In today’s episode, I want to do a tutorial for The Sick Doll by Tchaikovsky. This is a great piece that I especially love teaching grade 2-level kids, since it’s so sad and dramatic and they really seem to connect to the story and emotion of it easily.
That being said, this is also a fun storytelling piece for adults, too! Instead of being the child in the story of this piece, you instead play the role of the storyteller. It’s lots of fun!
In this video, we go really in-depth in the chords of this piece. So if you’re studying chords, this video should help with that. It’s also useful from a composition standpoint – if you’re writing music and want to know how masters tell stories without using words, we also talk about that.
Let’s get started!
Sick Doll by Tchaikovsky: Difficulty and sheet music
This piece can be found in the RCM grade 2 syllabus. It’s therefore a little easier than the pieces we’ve been doing lately (grade 3 stuff), but I like to break the rules and go out of order sometimes.
The sheet music for this piece can be found here.
Sick Doll by Tchaikovsky: Backstory
“The Sick Doll” is from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, op. 39, and was inspired by Robert Schumann’s similar collection of pieces for children (Album for the Young). We recently did a grade 3 level tutorial for “Morning Prayer”, a grade 3-level piece in this album, so check that out if you missed it.
This collection has 24 pieces and was composed in 1878. If you played all the short pieces in this album start to finish, it would only take you about 30 minutes.
Like Schumann, Tchaikovsky thought that there wasn’t much in the way of good children’s music for piano, so he decided to write his own collection. Some of the pieces are named after nationalities (“Italian Song”, “French Song”), some are named after dances (“Mazurka” and “Waltz”), while others have expressive titles like “The Sick Doll” (which we’re learning today).
These pieces vary in difficulty from early intermediate to advanced intermediate. The Sick Doll is probably one of the easiest pieces in this collection, so it’s a good starting point for kids getting into Tchaikovsky.
Let’s take a listen through, and then get into a discussion on chords!
The Sick Doll by Tchaikovsky: Basics
First of all, we have to figure out what key this piece is in. What scale is The Sick Doll based on?
Two flats in the key signature tells us that it’s either in:
-The key of Bb major
-Bb’s relative minor, G minor
So how do we decide if it’s in a major or minor key? Well what’s the first chord of the piece? G, Bb and D in the left hand outlines a G minor chord – a pretty strong indicator there. If the beginning doesn’t tell you, the ending usually does – another G minor chord. So it’s safe to say that this piece is in the key of G minor.
Next, the tempo marking is Lento. Lento simply means slow. Since we don’t have a specific tempo (“slow” is a broad term), you’ll notice that various recordings have very different speeds within the “slow” range. So go with what your heart desires.
Finally, what’s the song form?
I think it’s safe to say this piece is in binary (two-part) form. You’ve got your first section (“A”) that starts in the key of G minor. The second section (“B”) also starts in B minor, but has more drama and variation.
The main topic of discussion for this piece is the chords.
First of all, let’s get our Roman numerals all sorted out:
So i chord would be G minor, V chord would be D major, and so on.
Chords in the A section
i – V7 – i – V7 (x2 – echo)
i – V – vi (half dim) 7 – V
ii (half dim) 7 – V – iv – V
You’ll notice that there’s a distinct 4-bar pattern running through this piece. It’s very symmetrical, and every 4-bar phrase ends with a V or V7 chord. The fifth chord in any scale is extremely common, and lends a feeling of tension. It sounds like a question, rather than an answer.
So Tchaikovsky leaves us with a question at the end of each phrase, like the child is asking, “Will my doll be okay?”
The first two phrases have very simple chord patterns. We just alternate between i and V7. This would be boring, but Tchaikovsky varies the lower notes so that it’s not the exact same ordering. The first G minor chord has a G as the bass note, but the second G minor chord has Bb as the bass note. This creates a nice little walking pattern in the left hand.
The second phrase is the same as the first; but we might want to play it a little different, like an echo.
In the next phrase, Tchaikovsky takes us on this downward journey – the bass note moves one by one, from G, to F#, and E, and D. Downward progressions like this are really common in sad-sounding music.
We start simply enough with our i chord, which moves to V chord. But the very next chord is a half-diminished chord. This is where you take a regular major 7 chord:
Eb G Bb D
And raise the lowest note (Eb) half a semitone (E).
Diminished chords always sound really dark and dreadful, which is perfectly fitting for this piece.
Our final chord in the phrase is a V chord again – asking the question.
We see a similar sort of pattern in the final phrase of the first section. We start with another dreadful half-diminished chord:
A C Eb G
Then move to our question mark chord (V), to iv (another very common chord in any key), and to our question mark chord once more (V).
Chords in the B section
i – V7 – i – V7
i – V7 – i – I
iv – VI7 – i – ii (half dim) 7
i – V7 – i – ii (dim) 7
i – ii (dim) 7 – i – iv
i7 – iv – i7 – iv – i
The B section starts with the exact same starting phrase of the A section, but then it starts to diverge and get more dramatic. The second phrase returns to the i chord, but the right hand leaps to a high note which immediately changes the vibe and adds more intensity.
Then we carry on through a sad descending right hand, until the final chord of the phrase, which very surprisingly brings us to a G major chord instead of G minor. Instead of asking a question like all of the other phrases, it’s almost like this one is saying, “Maybe the doll is all better!”
But that brings us to the weirdest chord-phrase of the whole piece. We start with the common iv chord, but quickly shift to a very unusual chord choice – an Eb7 chord. This has a startling yet hopeful sound, which sinks further into despair with our i chord and, the end of the sentence, a half-diminished 7 chord.
In the A section, the child concerned about the sick doll kept asking questions at the end of each phrase. But at the end of this phrase, the child feels despair.
Our next phrase returns to the normal i and V7 chords, but ends with a diminished 7th chord, the despair chord. It’s like this child has reached the dark realization that her doll might not survive.
(What a heavy storyline for kids!)
The next phrase is similar, but entirely minor chords. There’s no hope left anymore, no questioning.
In the final phrase of the piece, Tchaikovsky’s got one more trick up his sleeve. He changes our standard i chord to an i7, making the ending distinct from the rest of the piece. Another thing that makes the ending really distinct?
Instead of every phrase ending with a question (whether hopeful or in despair), this one finally ends on the answer of a G minor chord. Especially because the notes end so low on the piano, I don’t think things turned out very well for the doll.
(And if you need more proof, the very next piece in Tchaikovsky’s collection is called “The Doll’s Funeral”!)
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial for The Sick Doll by Tchaikovsky. Be sure to check out the (more difficult) Morning Prayer from the same collection if you enjoyed this one!