Like the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky wrote the Manfred Symphony at the behest of nationalist composer Mily Balakirev, who provided a program written by critic Vladimir Stasov. Stasov had sent the program to Balakirev in 1868, hoping that Balakirev would write a symphony based on it. Balakirev did not feel capable of carrying out this project and sent the program to French composer Hector Berlioz, whose programmatic works had genuinely impressed him. Berlioz refused, claiming old age and ill health, and returned the program to Balakirev. Balakirev kept the program until he reestablished contact with Tchaikovsky in the early 1880s.
The Manfred Symphony is the only programmatic symphonic work by Tchaikovsky in more than one movement. He initially considered the work one of his best, and in a typical reversal of opinion later considered destroying all but the opening movement. The symphony was greeted with mixed reviews, some finding much to laud in it, and others feeling that its programmatic aspects only weakened it. Manfred remained rarely performed for many years, due to its length and complexity. It has been recorded with increasing frequency but is still seldom heard in the concert hall.
Manfred is less frequently performed in concert. This is due to its length, unfamiliarity, and its requirement for a large orchestra, including obbligato organ. It is also considered to be a virtuoso work and difficult to play well.
- Manfred Symphony (sample)