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The Tempest, Op. 18

Composed: 1873

Length: c. 18 minutes

Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, bass drum), and strings

Tchaikovsky’s second Shakespeare overture was The Tempest, completed four years later than the brilliant Romeo and Juliet, which Tchaikovsky had composed under the watchful eye of Balakirev, the leader of the “Five.” Tchaikovsky kept himself distinct from that group in his musical principles and was in practice separated from them by living in Moscow rather than St. Petersburg, but he nonetheless welcomed their advice and encouragement while naturally resenting their equally frequent inclination to cavil. In the case of The Tempest it was the group’s spokesman and publicist, Vladimir Stasov, who guided his hand. Stasov was a librarian and historian, not a composer, but he worked passionately for the cause of a distinctive Russian music, and had strong views on what was and what was not acceptable in a modern Russian work.

His discussions with Tchaikovsky are very revealing. He was greatly impressed by the Second Symphony and its Glinka-derived finale. Stasov suggested Gogol’s novel Taras Bulba as a subject for an orchestral piece, but since Tchaikovsky wanted a change from Russian material, he suggested Scott’s Ivanhoe or Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The latter was Tchaikovsky’s choice, and the correspondence immediately moved to the details. “Does there need to be a tempest in The Tempest?” Tchaikovsky asked. “If so, where should it go? At the beginning or in the middle?”

Stasov was carried away: ”Certainly there must be a storm. I think this storm should be different from all previous storms in that it should begin suddenly, at full strength, in utter turmoil, and should not grow or arise by degrees, as normally happens. Let your storm rage and engulf the Italian boat with the princes in it, and immediately subside. And now, after this picture, let another begin: the enchanted island of wonderful beauty, and Miranda passing across it with light tread, a creation of even more wonderful beauty – all sun, with a smile of happiness. A moment of conversation between her and Prospero, and immediately afterwards the youth, Ferdinand, who fills her with wonder, and with whom she immediately falls in love.”

His instructions move on to Ariel and Caliban and then “the majestic figure of Prospero, renouncing his magic power and sadly bidding farewell to all his past: finally a picture of the sea, now calm and quiet, lapping the deserted island, while all the former brief inhabitants fly away in their boat to distant happy Italy.”

All Tchaikovsky had to do was to join up the dots, as it were, and this he did in the summer of 1873 while staying in the country with his friend Shilovsky, where he, who could sometimes sink to the depths of despair, was exceedingly happy. “In those two weeks,” he later recalled, “I wrote the draft of The Tempest without any effort, as though moved by some supernatural force.”

The orchestration was done after his return to Moscow and the first performance was given in Moscow that December. Stasov and Rimsky-Korsakov heard it in St. Petersburg a year later and the whole group gave it full marks, as if Tchaikovsky, though 33 years old, was still a student.

A note in the score sets out the sequence of the music, obviously derived from Stasov’s outline:

The sea. The magician Prospero sends the obedient spirit Ariel to raise a storm, which causes the shipwreck of the vessel carrying Ferdinand.

The magic island. The first timid expressions of love between Miranda and Ferdinand. Ariel. Caliban. The lovers give in to the delights of passion.

Prospero renounces his power of magic and leaves the island. The sea.

As in Hamlet, the music is not a narrative of the events of the play, but a multi-sectional composition drawing on certain prominent events and characters. After the opening portrait of the sea, which serves as a permanent background to the whole piece, we hear Prospero giving orders to the skittish Ariel. The storm soon gathers force, and naturally Tchaikovsky has the orchestral skill to give us a particularly powerful one. When it finally subsides the lovely Miranda is presented as a melody on the cellos, taken up by the full strings. Then Ariel appears, quickly interrupted by Caliban, whose distorted rhythms and intervals precisely convey his monstrous shape.

It must be granted that Tchaikovsky, perhaps still seeing Romeo and Juliet in his mind’s eye, allowed Miranda and Ferdinand to indulge in “the delights of passion” much more fervently than Shakespeare did. The love music is reprised with full force, and then the symmetry of the composition – and the requirements of the story – call for Prospero’s final solemn pronouncement and the departure of the whole company. Even the magic island has disappeared, leaving only the sea.

- Notes by Hugh Macdonald