The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 "Winter Dreams"

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Paul Horsley

Most artists begin their careers through the auspices of a generous or affectionate advocate, a teacher or patron whose encouragement and recommendation go far toward gaining the early exposure necessary for success. Tchaikovsky's was Nikolai Rubinstein, the pianist/conductor who invited the 25-year-old to Moscow in 1866 to teach harmony at the Russian Musical Society, the academy he had founded and would later become the Moscow Conservatory.

The young composer, who had already given up his first career in law to devote himself to music, had just graduated from Russia's principal conservatory--that at St. Petersburg, where Nikolai's brother, Anton, had been one of his teachers. Nikolai overlooked the young composer's inexperience as a teacher in appointing him to the new faculty, doubtless because he saw in him the spark of genius. During Tchaikovsky's first years in Moscow, Rubinstein took him under his wing both socially and artistically, conducting his early orchestral works and advising him on potential new ones. After the success of the Overture in F in March 1866, Rubinstein suggested to Tchaikovsky that he embark on a full-length symphony, which he would conduct.

It proved a torturous task. The young composer produced a first version during the spring and summer of 1866 and revised it later that year. Nikolai performed the work piecemeal, conducting the scherzo in December 1866 at a meeting of the Musical Society, then the slow movement with scherzo in February 1867, and finally all four movements in February 1868. Dissatisfied with the result, Tchaikovsky revised the piece once more in 1874 for its publication the following year. It is this third version that we know today as the "Winter Dreams" Symphony.

Unlike Tchaikovsky's "Little Russian" or "Polish" Symphonies (Nos. 2 and 3), whose subtitles were bestowed by later critics, the First Symphony was named "Winter Dreams" by the composer. In the printed edition of the score, Tchaikovsky gave further titles to two of the symphony's movements, calling the first "Dreams of a Winter Journey" the second "Desolate Land, Land of Mists." None of this is to suggest that the symphony is openly programmatic, however, for such titles were common in music of the period. They were most often intended simply as "mood descriptions." While a wintry landscape is certainly one of the moods evoked by the G-minor Symphony, there is nothing especially "desolate" about the slow movement.

A certain unlabored freshness pervades the symphony, a directness of expression that is sometimes lacking in Tchaikovsky's later works. This immediacy is apparent in the opening theme of the Allegro tranquillo, heard first in octaves by solo flute and bassoon, and in the assertive chromaticism of the vigorous transitional theme. This Allegro's development section is remarkable not only for its "un-academic" counterpoint but for the intuitive climax built through a gradual evolving of the thematic material.

An Adagio cantabile ma non troppo forms the second movement, which builds from a sentimental and plangent oboe solo over muted strings to a highly emotional peak with full orchestra, after which the movement returns to its opening melancholic mood. The scherzo (Allegro scherzando giocoso) contains something of Mendelssohn's "elfin" mood, though it is a highly original creation; its trio section, a lilting waltz, looks ahead to Tchaikovsky's later ballet scores. The finale begins with a sophisticated introduction (Andante lugubre), then embarks on a discursive finale (Allegro maestoso) that takes the listener through a nomadic tour of tonalities, thematic transformations, and contrapuntal developments. (The appearance of the folk tune "The Garden Blooms" is perhaps the composer's way of saying that, as in The Snow Maiden, winter's icy grip has been eased, and spring is anon.) Despite the finale's somewhat loose organization (or perhaps because of it), it forms a satisfying conclusion to this most straightforward and emotionally sober of Tchaikovsky's six numbered symphonies.