Tchaikovsky

Music has always been central to my life. When I was little, my family had records — 45 and 78 RPM in those days — of many different kinds. There were Mickey Mouse Club songs, Greek folk songs in Greek, rock and roll, and other current hits. There were also the classics. I especially remember having a set of RCA Red Seal 45s with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Most of the pieces filled up a side of a record. The “Waltz of the Flowers” took two sides.

What was it that appealed to me at such an early age? Most of the pieces are very rhythmical, and they’re short enough to fit a child’s attention span. The descriptive titles helped; it’s easier to get interested in something called “Chinese Dance” than in “Allegro ma non troppo.” That particular piece (if you’ve seen Fantasia, it’s the bit with the mushrooms) was one of my favorites, with its bouncy bassoon line and pizzicato strings.

Later on I picked up LPs of some of his longer pieces. Dorati’s recording of the Fifth Symphony was one of the first classical LPs I got for myself; I’m pretty sure that either that or Karajan’s recording of Dvořák’s New World symphony was my first. It has a very direct appeal; I liked the way the interruption of the slow movement with a sudden fortissimo made me jump. These days I have to admit the last movement is a bit noisy, but I still love the symphony. The 1812 Overture, of course, is very easy to enjoy. The record I had not only used real cannons but included a spoken section by Deems Taylor explaining their use.

Along the way I picked up Van Cliburn’s famous recording of the first piano concerto. Just recently, though, I read an article telling me that the way I’ve always heard it isn’t the way Tchaikovsky wrote it! It was revised after his death, apparently without following any lead from him. Kiril Gerstein has recorded the concerto in the composer’s own revised version, and I’m eagerly looking forward to its delivery. I heard some clips from it on a site which I can’t find now, and the authentic version of the opening especially impressed me. The usual version pounds out the piano’s accompanying chords; Tchaikovsky’s own version lets them fit more smoothly with the melody.

Some composers took longer than others to appeal to me. Beethoven quickly followed, but I was in college before I developed a liking for Mozart. Since then I’ve found out-of-the-way composers such as Raff and Spohr. But I think Tchaikovsky is the obvious choice for introducing a child to classical music.

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