Tchaikovksy – Manfred – Sevitzky

Album set DM 940

P I Tchaikovsky
Symphonic Poem for Full Orchestra
Op. 58


Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra,
Fabien Sevitzky


IN 1817 Byron wrote to his publisher an outline of his new poem, “Manfred”: “It is in three acts, of a very wild, metaphysical and inexplicable kind. Almost all of the persons. . . . are spirits of the earth and air, or the waters: the scene is in the Alps; the hero is a kind of magician, who is dominated by . . . remorse. . . . He wanders about invoking these spirits . . . and at last goes to the very abode of the Evil Principle to evocate a ghost …. In the last act he is found dying in a tower, where he had studied his art.”

Tchaikovsky himself did not select “Manfred,” though the gloomy cast of Byron’s tale of this nineteenth-century Faust seems made to order for Tchaikovsky’s melancholy, introspective and self-torturing moods.

The idea of setting Manfred to music was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his friend Balakireff in 1882. Balakireff even outlined in a letter the program for the entire composition. There must be, he wrote, a motive (Idée fixé) typifying Manfred. The first movement should portray “Manfred wandering in the Alps.” The second should depict the simple life of the Alpine mountaineers. The third, the fantastic vision of a fairy dancing in a waterfall and the finale, a wild orgy in the cave of Arimanes (Byron’s Mephistopheles); the appearance of Astarte, the beloved and the death of Manfred.

Tchaikovsky seemed to be in no hurry to accept Balakireff’s suggestions, for three years elapsed before he started to work on the music. In 1885 he wrote a friend that he had decided to compose Manfred, “because I shall find no rest until I have redeemed my promise so rashly given to Balakireff. . . . I do not know how it will turn out. It is a thousand times pleasanter to compose without a program.” Later he wrote to Madame von Meck, “The work is so difficult and complicated that I myself am for the time being a Manfred.”
Tchaikovsky faithfully adhered to Balakireff’s programmatic outline except to change the order of the second and third movements. The work was finished after six months and first performed in Moscow in 1886.

Though Manfred bears the title “Symphony,” it is more of a symphonic poem. Tchaikovsky did not list it with his six symphonies. In order of composition it comes between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies. Each movement bears a descriptive heading in the score


I Movement. Lento lugubre. Andante (Slow sad. Moderately slow)
“Manfred Wanders in the Alps. Tortured by the fatal anguish of doubt, racked by remorse and despair, his soul is a prey to sufferings without a name. Neither the occult sciences, whose mysteries he has probed to the bottom, and by means of which the gloomy powers of Hell are subject to him, nor anything in the world, can give him the forgetfulness for which alone he yearns. The memory of the fair Astarte, whom he has loved and lost, eats his heart. Nothing can dispel the curse which weighs on Manfred’s soul: and without cessation, without truce, he is abandoned to the tortures of the most atrocious despair.”

A foreword (also in the score) says this movement is not panoramic. It does not depict any scene. “It is the soul of Manfred that the composer wishes to portray.” Despair and a ceaseless quest for forgetfulness are the keynotes of this highly emotional and dramatic movement.

Manfred’s theme begins the movement – a sombre tragic, motive stated by bass clarinet and bassoons. It is heard in each of the other movements, “unifying the music as the mood of Manfred dominates Byron’s poem.” Another important theme follows immediately in woodwinds and horns and is thought to be the musical symbol of Manfred’s discontent and desperate longing for oblivion. A forceful dramatic melody given first to strings is also often heard. After several changes of tempo (animando, piu mosso; moderato molto, etc.) the Andante gives the melody of Astarte (muted strings). Manfred’s “fateful” theme proclaimed fortissimo (ffff) closes the movement.


II Movement. Vivace con spirito (Quickly with life)
“The Fairy of the Alps appears to Manfred beneath the rainbow of the waterfall.”

This movement was suggested by the second scene of act two in Byron’s drama. Manfred stands before a waterfall in a valley in the Alps.
”It is not noon: the sunbow’s rays still arch
The torrent with the many hues of heaven.
And roll the sheeted silver’s waving column
O’er the crag’s headlong perpendicular,
And fling its lines of foaming light along.
No eyes
But mine now drink this sight of loveliness”

‘Light fanciful music (in strings and woodwinds with an occasional note from the horns) pictures the play of sunlight on the spray of the waterfall. A loud chord punctuated by the triangle introduces the Fairy (or Witch) of the Alps. Stage directions in the drama read: “Manfred takes some of the water in the palm of his hand, and flings it in the air, muttering an abjuration. After a pause, the Witch of the Alps rises beneath the arch of the sunbow of the torrent.”

The middle section of the movement is marked Trio, L’istesso tempo (The same tempo). A melodious theme in first violins with harp accompaniment is thought to be the song of the Fairy herself. There is a reminiscence of Manfred’s despairing theme. The first part of the movement returns with the music of the waterfall and the theme* of Manfred is heard again.


III Movement. Andante con moto (Slow with motion)
“Pastorale. Simple, free and peaceful life of the mountaineers.” This movement has no direct connection with any particular part of Byron’s poem, unless we go back to Act I, Scene II, where Manfred stands alone in the early morning looking at the mountain of the Jungfrau.
‘”My mother Earth!
And Thou fresh breaking Day, and you, ye
Mountains. Why are ye beautiful? …. Beautiful!
How beautiful is all this visible world!
Hark! the note,
(The Shepherds pipe in the distance is heard. )
The natural music of the mountain reed
pipes in the liberal air,
Mix’d with the sweet bells of the sauntering herd.”‘

A simple oboe melody opens the movement. The peaceful mood is soon changed by the entrance of Manfred’s theme. After a dramatic climax, distant bells are heard and the music returns to the pastoral opening.


IV Movement. Allegro con fuoco (Fast with fire)
“The underground palace of Arimanes. Manfred appears in the midst of a bacchanal. Invocation of the ghost of Astarte. She foretells the end of his earthly woes. Manfred’s death.”

The bacchanal in Arimanes’ palace is Tchaikovsky’s own invention. In Byron’s poem Arimanes is on his throne, a globe of fire, surrounded by spirits, singing a hymn in his praise.

A stern, chant-like melody opens the Finale. The dance is interrupted by a slow Lento and a soft, solemn fugal chant. Brasses blare forth Manfred’s theme as he enters: “What is here? A mortal! Thou most rash and fatal wretch, bow down and worship!” Harp glissandos introduce the spirit of Astarte summoned by Nemesis to appear. The music rises to a tragic climax – the death of Manfred is at hand. An organ adds fortissimo chords suggestive of the Dies Irae – the Day of Judgment. The composition ends softly.

These Notes by LENORA COFFIN are reprinted with courtesy from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Program

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