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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: Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty
Release Date: 10/17/1995   Label: Emi Seraphim  
Catalog: 69036   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich: String Quartets / Borodin Quartet
Release Date: 11/18/2008   Label: Euroarts  
Catalog: 2072298   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker / Baryshnikov, Kirkland, American Ballet Theatre
Release Date: 09/28/2004   Label: Kultur Video  
Catalog: 2925   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky, Ellington/Strayhorn: Nutcracker Suites
Release Date: 10/08/2013   Label: Harmonia Mundi  
Catalog: 907493   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: 18 Piano Pieces / Konstantin Shamray
Release Date: 02/28/2012   Label: Naxos  
Catalog: 8572225   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Rococo Variations

 

About This Work
Three of the most brilliant virtuoso display pieces in the symphonic literature all came from the tormented pen of Peter Tchaikovsky. These are his First Piano Concerto, his Violin Concerto, and this work for cello and orchestra. Done in the Read more potentially tedious theme and variations format, the work begins with a simple theme and plumbs the depths and streaks to the heights of the capabilities of what is arguably the most beautiful and wide ranging of the stringed instruments of the orchestra.

The rococo theme itself is a simple one and if it tips its hat to the eighteenth century -- and Tchaikovsky's musical idol, Mozart -- it is thoroughly Tchaikovskyian and utterly Romantic. Each of the seven variations is skillfully crafted and none sounds contrived or forced -- always a potential trap in this form. Two expressive cadenzas further push the performance envelope of the cello and at least one variation is as powerfully mournful and expressive as anything the morose Russian ever composed. The work finally bursts forth into a joyous final variation and concludes with satisfying enthusiasm, but without overly produced bombast.

Rococo Variations were composed in short score near the end of 1876 for Wilhelm Fitzhagen, who was principal cellist at the Moscow Conservatory. Fitzhagen got a short score of the new variations so he could make the cello part idiomatic while Tchaikovsky was orchestrating the rest. This was introduced at a Moscow concert on November 30, 1877, when the composer was "recuperating" in Switzerland from the debacle of his one and only marriage earlier that year. He didn't know of revisions Fitzhagen made and presented to the publisher Jurgenson as "authorized." Tchaikovsky's own version had a brief introduction for strings before the theme itself, in two parts, then eight variations, and a coda. Fitzhagen added repeat marks to both halves of the theme, killed variation 8, rearranged the original order (to 1, 2, 7, 5, 6, 3, 4), and truncated the coda. Although biographer David Brown has damned this version as "deplorably corrupt," it remains charming, albeit less effective than the original, finally published in a 1956 Soviet edition of Tchaikovsky's complete works.

The genius in the work is the manner in which Tchaikovsky transforms the original theme into numerous and different personalities, each logical and effective. There is never a sense of stalling or contrivance, nor, in spite of the ferocious virtuoso demands in certain of the variations, of mere pyrotechnic display. It is the work of Tchaikovsky the musician and composer, not of the tormented and overwrought soul who could sometimes pound the listener into submission with emotional extremes. Those interested in beautiful and challenging works for cello and in hearing Tchaikovsky at his musical best should enjoy this piece immensely.

-- Michael Morrison
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