The Kennedy Center

The Seasons

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Peter Laki

Tchaikovsky wrote relatively little for solo piano:  for most of his career, as is well known, he concentrated on orchestral music and stage works.  Among his solo keyboard works, which include a major sonata and the extraordinary Dumka, The Seasons occupies a special place.  It consists of twelve character pieces, one for each month of the year, and runs about forty minutes in performance.

It wasn't the only time in Tchaikovsky's life when he followed programmatic ideas proposed to him by other people.  We know, for instance, that the idea for a symphonic fantasy on the theme of Romeo and Juliet was suggested by Mily Balakirev, and Hamlet, another Shakespeare play that became the basis for a symphonic poem, was recommended by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest.  The impulse for a piano cycle depicting the twelve months of the year came from a Russian music publisher named Nikolai Bernard, who commissioned Tchaikovsky in November 1875, and even provided him with movement titles and short epigraphs from classical poets to indicate his exact plans for the work.  Tchaikovsky accepted the blueprint without any changes, and Bernard published the pieces by installments in his musical periodical called Le Nouvelliste, before printing the entire work in a single volume in 1876.  Neither Bernard nor Tchaikovsky could possibly be aware that, several decades earlier, another composer had already written a set of piano pieces on the twelve months of the year:  Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel's magnificent Das Jahr ("The Year," 1841) was not published in its entirety until 1989.

It is apparent from Tchaikovsky's music that it was written with a highly advanced amateur player in mind-someone who would subscribe to a musical magazine that would deliver new pieces for home consumption at their doorstep every month.  The pieces are by no means easy, yet the technical difficulties are, for the most part, manageable.  Contrasted in tempo, mood and texture, they show the extent to which Tchaikovsky was able to treat even simple forms with a great deal of sophistication, especially with regard to harmony:  modulations into distant keys appear in many of the movements.

The activities and situations associated with the individual months include a peaceful idyll by the fireplace in January, a carnival scene for February, and so on (a list of the movement titles and a translation of the accompanying poems appears below).  Descriptive details abound, as in the birdsong of the March movement or the hunting horns in September.  What is more remarkable is that Tchaikovsky, although he didn't quibble with Bernard over titles or programs, he had no qualms about working against those titles when they didn't correspond to the music he wanted to write.  In the "Barcarole" (June), probably one of the most popular pieces in the set, he ignored the 6/8 meter of all original barcarolas (Venetian gondolier songs) and wrote a melancholy lyrical piece in 4/4 time instead.  And anyone who expects a religious hymn in "Christmas" (December), will be surprised to discover that the holiday is represented by, of all things, a waltz.  Tchaikovsky was very fond of that dance form (in addition to his great ballets, we find examples in the Fifth Symphony and the Serenade for Strings, among others), and he evidently decided that there could be no better way to end the cycle.

 

1. January (At the Fireside)

A little corner of peaceful bliss,

the night dressed in twilight;

the little fire is dying in the fireplace,

and the candle has burned out.

Alexander Pushkin

 

2. February (Carnival) 

At the lively Mardi Gras

a large feast will overflow. 

Piotr Vyazemsky

 

3.  March (Song of the Lark)

The field shimmering with flowers,

the stars swirling in the heavens,

the song of the lark

fills the blue abyss. 

Apollon Maykov

 

4.  April (Snowdrop) 

The blue, pure snowdrop -

flower, and near it the last snowdrops. The last tears over past griefs,

and first dreams of another happiness.

Maykov

 

5.  May (Starlit Nights) 

What a night!  What bliss all about!

I thank my native north country!

From the kingdom of ice, snowstorms and snow, how fresh and clean May flies in!

Afanasy Fet

 

6.  June (Barcarolle)

Let us go to the shore;

there the waves will kiss our feet.

With mysterious sadness

the stars will shine down on us. 

Aleksey Pleshcheyev

 

7. July (Song of the Reaper) 

Move the shoulders, shake the arms!

And the noon wind breathes in the face!

Aleksey Koltsov

 

8.  August (Harvest) 

The harvest has grown,

people in families

cutting the tall rye

down to the root! 

 

Put together

the haystacks,

music screeching all night

from the hauling carts.

Koltsov

 

9. September (The Hunt)

It is time! The horns are sounding! The hunters in their hunting dress

are mounted on their horses;

in early dawn the borzois are jumping.

Pushkin 

 

10.  October (Autumn Song)

Autumn, our poor garden is all falling down,

the yellowed leaves are flying in the wind. 

Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy 

 

11. November (Troika)

In your loneliness do not look at the road,

and do not rush out after the troika.

Suppress at once and forever

the fear of longing in your heart.

Nikolay Nekrasov 

 

12. December (Christmas)

Once upon a Christmas night

the girls were telling fortunes:

taking their slippers off their feet

and throwing them out of the gate. 

Vasily Zhukovsky