Today, I would like to share with you the Manfred Symphony by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. If you had asked me a month ago how many symphonies Tchaikovsky composed, I would have answered with a straight face: six! Number Six was his final one, which he conducted days before his death.
However, I recently discovered that he had actually composed seven symphonies: The Manfred Symphony (also known as a tonal poem) was composed after the fourth symphony. Unlike his other symphonies, it is a program symphony based on the poem Manfred by Lord Byron, in which the music attempts to tell a literal story.
I love writing about Tchaikovsky for many reasons. I love his music; he is one of my favorite composers. His music is electrifying, powerful, full of incredible melodies, and super-packed with emotional content that deeply resonates with me.
But there is another reason I love writing about his music: Tchaikovsky wrote a lot of letters. Music was his life, his one and only love, and he wrote about it extensively to his friends and to his benefactor, Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy woman who loved Tchaikovsky’s music. Reading these letters is as close as one can get to reading the private diary and thus getting an intimate look at the creative process of this genius.
Through these letters, I appreciated the emotional roller coaster Tchaikovsky rode while composing his timeless music. As a creator, I found that energizing. No, I don’t take joy from others’ suffering. But as a writer, I can relate to the emotional highs and lows experienced by Tchaikovsky.
Let me provide you with context on how the Manfred Symphony came about. The Russian music critic Vladimir Stasov suggested to both Russian nationalist composer Mily Balakirev and French composer Hector Berlioz that they write a symphony based on Lord Byron’s Manfred. Berlioz had created and popularized the program symphony genre with his Symphonie Fantastique. Both composers declined the suggestion, but Balakirev proposed the project to Tchaikovsky. Initially, Tchaikovsky was hesitant, as he was enamored with Robert Schumann’s overture on Manfred and did not believe he could compose something better.
In October 1884, he writes to Balakirev:
I set about Manfred rather reluctantly and, if I may be frank, felt that I was obliged to write it, because I promised you, and I made a firm promise… but very soon I became terribly infatuated with Manfred, and cannot remember ever having felt such pleasure in working, which stayed with me until the end.
We often look for inspiration to come to us, as if an external muse were paying us a visit. However, inspiration comes from within us. It comes through our act of sitting down and working, whether we are composing, like Tchaikovsky, or writing, as I do.
In July 1885 Tchaikovsky writes this:
I completed the rough sketches for a symphony, which annoys me a great deal, and I feel the need to rid myself of it as soon as possible.
I can relate to this feeling so much. I get impregnated with an idea, and I don’t feel at ease until I let it out on paper. Creating is a nonlinear process; and thus, during this idea pregnancy, I am full of conflicting emotions fluctuating between frustration and joy. I am often not fun to be around during this time. Though the creative process of giving birth to a piece of writing is often painful, once I am done with it, I often experience joy and incredible creative satisfaction.
A month later, in August 1885, Tchaikovsky writes:
I set about making the sketches for this symphony, and became so carried away, as frequently happens, that I could not stop. The symphony has come out enormous, serious and difficult; it is absorbing all my time, and sometimes wearies me in the extreme; but an inner voice tells me that I am not laboring in vain, and that this will be, perhaps, the best of my symphonic compositions.
Nobody complains better than Tchaikovsky. He writes to Nadezhda Van Meck at about the same time:
I am working on a very difficult, complicated symphonic work (on the subject of Byron’s Manfred), which happens to have such a tragic character, that occasionally I turn into something of a Manfred myself. That apart, I am having to squeeze out every last drop of effort from myself. I want so much to quickly bring this to an end, and am using up all my strength… as a result of this, I am absolutely exhausted.
He also tells his brother:
Never before have I expended such labor and exertion as on the symphony that I am now writing.
Just a few weeks later, Tchaikovsky is full of joy and incredibly proud of his work:
It is my opinion that my symphony will be the best of all my compositions in symphonic form… I am very proud of this work, and want those persons whose sympathy I most value in the world… to experience, when they hear it, a reverberation from the enthusiasm with which I wrote it.
As much as the creative process is a deeply personal endeavor, we creators want people to love what we make. Of course, this is very dangerous, because that is something that is not under our control. When the Manfred Symphony was performed in March 1886, it was met by a very cool reception from the audience.
But Tchaikovsky was very proud of this symphony. In March 1886 he writes:
I am very pleased with myself. I think that this is my best symphonic work. It was performed excellently, but it seemed to me that the public had little concept of it and received it rather coolly, although at the end I was given an ovation.
However, his love for this piece did not last long. In October 1888 he writes:
As for Manfred, without any wish to make a mere show of modesty, I would like to say that it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the exception of the first movement alone… with the agreement of my publisher, I shall destroy completely the remaining three movements, which musically are very poor (the Finale is particularly loathsome), and out of a large, impossibly long symphony…
Though the first movement is my favorite too, thankfully this symphony was not destroyed by the publisher. It is Tchaikovsky’s longest symphony and requires a large orchestra and thus is not performed as often as his other, more popular symphonies.