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5 minutes reading time (1088 words)

"Kamarinskaya” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young

What exactly is a "kamarinskaya"?

(The word is pronounced with an accent on the second syllable—kaMArinskaya.) In his Album for the Young, Tchaikovsky* gives each piece both a Russian and a French title. In French, he identifies his Kamarinskaya as a Chanson populaire—a folk song. But the kamarinskaya is certainly not a "song" (just try to sing it!), and not really even a tune: it is a performing tradition. In its original folkloric form, a fiddler, accompanied by balalaika or concertina, spins out endless, continuous variations over a short, repeating chord progression. There is no set "tune," but rather characteristic melodic motifs. This music often accompanies "kazatsky," the iconic Russian dance in which men squat and kick their legs out. During the Cold War, a Russian musicologist claimed that jazz was a Russian invention because Russian musicians improvised music at weddings! Without endorsing this preposterous assertion, we can note certain analogies between kamarinskaya, and, for instance, boogie woogie: improvisation on a limited chord progression, and characteristic turns of phrases rather than a complete, rounded melody.

* Personally, I prefer the phonetic English spelling "Chaykovsky." I acknowledge, however, that the traditional spelling is at present more familiar.

The kamarinskaya invaded concert music long before Tchaikovsky's 1878 Album. In 1797, no less than Beethoven composed piano variations on a version which his friend Paul Wranizky had included in a ballet. Although by birth John Field is an "Irish" composer, he spent most of his adult life in Russia, and, in 1809, he whipped up a light-fingered, elegant Kamarinskaya. Easily the most celebrated Kamarinskaya, though, is Glinka's lovable little orchestral 1848 tone poem. (Glinka may well have known Field's piece—he idolized Field, and took some piano lessons from him. Glinka is considered the father of Russian musical nationalism—perhaps Field is the grandfather!) Tchaikovsky famously wrote, "All of the Russian symphonic school is contained in Glinka's Kamarinskaya, just as all of an oak tree is in an acorn." 
When beginning to study Tchaikovksy's Kamarinskaya, we may find it elusive. Most music we play conditions us to expect a piece to unfold in binary groups of bars. (In fact, such composers as Beethoven and Richard Strauss sometimes explicitly warn of threebar groupings in their scores: ritmo di tre battute, in Italian and dreitaktig in German.) Tchaikovsky's Kamarinskaya—in fact, any kamarinskaya—is in three-bar groups throughout. Now we can break the piece down to four sections of twelve bars each. (Remember Julius Caesar's maxim: divide and conquer!) 
At the start of the piece, Tchaikovky's marking marcato raises two questions: what does it mean? and, to what does it apply? In some contexts, marcato tells us to play with a heavy, accented touch. (For instance, Weber marks a piano duet Allegro, tutto marcato.) But in other contexts, it directs us to bring out a melodic line we might otherwise subordinate, usually an inner voice or bass line. The first twelve-bar section of Kamarinskaya seems to me a classic example of the latter usage. The fact that the passage is piano makes the first meaning unlikely. I believe Tchaikovsky is asking us to give energy and presence to the tenor voice in quarter notes, and not just to the melody in the right hand. Nevertheless, a marking like this illustrates one of the pervasive problems of piano notation—too much information must be crowded into two staves. How can we be sure that marcato applies to the tenor voice and not to the texture as a whole? We can't! As is so often the case, we must decide on the basis of inference rather than proof. Adolf Ruthardt, the editor of the widely disseminated Schirmer edition (reprinted by Dover in its volume of Tchaikovsky piano music) adds a legato slur to the left hand. Certainly, it is desirable to play the tenor voice differently from the soprano, but why necessarily legato? (Legato may not even be possible for smaller hands.) This tenor line enters with an intrusive C natural, creating a dissonance with the bass. Simply playing each group of notes from C natural to F sharp diminuendo will produce a striking contrast with the bouncier right-hand part (see Excerpt 1).
Excerpt 1: “Kamarinskaya” from Album for the Young, by P. Tchaikovsky, mm. 1-5.

The third section of Kamarinskaya, measures 25–36, reduces the theme to a blunt series of loud, separated chords. Here, we can add brilliance by depressing the pedal with each chord and releasing it with each rest, so that the strings of unplayed notes are free to vibrate sympathetically. In this kind of pedaling, unlike legato (syncopated) pedaling, foot and hand act at the same time. It ought to be easy. But it may not be, since we are so conditioned to using the pedal for legato.

Two-note slurs usually require the second note to be not simply connected to the first, but also played softly and released gently. The slurs in the final section of Kamarinskaya (starting at measure 37), however, are exceptions. These pairs of slurred notes nip at the heels of the melody, and Tchaikovsky has placed accents on the second notes of each pair. Lowering the wrist with the first note of each pair and raising it with the second helps us to connect them. Snapping the wrist up smartly will ensure the accent (see Excerpt 2).

Excerpt 2: “Kamarinskaya” from Album for the Young, by P. Tchaikovsky, mm. 37-38.

How much weight should we give to a composer's original fingering? Sometimes, an original fingering, particularly when the composer is a great pianist, can teach us something either about the individual passage or about playing in general. (For example, Chopin's passing the fourth finger over the fifth for smoothness, or Grieg's bunching thumb, index, and middle fingers together on a single note for power.) For the final bars of the Kamarinskaya, though, I propose a hand division contradictory to Tchaikovsky's original fingering. His fingering does not suggest anything interpretive, and according to his contemporaries, Tchaikovsky wasn't much of a pianist! (The autograph has E, the first edition, G.) (See Excerpt 3.)

Excerpt 3: “Kamarinskaya” from Album for the Young, by P. Tchaikovsky, mm. 46-49

Those who enjoy Russian folk music should also explore Tchaikovsky's four-hand settings of 50 Russian Folksongs (1868). Although the settings are not difficult, Tchaikovsky manages to invest them with harmonic finesse and charm.

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