Watch an excerpt of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 in E minor
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Watch the National Symphony Orchestra rehearse Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony.
Tchaikovsky was a leading Russian composer of the late 19th century, whose works
are notable for their melodic inspiration and their orchestration. He is regarded
as the master composer for classical ballet, as demonstrated by his scores for
Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty. Among the most subjective
of composers, Tchaikovsky is inseparable from his music. His work is a manifestation,
sometimes charming, often showy, of repressed feelings that became more and more
despairing in later years and were most fully expressed in his Sixth Symphony,
one of the greatest symphonic works of its time. Though his later work rejected
conscious Russian nationalism, its underlying sentiment and character are as distinctively
Russian as that of the Russian nationalist composers. His success in bridging
the gulf between the musician and the general public partly accounts for the position
he enjoys in Russia, as well as throughout the world of music.
No composer since Tchaikovsky has suffered more from changes of fashion or from
the extremes of over- and under-valuation. He achieved an enormous popularity
with a wide audience, largely through his more emotional works; but the almost
hypnotic effect that he was able to induce led to serious questioning of his true
musical quality. He is certainly the greatest master of the classical ballet.
His last three symphonies are deservedly famous, and to these should be added
the neglected Manfred Symphony, the First Piano Concerto and the Violin
Concerto. Notable among his other orchestral works are the early Romeo and
Juliet Overture and the exquisite Serenade for Strings. Of the operas,
Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece and The Queen of Spades dramatically
effective. His chamber music includes string quartets, solo piano music and many
Early life and education
Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, a small industrial town
east of Moscow. His father was superintendent of government-owned mines, and his
mother Alexandra was half French. Tchaikovsky was musically precocious, but his
interest was not actively encouraged because his parents felt it had an unhealthy
effect on an already neurotically excitable child. One night after a party, Alexandra
found him awake, pointing to his forehead, and crying, "Oh this music, this
music! Take it away! It's here and it won't let me sleep!" Pyotr's father
played a great variety of music on his orchestrion, a rudimentary form of a record
player. After hearing tunes from the opera Don Giovanni, Pyotr became a
lifelong admirer of Mozart. His childhood piano teacher was Maria Palchikova,
a freed serf, and within a year he was able to play better than she could. When
his father moved to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, the boy entered the School
of Jurisprudence in 1850 and quickly passed through the school's upper divisions.
When he was 14 years old, Tchaikovsky' mother died of cholera. Though his musical
training was informal, the boy composed a waltz for piano in her memory.
After graduation, Tchaikovsky entered the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg
as civil servant, a class of workers that represented petty officialdom and oppression
to ordinary Russians. Tchaikovsky was not naturally suited to such a job but he
remained at the Ministry of Justice for four years, bored but dutiful. He continued
playing the piano and going to concerts. He joined the Ministry's own choral group,
and in 1861, he began to study musical theory under Nikolai Zaremba, the Head
of the Russian Musical Society
The pianist and composer Anton Rubenstein, who became the first director of the
new St. Petersburg Music Conservatory, was the first to see real signs of talent
in Tchaikovsky. When he failed to get a promotion at the Ministry, Tchaikovsky
resigned and entered the St. Petersburg Music Conservatory at the age of twenty-two.
He supported himself by teaching music, learned to play organ and flute, and joined
the Conservatory orchestra. Tchaikovsky's first orchestral score (1864), an overture
based on Aleksandr Ostrovsky's melancholy play The Storm, is remarkable
in that it shows many of the stylistic features that would later be associated
with his music. Rubenstein, whose tastes were formed by earlier styles, was critical
of the work; he had expected Tchaikovsky's composition to be dark and dreary,
Tchaikovsky instead created a colorful, dramatic piece of "program music,"
including unusual instruments such as the harp, oboe, and tuba. Rubenstein was
also critical of Tchaikovsky's graduation exercise, a cantata representing Schiller's
Ode to Joy. The cantata was performed January 12, 1866, in the presence of
a distinguished audience - but Tchaikovsky was too nervous to attend. Rubenstein
threatened to withhold Tchaikovsky's diploma, but nobody could deny Pyotr's outstanding
talent. In late 1865, Rubenstein's brother Nikolai, director of the newly established
Moscow Conservatory offered Tchaikovsky a post as professor of harmony, five years
of lodging and monetary support to Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky settled in Moscow in January 1866, although he underwent a mental
crisis as a consequence of overwork on his Symphony No. 1 in G minor (Winter
Daydreams), Opus 13 (1866). His compositions of the late 1860s and early '70s
reveal a distinct affinity with the music of the nationalist group of composers
in St. Petersburg, both in their treatment of folk song and in their harmonies
deriving from a common link with Mikhail Glinka, the "father" of a Russian
nationalist style. He corresponded with the leader of the group, Mily Balakirev,
at whose suggestion he wrote a fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet (1869).
Tchaikovsky's intrinsic charm is nowhere more apparent than in the nationalist
comic opera Valkula the Smith (1874; first performed 1876), which in its
revised form, Cherevicki (The Little Shoes), is of similar merit
to another opera, Sorochintsy Fair (also based on one of Nikolay Gogol's
Ukrainian tales), by the most original composer in the Petersburg group, Modest
Mussorgsky. Tchaikovsky's opera, however, is much closer to Balakirev's own folkloric
idiom than anything Mussorgsky wrote.
After a fleeting, but unsuccessful, love affair with Désirée Artôt,
the prima donna of a visiting Italian opera company, he had only one further romantic
relationship with a woman. In the mid-1870s he had another nervous breakdown.
One of the symptoms of this nadir in his life was almost hysterical activity in
composition culminating in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 (1877), and
the opera Eugene Onegin (1877-78), based on a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin.
He felt in such sympathy with Pushkin's heroine, Tatyana, that when a former music
student, Antonina Milyukova, became infatuated with Tchaikovsky, threatening suicide
should he reject her, he identified her in his mind with the cruelly spurned Tatyana
and consented to marry her.
Late in 1876, Tchaikovsky had begun an extraordinary correspondence with an admirer
of his compositions, the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. She created an annuity
sufficient to allow Tchaikovsky to devote himself entirely to composition. By
her wish, the two never met. Their intimate correspondence was more revealing
of her than of Tchaikovsky. Wishing always to be liked, he was apt to write what
he thought people wanted to read rather than what he really thought. The detailed
program of his Fourth Symphony, which he made up especially for her, is generally
regarded with circumspection. He later averred that replying to her frequently
effusive letters had become "irksome." All the same, this curious relationship
apparently fulfilled a deeply felt psychological need for both, particularly for
Tchaikovsky, whose wife, proving importunate even after a separation had been
arranged, had to be bought off.
Tchaikovsky's attempts to justify to himself her generous annuity caused him to
overwork during the next few years. He composed the Piano Sonata in G major, Opus
37 (1878), the orchestral Suite No. 1 in D minor, Opus 43 (1878-79), music for
the coronation of his patron the Emperor Alexander III, and the first of his mature
attempts to write a commercially successful opera, The Maid of Orleans,
(1878-79). The years 1878 to 1881 also included several major achievements: the
Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35 (1878), and the popular Serenade for String
in C major, Opus 48 (1880); Capriccio italien, Opus 45 (1880); and the
1812 Overture, Opus 49 (1880). Eugene Onegin, which was only a token
success at its Moscow premiere, enjoyed great popularity in St. Petersburg because
of the emperor's admiration. The Manfred Symphony Opus 58, composed in
1885, not only called forth unstinted praise but showed in some of its histrionically
despairing episodes the path that Tchaikovsky's life and music were to follow
in the last years.
In 1885 he bought a house at Maidanovo, near Moscow, where he lived until the
year before his death, when he moved into the house that is now the Tchaikovsky
House Museum in the nearby town of Klin. He began to travel more in Russia and
vacationed twice in the Caucasus. He overcame an aversion to conducting and in
1888 undertook an important and well received foreign tour, directing his own
works in Leipzig (where he met the composers Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg),
Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Paris, and London.
This tour was the apex of Tchaikovsky's later life. From then on, despite the
continuing success of many of his former compositions and the acclamation of new
ones, including his second Pushkin opera, The Queen of Spades, and his
favorite ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, he was working his way toward another
nervous breakdown. His major compositions, starting with Symphony No. 5 in E minor,
Opus 64 (1888), became more and more intense and emotional, filled with both exaltation
Tchaikovsky went on further tours, including to the United States and England,
where he conducted his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 (composed
1874-75), in 1889 and his Fourth Symphony in 1893. In 1893 Cambridge University
awarded him an honorary doctor of music degree. These and other successes, including
the tumultuous reception accorded to the suite he hastily made for concert performance
from his Nutcracker ballet music (1892), did not alter the inexorable decline
in his mental condition, which was aggravated in 1890 when Nadezhda von Meck suddenly
ended both their correspondence and the annuity. From a financial standpoint this
hardly mattered, because the royalties from The Queen of Spades covered
the loss without difficulty, and he was by this time a recipient of a state pension.
Tchaikovsky never forgave her, and the nature of the psychological wound it inflicted
upon him can be judged by the fact that in the delirium of his last illness he
repeated her name again and again in indignant tones.
In August 1893 Tchaikovsky completed his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74 (Pathétique)
which was his last and which he rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. On October
28 he conducted its first performance in St. Petersburg. Its novel slow finale
could hardly have been expected to induce such applause as had greeted, only 18
months earlier, the premiere of the lighter Nutcracker Suite. Into this
work, with its "secret" program, he had put his whole soul. Tchaikovsky
was devastated by the public response. On November 2, 1893-six days after the