Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to make an impact internationally. He was part of a new wave of Russian composers that had taken on the European symphonic style and worked on synthesising it with deeply personal and national writing style. Although he sometimes quoted Russian folksong and Russian Orthodox melodies, the Western European style that he was exposed to during his conservatory training set him apart from the Russian nationalist composers of his era. His repertoire consists of impressive symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music and sacred works. 

Born in 1840, Tchaikovsky showed musical talent from a young age, but received an education that was to prepare him for the civil service. He was appointed to the Ministry of Justice at age 19 but he had other passions. Tchaikovsky’s professional musical training began with music theory classes and composition in 1861. He graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865, where, as well as composition, he had also studied piano, flute and organ.

He moved to Moscow in 1866, where he made many significant friends such as Anton Rubinstein as well as Balakirev and other nationalist composers.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphonies respond to western expectations and are technically demanding with beautifully lavish melodies. In his First Symphony, the first theme is a Russian folksong and in the scherzo and trio, another Western pattern, the main theme is made up of a subtle folk motif based on the diminutives in Russian speech. In his Second Symphony, he uses folksong in three out of four movements; but this was the last symphony in which he uses folk melodies so pervasively.

Tchaikovsky is well known for his programme music. His programmatic writing was emotional, descriptive and vivid. His first tone poem, Fatum (1868) still remains a mystery as Tchaikovsky stated that its programme was too personal to disclose. It contains three contrasting themes; were the themes related to his failed courtship with Desiree Artôt? Whatever their meaning, it led to plentiful contact between Tchaikovsky and Balakirev, who was the ‘head’ of the nationalist composers known as ‘The Mighty Handful’, or ‘The Five’, based in St. Petersburg. While Tchaikovsky was dubious about their composition style, he remained on friendly terms with them. He worked together with Balakirev on Romeo and Juliet, his fantasy-overture which ‘the Five’ were very enthusiastic about and which was his first significant masterpiece.


Photo (above): Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes in Romeo and Juliet.
Credits: Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of BSJ.

Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.

Artist Picture

Tchaikovsky’s success was boosted by the fact that he had very competent soloists and conductors at his disposal, such as Hans von Bülow, to carry out performances. The enthusiasm of the audiences resulted in more frequent concerts and therefore a very short waiting period between the music’s completion and its introduction into the public sphere. Tchaikovsky also worked as a conductor himself, believing it would further reinforce this success and for which he was indeed in great demand, and not just in Russia but across Europe.

His renowned ballet Swan Lake, op. 20 was composed, for the most part, on his summer holidays and is based on Russian folktales and premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in 1877. His sheer enthusiasm for this genre resulted it being completed surprisingly quickly after it was commissioned.

Tchaikovsky taught at the Moscow Conservatory for many years, for which was praised by his former teacher Anton Rubinstein, but from 1878 he got his wish, to have more freedom to compose and gain a more fluid inspiration.

In his late career, which can be said to be from his Fifth Symphony onwards, his work is marked by a new-found youthfulness that flows with ease, one in which he accepts his own mortality and in which a distinction between worldly and other-worldly can be perceived. His ballet Sleeping Beauty was the first large scale work after his Fifth Symphony which is very much characterised by this new style.  In 1890, despite a letter from his patron to let him know she was ending their financial arrangement, which no doubt brought on considerable anxiety and uncertainty, he soon went on to write one of his famous ballets The Nutcracker.

Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music.

His conducting career brought him to the United States in April and May of 1891 to the pleasant surprise that his music was quite well known there. The American visit was a busy but very positive experience, in which he conducted the orchestra of the New York Musical Society at Carnegie Hall.

Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth 'Pathetique' Symphony in Saint Petersburg on the 28th of October 1892. He knew before he composed it that this would be his last work and indeed he died nine days later. It has never been proven whether his death was by accidently drinking contaminated water, which brought on cholera, or whether he committed suicide.

To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing.

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