Like the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky wrote the Manfred Symphony at the behest of nationalist composer Mily Balakirev, who provided a program written by critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov had sent the program to Balakirev in 1868, hoping that Balakirev would write a symphony based on it. Balakirev did not feel capable of carrying out this project and sent the program to French composer Hector Berlioz, whose programmatic works had genuinely impressed him. Berlioz refused, claiming old age and ill health, and returned the program to Balakirev. Balakirev kept the program until he reestablished contact with Tchaikovsky in the early 1880s.
The Manfred Symphony is the only programmatic symphonic work by Tchaikovsky in more than one movement. He initially considered the work one of his best, and in a typical reversal of opinion later considered destroying all but the opening movement. The symphony was greeted with mixed reviews, some finding much to laud in it, and others feeling that its programmatic aspects only weakened it. Manfred remained rarely performed for many years, probably due to its length and complexity. It has been recorded with increasing frequency but is still seldom heard in the concert hall.
Lento lugubre. Manfred wanders in the Alps. Weary of the fatal question of existence, tormented by hopeless longings and the memory of past crimes, he suffers cruel spiritual pangs. He has plunged into occult sciences and commands the mighty powers of darkness, but neither they nor anything in this world can give him the forgetfulness to which alone he vainly aspires. The memory of the lost Astarte, once passionately loved, gnaws his heart and there is neither limit nor end to Manfred's despair.
The musical embodiment of this program note is presented in five extensive musical slabs spaced out by four silences. A brooding first theme, briefly unharmonized, builds to music both spacious and monolithic. A second theme leads to a second musical slab, this time pushing forward with the loudest climax Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The music in the third slab seems calmer, while the fourth slab marks the appearance of Astarte. The fifth slab culminates in a frantic climax and a series of abrupt, final chords.
Vivace con spirito. The Alpine fairy appears before Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of a waterfall.
Tchaikovsky's efforts in exploring fresh possibilities in scoring allowed him to present his music with new colors and more refined contrasts. In this scherzo, it seems as though the orchestration creates the music, as though Tchaikovsky has thought directly in colors and textures, making these the primary focus. Put simply, there is no tune and little definition of any harmonic base, creating a world alluring, fragile and magical. The point becomes clear when an actual tune enters the central section of the movement.
Andante con moto. A picture of the bare, simple, free life of the mountain folk.
This pastorale opens with a siciliana, then the three-note call of a hunter. The opening theme returns. We hear a brief and lively peasant dance, then an agitated outburst, before the opening theme returns. The opening pastoral theme eventually returns more spaciously and in a fuller, more decorative scoring. The hunter sounds his horn; the music fades.
Allegro con fuoco. The subterannean palace of Arimanes. Infernal orgy. Appearance of Manfred in the middle of the bacchanal. Evocation and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is pardoned. Death of Manfred.
Many critics consider the finale to be fatally flawed, but the problem lies less with music than with the program. Up to this point Tchaikovsky has done well at reconciling the extra-musical requirements for each movement with the music itself. Now, however, the program takes over, beginning with a fugue, which is by its nature academic and undramatic, to depict the horde's discovery of Manfred within their midst. The result, though in many ways becoming a condensed recapitulation of the latter half of the first movement, becomes a fragmented movement with musical disruption and non-sequiturs, ending with the Germanic chorale depicting Manfred's death scene.
During his second and final trip to Russia in the winter of 1867-68, French composer Hector Berlioz conducted his program symphony Harold en Italie. The work caused considerable stir. Its subject was very much to the tastes of its audiences, whose enthusiasm for the works of Lord Byron had not exhausted itself as it had begun to do in Europe. Berlioz's use of a four-movement structure for writing program music intrigued many Russian musicians. One immediate consequence was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's four movement suite Antar, written in 1868. At roughly the same time as Rimsky-Korsakov composed Antar, critic Vladimir Stasov wrote a scenario for a sequel to Harold, this time based on Byron's poem "Manfred" and sent it to nationalist composer Mily Balakirev. Balakirev did not feel attracted to the idea, so he forwarded the program to Berlioz, only hinting it was not entirely his own. Berlioz declined, claiming old age and ill health. He returned the program to Balakirev, who kept it. A little over a year later, Berlioz was dead, and by 1872 Balakirev was embroiled in a personal crisis that silenced him creatively.
Tchaikovsky's entrance into this story was strictly by circumstance. He finished his final revision of his fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet in 1880, a work on which he and Balakirev had worked tirelessly together a decade earlier, and which was dedicated to Balakirev. Since Balakirev had dropped away from the music scene in the intervening time, Tchaikovsky asked the publisher Bessel to send a copy of the printed score to Balakirev, thinking he would have a current address. Whether the publisher delayed in filfilling this request or Balakirev did not reply, no news was forthcoming as to whether Balakirev had received the score, so Tchaikovsky wrote to Balakirev in September 1881. Balakirev wrote back, thanking Tchaikovsky profusely for the score. In the same letter, Balakirev suggested another project—"the programme for another symphony ... which you could handle superbly." He presented Stasov's detailed plan, explaining it was not in his character to engage in such composition. As he explained in a letter to Tchaikovsky in October 1882, "this magnificent subject is unsuitable, it doesn't harmonise with my inner frame of mind". When Tchaikovsky showed polite interest, Balakirev sent a copy of Stasov's program, which he had amended with suggested key signatures for each movement and representative works which Tchaikovsky had already written to give some idea of what Balakirev had in mind. Balakirev also gave warning to avoid "vulgarities in the manner of German fanfares and Jägermusik," plus instructions about the layout of the flute and percussion parts.
Tchaikovsky declined the project at first. He claimed the subject left him cold and seemed too close to Berlioz's work for him to manage anything but a piece that would lack inspiration and originality. Balakirev persisted. "You must, of course, make an effort," he exhorted, "take a more self-critical approach, don't hurry things." His importunity finally changed Tchaikovsky's mind—after two years of effort. So did Tchaikovsky's re-reading "Manfred" for himself while tending to his friend Iosef Kotek in Davos, Switzerland, nestled in the same Alps in which the poem was set. Once he returned home, Tchaikovsky revised the draft Balakirev had made from Stasov's programme and began sketching the first movement.
Tchaikovsky may have found a subject in "Manfred" for which he could comfortably compose. However, there was a difference between placing a personal program into a symphony and writing such a work to a literary program. He wrote to his friend and former student Sergei Taneyev, "Composing a program symphony, I have the sensation of being a charlatan and cheating the public; I am paying them not hard cash but rubbishy bits of paper money." However, he later wrote to Emilia Pavlovskaya, "The symphony has turned out to be huge, serious, difficult, absorbing all my time, sometimes to utter exhaustion; but an inner voice tells me that my labor is not in vain and that this work will perhaps be the best of my symphonic works."
Instead of following Balakirev's instructions slavishly, Tchaikovsky wrote it in his own style. Initially, he considered it to be one of his best compositions, but wanted a few years later to destroy the score, though that intention was never carried out.
The Manfred Symphony was first performed in Moscow on 11 March 1886, with Max Erdmannsdörfer as conductor. It is dedicated to Balakirev.
Several features make Manfred unique among Tchaikovsky's works. It is the only programmatic work he wrote in more than one movement. The first two movements do not recapitulate their middle sections. The entire work is not only extremely long, playing up to and sometimes over an hour, but it is designed with the utmost spaciousness in mind. There is nothing else in Tchaikovsky's works that captures the long-breathed deliberation of the third movement or the practically verbatim recapitulation of the widely variegated opening section of the second movement following the equally huge middle section. At least one critic has suggested that, in its heroic but perfectly judged dimensions, Manfred resembles Richard Strauss's later tone poemEin Heldenleben.
Of all Tchaikovsky's major neglected works, Manfred may be the one which least deserves this fate. While Tchaikovsky had his doubts about program music, he was actually better able to handle large forms when there was the impulse of an emotional idea behind the music. He apparently felt such an impulse—if not from Byron's poem, then from the program Balakirev gave him—and that impulse brought forth a work of great originality and power. While he did not follow Berlioz in how he might have handled the program, Tchaikovsky did make use of an idée fixe recurring in all four movements. He also followed a Berliozian design of a lengthy, reflective, melancholy opening movement, two colorful interludes as inner movements, and a finale in which Berlioz' Brigands' Orgy becomes (without any hint from the poem) a bacchanal.
Here again is the description of the first movement from the program:
Manfred wanders in the Alpine mountains. His life is shattered, but he is obsessed with life's unanswerable questions. In life nothing remains for him except memories. Images of his ideal Astarte permeate his thoughts, and he vainly calls to her. Only the echo from the cliffs repeats her name. Memories and thoughts bum and gnaw at him. He seeks and begs for oblivion, which no-one can give him.
It is not hard to see how these carefully selected elements might appeal to Tchaikovsky. Free from having to reconcile the first movement to sonata form, Tchaikovsky constructs his own form which succeeds well as an expression of the program. A massive opening motive associated with Manfred himself expresses both the strength and gloom of his character. This motive returns at crucial parts to identify Manfred's part in the action. Beneath this theme is a musical structure that, while not conforming to the traditional recapitulation of themes in sonata form, succeeds in moving forward without losing unity or degenerating into a series of episodes. It is a musical portrait of the guilty, doomed sensibility, drawn strongly as Berlioz' Harold. This was perhaps the aspect of Byron which appealed most vividly to Russians; it also may have touched closely on Tchaikovsky's own situation.
The two inner movements work as effective structural contrasts to the opening drama. The waterfall in the second movement gives Tchaikovsky the opportunity for one of his longest and most beautifully worked out scherzos, scored with a delicacy that Berlioz might have admired; Tchaikovsky's Alpine experiences might have come in handy here. For the third movement pastorale, Balakirev had hoped for a Russian version of the corresponding movement from the Symphonie fantastique. Tchaikovsky's version is more conventional, with two simple themes—one graceful, the other more roughly rustic. It forms in its static quality an idealized retreat before the turmoil of the finale. The finale reflects Harold en Italie in the exuberance of the revelling. Tchaikovsky manages to add a fugue, a return of Astarte and a death scene at the end.'
Nevertheless, musicologist David Brown considered the finale the weakest part of Manfred, not because of the music itself but of the programme. Up to this point, Brown writes, Tchaikovsky had very successfully reconciled extramusical specifications with musical structure. Now the program takes over, resulting in a fragmented movement with musical disruption and non sequiturs. The fatal flaw is the fugue, which Tchaikovsky wrote to convey the Arimane hoarde's reaction to Manfred's appearance amongst them. A fugue, Brown argues, is by nature undramatic in both its fixation on one thematic idea and its measured progress; therefore, it cannot help but sound stodgy, resulting in a misstep from which the music never fully recovers. Musicologist Ralph Wood, in contrast, stated that while the finale may have its faults, there is still much about the music that is quite good.
Below are the key signatures Balakirev initially envisioned for Manfred, what he later suggested, and what Tchaikovsky eventually used in the symphony:
(I) F sharp minor
(second subject in D major)
(II) A major (slow movement)
(III) D major (scherzo)
(IV) F sharp minor
(appearance of Astarte in D flat)
(I) B flat minor
(second subject in D major)
(II) G flat major (slow movement)
(III) D major (scherzo)
(IV) B flat minor
(appearance of Astarte in D flat);
coda—B flat major
(I) Tonally ambiguous (only
establishing B minor more than
halfway through the movement)
(second subject in B major)
(II) B minor, D major,
B minor (scherzo)
(III) G major (slow movement)
(IV) B minor (appearance
of Astarte in D flat);
coda in B major.
Critics were divided on Manfred from the work's outset. César Cui, the member of the Russian nationalistic music group known as The Five whose reviews of Tchaikovsky's compositions were mostly negative, praised Manfred. Cui commented especially on the "masterly description of Manfred's gloomy, noble image" in the opening movement and the "ravishing refinement" of the scherzo, concluding that "we can only thank [Tchaikovsky] for his new contribution to the treasure-store of our nation's symphonic music." The composer's friend, critic Hermann Laroche, was less positive, calling Manfred "among the most raw and unfinished of [Tchaikovsky's] compositions." While admitting the work was "full of melodic warmth and sincerity", Laroche criticized its programmatic aspects, which left "an impression of mystery and uncertainty cribbed from Liszt, though cribbed not in a mechanical fashion but with the addition of some of the technical sequins which cost our deft and resourceful composer so little effort."
Some regard Manfred as one of Tchaikovsky's most brilliant and inspired works; conductor Arturo Toscanini considered it the composer's greatest composition. (This did not stop him from making changes in the score when he performed and recorded it, including a number of cuts). However, others despise it. According to music critic David Hurwitz, composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein referred to it as "trash" and never recorded it.
Some critics have commented that, for all Tchaikovsky's distrust of program music and Manfred's kinship to a Berlioz work he did not wish to repeat, the symphony proves its composer's capacity to infuse another composer's example with his own personality, provided the emotional nature of the work found a response in him. These critics have called Manfred one of the great program symphonies of the 19th century.
Manfred is less frequently performed in concert. This is due to its length, unfamiliarity, and its requirement for a large orchestra, including obbligato organ. It is also considered to be a virtuoso work and difficult to play well.
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering, 1878–1885, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986). ISBN 0-393-02311-7.
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music (New York: Pegasus Books, 2007). ISBN 0-571-23194-2.
Cui, César, "Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony." In Russians on Russian Music, 1880–1917 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), ed. Stuart Campbell. ISBN 0-521-59097-3.
Holden, Anthony, Tchaikovsky: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995). ISBN 0-679-42006-1.
Laroche, Hermann, "The concert on 11 August at Pavlovsk, Tchaikovsky's Manfred and Hamlet." In Russians on Russian Music, 1880–1917 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), ed. Stuart Campbell. ISBN 0-521-59097-3.
Warrack, John, Tchaikovsky (New York: Charles Scribner's Sonss, 1973). ISBN 684-13558-2.
Wood, Ralph W., "Miscellaneous Orchestral Works." In Music of Tchaikovsky (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1946), ed. Gerald Abraham. ISBN n/a.