Children’s Album

P. Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album and its orchestra version by Sergei Abir

The Children’s Album (Op. 39) was composed in late spring – summer months of 1878, which Tchaikovsky spent in the Ukraine, working in parallel on Piano Sonata, Twelve piano pieces of medium difficulty, full Liturgy, and violin pieces.

The immediate impulse for this album was his wish to supply repertoire for his beloved nephew Vladimir Davydov (Bob as Tchaikovsky called him), then a six-year old boy, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated the cycle. The composer, however, planned broader:

Tomorrow I will get started on a collection of miniature plays for children. I have long thought that it would not hurt to contribute as much as possible to enrichment of children’s music literature, which is very poor. I want to make a whole series of small fragments of absolute ease and with appealing titles for children, like Schumann’s. (Letter to N. von Meck, Kamenka, 30 of April/12 of May, 1878)

Twenty-four unpretentious but entertaining miniatures constitute a colorful kaleidoscope of images dear to the child’s world, with its games, toys, tales and watching surrounding life.

Tchaikovsky spoke to a child in a simple manner, like Schumann or later Prokofiev and Bartok. In fact he himself had never lost an ability to see the world by children’s eyes. A week after finishing the draft of The Children’s Album, he wrote:

That moment, when you see and pick a good stocky mushroom, is charming. It must feel like being dealt trumps while playing cards. Last night I was dreaming of red, thick, huge mushrooms. When I woke up, I realized that these mushroom dreams were definitely a childish trait. And indeed, living in nature, you become, like a child, receptive to the simplest, most natural pleasures caused by it. Yesterday, for example, I, with the greatest pleasure, have been watching for about an hour, how in a garden near the path, a snail was caught by a tiny group of ants. How they attack a harmless, albeit a huge enemy! How the poor snail twitched convulsively and tried to hide into the shell, where the ants followed it and finally brought it to the point of exhaustion! How diligently and cooperatively, they were biting it! I do not understand how you can be bored, even for a single moment in the countryside, even living completely alone! Is this small scene, in microscopic forms of which the entire tragic struggle of many individuals has taken place, not more interesting than empty conversations and the miserable transitions from nothing to nothing, which constitutes the essence of pastime in the majority of societies! (Letter to N. von Meck, Brailov, 23 of May/4 of June, 1878.)

Indeed, listening attentively to this music, we cannot but realize that Tchaikovsky did not intend to conceal tragic or severe aspects of life from the addressees of this opus.

The kaleidoscope, however, is organized in kind of scenes or micro-suites, each of them includes a few contrasting but unified by imagery or genre pieces. There are 9 such scenes, which, in their turn, are united in five bigger tableaux. The first tableaux (8 pieces in 3 scenes) stages domestic atmosphere: Morning and meeting with the Mom; boy’s games; girl’s life with a doll. In the second tableaux (10 pieces in 3 scenes) the outer world is exposed to a child. These scenes are like ballet divertissements: three ball dances, three Russian folk music images, and four European pieces (three dances and an old ballade). The third tableaux (2 pieces) features fairytale images; the fourth (2 pieces) associates with daydreaming and contemplation of nature; and the finale of the cycle unexpectedly seriously symbolizes the end of life (in the most gloomy church choral) and its eternal cyclic nature: death and rebirth as a symbol of Chronos in image of sharmanshchik (the Russian word formed from the name of a popular French song Charmante Catherine) who wanders rotating his mechanical instrument and endlessly looping his tune.

The original order of pieces as seen in the autograph slightly varies from that coined by the publisher, although they are within the same “scenes”. Each order has its logic, and there is no documented disagreement from the part of Tchaikovsky. On the contrary, he was content with the edition, only slightly ironizing about the pictures, which are “considerably inferior in artistic merit to Raphael’s Sistine Madonna” (letter to P. Yurgenson, 10/22 of December, 1878) and about its upright (instead of album) format that would make a child to stand in order to see the notes.

Today, when both versions of ordering the pieces are known, the preference is up to performer.

Undoubtedly theatrical or scenic character of The Children’s Album permeated with dynamic eventuality prompts its ballet vision, while its minimalistic texture easily allows to interpret it as a sketch of orchestra score. Precisely such perception governed the author of this orchestra version to find a creative solution in spirit of ballet tableaux and keeping with Tchaikovsky’s original sequence of pieces.