen the type of ambiguity that results when the key signature says "E minor" but the music gravitates toward B minor. (For those who are musically ordained, I'm thinking of phrases like "Phrygian mode.") But the five-page piece ends with a second lengthy statement of the opening hunting-horn fanfare, which is only really fun to play when one is in a defiantly angry mood.
The main part of this 3-page piece is a mournful, song-like melody in D minor (one flat), which contains a subsidiary thought in the touchingly bright, relative key of F major. After the main D minor paragraph comes back, the F major material begins to follow it as before, only to terminate early in a D minor coda.
A hint of folk-dance comes into this six-and-a-half-page piece in E major (four sharps). It opens with a melody played in bare octaves, punctuated only by an occasional chord. Rolling arpeggios and triple-duple cross-rhythms add increasing liveliness to the texture. Then the key changes to G major for a contrasting section in which a forceful idea alternates with a delicate one full of tweeting grace-notes. When E major returns, the opening theme and its punctuating chords have moved to the left hand, while the R.H. accompanies them with a pattern of staccato sixteenth-notes. This texture continues, except for a brief respite, until the end of the piece.
A-flat major (four flats) lends the final piece in this collection a muted glow appropriate to the time of year it represents. It's a graceful waltz whose melody, so full of rhythmic hesitations and chromatic twists, seems to pulse with a beautiful inward passion, just reined in by the cultured calm of the dance. The central Trio in E major presents (funnily enough) three voices, woven together in overlapping rhythmic patterns and echoing melodic effects. After the initial waltz is fully repeated, the last page comprises a coda, in which the piece's two main tonal areas (A-flat and E, enharmonically respelled as F-flat major) fight it out to a final, dying-away series of A-flat major chords. Thus ends the whole album.
I have been living with this book, in one edition or another, for about a decade and a half now. I haven't always held Tchaikovsky in the best favor during that time. There have been moments when I was disenchanted with his sense of good taste and his sometimes crude notions of thematic development. But more recently, I have played through the entire book in one evening missing out only September, which I have never played as much as the other pieces. And as has probably happened many times before, I was surprised anew at the beauty, expressiveness, well-judged pianism, and memorable moments that run straight through The Seasons, op. 37a.