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More than Memory: Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, c. 1888

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, like other great artists and thinkers throughout time, brainstormed a multitude of ideas. Despite his brilliance, he ultimately realized only some of them.

The majority of these conceptions faded into mere memories. Other ideas became sketches. The fortunate ones evolved into great musical works.

However, because the composer’s life was cut tragically short, many of his later sketches never saw the light of day. His friend and colleague, Sergey Taneyev, completed several of Tchaikovsky’s pieces posthumously, including the “Night Scene” of the unfinished opera Romeo and Juliet.

Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto, however, was not among these lucky few.

An Unexpected Journey

I first learned of the Tchaikovsky Cello Concerto when I was 16, and I was immediately intrigued. However, I was disappointed to discover that he never finished the piece. After some research, I came across Brett Langston’s website which includes a comprehensive list of all Tchaikovsky works.

I have always been interested in rarely-played works in the cello repertoire. As a cellist, myself, I have had the opportunity to revive many of them, including works by Gaspar Cassadó, Alexander Jemnitz, Jerzy Fitelberg, and Victoria Yagling.

My search for this particular piece led me to the Cajkovskij-Symposium, published by Schott [1], and the 60 measures of a cello concerto Tchaikovsky had literally sketched (and crossed out) on the back of his draft Sixth Symphony.

Little did I know I had taken my first steps on a journey that would end with me completing Tchaikovsky’s unfinished b-minor Cello Concerto.

There and Back Again

By the time I turned 19, I had written thirty of my own cello concertos and so felt reasonably comfortable with the genre.

To gain a sense of Tchaikovsky’s style, orchestration, and use of harmony, I intensely studied many of his better- and lesser-known compositions. This was not an easy task, but I used this research as the foundation and the outlines of what would become the completed work started to take shape.

The Fellowship of the Theme

The opening theme of the cello concerto is, unusually for Tchaikovsky, in a triple meter. Besides the introduction to the First Piano Concerto, none of his other concertos has an opening movement in triple-meter. Initially, I decided to treat Tchaikovsky’s 60-measure sketch as an introduction and to write my own themes for the exposition.

After spending about a year on the concerto, however, I felt my inspiration had run dry. I had spent at least half my time trying to move from the exposition to the first solo episode in the development section.

Frustrated, I put my work aside, but the concerto never left my mind. Much like I imagine Tchaikovsky did, I was always brainstorming new ideas about how it should unfold.

The Two (Computer) Towers

An unanticipated and unfortunate hard-drive crash the following year set me right back to square one. It was a bitter yet important lesson that backups are essential.

The betrayal of this trusted technology cost me many projected and completed works that remained unprinted to this day: my original work on the Tchaikovsky Concerto, a Concerto on the themes from Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, and a Flute Concerto, among numerous other files.

The Return of the Muse

By the summer of 2006, I had written two more cello concertos and arranged several other pieces for cello ensembles. Reading Cassadó’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Pieces Op. 72, in a Cello Concerto form [2] catapulted my inspiration to new heights. Listen to the slow movement of the Cassadó Concerto:

I immediately reconnected with Brett Langston and was ready to finish Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto. As a side note, I actually wrote my doctoral dissertation on the Cassadó Concerto.

Here is my most recent version (of approximately 10!) of the concerto. This revision is barely a week old, and so has not yet been “officially” recorded. Please get in touch if you record it. You can purchase the sheet music here.

Realizing Tchaikovsky’s Sketches

Click “Read more” for a more detailed analysis of my latest version of the concerto (great for scholars of music theory).

Read more

Closing remarks

Through this endeavor, I am honored to have had an opportunity to pay tribute to one of my favorite composers. I must thank Mr. Brett Langston for his invaluable help.

The road to completing Tchaikovsky’s Cello Concerto took many unanticipated turns, but I believe the final result is the better for them. I must say that Mr. Langston and The Tchaikovsky Handbook were essential in assisting me to realize this dream.

You can buy the solo part and piano reduction here.

Please note that I have revised this work several times since its original publication in 2006, so it is a good idea to check the top of the first page to make sure that the revision dates are the same if you choose to perform this Concerto.

Cellists in the US, Russia, and Japan have performed an earlier version of this piece.



Sources

[1] Internationales Cajkovskij-Symposium Tübingen 1993: Bericht (1995), p. 285–286.

[2] P. Tschaikowsky, Konzert für Cello und Orchester, nach Op. 72—arr. G. Cassado. Edition Schott No. 3743 [1940].

[3] This theme was also used by Tchaikovsky as No. 29 in his arrangement of Fifty Russian Folksongs (1868–69).

[4] A short 8-bar theme in G major headed “Allegro (idea for sonata with cello),” found in one of the composer’s notebooks with the date 24 November 1891.

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