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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: Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a

 

About This Work
The overly-sensitive Tchaikovsky was not pleased with the initial reaction to his ballet Swan Lake. It would become immensely popular after his death, but an 1882 revival of it at the Bolshoi neither succeeded in bringing it into the repertory nor in Read more pleasing the composer. Later that same year, Tchaikovsky asked his publisher, Pyotr Ivanovich Jurgenson, for a copy of the score, intending to distill a suite from it and possibly to revise the entire work itself. For various reasons, neither ever happened.

The Op. 20a suite performed today typically consists of six numbers, the first and last containing the work's famous music associated with Odette and the swans. The second number is the carefree but spirited waltz from Act I, played in the ballet to accompany the "Arrival of the Guests."

The "Dance of the Swans" comes next, a memorable piece whose bubbly manner and brilliant writing for winds combine to make this short piece one of the more memorable numbers here. The next section, "Scene" (Pas d'action), is enchanting and mostly slow, featuring some delightful solo violin writing. The fifth number is the "Hungarian Dance" (Czardas), which becomes fast, rhythmic, and quite exotic in its latter half. As suggested above, however, it is the opening and closing movements that contain the most famous and probably the best music. The oboe introduces the fantasy-like theme -- one of the composer's most memorable -- accompanied by harp. In the finale, this music begins with an Allegro agitato marking, thus heightening the tension in preparation for the story's climactic events.

In another version of the Swan Lake Suite, the "Spanish Dance," "Neapolitan Dance," and "Mazurka" follow the "Hungarian Dance." All this ethnic-flavored music is colorful and effective, but may actually be better suited to the ballet than to the suite. Performances of the suite can range from 25 to 30 minutes, depending on which music is played.

-- Robert Cummings
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