Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons Op. 37a was commissioned by St. Petersburg music publisher Nikolai Matveyevich Bernard for his musical periodical Le Nouvelliste. In a letter from November 1875, Bernard asked Tchaikovsky to write a set of 12 pieces, one to be written each month from January to December. Tchaikovsky, very pleased by the commission, answered: “I take great delight in writing piano pieces at the moment.” In order to remember the agreement, he instructed his manservant to remind him to write a piano piece on a certain date in each month.
The titles of the pieces and the subject matter of each of the images were suggested by the publisher. He was a connoisseur of Russian literature, and each piece has a poetic motto, suggested by him. Thus, most of the verses are by great poets, such as Aleksandr Pushkin, Aleksey Tolstoy and Nikolay Nekrasov. From January 1876 on, the pieces appeared in each issue of Le Nouvelliste, except for the September one, when it was announced that the subscribers would receive a collective edition of all 12 pieces.
The complete cycle was published at the end of 1876 for the first time under the title “The Seasons.” In 1886 the publisher P. Jurgenson acquired the rights to The Seasons and the work has been reprinted many times.
This cycle is a good example of the characteristics of Tchaikovsky’s music, which is (similar to Prokofiev’s) deeply Russian, but also containing melodies, formal specifics and elements of Western music. Igor Stravinsky captured the essence, writing:
Tchaikovsky’s music, which does not appear specifically Russian to everybody, is often more profoundly Russian than music which has long since been awarded the facile label of Muscovite picturesqueness. This music is quite as Russian as Pushkin’s verse or Glinka’s song. Whilst not specially cultivating in his art the “soul of the Russian peasant,” Tchaikovsky drew unconsciously from the true popular sources of our race.
This definition by Stravinsky is perfect and is very well demonstrated through the 12 pieces of The Seasons.
While the Russian folk tunes are clearly recognizable in January, February (Carnival), the middle part of May (White Nights), June (Barcarolle), which bears a great similarity of melodic lines from the opera Eugene Onegin, July, October –a melancholic romance, the bells of the troika (traditional harness driving combination, using three horses abreast, pulling a sleigh) in Rachmaninoff’s favorite encore –November; pieces such as the elegant waltz-like April and December, the elegy of the singing lark in March and the virtuoso August are closer to Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin (both also masters of the miniature). Most certainly each of those pieces is a gem, creating in a few minutes a distinctive atmosphere, delicacy and enchanting sound experience. Significantly, Tchaikovsky wrote “The Seasons” at the same time as his first ballet “Swan Lake,” followed by such masterpieces as “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker.”
— Program Notes for Carnegie Hall performance
The Seasons Op. 37a
by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky
At the Hearth
Night has covered peace’s cosy corner
With a cloak of dark
The candle burns down lower
And the flame fades in the hearth
— – Aleksandr Pushkin
Soon the lively feast of Shrovetide
will be bubbling and boiling
— – Petr Viazemsky
Song of the Lark
The flowers of the field are rippling
Waves of light whirl in the sky
The spring larks with their singing
Fill the blue sky on high
— Apollon Maickov
Pure and blue– -a snowdrop flower
By its side the last clear snow
The very last tears of grief of old
And the very first daydreams\
Of joy soon to unfold
— – Apollon Maickov
What a night! All is covered in bliss!
I thank you my land at midnight
From the Kingdom of ice and
blizzards and snow
How freshly and purely does your May wing its flight.
— Afanasy Fet
Let’s walk all the way to the shore
There the waves our feet will caress
And above us the stars will shine
With the mystery of ineffable sadness.
— Aleksei Pleshejev
Song of the Reaper
Take free rein O shoulder
Take full swing O hand!
Blow your scent in my face
0 wind from midday land!
— Alexey Koltzov
People in families
Are ready to reap
To scythe at the root,
The tallest of rye
In plentiful stacks
The sheaves have been gathered
The carts creaky music
screeches out all night long
— Alexey Koltzov
It’s time, it’s time, the horns are blaring
The huntsmen in habit
are on horseback since dawn,
The hounds on their leashes do
strain and fawn
— Aleksandr Pushkin
Autumn, our meagre garden is losing its leaves,
Yellow and faded, blown away on the breeze
— Aleksey Tolstoy
Don’t stare at the road with longing,
And don’t chase the sleigh on its way
And gnawing alarm in your heart
Quickly wave, forever, away
— Nikolay Nekrasov
One Christmas Eve
Some girls were foretelling their fate
They would take off a shoe*
and throw it over the gate
— Vasily Zhukovsky
*According to legend, the first man to pick up the shoe would become the bridegroom.
Tchaikovsky, ‘The Seasons’ – Russian lyrics
Russian lyrics are posted here as a downloadable Word document.
Русские тексты публикуются здесь как загружаемый документ Word.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Many thanks, Elisabeth. Nice to hear.