Wilhelm Ohmen’s My First Composers collections from Schott Music are proving to be a series which keeps on giving.
It only seems yesterday that I reviewed My First Haydn, having previously taken a look at My First Schumann and My First Beethoven. The series also includes collections of music by J.S. Bach, Mozart and Chopin.
The latest collection to join the series is My First Tchaikovsky …
Beyond the Cover
With a title that evokes Fisher-Price and cover artwork that brings back fond memories of The Ladybird Lives of the Great Composers, it would be natural to assume this publication (and the series in general) is aimed at young prodigies:
But it’s once we turn the cover, moving beyond the illustrated Tchaikovsky’s somewhat disconcerting glare, that we find out what the generously apportioned 60-page book is really about. Within it offers a considerably more adult flavour, and is as likely to be as popular with my older students as the previous titles in the series have been.
The title page is followed as usual by a short biographical timeline and sketch (in German and English), in which we read:
“At an early age his attention was drawn to European musical traditions that had a considerable influence on his manner of composition, though he never abandoned his Russian roots. The unmistakable style of instrumentation in his orchestral works reflects these influences, with triumphant exclamations and radiant harmonies alongside readily memorable melodies full of emotion, as well as melancholy and mournful passages”.
Clearly not written for younger children, this insightful analysis of the great composer’s style is confidently borne out by the music which follows, and after a slight note about performing the pieces (identifying their difficulty and drawing attention to the need for pedalling), the rest of the book is taken up with the pieces themselves.
None of these are simplified or shortened; in terms of difficulty they range from Early Intermediate (the pieces from the Children’s Album) to Advanced (The Seasons), and together they offer a compelling introduction to Tchaikovsky’s music.
Easiest Piano Pieces
Having already noted that Tchaikovsky’s ‘easiest pieces’ aren’t really so easy, here’s a list of the included repertoire:
From ‘Children’s Album’ Op.39:
Morning Prayer; Winter Morning; Mama (Mother); Hobbyhorse; The Wooden Soldiers’ March; The New Doll; The Sick Doll; The Doll’s Funeral; Waltz; Polka; Mazurka; Russian Song; Italian Song; Old French Song; Nanny’ Tale; Baba Yaga; Sweet Dreaming; At Church; The Organ-Grinder Sings.
From ‘The Seasons’ Op.37:
At the Fireside (January); The Lark’s Song (March); Barcarole (June).
From ’12 Pieces of medium difficulty’ Op.40:
Chanson triste; Chant sans paroles; Valse.
From ‘The Nutcracker’ (arr. by the composer):
March (theme); Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; Waltz of the Flowers.
The Album for the Young has long been a treasured source of emotive pieces that fire childhood imagination. Ohmen’s selection is well-judged, rendering purchase of the complete set redundant by offering the most popular pieces here. I only missed the Neapolitan Song (No.18) and Song of the Lark (No.22).
Those familiar with Howard Fergusson’s well-worn edition for ABRSM may be surprised by Ohmen’s additional slurs in The Doll’s Funeral, an editorial liberty perhaps (compare with the Lukyanchenko urtext edition, Moscow, 1980). But in general I think that the editing here is superb, the modest interventions tasteful; the included fingering throughout is most helpful, too.
Furthermore, Schott’s presentation is more generously spaced than the rather cramped ABRSM Album for the Young, and I must underline that the readability genuinely benefits from being printed on quality cream paper here, which adds so much to the clarity.
From Moderate to Advanced
Elsewhere, the pieces in the collection are taken from Tchaikovsky’s 12 Pieces of Medium Difficulty, from which I must particularly applaud the inclusion of the poignant Chanson triste, a delicious miniature too often overlooked elsewhere and warmly welcome here.
Equally welcome, the composer’s own solo piano arrangements of three favourites from The Nutcracker will undoubtedly delight players of all ages; they are immense fun to play, if perhaps a little more technically challenging that most of the collection.
The three selections from Tchaikovsky’s best-known piano masterpiece The Seasons Op.37 offer a tantalising taste of that wonderful collection, which of course demands to be explored by advanced players in full.
From the 12 monthly pieces of the original, Ohmen selects the evergreen By the Fireside (January), gorgeously melodic Barcarolle (June), and March’s The Lark’s Song, a pensive piece which perhaps best encapsulates the more melancholy aspect to Tchaikovsky’s writing that Ohmen so eloquently announces in his introduction.
This seventh addition to the My First Composers series comfortably lives up to the high standards that Ohmen and Schott have previously established. Already popular in Germany and beyond, these winning collections deserve high praise and wide uptake here in the UK too, My First Tchaikovsky certainly being no exception.
It’s important not to be misled by the title, but to understand that My First Tchaikovsky contains a breadth of excellent material suitable for players of all ages and from Intermediate to Advanced level. The fabulous selection will surely entice players back again and again to dip into and explore the music of this great master.
In short, My First Tchaikovsky is another considerable triumph for Ohmen and Schott, and the series as a whole deserves immediate investigation.
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