The Seasons, Op. 37a (also seen as Op. 37b; published with the French title Les Saisons) is a set of twelve short character pieces for solo piano by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Each piece is the characteristic of a different month of the year in the northern hemisphere. The work is also sometimes heard in orchestral and other arrangements by other hands. Individual excerpts have always been popular - Troika (November) was a favourite encore of Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Barcarolle (June) was enormously popular and appeared in numerous arrangements (for orchestra, violin, cello, clarinet, harmonium, guitar and even mandolin).
The Seasons was commenced shortly after the premiere of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, and continued while he was completing his first ballet, Swan Lake.
In 1875, Nikolay Matveyevich Bernard, the editor of the St. Petersburg music magazine Nouvellist, commissioned Tchaikovsky to write 12 short piano pieces, one for each month of the year. Bernard suggested a subtitle for each month's piece. Tchaikovsky accepted the commission and all of Bernard's subtitles, and in the December 1875 edition of the magazine, readers were promised a new Tchaikovsky piece each month throughout 1876. The January and February pieces were written in late 1875 and sent to Bernard in December, with a request for some feedback as to whether they were suitable, and if not, Tchaikovsky would rewrite February and ensure the remainder were in the style Bernard was after. March, April and May appear to have been composed separately; however the remaining seven pieces were all composed at the same time and written in the same copybook, and evidence suggests they were written between 22 April and 27 May. The orchestration of Swan Lake was finished by 22 April, leaving the composer free to focus on other music; and he left for abroad at the end of May. This seems to put the lie to Nikolai Kashkin's published version of events, which was that each month the composer would sit down to write a single piece, but only after being reminded to do so by his valet.
The epigraphs that appeared on publication of the pieces were chosen by Bernard, not by Tchaikovsky. In 1886 the publisher Jurgenson acquired the rights to The Seasons and the piece has been reprinted many times.
Tchaikovsky did not devote his most serious compositional efforts to these pieces; they were composed to order, and they were a way of supplementing his income. However, he saw the writing of music to a commission as just as valid as writing music from his own inner inspiration, however for the former he needed a definite plot or text, a time limit, and the promise of payment at the end. Most of the pieces were in simple ABA form, but each contains a minor melodic masterpiece.
The 12 pieces with their subtitles are:
January: At the Fireside (A major)
February: Carnival (D major)
March: Song of the Lark (G minor)
April: Snowdrop (B flat major)
May: Starlit Nights (G major)
June: Barcarolle (G minor)
July: Song of the Reapers (E flat major)
August: Harvest (B minor)
September: The Hunt (G major)
October: Autumn Song (D minor)
November: Troika (E major)
December: Christmas (A flat major)
A number of musicians have orchestrated Tchaikovsky's pieces. Aleksandr Gauk arranged The Seasons for symphony orchestra in 1942. In 1965, Kurt-Heinz Stolze orchestrated a number of the pieces as part of the music for John Cranko's balletOnegin. More recent orchestral versions have been produced by David Matthews (for symphony orchestra), Peter Breiner (for solo violin and symphony orchestra), and Georgi Cherkin (for solo piano and symphony orchestra).
Following is a translation of some of the poetic epigraphs contained in the Russian edition (all chosen by the publisher Nikolay Bernard):
Janvier (January): Au coin du feu (At the Fireside)
Some of these miniatures reveal a strong influence of Robert Schumann. Even the title By the Fireside (Am Kamin) was used by Schumann in his Kinderszenen. The openings of both pieces show a certain kinship in their declamative narration, but rhythm and articulation in Tchaikovsky’s declamation show a marked Slavic tinge lending it a greater epic breath. In Tchaikovsky there is a rather strange rhythmic displacement of the strong beat and we will certainly perceive the downbeat as an upbeat. But the third beat is equally strong, suggesting a certain exaggerated speech pattern used to give the narration an air of expressive significance.
Felix Mendelssohn's Venetian Gondola Songs from his Songs without Words come to mind when listening to Tchaikovsky's Barcarolle but, whereas Mendelssohn places a monotonous song over an ‘undulating’ accompaniment, Tchaikovsky is more interested in developing the melodic flow. Barcarolle and Troika are the most famous pieces from the set.
In Troïka one can hear the jingling sleigh-bells in the right hand. Where Tchaikovsky came from, this was very Russian. "Troika" is also considered the most challenging piece out of Tchaikovsky's very own selection of "The Seasons" because of such a rapidly moving melodic flow, a few "outbursts" to forte, and it also expresses a somewhat complicating technique which delivers a strong variety of feelings to the interpreters and listeners of "Troika" as shown in the music sheets in the book: "Tchaikovsky The Seasons Opus 37bis" which was edited and recorded by Alexandre Dossin. Troika has become famous in the interpretation of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which has been adopted by Russian pianists as the ‘standard’ model interpretation.
Song of the Autumn (October), Christmas (December)
Less known are October and December. The elegiac Song of the Autumn and the elegant characteristic salon waltz Christmas could be music right out of Tchaikovsky's operas or ballets respectively.
Once upon a time The Seasons enjoyed enormous popularity. Only recently have they been rediscovered by pianists. In recent years, Yakov Kasman has made a notable recording of the suite.