The Kennedy Center

"The Voyevoda"

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Richard Freed

Untitled Document

Tchaikovsky began composing this "symphonic ballad" in September 1890, completed the orchestration on October 4, 1891, and conducted the premiere in Moscow on November 18 of the latter year. Antal Dorati conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's only prior performances of this work, in the spring of 1973--on March 27, 28 and 29 in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, on April 1 in Philharmonic Hall (subsequently renamed Avery Fisher Hall) at Lincoln Center, at home again on April 7--and at that time recorded it for London/Decca.

The score calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, celesta, harp, and strings. Duration, 11 minutes.

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The term voyevoda was a title given to provincial governors, and sometimes to prominent landowners, in Russia and Poland until the early part of the 19th century. A voyevoda usually had responsibility for civil, military and religious affairs in his district, and led the local regiment in wartime. Tchaikovsky composed two works to which he assigned the title The Voyevoda--one at the beginning of his career, the other near its end--but they have nothing to do with each other, either musically or programmatically. What his two Voyevodas do have in common is that he acted to destroy them both, but both managed to survive.

The earlier of the two works was his first opera (Op. 3), composed in 1867-68 and based on Alexander Ostrovsky's play A Dream on the Volga; it had a successful premiere at the Bolshoie Theater in Moscow on February 11, 1868, but was dropped after the fifth performance. Tchaikovsky salvaged some portions of the score for use in other works, but destroyed the rest; a reconstruction was made about 50 years ago, and the opera was staged in St. Petersburg (at that time called Leningrad) some 80 years after its last performance in the composer's lifetime. The later Voyevoda was of course the work that opens the present concerts, the last of Tchaikovsky's tone poems (in this case designated a "symphonic ballad"), inspired by Pushkin's translation of a ballad by the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. The story told by Mickiewicz may be summarized as follows:

The Voyevoda returns home from the wars late one night, finds his bed empty, and, without revealing himself, discovers his wife and her lover by the fountain in his garden. The man is saying goodbye; the woman is weeping. The Voyevoda instructs a servant, hidden with him, to aim a rifle at his wife's head and await his signal to fire, while he himself steals to the other side of the garden to dispatch the lover. At the signal a shot is fired--but it is the Voyevoda himself who falls dead. Did the servant aim badly, or . . . ?

This work is not only the last of Tchaikovsky's tone poems, but the shortest as well, and the only one without a "big tune" such as we hear in Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and Hamlet. It differs from those works, too, in being more of an atmospheric piece than an outright narrative one. One of the felicities of Tchaikovsky's orchestration in this work is his first use of the celesta, representing the then new instrument's first appearance in any symphonic score and preceding by several months his own more celebrated use of it in his ballet The Nutcracker.

Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of the "symphonic ballad" during the first half of the concert noted above; during the intermission he expressed his dissatisfaction with the work, and declared that he would destroy the score, which he indeed did the following day. Later, apparently, he was persuaded that his own shabby conducting had been responsible for the poor impression the work had made, and he gave approval for its publication (from parts the concert manager had preserved.) In any event, it was to take the work more than eight decades to make its way into anything like general circulation on concert programs and recordings. In the meantime, Tchaikovsky's rejection of The Voyevoda at the time of its premiere led directly to the creation of one of his most beloved concert works.

After conducting some of his music in the concerts that opened Carnegie Hall in May 1891, Tchaikovsky stopped in Paris on his way home, and there discovered an instrument invented only five years earlier and still virtually unknown, the celesta. He was delighted with it primarily because it solved his problem of finding suitable coloring for the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, a work in progress at that time. He was very secretive about his discovery, advising his publisher that he was having a celesta shipped to him from Paris and was eager to be the first to use the instrument in Russia, "before Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov get hold of it." Since he had not completed the orchestration of The Voyevoda , he was able to include his new discovery in this score and introduce it almost at once. When he discarded this work after its single performance in Moscow, he was faced with having to provide a substitute for it in St. Petersburg--the home ground of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov--where it had been scheduled for a concert of his some four months later, on March 19, 1892. Although it had not occurred to him to prepare a concert suite from either of his two earlier ballets ( Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty ), he quickly assembled one from the still unfinished Nutcracker and was thus able, with its third number, the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, to surprise his St. Petersburg audience with the enchanting sound of the celesta as planned.