1873: Tchaikovsky – The Tempest, Op. 18, age 33

Tchaikovsky’s wrote this for William Shakespeare’s play. It was composed and orchestrated between August and October 1873.

Andante con moto – Allegro moderato, F minor – 631 bars


  • piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons, 4 horns (in F)
  • 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba
  • 3 timpani, cymbals, bass drum
  • violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses


In a letter of 30 December 1872/11 January 1873, Vladimir Stasov proposed three subjects to Tchaikovsky as the basis for symphonic works: Taras Bulba,  Ivanhoe, and The Tempest, and Tchaikovsky picked The Tempest. Stasov was an enthusiastic supporter of the young composer and and his original 2nd symphony was:

“…one of the most important creations of the entire Russian school.”

I totally agree, and you can see why he was enthusiastic about The Tempest, which was  dedicated to Stasov. However, Stasov was disappointed that Tchaikovsky continued to follow western traditions in many of his compositions, so once again we can see how  Tchaikovsky always had to thread the needle in avoiding confrontation with both the conservatives and the Russian nationalists.

Stasov’s program for The Tempest…

It’s very long, but I’m including all of it to give an idea of what Tchaikovsky  was up against. With such a long and specific visual expectation any composer would have had great difficulty composing music for this:

Starting with the sea, the uninhabited island, the mighty and forbidding figure of the magician Prospero, then switching to the graceful and womanly Miranda, rather like the primordial Eve, she has never laid eyes on any breed of man (besides Prospero), until struck by the tempest she is flung ashore with the handsome youth Ferdinand; they fall in love with each other, and I think at this point in the first half of the overture there should be a wonderful and poetic motif, as Miranda gradually becomes more animated and leaves behind her childhood innocence to become a young woman in love. In the second half of the overture her and Ferdinand’s passion should already be in full sail, as they embrace the fires of love… the middle section of the overture would be grouped into three main sections: the half-beast Caliban, the enchanted spirit Ariel, and his chorus of elves. The overture ought to end by depicting Prospero’s renunciation of his magic powers, the blessing of the young couple’s union, and the return to the mainland.

In other words, it’s terribly long. I would imagine Tchaikovsky rolled his eyes reading all those overly restrictive details.

A slow start…

He did not go to work immediately because of many questions. He asked:

“Must there be a tempest in The Tempest?, i.e. is it essential to depict the fury of the elements in an overture written on a piece where this incidental circumstance serves simply as the point of departure for all the dramatic action? Would it be odd in a symphonic composition that is supposed to depict The Tempest to leave out the tempest? If a tempest is essential then where should it go—at the start or in the middle? If it is not necessary, then why not call the overture Miranda? … I require your counsel so that the plan is absolutely clear in my mind before I set to work on the music.”

In reply…

Vladimir Stasov wrote that the tempest was essential, and described how it should be depicted:

“I had thought of representing the sea twice: at the beginning and at the end; only at the beginning it ought to be prefatory, quiet and gentle, and Prospero, uttering his magic words, would break this calm and summon the tempest. But in my opinion this storm should differ from all that has gone before, in that it should start suddenly, at full strength, in utter turmoil, and should not grow or arise by degrees, as is usually the case. If followed, this suggestion would be quite innovative, because in all other operas, oratorios and symphonies a storm follows its natural course, but in this instance it is created at the command of supernatural forces. Let your storm suddenly take hold and howl, smash and fling everything to the devil on the orders of its master. Let your storm rage and engulf the Italian boat with the princes, then just as suddenly subside, with only a shudder and a growl before falling silent.”

Tchaikovsky’s reply…

On 27 January/8 February 1873, he wrote:

“While the subject of The Tempest is poetic up to a point, your plan calls for such a degree of musical refinement and elegance, that I intend to rein in some of my usual impatience to compose, and to await the propitious moment … I will only say that it could be some time before my future overture emerges into the light.”

In other words, all these specific ideas made composition very difficult for Tchaikovsky, and that kept him from getting right to work on the project.

The completed score was prefaced by a short program:

“The Sea. The magician Prospero commands his spirit Ariel to create a storm, of which a victim is the fortunate Ferdinand. The enchanted island. The first timid stirrings of love between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ariel. Caliban. The lovers are overwhelmed by their passion. Prospero renounces his magical powers and leaves the island. The Sea.”


Tchaikovsky then wrote later to Nadezhda von Meck on 24 June/6 July 1878:

“One should not write a symphonic work and only afterwards formulate its program, because… every episode in the chosen program requires a suitable musical illustration.”


On 7/19 December 1873 it was performed for the first time with great success in Moscow at the third symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Nikolai Rubinstein, and on 16/28 November 1874 at the second RMS symphony concert in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník.

Critical Reception

Vladimir Stasov, who on 13/25 November attended the first rehearsal of the Saint Petersburg concert, wrote of his delight in Tchaikovsky’s new work:

“I have just this second come from the hall of the Nobles’ Society and the rehearsal of Saturday’s concert. Your Tempest was played for the first time. In an otherwise empty hall we sat together in a row with Rimsky-Korsakov, enraptured. Your Tempest is such a delight! How magnificent!… Caliban, Ariel, the love scene—all these belong among the loftiest of musical creations. In both love scenes—what beauty, what languor, what passion! All this is incomparable. Then the magnificently wild and savage Caliban, the ethereal and playful Ariel—these are all most excellent. And the orchestration—especially in these scenes—is astounding… On Friday, the day after tomorrow, I will be going to the second rehearsal, which is again at 9 pm—I could not possibly keep away.”

The composer’s attitude about the fantasia was ambivalent…

At first he “placed enormous faith” in the work. But after failing to receive information on how The Tempest fared in Saint Petersburg, and stung by Herman Laroche’s review in the newspaper The Voice on 22 November/4 December 1874 [11], Tchaikovsky was deeply upset by the fantasia’s apparent lack of success.

Later, in 1879, after a performance of The Tempest on 25 February/9 March in Paris, Tchaikovsky wrote a sharply critical judgement of the work:

“Today’s performance of The Tempest did not please me. Its form is too long, episodic and unbalanced. The effect of these disconnected episodes produces a lack of movement and coherency. It grieves me to admit that I could be responsible for something so unsuccessful at its performances, and incomprehensible to the public.”

However, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky the composer wrote about the same concert as follows:

“I am sending you a newspaper cutting, from which you will see that I have shown my customary inclination to exaggerate my failures; The Tempest was not such a terrible flop.”

The Tempest was one work which actively found favor with The Five: Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

Vladimir Stasov wrote to the composer on 29 November/11 December 1885:

“Just imagine, how we often play between us the four-hand arrangements of your chef d’oeuvres: Romeo, The Tempest, Francesca, the Second and Third Quartets… and they are always a delight.”


In 1885, Tchaikovsky received the Belyayev prize and 500 rubles for The Tempest.


An arrangement of The Tempest for piano duet (4 hands) made by Eduard Langer  was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in March 1875. In April and July 1877 the same publisher issued the orchestral parts and full score respectively.

In 1891 a second edition of the score was published, which included changes to phrasing, tempo and dynamic markings by Tchaikovsky. A revised edition of the fantasia’s arrangement for piano duet followed in July 1892.

The full score was published in volume 24 of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Collected Works (1961), edited by Irina Iordan.

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