No 01. Janvier 'Au coin du feu': Moderato semplice ma espressivo
No 02. Février 'Carnaval': Allegro giusto
No 03. Mars 'Chant de l'alouette': Andantino espressivo
No 04. Avril 'Perce-neige': Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato
No 05. Mai 'Les nuits de mai': Andantino
No 06. Juin 'Barcarolle': Andante cantabile
No 07. Juillet 'Chant du faucheur': Allegro moderato con moto
No 08. Août 'La moisson': Allegro vivace
No 09. Septembre 'La chasse': Allegro non troppo
No 10. Octobre 'Chant d'automne': Andante doloroso e molto cantabile
No 11. Novembre 'Troïka': Allegro moderato
No 12. Décembre 'Noël': Tempo di valse
For the time being, however, it was reasonable to suppose that Russia would continue gradually to modernize and that its growing middle class would continue to acquire the bourgeois habits of the West—such as listening to classical music and playing the piano and singing at home. If you belonged to that class, you might well have been a subscriber to the monthly musical-theatrical journal Nuvellist (the title is borrowed from the French for short-story writer). And if you were, then you would have found printed in your January 1876 issue the first of a cycle of twelve pieces commissioned from Tchaikovsky by the editor of the journal, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard (the rest appeared in successive issues that year). They are known collectively as The seasons, or, less confusingly, as The months (the original Russian, Vremena goda, certainly translates as ‘seasons’, however). At the end of the year, Bernard published all twelve as a set.
Each piece was given a subtitle and an accompanying verse. In the case of January the supplementary title was ‘By the fireside’ and the verse was from Pushkin. It is not entirely clear what input Tchaikovsky had in the choice of texts (he seems to have had a say in those for Nos 1 and 4), but the titles were certainly Bernard’s, as the composer’s letter of 24 November 1875 accepting the commission attests. Still, Bernard or Tchaikovsky, whichever it was, did match words to music—or music to words—with much sensitivity, and since the titles are already highly suggestive of his beloved Schumann, there is no reason to think that Tchaikovsky was in any way opposed to them. And while he may have expressed himself rather dismissively about the project as a whole, there is nothing in the music to suggest anything slapdash. Indeed he was evidently so fond of the middle section of January that he built Tatyana’s letter scene around it while composing his operatic masterpiece Yevgeny Onegin in 1877.
The pieces themselves are perfectly matched to the market of amateurs who might not command massive techniques but who were prepared to persevere and whose sensitivities would identify readily with the moods of the music. Such a description matches Tchaikovsky’s own pianistic accomplishments fairly precisely. He was a trained and competent pianist, numbering Anton Rubinstein among his teachers, but not an outstanding one.
The majority of the pieces are intimate. February is an example of the more extrovert exceptions. It bears the highly appropriate title of ‘Carnival’—in Russian specifically Maslenitsa, the Shrovetide fair that also provides the setting for Stravinsky’s Petrushka—and the music evokes bustling crowds, competitive attractions, and accordions on street-corners.
For March we are back to a more private expressive world. The score is headed ‘The lark’s song’, and there are some suggestions of birdsong, which invite a pecking, staccato touch. April is subtitled ‘The snowdrop’ and comes with the tantalizing marking Allegretto con moto e un poco rubato. The next two pieces are also on the slow side. May evokes the joyfulness as well as the beauty of the ‘White nights of May’ in St Petersburg, and June—one of the most famous in the set—is entitled ‘Barcarolle’: somewhat curiously so, because it is only the undulating middle section that in any way evokes Venetian gondolas. July’s ‘Reaper’s song’ is another plein air tableau, contrasting communal, or at least outdoor, activity with the more inward tone of the previous four movements.
Tchaikovsky’s technical demands move up a grade or two for the second half of the set. August follows July in placing a high premium on keyboard facility. This is a ‘Harvest’, nominally, but to the accompaniment of a Mendelssohnian scherzo, as though all concerned are anxious to bring in the corn before the arrival of September rains. Not the least of its challenges is to achieve a wide range of colour within a piano dynamic. September, ‘The hunt’, follows, accompanied by another verse from Pushkin, whose invitations to horn calls are gratefully taken up in the music. Opportunities for poetic reverie return in October, the ‘Autumn song’, where the doloroso marking is merely a confirmation of the sighs of disillusionment and the surges of hope that leap from the page. November, headed ‘Troika’ (the three-horsed Russian sleigh), is a movement Rachmaninov loved to play, and his scintillating, highly personal interpretation is one that has influenced many performers, especially Russians. Finally December, entitled ‘Christmas’, comes with a verse from Vasily Zhukovsky describing girls taking off their slippers at the gate, in line with a local fortune-telling tradition. For this Tchaikovsky composes one of his most unassuming, yet engaging, waltzes.
from notes by David Fanning © 2014