Tchaikovsky The Tempest Program Notes
Tchaikovsky’s reading of Shakespeare’s final, and most mysterious play, led to this Fantasy-Overture, perhaps a deeper work than the more popular Romeo & Juliet. It presents the major characters and themes programmatically, and also suggests the moral ambiguity of nature. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, had been distracted by the study of arts, sciences and magic, leading to a surprise coup at the hands of his brother, Antonio. Now Prospero and Miranda (his daughter) live on an enchanted island somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. With magical powers, Prospero has tamed the island, controlling its subjects, including the spirit Ariel and the deformed half-monster, Caliban. Opening the tone poem, Tchaikovsky ingeniously depicts the ship, sailing on theMediterranean, with King Alonso of Naples and his royal party. It includes Antonio (now Duke of Milan), and Prince Ferdinand, Alonso’s son and a highly eligible bachelor. The passengers’ nobility is portrayed by a heraldic melody in the brass, an idea found elsewhere in the piece. Prospero, sensing his brother’s nearness, summons a storm, sinking the ship and bringing the travelers to the island. (Musically, the storm is filled with tritones, which in Russian music denote supernatural intervention- another good example is Stravinsky’s Firebird.)After the storm dies down, the play’s characters have been separated across the island, and believe the others drowned. Tchaikovsky introduces the beautiful melody of love, in the cellos, for Miranda (and later, Ferdinand). The spirit Ariel and half-monster Caliban are a study in contrasts, in both Shakespeare’s play and Tchaikovsky’s tone poem. Ariel’s music is sprightly and light - it’s Ariel who sings Dzwhere the bee sucks, there suck I, in a cowslip’s bell I liedz. Caliban’s music is loud, angular, and angry - it was his island before Prospero arrived and he’s now enslaved. Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love, the plotters who’d overthrown Prospero beg forgiveness, and the comedy act of the drunkards Trinculo, Stephano and their misplaced faith in Caliban concludes with predictable failure. Everything resolved, the expanded royal party boards the ship (sea-worthy: the storm was magical), and they leave for Italy. Caliban is left to his own devices on the island, and Ariel is set free. The Tempest is likely Shakespeare’s last play, and he probably performed the role of Prospero himself. Like a playwright, Prospero has controlled the actors and their movement through the play, and also like a playwright, his power comes to an end at the play’s conclusion. Prospero recognizes that as duke, he will have to concentrate on governing, instead of his precious books.
He tells the audience:
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
In Tchaikovsky’s music, a transformation occurs. While most of the piece employs key signatures such as F minor (four flats) and even G-flat major (six flats!), here it settles in C major (no flats or sharps, the key of a blank slate), as if starting anew, before progressing naturally into F minor, returning to the music of the ship. As it sails into the distance, the F minor tonality fades away, abandoning questions of major or minor, until all that remains is a solitary note. Nature has reclaimed the island.