About this work
For some time Balakirev tried to persuade Tchaikovsky to compose a work based on a program drawn by Vladimir Stasov from Byron's Manfred, finally succeeding in 1884. In April 1885, Tchaikovsky began work on what would become the Manfred Symphony, his only program work in more than one movement. Its great length -- about one hour -- and unwieldy structure clearly set it apart from his other orchestral compositions.
The first of the four movements deals with the tormented Manfred wandering in the Alps, pondering his past failings and his love for Astarte, all of which cause him to sink into the depths of despair. The movement opens with a dark and intense descending theme that occurs throughout the work, expressing virtually the same grim mood in subsequent appearances, typically Tchaikovskian, full of yearning and darkness, depression and gloom. In contrast, the music representing Astarte -- or rather Manfred's memories of her -- is lovely and gentle, consoling in its warmth. But thoughts of her only result in anguish and regret for Manfred, the music seeming to cry out and turn despairing in the closing sections.
The ensuing scherzo depicts Manfred's encounter with the Alpine fairy in a rainbow. It is marked Vivace con spirito and stands in stark contrast to the epic grimness of the preceding panel. Its main section is built upon several related short themes, all delicate and colorful, gossamer and often playful. The trio features an unforgettable theme, relaxed and joyous, full of sunshine.
The third movement, marked Andante con moto, is pastoral in mood, depicting the quiet life of Alpine hunters. The main theme seems to stroll lazily, but is not typically Tchaikovskian in its lack of warmth and passion. Still, the music is beautiful and atmospherically effective, not least because of the composer's imaginative scoring.
The finale is the longest movement and is structurally the most problematic. The music depicts the subterranean palace of Arimanes and an infernal orgy, after which Astarte's spirit foretells Manfred's release from suffering. Manfred is pardoned and then dies. The music is fairly complex throughout, first presenting two fast themes (Allegro con fuoco), then following with a brief lento section. Eventually a fugal passage using the first idea appears and development of all the material ensues. Tchaikovsky then returns to the first movement's thematic wares, which includes a beautiful restatement of Astarte's theme and a brief recapitulation of the latter part of the opening movement. While the structure of the finale is weak, its music is dramatic and powerful, compelling most of the time.