The fantasia is scored for an orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons + 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in F), 3 trombones, tuba + 3 timpani, cymbals, bass drum + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.
There is one movement: Andante con moto—Allegro moderato (F minor, 631 bars), lasting around 25 minutes in performance.
In a letter of 30 December 1872/11 January 1873, Vladimir Stasov proposed three subjects to Tchaikovsky as the basis for symphonic works: Taras Bulba, after Gogol's novel; Ivanhoe, after Walter Scott's novel; and The Tempest, after the drama of the same name by William Shakespeare (ca.1611), setting out programmes for each of them.
Stasov's programme for The Tempest was as follows:
Starting with the sea, the uninhabited island, the mighty and forbidding figure of the magician Prospero, then switching to the graceful and womanly Miranda, rather like the primordial Eve, she has never laid eyes on any breed of man (besides Prospero), until struck by the tempest she is flung ashore with the handsome youth Ferdinand; they fall in love with each other, and I think at this point in the first half of the overture there should be a wonderful and poetic motif, as Miranda gradually becomes more animated and leaves behind her childhood innocence to become a young woman in love. In the second half of the overture her and Ferdinand's passion should already be in full sail, as they embrace the fires of love... the middle section of the overture would be grouped into three main sections: the half-beast Caliban, the enchanted spirit Ariel, and his chorus of elves. The overture ought to end by depicting Prospero's renunciation of his magic powers, the blessing of the young couple's union, and the return to the mainland .
Tchaikovsky selected the subject of The Tempest, adopting Vladimir Stasov's programme, but did not start work on it immediately. In his letter of reply to Stasov of 15/27 January 1873, Tchaikovsky asked: "Must there be a tempest in The Tempest?, i.e. is it essential to depict the fury of the elements in an overture written on a piece where this incidental circumstance serves simply as the point of departure for all the dramatic action? Would it be odd in a symphonic composition that is supposed to depict The Tempest to leave out the tempest? If a tempest is essential then where should it go—at the start or in the middle? If it is not necessary, then why not call the overture Miranda? ... I require your counsel so that the plan is absolutely clear in my mind before I set to work on the music" .
In reply Vladimir Stasov wrote that the tempest was essential, and described how it should be depicted: "I had thought of representing the sea twice: at the beginning and at the end; only at the beginning it ought to be prefatory, quiet and gentle, and Prospero, uttering his magic words, would break this calm and summon the tempest. But in my opinion this storm should differ from all that has gone before, in that it should start suddenly, at full strength, in utter turmoil, and should not grow or arise by degrees, as is usually the case. If followed, this suggestion would be quite innovative, because in all other operas, oratorios and symphonies a storm follows its natural course, but in this instance it is created at the command of supernatural forces. Let your storm suddenly take hold and howl, smash and fling everything to the devil on the orders of its master. Let your storm rage and engulf the Italian boat with the princes, then just as suddenly subside, with only a shudder and a growl before falling silent" .
In Tchaikovsky's letter to Vladimir Stasov of 27 January/8 February 1873, we read: "While the subject of The Tempest is poetic up to a point, your plan calls for such a degree of musical refinement and elegance, that I intend to rein in some of my usual impatience to compose, and to await the propitious moment ... I will only say that it could be some time before my future overture emerges into the light".
The completed score was prefaced by a short programme:
The Sea. The magician Prospero commands his spirit Ariel to create a storm, of which a victim is the fortunate Ferdinand. The enchanted island. The first timid stirrings of love between Ferdinand and Miranda. Ariel. Caliban. The lovers are overwhelmed by their passion. Prospero renounces his magical powers and leaves the island. The Sea.
Tchaikovsky worked painstakingly according to a detailed scheme and programme for The Tempest, as was his usual technique. "One should not write a symphonic work and only afterwards formulate its programme, because... every episode in the chosen programme requires a suitable musical illustration", Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 24 June/6 July 1878 .
Judging by references in his diary (a note for 11/23 June 1873 showed that he had decided "to plunge headlong into Stasov's Tempest", it seems that composition progressed slowly at first . It was only after his return from abroad in early/mid August that Tchaikovsky sketched the fantasia in 10 days at Usovo. On the front of the rough draft is the date: "Usovo 17 August 1873" [O.S.]. At the end of the sketches is the note: "Begun 7 August. Finished 17 August 1873 at Usovo".
Later the composer thus recalled these days: "At that time I found myself completely at one with the delightful oasis of the steppes... I was in a blissfully peaceful frame of mind, wandering each day in the forest and in the evening through the immense steppes, and at night sitting by the open window and revelling in the quiet emptiness, broken occasionally by indefinable nocturnal sounds. In these two weeks, without any effort, as if under the influence of some supernatural force, I wrote the whole of The Tempest in rough".
On 7/19 December 1873 it was performed for the first time with great success in Moscow at the third symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, and on 16/28 November 1874 at the second RMS symphony concert in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník.
Other notable early performances included:
- Paris, Trocadero Hall (International Exhibition), 2nd Russian Concert, 2/14 September 1878, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein
- Saint Petersburg, 4th Russian Symphony Concert, 17/29 December 1888, conducted by Tchaikovsky
- Pavlovsk, 4th symphony concert, 1/13 June 1890, conducted by Julius Laube
- Paris, 23rd Colonne symphony concert, 24 March/5 April 1891, conducted by Tchaikovsky
- Kharkov, 3rd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 26 January/7 February 1892, conducted by Ilya Slatin
- Kiev, 5th Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 26 March/7 April 1892, conducted by Aleksandr Vinogradsky
- Odessa, 1st Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 16/28 January 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky
- Odessa, 3rd Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 24 January/5 February 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky
- Kharkov, Russian Musical Society symphony concert, 14/26 March 1893, conducted by Tchaikovsky
- Birmingham (England), 6/18 January 1898, conducted by George Halford
- London, Queen's Hall, 23 September/5 October 1898, conducted by Henry Wood
Vladimir Stasov, who on 13/25 November attended the first rehearsal of the Saint Petersburg concert, wrote of his delight in Tchaikovsky's new work: "I have just this second come from the hall of the Nobles' Society and the rehearsal of Saturday's concert. Your Tempest was played for the first time. In an otherwise empty hall we sat together in a row with Rimsky-Korsakov, enraptured. Your Tempest is such a delight! How magnificent!... Caliban, Ariel, the love scene—all these belong among the loftiest of musical creations. In both love scenes—what beauty, what languor, what passion! All this is incomparable. Then the magnificently wild and savage Caliban, the ethereal and playful Ariel—these are all most excellent. And the orchestration—especially in these scenes—is astounding... On Friday, the day after tomorrow, I will be going to the second rehearsal, which is again at 9 pm—I could not possibly keep away" .
The composer's attitude to the fantasia was ambivalent. At first he "placed enormous faith"  in the work. But after failing to receive information on how The Tempest fared in Saint Petersburg, and stung by Herman Laroche's review in the newspaper The Voice on 22 November/4 December 1874 , Tchaikovsky was deeply upset by the fantasia's apparent lack of success.
Later, in 1879, after a performance of The Tempest on 25 February/9 March in Paris, Tchaikovsky wrote a sharply critical judgement of the work: "Today's performance of The Tempest did not please me. Its form is too long, episodic and unbalanced. The effect of these disconnected episodes produces a lack of movement and coherency. It grieves me to admit that I could be responsible for something so unsuccessful at its performances, and incomprehensible to the public" .
However, in a letter to Anatoly Tchaikovsky the composer wrote about the same concert as follows: "I am sending you a newspaper cutting, from which you will see that I have shown my customary inclination to exaggerate my failures; The Tempest was not such a terrible flop" .
The Tempestwas one work which actively found favour with the Mighty Handful . Vladimir Stasov wrote to the composer on 29 November/11 December 1885: "Just imagine, how we often play between us the four-hand arrangements of your chef d'oeuvres: Romeo, The Tempest, Francesca, the Second and Third Quartets... and they are always a delight" .
In 1885, Tchaikovsky received the Belyayev prize and 500 rubles for The Tempest.
An arrangement of The Tempest for piano duet (4 hands) made by Eduard Langer  was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in March 1875. In April and July 1877 the same publisher issued the orchestral parts and full score respectively.
In 1891 a second edition of the score was published, which included changes to phrasing, tempo and dynamic markings by Tchaikovsky. A revised edition of the fantasia's arrangement for piano duet followed in July 1892.
The full score was published in volume 24 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works (1961), edited by Irina Iordan.
Tchaikovsky's autograph score was lost during the 1870s . A manuscript copy, with only the last page written by the composer, is preserved in the Russian National Museum of Music in Moscow (ф. 88, No. 63).
Notes and References
- Letter from Vladimir Stasov to Tchaikovsky, 30 December 1872/11 January 1873 — copy in Klin House-Museum Archive.
- Letter 286 to Vladimir Stasov, 15/27 January 1873.
- Letter from Vladimir Stasov to Tchaikovsky, 21 January/2 February 1873.
- Letter 287 to Vladimir Stasov, 27 January/8 February 1873.
- Letter 862 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 June/6 July 1878.
- See (1923), p. 3.
- Letter 815 to Nadezhda von Meck, 22 April/4 May 1878.
- (1900), pp. 416, 441.
- Letter from Vladimir Stasov to Tchaikovsky, 13/25 November 1874 — copy in Klin House-Museum Archive.
- See Letter 327 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 28 November/10 December 1873.
- Herman Laroche, (1874).
- Letter 1121 to Nadezhda von Meck, 25 February/9 March 1879.
- Letter 1130 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 28 February/12 March 1879.
- The term Mighty Handful, or Moguchaya kuchka (Могучая кучка) was coined by Vladimir Stasov for the group of five nationalist composers comprising Mily Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.
- Letter from Vladimir Stasov to Tchaikovsky, 29 November/11 December 1885 — copy in Klin House-Museum Archive.
- See Letter 365 to Vladimir Stasov, 28 September/10 October 1874.
- See letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1878 — Klin House-Museum Archive.