Boris Tchaikovsky, Concerto for Cello and Symphonic Orchestra

By Laurel E. Fay

Written for the concert After the Thaw, performed on Feb 24, 2010 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

His surname notwithstanding, Moscow native Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-96) was not born into a family of musicians; he bore no relation to his illustrious namesake. But his musical gift manifested itself early and at the age of nine his parents enrolled him in the Gnesin School to study piano. Shortly after, he added composition classes and as a teenager he was already studying with Vissarion Shebalin. In 1941, he was poised to enter the Moscow Conservatory when the Nazis invaded Russia. He spent the war years in Moscow, resuming his education in 1944 at the Conservatory, studying for two years with Shebalin and, from 1946, with Shostakovich. When both were fired from the Conservatory in 1948 after being branded “formalists”— their students were tarnished by association—Tchaikovsky continued his studies with Nikolai Miaskovsky, graduating in 1949.

His early brush with notoriety was short-lived. With works like the Sinfonietta for string orchestra (1953) he quickly began to find favor with the musical establishment and with performers, and his stature as one of the leading composers of his generation did not diminish during the rest of his life. He received the State Prize in 1969 for his Second Symphony (1967) and, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 1985, he was named a Peoples’ Artist of the USSR. He was modest, principled, and remained aloof from politics, both governmental and professional. A traditionalist by predilection, he was largely indifferent to the avant-garde experiments pursued by other composers after the onset of the “Thaw.” Within his aesthetic comfort zone, however, he was by no means indifferent to innovation. In each new composition he tried not to repeat himself, forging a recognizable style that synthesizes intellectual refinement and emotional directness.

Melody and harmony lie at the heart of Tchaikovsky’s music. Themes that evolve from a short, elemental idea developing in an unforced, reflective manner help determine the way the music is structured, which is unpredictable from piece to piece. The palette of tone colors is fresh and striking. Noted for his orchestral scores, including four symphonies, concertos for clarinet, cello, violin and piano, and symphonic poems like The Adolescent (1984, after Dostoevsky), he also made noteworthy contributions to the chamber music repertory, including instrumental sonatas and six string quartets, and vocal music, including Signs of the Zodiac, a cantata for soprano, harpsichord and chamber orchestra (1974). In addition to producing concert music, he had an active career writing for films and radio, especially for children’s shows.

Many Soviet composers wrote works for the phenomenal and musically voracious cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. Boris Tchaikovsky was one of very few he rated “genius” quality. The Cello Concerto in E Major (1964) was the second of three works Tchaikovsky dedicated to the cellist, preceded by the Suite for solo cello (1960) and followed by the Partita for cello, piano, harpsichord, electric guitar and percussion (1966).

Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto is in four movements and employs unusual instrumentation: three flutes, three trumpets, three trombones, percussion, harp and strings. In the first movement, the introductory theme grows out of the simple melodic oscillation of the interval of a minor sixth in the opening cello monologue, becoming increasingly agitated on repetition, with jarring interjections from the orchestra. A chorale of muted brass leads to the secondary theme, arpeggiated triads in dotted rhythm traded among instruments. Rapidly oscillating seconds and thirds contribute to the mounting tension. The development of these elements is far ranging and dynamic, culminating in a chromatic fugato. The beginning of the recapitulation is breathtaking in its simple beauty: against the delicate flicker of flutes, the soloist etches the main theme in harmonics.

The remaining movements are all much shorter. The middle two are in variation forms; the second uses a primitive, arpeggiated triad figure as a rhythmic tether for forays both humorous and lyrical, and the third is built on a 10-note ostinato repeated continuously throughout. Heralded by brass fanfares, the music of the finale jauntily flirts with dance steps, march rhythms and lowbrow tunes bringing the concerto to a buoyant conclusion.

Music for Orchestra (1987) was Tchaikovsky’s penultimate symphonic work. Its form falls somewhere in between a suite and a symphony. Lasting approximately 20 minutes, the seven movements have suggestive titles and distinct moods, but they are performed without pause and material from earlier movements—especially the first and second—is developed in later ones. Once again, the orchestration is unusual: 3 piccolos, no oboes, 3 each of clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombones, percussion, celesta, 2 harps, piano and strings.