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: 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, Grieg: Piano Concertos / Stewart Goodyear
Release Date: 06/10/2014   Label: Steinway & Sons  
Catalog: 30035   Number of Discs: 1
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Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake / Jarvi, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 10/29/2013   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5124   Number of Discs: 2
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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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Historical - Tchaikovsky: Complete String Quartets / Borodin
Release Date: 01/23/2001   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 9871   Number of Discs: 2
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Work: Sleeping Beauty Suite, Op. 66a

 

About This Work
Although this suite can take many forms according to the whims of the conductor, it almost always includes the following three pieces.

Most famously, there's the waltz from Act 1. After an exciting, anticipatory introduction, the bright,
Read more gently swaying waltz itself begins in the strings, with a second, more staccato strain punctuated by brass chords. The principal melody reappears against chirping figures in the woodwinds, only to give way to a charming episode for flute and glockenspiel. The entire waltz, minus the introduction, is then repeated, and ends with a festive coda.

The so-called Rose Adagio is also drawn from Act 1. It opens with brief woodwind commentary, then one of Tchaikovsky's typically effusive harp solos. The main theme, for the violins, is one of the composer's most effective "happy-but-yearning" melodies. The mood becomes more melancholy and uncertain, and melodic fragments become building blocks of intensity, ascending to an even more passionate statement of the melody. Delicate lyrical wisps wave through the woodwinds in a long transitional passage that leads to the most ardent treatment of the main theme yet, now with cymbal crashes and a brass peroration.

The third critical excerpt from the ballet is the Act 3 pas de quatre, sometimes known by the name of its most impressive section, the Bluebird Pas de Deux. The whole episode sometimes circulates separately in a reorchestration by Igor Stravinsky. The original begins with the flute and clarinet echoing the phrases of a cheerful, ornithologically darting melody, although the other woodwinds and violins briefly intrude with more somber material. The birdsong returns, now with a little coda. The next section is a short but big, brassy waltz, followed by a swooping flute melody accompanied by the clarinet, which is soon taken up by the whole orchestra. The final section is a dizzy calliope-like theme for strings and woodwinds that builds intensity upon each brief repeat, culminating in a brilliant though not drawn-out conclusion.

-- James Reel
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