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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky - photograph Peter (or Pyotr) Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a composer whose music has made an indellible impression on the world, yet many things seemed to be stacked against him. His mother died from Cholera when Tchaikovsky was only 14 years old and this great loss affected the boy deeply. As a boy and also in later life, he suffered from various neuroses and experienced periods of deep depression. Although he learned the piano as a boy, Tchaikovsky was initially to study law and his first profession was as a clerk performing administrative functions. It was only at the age of 23 that he made a career change and decided to study composition at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory. His success there led to a post at the (also new) Moscow Conservatory with Nicholas Rubenstein (the brother of Anton Rubenstein who had established the St. Petersburg Conservatory). Although Tchaikovsky's music is now universally admired across the world, he wasn't always to receive a warm reception in his native Russia and a poor critical reception to his works understandably contributed to his periods of depression. For example, his first Piano Concerto which is now instantly recognisable and a firm favourite with concert goers was initially dedicated to Nicholas Rubenstein. He didn't like the work and Tchaikovsky felt devastated. The dedication was changed but years later Rubenstein changed his mind and was to play the work regularly.

Tchaikovsky: ballet suites CD cover The image that history has left us of Tchaikovsky is of a solitary figure who often worked in isolation. When in later life he accepted invitations to conduct, he felt homesick and longed to return home. For a while Tchaikovsky struck up a curious relationship with a woman called Nadezhda van Meck who became his benefactor, and her regular funding and letters of encouragement allowed him to compose without the constant worry of earning a living and he resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to concentrate on composition. The relationship was curious because the two never met. Undoubtedly a major contributor to the composer's bouts of depression was his homosexuality. This is not surprising since at that time in Russia, the state considered certain acts to be crimes carrying the death penalty! At one stage Tchaikovsky married a female admirer, perhaps to conceal his true nature, but the marriage was a disaster. It broke up within a short period of time, and Tchaikovsky suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide. It is not surprising that some of Tchaikovsky's music is full of sadness and despair. What is surprising perhaps is that much of his music is bright and happy.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky photo Tchaikovsky was never a total recluse. He met many other composers and musicians of the day. In his native Russia he certainly knew several members of the Russian Nationalist School and for a while was inspired by their musical thinking. The core of this group consisted of five composers often referred to as the "kuchka" or "mighty handful" - Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and Cesar Cui. These composers sought to compose and promote music which emphasised its Russian origins using folk music and other traditions, and largely shunning the music being composed in other parts of the world. Tchaikovsky's music might seem very Russian to modern ears, but his fellow countrymen detected traces of European influence. It is true that his music has a broader appeal, characterised by beautiful melodies, inventive orchestration, and a "heart on sleeve" emotional warmth and engagement. Indeed his music was more popular abroad than in his native country, and perhaps this was the cause of some initial resentment back home.

Russian Coin commemorating the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky In time Tchaikovsky's music became more accepted in Russia. When his former benefactor stopped his allowance after 13 years, he was soon the beneficiary of funding from the Russian government. He even overcame his previous reluctance both to travel and to conduct. He travelled abroad to conduct his own music in European cities and in the US to great success. However his life was to end in tragedy. The official story is that he contacted Cholera (the same disease which had struck his mother years before) by carelessly drinking a glass of unboiled water, though a later story suggested that he committed suicide. Shortly before he died, Tchaikovsky had completed his 6th Symphony. The premier was not a great critical success, but the piece's mood of deepest despair seems prophetic.

Tchaikovsky's music:

Tchaikovsky has left us a wealth of great music including Symphonies and Concertos, some Operas and many shorter works. He is particularly remembered for his story-telling music, including the "Romeo and Juliet" overture and the evocative free-flowing ballet music for "Swan Lake", "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty". Among the many familiar pieces from The Nutcracker is the Sugar Plum Fairy and you can download the Sheet Music or Midi File of this work. Alternatively for pianists we have this Piano arrangement of the Sugar Plum Fairy. We also have sheet music for some shorter piano pieces by Tchaikocsky, and you will find these below:

    Tchaikovsky: Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 CD cover
  • 1st Symphony - "Winter Daydreams"
  • 2nd Symphony - "Little Russian" is the closest to the ideals of the Nationalist School
  • 3rd Symphony - "Polish"
  • 4th Symphony - the 3rd movement is memorable for its pizzicato strings, and a "fate" motif introduced at the beginning reappears during the 1st and last movements, and the last movement also uses the Russian Folk Song The Birch Tree
  • Manfred Symphony - a symphonic poem rather than a symphony
  • 5th Symphony - the most peaceful of the later symphonies, the slow movement in particular has been used on television shows
  • 6th Symphony - the "Pathetique" springs undoubtedly from a troubled heart but a wonderful work, the 2nd movement is a 5/4 waltz, the 3rd is a brilliantly lively scherzo (audiences often clap afterwards thinking it must be the last movement), and the finale (with inventive crossing over string parts) is full of the deepest depair, and fails to resolve the darkness of the 1st
  • Three Piano Concertos - the first being is the most popular and was played by Lang Lang at the 2003 Promenade concerts
  • Violin Concerto - also popular
  • 1812 Overture - a show piece composed as a commission which quotes from La Marseillaise and God Save the Tsar, the French and Russian National Anthems (in Tchaikovsky's day) and in its full version uses cannons to depict the famous battle where the Russian forces repelled Napoleon's army
  • Marche Slave - also uses the Russian National Anthem
  • Opera: Eugene Onegin - celebrated opera, based on a story by Pushkin
  • Opera: The Queen of Spades - also based on a Pushkin story, is among several other operas which are not so well known
  • Ballet: Swan Lake - almost the quintessential ballet music, and used extensively by Clint Mansell in his score for the film Black Swan
  • Ballet: Sleeping Beauty
  • Ballet: The Nutcracker - with lots of short lively tunes some of which were used on the Disney film "Fantasia" including the Sugar Plum Fairy
  • some Chamber Music - 3 strings quartets, a piano trio and numerous solo pieces for piano and other instruments
  • Serenade for Strings
  • Variations on a Rococco theme - for Cello and Orchestra
  • Francesca da Rimini - tone poem
  • Capriccio Italien - this starts with a version of the following Bugle Call which we have included in our article about Bugle Calls
  • Romeo and Juliet - this "fantasy overture" is virtually a tone poem, with that well-known love theme

Tchaikovsky also wrote a large number of shorter works for the piano, and here are two examples which can both be played by piano students with a few year's experience:

  • Waltz - No.8 from his "Album for the Young" Op.39
  • Chanson Triste - or "Sad Song" Op.40 No.2 displaying a typically melancholy mood

Tchaikovsky - Recommendations:

Here are some CD recordings which will introduce you to key music by Tchaikovsky.

  • The Ballet Suites - the suites are collections of music from the ballets often played separately in concerts with the main themes and favourites well-represented, conducted by the Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, available from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
  • Symphonies 4, 5 and 6 - the best of Tchaikovsky's symphonies conducted by Herbert von Karajan, on a double CD set available at Amazon.com