"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 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).
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.)
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.