THURSDAY, April 30, 2020
Fatum – Symphonic Poem in C Minor, age 28
Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasia Fatum was written between September and December 1868. The opus number is useless because after the first performances Tchaikovsky destroyed the full score, but after his death it was reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and published as “Op. 77”. The important point is that Tchaikovsky was still quite young, only 28, and once again something important almost disappeared.
Moderato assai – Più mosso, largamante
Fatum is one movement in C minor and 407 bars long. It lasts around 16 minutes.
- piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 Bb clarinets, 2 bassoons
- 4 horns (in F), 3 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba
- 3 timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, tam tam,harp
Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly on 10/22 September 1868:
“I’ve been unable to write anything new, and work has ground to a halt.”
Then on 25 September/6 October 1868:
“I’m currently writing something symphonic, entitled Fatum.”
Finally on 21 October/2 November 1868:
“I’ve written an orchestral fantasia.”
So we know he sketched for Fatum sometime between 10/22 September and 25 September/7 October, and it was completed by 21 October/2 November 1868. Tchaikovsky orchestrated his composition during December.
Before the first performance in February 1869, bars 16–25 were deleted by the composer, on the grounds that they were:
“ugly both in music and scoring”
From this we already know that Tchaikovksy was as self-critical as usual, ready to destroy his new creation at the drop of a hat with just a little negative feedback those around him.
On the program for its first performance there was an epigraph of verses by Konstantin Batyushkov. I do not read Russian, but I’d wager $100 on the spot that the translation below is junk because it rhymes, and the only way you can make a verse in one language rhyme in another is to completely change it.
Do you recall the cry
Of gray Melchizedek as he prepared to die?
Man, he exclaimed, is born a slave; a slave
He must descend into the grave
And Death will hardly tell him why
He haunts the magic vale of tears,
Suffers and weeps, endures and disappears.
This epigraph drew harsh criticism from Herman Laroche and Mily Balakirev, and there are two conflicting accounts of its origins. Some said that the epigraph was added without the composer’s knowledge. Others said that Batyushkov’s verses were recommended to Tchaikovsky in the capacity of an epigraph and that he agreed to them. Regardless, there was a big stink over nothing.
On 15/27 February 1869 the premiere of the fantasia took place at the eighth concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein. After the concert, Tchaikovsky told his brother Anatoly:
“This is, I think, the best thing I have written to date—at least, so others say (a significant success).”
But a month later in Saint Petersburg 17/29 March 1869 at the ninth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Mily Balakirev it was not a success. In the surviving correspondence between Balakirev and Tchaikovsky, some letters dating from February to May 1869 relate to Fatum and its performance. Balakirev wrote this:
Your Fatum has been performed reasonably well … There wasn’t much applause, probably because of the appalling cacophony at the end of the piece, which I don’t like at all. It is not properly gestated, and seems to have been written in a very slapdash manner. The seams show, as does all your clumsy stitching. Above all, the form itself just does not work. The whole thing is completely uncoordinated…. I am writing to you with complete frankness, being fully convinced that you won’t go back on your intention of dedicating Fatum to me. Your dedication is precious to me as a sign of your sympathy towards me – and I feel a great weakness for you.
Whether under the influence of Balakirev’s criticism, or because the composer’s attitude to Fatum changed over time, the composer destroyed the manuscript score in the 1870s, and yet another important early composition was almost lost to the world.
Again something was not played until after Tchaikovsky’s death…
The London premiere of the work took place in a concert at the Queen’s Hall on 16/28 October 1899, conducted by Henry Wood, six years after the composer died. That late opus number was tacked on after his death and has nothing to do with when it was written. More of his important early orchestral music was destroyed or ignored than appreciated, which for most of us today is absolutely unfathomable because of Tchaikovky’s incredible popularity round the world.
After Tchaikovsky’s death the score of the fantasia was reconstructed from the orchestral parts used for the first performances by Ivan Shorning, librarian at the Moscow Conservatory. This reconstruction was published by Mitrofan Belyayev in 1896 as Op. 77. An arrangement of Fatum for piano duet, published at the same time, was made by Nikolay Sokolov.
In 1960 Fatum was finally published in volume 22 of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Collected Works, edited by Irina Iordan.