1985: Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony in B minor

FRIDAY, December 11, 2020 – 6:08 AM

This is another massive symphony, nearly an hour long, so it’s best to start with one movement. Perhaps start with the 2nd, get a feel for it, then later try the other movements.

16:21 II. Vivace con spirito (B minor – D major – B minor)

Manfred: Symphony in B minor, age 45


  • 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in A), bass clarinet (in Bb), 3 bassoons
  • 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in D), 2 cornets (in A), 3 trombones, tuba
  • 3 timpani, bell (in A), cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam
  • 2 harps
  • strings
  • harmonium (or organ)

Tchaikovsky noted at the start of the Pastorale that:

“The bell should be of medium size and tuned to A. If possible, it should not be placed in the concert hall, but in the closest adjoining room”.

Vasily Petrenko

This is the best recording I can find with video and very modern sound. It’s always great to be able to see the players. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony consistently has some of the best recording engineers in the world.

Igor Markevitch

This is the recording I started with when I finally found a modern recording I liked in stereo, and I still recommend it, but it is cut somehow.

1st movement

This is some of the most morbid, heavy music you will ever heard, and this one movement is almost 17 minutes long. That is one of many similarities to the symphonies of Mahler.

It starts with a theme that is based on a huge half diminished chord, and that theme is relentless. It also show up again and again in the rest of the symphony. Tchaikovsky sounds hugely different from Mahler, but there is a also a huge similarity between this massive symphony and those of Mahler. Part of it is the huge orchestra. A bigger problem is the fascination with fate, death and the personal struggle with both. Tchaikovsky’s music is personal, powerful, self-absorbed, melodramatic and incredibly emotional. There is nothing tempered, intellectual or subtle about it. It’s all or nothing music. This music moans, groans, rages and cries. It is so honest, raw and very direct.

2nd movement

There is a total change in mood and texture, and this movement is again around 10 minutes long. It’s still in minor, but now it’s light.It’s about nine minutes long and perhaps the easiest movement to start with. The movement has the feel of a scherzo, although the rhythm is either in four or two. The heavy brass is mostly gone, and both flute and piccolo are featured. A middle section, much like a standard trio, moves from B minor to D major with mostly strings to go with the flutes and other woodwinds. In fact, for the most part the only brass you hear are the horns, with a few exceptions. But the main theme from the 1st movement is still there, a unifying idea for the whole symphony.

3rd movement

Now the music moves to G major, and perhaps there is a bit of the feel of a waltz. The music is much lighter, and this would be the slow movement in a more conventional symphony. There is still a move to B minor, so the music is never truly peaceful or happy, but at least there is a feel of getting closer to some kind of contentment, and less turbulence. But there is still a huge amount of drama and turmoil, and the main theme comes back, unifying the whole symphony. In fact, you might consider this the “Manfred Leitmotiv”, so behind a very complicated back-story is the idea of human struggle, fate and one man’s journey. I hear some of the feeling Swan Lake in this, which in terms of story probably has no connection at all.

4th movement

This part is for me the most obviously Russian of the whole thing and reminds me a great deal of both Rimsky-Korsakov and other Russian composers who lived at the time. Reading about the story Tchaikovsky actually ruins the music for me, so if possible just enjoy the music for what it is. It starts out in a totally manic manner with the sound of almost a popular Russian tune. But then the first section winds down, and another deeply emotional section follows that is back to the same weight and feeling of the 1st movement. The “Manfred theme” comes back again. Then there is what to me is the closest thing to a fugue of anything Tchaikovsky wrote. Back comes the “popular tune”, as if those two ideas are fighting, and their is a climax that is lot like part of “The 1812 Overture”. Finally there is more of the feel of the 1st movement, where the music comes full circle. Finally, perhaps, there is a feeling of some kind of resolution, some feeling of completion and contentment.

The story

It’s here and HERE and HERE. More than six months ago I read about all this, and I’ve forgotten 95% of it, but if you want the story it’s in these links. I personally have no interest in stories behind music unless there is something so obviously programmatic about the music that it’s hard to get pictures out of my mind, like Dukas’s “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

The real 5th symphony

Tchaikovsky wrote seven symphonies, but only six of them have numbers. This one was written right in between the 4th and 5th symphonies, so the 5th and 6th symphonies are really the 6th and 7th.

It is his longest symphony, the most difficult to play and the most difficult for which to get players (so many different instruments.) Because of its many difficulties it is seldom performed live. There is incredible disagreement about it. Some say it is his worst, others his best. It’s hard to perform, and to make it work takes absolute commitment from an orchestra and a first-rate conductor.

3 thoughts on “1985: Tchaikovsky: Manfred Symphony in B minor

  1. From beginning to end – it was a long walk – perfect. My mind said “Where is this all coming from?” and the answer was “Deep inside” – together with all the musical expertise he drew on. The powerful first movement – everything.
    When the bell came in, was I right in hearing it a 6th above the droning instrumental and then the instruments take up the bell’s tone, and it seems to change keys or something? I read about the bell before starting to listen.

  2. After listening to it, I can understand why it’s hard to perform. The multitude of instruments plus the change in tone between movements make it difficult to perform.In some parts, it has some slightly boring rhythms. I personally just don’t like solos, which mainly have this issue (in this piece).

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