Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Thinking December with Tchaikovsky

The Russian magazine "Nouvellist" commissioned Tchaikovsky to write twelve short piano pieces inspired by the each of the twelve months. The corresponding music appeared in each publication in 1876. Collected in publication later the work became "The Seasons," Op. 37a.

The editor chose subtitles that set the mood for each month. December was inspired by images of Christmas. An additional epigraph from Korney Chukovsky sets the mood:

Décembre: Noël
Once upon a Christmas night the girls were telling fortunes:
taking their slippers off their feet and throwing them out of the gate.

Tchaikovsky celebrates the holiday season with a festive waltz memorable for its hesitation on the third beat of the second phrase [0:18]. This "molto ritardando" emphasizes all three beats of the measure, but when the waltz tempo resumes we want to hear the measure as a hypermetric downbeat and yet it is an upbeat because it is the cadence of a four-bar phrase. Our sense of dancing is confounded. Pleasantly confounded.

This sense of being confounded is developed in the transition beginning at [0:34]. Ideas are sequenced and cycled, cut and folded. A measure is dropped [0:42] and we enter the contrasting waltz [0:46] propelled and worried about tripping.

"It is now December," wrote English writer Nicholas Breton (1545-1626), "and hee that walkes the streets, shall find durt on his shooes."

His entry, from "The Twelve Moneths," talks of hard edges and even of suffering. "Now Hennes, beside Turkies, Geese and Duckes, besides beefe and Mutton, must all die for the great feast, for in twelue dayes a multitude of people will not be fed with a little."

But his mood lifts: "Now plummes and spice, Sugar and Hiney, square it among pies and broth, and Gossip I drinke to you, and I pray you bee merrie."

What about last minute shopping in 1626? "Strange stuffes will be well sold, strange tales well told,strange sights much sought, strange things much bought, and what else as fals out."

"To conclude," writes Breton, "I hold it the costly Purueyour of Excesse, and the after breeder of necessitie, the practice of Folly, and the Purgatory of Reason. Farewell."

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