The Kennedy Center

Manfred, Symphonic Poem after Byron

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Aaron Grad

The genesis of Tchaikovsky's Manfred dates to 1868, when Hector Berlioz conducted concerts in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Performances of Berlioz' Harold in Italy (based on a Lord Byron poem) made an especially strong impact, and Russian composers rushed to create their own programmatic pieces. The influential critic Vladimir Stasov dreamed up a scenario for another Byron-inspired work, based on the 1818 poem Manfred. Combining elements of Goethe's Faust with shades of autobiography, Byron's Manfred follows the tortured wanderings of the title character, a nobleman with supernatural powers who exiled himself to the Alps out of an unexplained guilt stemming from the death of his beloved Astarte. (Many scholars have interpreted a confessional streak in the poem related to Byron's alleged affair with his half-sister Augusta.) Stasov sent his proposed symphonic program to Mily Balakirev, an influential composer, conductor and teacher. Balakirev chose not to undertake the composition, but he tried pushing the idea onto Berlioz himself, who declined on the basis of ill health. Balakirev shelved the idea, and it sat dormant for 14 years.

Meanwhile, Balakirev boosted the relatively unknown Tchaikovsky when he conducted his tone poem Fate in 1869; upon Balakirev's suggestion, Tchaikovsky subsequently composed a tone poem based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Balakirev was a heavy-handed mentor, spelling out his concept in fine detail and chiding Tchaikovsky over perceived faults in the drafts sent back and forth over two years, leading Tchaikovsky to complain privately about "the narrowness of [Balakirev's] musical views and the sharpness of his tone." Still, when Tchaikovsky revised his Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy in 1881, he retained the dedication to Balakirev and sent him a copy of the new score. In an echo of their earlier "collaboration," Balakirev sent Tchaikovsky the old Manfred scenario, again suggesting a very specific compositional plan. Tchaikovsky balked at first, seeing the structure as derivative of Berlioz and the content too intertwined with Robert Schumann's 1848 setting of Manfred, but Balakirev persisted, mentioning the plan again in 1884. Tchaikovsky finally took on the project in 1885, working on it from April to October. On the day he finished the score, Tchaikovsky wrote to Balakirev, "I set about Manfred rather reluctantly and, if I may be frank, felt that I was obliged to write it, because I promised you, and I made a firm promise…but very soon I became terribly infatuated with Manfred, and cannot remember ever having felt such pleasure in working, which stayed with me until the end."

Manfred follows the scenario created by Stasov and finessed by Balakirev, although Tchaikovsky mostly ignored the proscribed key signatures and also switched the order of the inner movements. In the first movement, "Manfred wanders over the Alps. His life is ruined; many burning questions remain unanswered; nothing remains to him but memory." The music builds from a despondent introduction to tense and accusatory orchestral blasts, and adds a gentler strain associated with Astarte, Manfred's lost love. The second movement scherzo dwells in the episode in which "the alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow of the waterfall." The energy is more lively and capricious, but the continuing minor-key harmonies and darting themes preserve the overall air of tragedy, interrupted only by an innocent central section. The third movement makes a more complete departure from Manfred's drama, introducing "the life of Alpine hunters, full of simplicity, good nature and a patriarchal character." The opening oboe solo conveys a pastoral mood, and later passages featuring horns and bells reinforce the outdoor ambience. The finale conforms to the design of "a wild, unbridled Allegro, representing the subterranean halls of the infernal Arimanes." A fugal passage links to the contrasting "summons and appearance of Astarte," bringing a new look at music from the first movement. A final chorale, colored by the religious overtones of an organ, spells Manfred's death.