Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Biography

Born: May 7, 1840; Russia   Died: Nov 6, 1893; Russia   Period: Romantic
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky was the author of some of the most popular themes in all of classical music. He founded no school, struck out no new paths or compositional methods, and sought few innovations in his works. Yet the power and communicative sweep of his best music elevates it to classic status, even if it lacks the formal boldness and harmonic sophistication heard in the compositions of his contemporaries, Wagner and Bruckner. It was Read more Tchaikovsky's unique melodic charm that could, whether in his Piano Concerto No. 1 or in his ballet The Nutcracker or in his tragic last symphony, make the music sound familiar on first hearing.

Tchaikovsky was born into a family of five brothers and one sister. He began taking piano lessons at age four and showed remarkable talent, eventually surpassing his own teacher's abilities. By age nine, he exhibited severe nervous problems, not least because of his overly sensitive nature. The following year, he was sent to St. Petersburg to study at the School of Jurisprudence. The loss of his mother in 1854 dealt a crushing blow to the young Tchaikovsky. In 1859, he took a position in the Ministry of Justice, but longed for a career in music, attending concerts and operas at every opportunity. He finally began study in harmony with Zaremba in 1861, and enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory the following year, eventually studying composition with Anton Rubinstein.

In 1866, the composer relocated to Moscow, accepting a professorship of harmony at the new conservatory, and shortly afterward turned out his First Symphony, suffering, however, a nervous breakdown during its composition. His opera The Voyevoda came in 1867-1868 and he began another, The Oprichnik, in 1870, completing it two years later. Other works were appearing during this time, as well, including the First String Quartet (1871), the Second Symphony (1873), and the ballet Swan Lake (1875).

In 1876, Tchaikovsky traveled to Paris with his brother, Modest, and then visited Bayreuth, where he met Liszt, but was snubbed by Wagner. By 1877, Tchaikovsky was an established composer. This was the year of Swan Lake's premiere and the time he began work on the Fourth Symphony (1877-1878). It was also a time of woe: in July, Tchaikovsky, despite his homosexuality, foolishly married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, an obsessed admirer, their disastrous union lasting just months. The composer attempted suicide in the midst of this episode. Near the end of that year, Nadezhda von Meck, a woman he would never meet, became his patron and frequent correspondent.

Further excursions abroad came in the 1880s, along with a spate of successful compositions, including the Serenade for Strings (1881), 1812 Overture (1882), and the Fifth Symphony (1888). In both 1888 and 1889, Tchaikovsky went on successful European tours as a conductor, meeting Brahms, Grieg, Dvorák, Gounod, and other notable musical figures. Sleeping Beauty was premiered in 1890, and The Nutcracker in 1892, both with success.

Throughout Tchaikovsky's last years, he was continually plagued by anxiety and depression. A trip to Paris and the United States followed one dark nervous episode in 1891. Tchaikovsky wrote his Sixth Symphony, "Pathétique," in 1893, and it was successfully premiered in October, that year. The composer died ten days later of cholera, or -- as some now contend -- from drinking poison in accordance with a death sentence conferred on him by his classmates from the School of Jurisprudence, who were fearful of shame on the institution owing to an alleged homosexual episode involving Tchaikovsky. Read less

Tchaikovsky, Grieg: Piano Concertos / Stewart Goodyear
Release Date: 06/10/2014   Label: Steinway & Sons  
Catalog: 30035   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: Sleeping Beauty / Jarvi, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 11/13/2012   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5113   Number of Discs: 2
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Opera In English - Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin / Mackerras
Release Date: 04/24/2001   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 3042   Number of Discs: 2
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Historical - Tchaikovsky: Complete String Quartets / Borodin
Release Date: 01/23/2001   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9871   Number of Discs: 2
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Tchaikovsky: Complete Suites / Järvi, Detroit So
Release Date: 11/17/1998   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9676   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: 1812 Overture, Op. 49

 

About This Work
Frequently derided as a patchwork of bombastic clichés, Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture is in fact a tautly crafted, brilliantly orchestrated, and immensely exciting piece for large orchestra, cathedral bells, and muzzle-loaded cannon. True Read more enough, the work makes shameless use of Russian and French anthems and a folk hymn, and its level of sophistication as music is comparable to that of a pie in the face as humor. But, a pie in the face can be hilarious, and this can be tremendously effective music.

Opening with a gentle hymn, God Preserve Thy People, the work sets the scene by depicting the Russians as bucolic, peaceful folk upon whom is suddenly thrust a war of aggression at the hands of the invading conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. Fragments of the French anthem are heard but rather than as music, they are blunt instruments and savage thrusts, rending the peace and wounding Mother Russia. The work erupts into successive passages of angry conflict and repetition of bits of themes among shattered fragments of music suggest the random violence of war. Eventually, a stirring fanfare of horns based upon Le Marseillaise calls forth a monstrous cadenza of Russian fervor which swarms over the work and finally bursts into an incredibly expansive version of the original Russian hymn, which then joins with God Preserve The Czar, complete with cannon shots and cascading bells. The work plays out at between 15 and 20 minutes and becomes rather more effective if given a pace to build tension and energy.

Even though the work is superficial, it contains the same emotional vectors found in all of Tchaikovsky's music, and leaps to life in a properly realized and sensitive performance. Similarly, it tends to fall flat if rushed or played merely for its sonic effects. As with many of his works, Tchaikovsky at different times both praised and derided the work, and given his schizophrenic tendency to do this, his own opinion of the work may be suspect. It is effectively if conventionally orchestrated and leaves the impression that the composer enjoyed writing it. Although not among his best works, the 1812 Overture is representative of Tchaikovsky's skills in structure and scoring, and certainly belongs in the collection of every listener at all interested in Tchaikovsky, nationalism in music, program music depicting war, or brilliant orchestration. Many otherwise serious and sophisticated listeners consider it THE premier fun piece of concert music.

-- Michael Morrison
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