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 Edition
Release Date: 03/25/2014   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94650   Number of Discs: 55
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Tchaikovsky: Symphony No 6; Schoenberg / Barenboim, West-Eastern Divan
Release Date: 06/07/2011   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 001560702   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: The Oprichnik / Rozhdestvensky
Release Date: 10/30/2012   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94390   Number of Discs: 3
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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: Cherevichki / Rozhdesvensky, Teatro Lirico Di Cagliari
Release Date: 07/31/2012   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94375   Number of Discs: 3
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Work: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a

 

About This Work
From a strictly professional point of view, Tchaikovsky should have been a happy man in 1890. Finally acknowledged as the greatest Russian composer, he had produced symphonies, concertos, ballets, and his latest opera, The Queen of Spades, had been Read more hailed as a masterpiece. He had accepted an offer to conduct his works at the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York, and had in hand commissions from the Imperial Opera Directorate at St. Petersburg for a one-act lyric opera and another ballet.

His personal life, however, had become a train wreck and he was clinically and deeply depressed. Then, his long-time patroness, the Mme. Nadezhda von Meck, suddenly withdrew both her friendship and her financial support. His brilliant new opera was suddenly withdrawn after only 13 performances. In January 1891, he wrote his brother Modeste, "I am very tired...Is it wise to accept the offer of the opera?...My brain is empty; I have not the least pleasure in work."

Further -- the choice of subject for the new ballet had been made for him. It was to be a setting of Alexandre Dumas' adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Tchaikovsky insisted the work was unsuitable as the framework for a ballet, but set to work on it. Incredibly, he sketched out the entire first act before setting sail for America in March, but not before advising the Opera Directorate that the work could not be finished before December and would thus be ready for the following season, not the very next.

An unexpected musical highlight of the trip was the discovery in Paris of an instrument called a celesta, and immediately fascinated with it, he ordered his publisher to obtain one for use in the new ballet. By early July, the second act had been sketched and Tchaikovsky set to work orchestrating the lengthy work. This took until March 1892 and it was at this point that the suite came into existence. A concert in St. Petersburg on March 19 was to include his orchestral fantasy Voyevode, but Tchaikovsky substituted instead a 20-minute suite consisting of excerpts from the ballet. These are not performed in the same order as in the ballet itself and are ordered thus: Overture; No. 2 March; No. 14 Variation 2 (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy); No. 12d Trepak (Russian Dance); No. 12b Coffee (Arabian Dance); No. 12c Tea (Chinese Dance); No. 12e (Dance of the Mirlitons), and No. 13 (Waltz of the Flowers). The celesta appears in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Rising above his suicidal state of mind, Tchaikovsky crafted wonderful short dance tunes for the suite. The opening overture is scored for high strings and winds only and is a cheerful curtain raiser. The march is brisk but suggests toy soldiers as opposed to real ones, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is positively ethereal in its use of the celesta. The Russian Dance is as furious and rousing any 60-second piece could be, and the Arabian and Chinese dances are tiny jewels which, if not particularly authentic, are brilliantly evocative. Possibly the most brilliant and original work is the Dance of the Mirlitons -- a flute trio -- and the suite ends with the perfectly beautiful Waltz of the Flowers. It is music such as might have been crafted by Mozart himself had he persevered into the Romantic age and approached this same subject. It remains one of his most enduring works.

-- Michael Morrison
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