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Tchaikovsky: Destroyer of Scores

12 June 2018

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky: Potpourri, Naxos

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Image credit: Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

With his unerring gift for gripping drama, exuberant orchestration, piquant harmonies and large, memorable tunes, Piotr Tchaikovsky was a hugely popular and influential composer. But even as he cranked out one masterpiece after another, he was plagued with doubts and occasionally destroyed scores that he was unhappy with.

Take his first opera, The Voyevoda (1869). While working on the opera, Tchaikovsky became so exasperated with the slow progress on the libretto (by the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky) that he took over and completed the libretto himself, slimming the work down to three acts and simplifying the plot in the process. The critics were pretty indifferent with the end-result, but the public adored it. Faced with this mixed reception, Tchaikovsky sided with the critics and after only five performances, he destroyed the score.

Years later, he confided in a letter to his friend and patron Nadezhda von Meck “The Voyevoda is without any doubt a bad opera … In the first place, the subject was not suitable, i.e. it was devoid of dramatic interest and plot development; secondly, the opera was written too quickly and without much thought … I had simply tried to write music to a given text.” And when Tchaikovsky found out that Arensky was also writing an opera based on the same play, he wrote “I am so glad that henceforth I shall cease once and for all to be the author of The Voyevoda! Remembering this opera … is like recalling some criminal offences I committed long ago.”

Still, Tchaikovsky salvaged much of the music from The Voyevoda for other works, including his second opera The Oprichnik, the ballet Swan Lake and the 1812 Overture. But for many years The Voyevoda was chiefly known from his piano arrangements – the charming Potpourri on Themes from the Opera Voyevoda and the Entr'acte & Dances of the Chambermaids for piano duet and solo piano. After Tchaikovsky’s death, the opera was reconstructed and staged again in 1949 – some eighty years after its first performance. This time the critics loved it.

A similar fate lay in store for a tone poem from the very end of his career – hilariously also titled The Voyevoda (1891). This was promptly destroyed after a single performance (although Tchaikovsky was later persuaded to publish a reconstructed version), and while The Voyevoda has proved less popular than his other tone poems, such as Romeo and Juliet or Francesca da Rimini, the derived work – the Aveu passionné in E minor for piano – is nevertheless a fine example of his lyrical and intimate piano style.

With the tone poem, Tchaikovsky’s penchant for destroying musical scores also had an unforeseen outcome. The work had featured a celesta, a virtually unheard-of instrument which Tchaikovsky wanted to show off to the public at a concert in St Petersburg. To make up for the loss of The Voyevoda he therefore quickly dished up a concert suite from his unfinished ballet The Nutcracker. This showcases the celesta prominently in the enchanting, if hackneyed, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and to this day the suite remains one of his most popular and best-loved works.

Stream Lance Coburn's new recording of the Potpourri on Themes from The Voyevoda on Primephonic. 

Kevin Painting

Kevin Painting is a writer, editor and classical music enthusiast. He writes regularly about music including articles, reviews and press releases.


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