In a previous article for this column I promised a solo article about one of the most recognisable names in any music - Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is, of course, most well-known for ballets such as the Nutcracker and Swan Lake, as well as pieces such as the 1812 overture complete with cannons. While these are great, Tchaikovsky himself hated the 1812 overture, describing it as “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love”, but it’s still really fun! I’ll present two pieces that I’m sure Tchaikovsky would be happier being remembered for his masterpiece, the Pathetique symphony, along with a tone poem that is just as raucous as the 1812. However, when I sat down to write this I put on a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies, a recently deceased Master of the Queen’s Music (the equivalent of a Poet Laureate), and couldn’t not write about him too, although I’ll steer clear from his off-the-wall and hugely atonal works such as the controversial “8 Songs for a Mad King”.
Unlike Tchaikovsky, who led a very private life, Davies was openly gay and it angers me that he was not allowed to celebrate his civil partnership on his preferred site of the Sanday Light Railway on Orkney. To make up for that, I’ve chosen one of his most enduring works, the Orkney Wedding.
Tchaikovsky - 2nd movement from Symphony no.6 “Pathetique”
This was the last piece that Tchaikovsky wrote in his surprisingly tragic lifetime, dying a few weeks after he premiered it, and he described it as “the best thing I ever composed or shall compose” (indeed, a better translation of the Russian is passionate, rather than pathetic). Unlike most symphonies that end on a high note, the fourth movement of this symphony is one of the saddest pieces in the Classical repertoire with absolutely heart wrenching string phrases. But the second movement is one of the most interesting musically (can you tell that I had a hard time deciding which movement to write about?). It’s one of the first major compositions in 5/4 time (5 beats in a bar), and is like a waltz, which is usually in 3 time. This means it has real forward momentum as the strong beat keeps changing. The rich cello theme, punctuated by sighs in the winds then gives way to a much more still string line that moves into and away from very upset chords, before calming back down into the main theme.
Tchaikovsky - Capriccio Italien
This might not be the greatest piece ever written according to some musical snobs, but it’s really fun, if not a little bit sentimental and a pastiche of Italian music, inspired by a three month stay in Rome in 1880. Again, Tchaikovsky gives the melodies to the lower strings, punctuated by militaristic trumpets for the first theme, before a more wistful wind theme over tremolo (shaking) strings, mixed in with a trumpet fanfare. The main theme, a Carnival march shows up about 6 minutes in appearing first in the oboes, and is interspersed with small episodes of the festivities, building to a wild tarantella (a manic dance) towards the end that really captures the joy of a festival. Warning: may be somewhat incompatible with lockdown.
Maxwell Davies - An Orkney Wedding, with sunrise
This work portrays the sunrise after a particularly riotous wedding on the titular island, and is really uplifting in most places. Particularly good themes are the opening sultry oboe, and the strings jig and French horn and trumpet call at 3 minutes that fuses jazz, classical and Scottish folk to recall the previous evening’s events. About 10 minutes in the music becomes agitated, building up to something…and then it clears to leave a triumphant tune on an instrument rarely heard in classical music (although “Orkney” may be a bit of a giveaway)…