Symphony in four scenes after Byron's dramatic poem, Op. 58 (1885)
The idea that Tchaikovsky should write a symphony on the subject of Byron's poem Manfred came from Mily Balakirev . In a letter of 28 October/10 November 1882 he sent a detailed programme for each movement. Setting out the content of the programme, Balakirev wrote:
In his letter of reply of 12/24 November 1882, Tchaikovsky would not give a definitive response to Balakirev until he had the opportunity to read through Byron’s story, and besides which, he wrote: "... for some reason I imagined that your programme would awaken in me a burning desire to reproduce it in music, and so I awaited your letter with great impatience. But when I received it I experienced disappointment. Your programme could in all probability serve as a design for a symphonist inclined to imitate Berlioz; I agree that this scheme might form an effective basis for a symphony in the style of that composer. But at the moment it leaves me completely cold, and when the heart and imagination are not warmed, it is hardly worth setting about composition. To please you I might perhaps, to use your expression, make an effort, and squeeze out of myself a whole series of more or less interesting episodes, in which one would encounter conventionally gloomy music to reproduce Manfred's hopeless disillusionment, and a lot of effective instrumental flashes in the "Alpine fairy" scherzo, sunrise in the violins' high register, and Manfred's death with pianissimo trombones. I would be able to furnish these episodes with harmonic curiosities and piquances, and I would then be able to send all this out into the world under the sonorous title Manfred. Symphonie d'aprés, etc. I might even receive praise for the fruits of my labours, but such composing in no way appeals to me [...] It is quite possible that the abject coolness with which I view your programme is the fault of Schumann. I love his Manfred extremely and am so used to merging in a single indivisible notion Byron's Manfred with Schumann's Manfred, that I cannot conceive how I might approach this subject in such a way as to elicit from it any music other than that which Schumann furnished it with." .
Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest about Mily Balakirev's suggestion on 8/20 November 1882: "I’m now having a quite curious correspondence with Balakirev, which he initiated. He is inflamed with the notion that I should write a large symphony on the subject of Manfred " .
Tchaikovsky's discussions with Balakirev over Manfred were confined to the aforementioned letters. In October 1884, while Tchaikovsky was staying in Saint Petersburg, it seems that he met personally with Balakirev, who again brought up the subject of Manfred and tried to persuade Tchaikovsky to compose the symphony. In a letter of 30 October/11 November 1884, Balakirev sent Tchaikovsky the programme for Manfred again, copied out for him by Vladimir Stasov. The text is almost identical to the 1882 version. In the margin, however, Balakirev made some emendations, which did differ from the first version of his scheme:
In reply, Tchaikovsky promised to purchase a copy of Byron's poem forthwith: "I will shortly be in the Alpine mountains, where the conditions for successfully depicting Manfred in music would have been very good, were it not for the fact that I am going to visit a friend who is gravely ill . In any event, I promise you that so far as possible I will use all my strength to carry out your wish" .
While he was travelling abroad, Tchaikovsky did not start work on the symphony, but the idea of Manfred was not forgotten .
On 9/21 April 1885. Tchaikovsky returned to Maydanovo, and while awaiting the libretto for the opera The Enchantress from Ippolit Shpazhinsky, he set about composing the symphony. The sketches were begun in one of his notebooks. However, on 22 April work was interrupted. From a number of letters to Nadezhda von Meck during this period we learn that Tchaikovsky went on a prolonged journey. It was only in early/mid June, after his return to Maydanovo, that he resumed work on the symphony, as he reported to Anna Merkling .
The compositional process is revealed in the surviving sketches. The first and second movements were the first to be written, the sketches for these being found in one of his notebooks. Notes of themes for the finale are to be found further on in the notebook, after which are notes relating to the third movement
Immediately after the Finale is the note: "End of the symphony, 13/25 May, but much still needs to be done before the end". However, work on the fourth movement continued after 13/25 May, since some pencil sketches for the second theme of the finale were made on a letter from Yevgeniya Novosiltseva, which is dated 15/27 May.
We find the first reference to work on the symphony in letters to Anna Merkling of 4/16 June, and to Nadezhda von Meck and Sergey Taneyev on 13/25 June 1885. In the letter of 4/16 June Tchaikovsky wrote: "I am now writing an unusual form of symphony..." . "Time flies by so quickly"", he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "Back in April I began to make sketches for a long-standing idea for a programme symphony on the theme of Byron’s Manfred. Now I am so captivated by this work that the opera will probably be long set aside. This symphony requires from me tremendous effort and labour, since it is a very complicated and serious assignment" . On the same day he wrote to Taneyev, "After some hesitation. I have decided to write Manfred, because I feel that until I have fulfilled the promise that I imprudently made to Balakirev during the winter, I shall not be at ease. I don't know what will come out, but at the moment I’m dissatisfied with myself" .
After increasingly having to force himself to take up composition, Tchaikovsky subsequently became captivated by the work. In a letter to Mily Balakirev on the day that he finished the full score, 22 September/4 October 1885, Tchaikovsky informed him: "I set about Manfred rather reluctantly and, if I may be frank, felt that I was obliged to write it, because I promised you, and I made a firm promise... but very soon I became terribly infatuated with Manfred, and cannot remember ever having felt such pleasure in working, which stayed with me until the end" .
We can ascertain with complete accuracy the chronology of composition of the symphony using an extraordinary multitude of sources, the provenance of which, however, is complicated by mistakes in the dates given by the author. During May and June, Tchaikovsky travelled a great deal, staying in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and journeying to Smolensk for the opening of a memorial to Mikhail Glinka.
In a letter to Anna Merkling of 6/18 July 1885, Tchaikovsky wrote: "I am totally immersed in proofs of the opera , and also a large new symphony" ; in his notebook containing sketches for the finale and third movement is a note, made later than the first (dating from 13/25 May): "Today is 6 July [O.S.], and yet I still have not got very far".
The rough sketches for the symphony were completed in early July.
On 8/20 July, Tchaikovsky told Sergey Taneyev, "For a long time I was quite unwell, through working too much on proofs of the opera... and yet between business affairs and trifling matters, I completed the rough sketches for a symphony, which annoys me a great deal, and I feel the need to rid myself of it as soon as possible" . However, carried away by the work, he did not set the symphony aside, and straight away set about its instrumentation. On 20 July/1 August, he wrote to Emiliya Pavlovskaya: "I had been planning for a long time to write a symphony on the subject of [Byron's] Manfred. And so, in order not to let these three weeks be wasted in idleness, I set about making the sketches for this symphony, and became so carried away, as frequently happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious and difficult; it is absorbing all my time, and sometimes wearies me in the extreme; but an inner voice tells me that I am not labouring in vain, and that this will be, perhaps, the best of my symphonic compositions. […] I still have, approximately, some two months' hard work remaining on the symphony" .
The scoring of the first movement of Manfred was completed on 12/24 September 1885 (according to the date on the manuscript). At the end of the second movement, the author noted "(End of the scherzo, 22 July 1885)" [O.S.].
However, in his copybook containing sketches of the finale, yet another date appears: "And today is 31 July [O.S.], but oh dear, there’s still such a long way to the end!"
Some days later he told Nadezhda von Meck, "I am working on a very difficult, complicated symphonic work (on the subject of Byron's Manfred), which happens to have such a tragic character, that occasionally I turn into something of a Manfred myself. That apart, I am having to squeeze out every last drop of effort from myself. I want so much to quickly bring this to an end, and am using up all my strength... as a result of this, I am absolutely exhausted" . "Never before have I expended such labour and exertion as on the symphony that I am now writing", he told Nikolay Tchaikovsky on 19/31 August 1885 .
Even more captivated by the work, Tchaikovsky was very pleased with the fruits of his labour. In a letter to Emiliya Pavlovskaya of 10/22 August, he wrote: "It is my opinion that my symphony will be the best of all my compositions in symphonic form... I am very proud of this work, and want those persons whose sympathy I most value in the world... to experience, when they hear it, a reverberation from the enthusiasm with which I wrote it" . We read in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck on 31 August: "My symphony is going so well that I am hopeful that it will be finished by the end of the month. I hope that my labour and agonies have not been in vain, and that it will turn out to be successful" .
On 11/23 September, according to a note on the manuscript, the third movement was finished. On 13/25 September, Tchaikovsky wrote to Balakirev: "I have carried out your wish. Manfred is finished, and the full score will soon be engraved... I have sat over Manfred, not rising from my seat, you might say, for almost four months (from the end of May until today). It was very difficult, but also very pleasant to work on, especially when, having begun with some labour, I became captivated. The symphony is written in accordance with your programme, in four movements. But I ask your forgiveness—I have not been able to keep to the keys and modulations you proposed, even though I wanted to do so. The symphony is written in the key of B minor. Only the scherzo is in the key you indicated . This piece is very difficult, and requires an enormous orchestra, i.e. with a very large string section. As soon as the proofs of the symphony are ready, I shall send them to you" .
On the same day, he wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky: "I am finishing my symphony with a feverish haste, so that I can rid myself of this encumbrance before I move to my new home... Tomorrow we leave for Moscow with Pania and, unfortunately, at this rate I will still be finishing off my work" . On 20 September/2 October, Tchaikovsky told him: "I still have not managed to finish Manfred. It still needs a few days more work" . On the last page of the manuscript score of the finale is the date: "End of the symphony 22 Sept 1885 [O.S.]. Maydanovo".
While orchestrating the symphony, Tchaikovsky simultaneously made his own arrangement for piano duet. On the fair copy of the arrangement, at the end of the third movement is the date 3/15 September 1885. Concerned that this arrangement might prove too difficult, and contain mistakes, Tchaikovsky asked Aleksandra Hubert to look through it . And so, there appeared a second version of the arrangement of the symphony, written by Aleksandra Hubert and containing numerous corrections and additions by Tchaikovsky. In November the autograph of the arrangement was sent to Balakirev, for him to look over . Balakirev did not return the manuscript until March, attaching some additional pages containing his own notes. Unfortunately, these notes were misplaced, so that it is not possible to ascertain whether Tchaikovsky took them into account when the arrangement was published.
The symphony was performed for the first time on 11/23 March 1886 in Moscow, at the eleventh symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society (dedicated to the memory of Nikolay Rubinstein), conducted by Max Erdmannsdörfer .
On 13/25 March 1886, soon after the performance of the symphony, Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "I am very pleased with myself. I think that this is my best symphonic work. It was performed excellently, but it seemed to me that the public had little concept of it and received it rather coolly, although at the end I was given an ovation" .
The full score of Manfred was published by Jurgenson in February 1886, and in April that year the same publisher issued the arrangement for piano duet, made by the author in collaboration with Aleksandra Hubert.
Tchaikovsky's attitude towards Manfred was ambivalent. Immediately after finishing the symphony he was very pleased with it. "I think that this is the best I have ever written", "It seems to me that this is the best of all my works", he wrote in letters to Anna Merkling on 9/21 December 1885 and to Nadezhda von Meck on 6/18 February 1886 . But on 15/27 February 1886, we find a note in his diary: "It’s remarkable that I now have an unhealthy aversion to my latest works: Manfred and the opera" . His judgement of the symphony following its performance in March 1886 was favourable .
Later on, Tchaikovsky took a different view of Manfred: "I loathe it, apart from the first movement. The others are considerably worse, and the finale is very weak" . Tchaikovsky's subsequent appraisal of Manfred was given in a letter to the Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of 21 September/3 October 1888: "As for Manfred, without any wish to make a mere show of modesty, I would like to say that it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the exception of the first movement alone. However, I should tell Your Highness that shortly, with the agreement of my publisher, I shall destroy completely the remaining three movements, which musically are very poor (the Finale is particularly loathsome), and out of a large, impossibly long symphony, I shall make a Symphonische Dichtung. Then, I am sure, my Manfred will be capable of pleasing. Indeed, it must be so: the first movement I wrote with pleasure—the remaining ones are the result of exertion, from which, I remember, I felt for some time very ill" .
The composer’s intention was not carried out, and the full score of the symphony remained in the form in which it was originally printed.
Manfred has a place in music history as one of the most remarkable examples of Russian programme symphonies.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 230–236
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013