Fantasia after Shakespeare's drama, Op. 18 (1873).
In a letter of 30 December 1872/11 January 1873, Vladimir Stasov proposed three subjects to Tchaikovsky as the basis for symphonic works: Taras Bulba, after Gogols novel; Ivanhoe, after Walter Scott’s novel; and The Tempest, after the drama of the same name by William Shakespeare, setting out programmes for each of them.
Stasov’s programme for The Tempest was as follows:
Tchaikovsky selected the subject of The Tempest, adopting Vladimir Stasov's programme, but did not start work on it immediately. In his letter of reply to Stasov of 15/27 January 1873, Tchaikovsky asked: "Must there be a tempest in The Tempest?, i.e. is it essential to depict the fury of the elements in an overture written on a piece where this incidental circumstance serves simply as the point of departure for all the dramatic action? Would it be odd in a symphonic composition that is supposed to depict The Tempest to leave out the tempest? If a tempest is essential then where should it go—at the start or in the middle? If it is not necessary, then why not call the overture Miranda? ... I require your counsel so that the plan is absolutely clear in my mind before I set to work on the music" .
In reply Vladimir Stasov wrote that the tempest was essential, and described how it should be depicted: "I had thought of representing the sea twice: at the beginning and at the end; only at the beginning it ought to be prefatory, quiet and gentle, and Prospero, uttering his magic words, would break this calm and summon the tempest. But in my opinion this storm should differ from all that has gone before, in that it should start suddenly, at full strength, in utter turmoil, and should not grow or arise by degrees, as is usually the case. If followed, this suggestion would be quite innovative, because in all other operas, oratorios and symphonies a storm follows its natural course, but in this instance it is created at the command of supernatural forces. Let your storm suddenly take hold and howl, smash and fling everything to the devil on the orders of its master. Let your storm rage and engulf the Italian boat with the princes, then just as suddenly subside, with only a shudder and a growl before falling silent" .
In Tchaikovsky’s letter to Vladimir Stasov of 27 January/8 February 1873, we read: "While the subject of The Tempest is poetic up to a point, your plan calls for such a degree of musical refinement and elegance, that I intend to rein in some of my usual impatience to compose, and to await the propitious moment ... I will only say that it could be some time before my future overture emerges into the light" .
Tchaikovsky worked painstakingly according to a detailed scheme and programme for The Tempest, as was his usual technique. "One should not write a symphonic work and only afterwards formulate its programme, because... every episode in the chosen programme requires a suitable musical illustration", Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 24 June/6 July 1878 .
Judging by references in his diary (a note for 11/23 June 1873 showed that he had decided "to plunge headlong into Stasov’s Tempest", it seems that composition progressed slowly at first . It was only after his return from abroad in early/mid August that Tchaikovsky sketched the fantasia in 10 days at Usovo. On the front of the rough draft is the date: "Usovo 17 August 1873" [O.S.]. At the end of the sketches is the note: "Begun 7 August. Finished 17 August 1873 at Usovo".
Later the composer thus recalled these days: "At that time I found myself completely at one with the delightful oasis of the steppes... I was in a blissfully peaceful frame of mind, wandering each day in the forest and in the evening through the immense steppes, and at night sitting by the open window and revelling in the quiet emptiness, broken occasionally by indefinable nocturnal sounds. In these two weeks, without any effort, as if under the influence of some supernatural force, I wrote the whole of The Tempest in rough" .
On 7/19 December 1873 it was performed for the first time with great success in Moscow at a concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, and on 16/28 November 1874 in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník.
Vladimir Stasov, who on 13/25 November attended the first rehearsal of the Saint Petersburg concert, wrote of his delight in Tchaikovsky's new work: "I have just this second come from the hall of the Nobles’ Society and the rehearsal of Saturday’s concert. Your Tempest was played for the first time. In an otherwise empty hall we sat together in a row with Rimsky-Korsakov, enraptured. Your Tempest is such a delight! How magnificent!... Caliban, Ariel, the love scene—all these belong among the loftiest of musical creations. In both love scenes—what beauty, what languor, what passion! All this is incomparable. Then the magnificently wild and savage Caliban, the ethereal and playful Ariel—these are all most excellent. And the orchestration—especially in these scenes—is astounding... On Friday, the day after tomorrow, I will be going to the second rehearsal, which is again at 9 pm—I could not possibly keep away" .
An arrangement of The Tempest for piano duet (4 hands) made by Eduard Langer  was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in March 1875. In 1877 the same publisher issued the printed full score (July) and the orchestral parts (April). In July 1892 a second edition of the fantasia's arrangement for piano duet was issued.
The Tempest is dedicated to Vladimir Stasov.
The composer's attitude to the fantasia was ambivalent. At first he "placed enormous faith"  in the work. But after failing to receive information on how The Tempest fared in Saint Petersburg, and stung by Herman Laroche’s review in the newspaper The Voice on 22 November/4 December 1874 , Tchaikovsky was deeply upset by the fantasia’s apparent lack of success.
Later, in 1879, after a performance of The Tempest on 25 February/9 March in Paris, Tchaikovsky wrote a sharply critical judgement of the work: "Today's performance of The Tempest did not please me. Its form is too long, episodic and unbalanced. The effect of these disconnected episodes produces a lack of movement and coherency. It grieves me to admit that I could be responsible for something so unsuccessful at its performances, and incomprehensible to the public" .
However, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky the composer wrote about the same concert as follows: "I am sending you a newspaper cutting, from which you will see that I have shown my customary inclination to exaggerate my failures; The Tempest was not such a terrible flop" .
In 1885, Tchaikovsky received the Belyayev prize and 500 roubles for The Tempest.
The Tempest was one work which actively found favour with the Moguchaia kuchka . Vladimir Stasov wrote to the composer on 29 November/11 December 1885: "Just imagine, how we often play between us the four-hand arrangements of your chef d’oeuvres: Romeo, The Tempest, Francesca, the Second and Third Quartets... and they are always a delight" .
From: Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 283–286
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013