Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)

Pyotr (Peter) Tchaikovsky is probably the most famous Russian composer and wrote some of the most popular music for concert audiences. His musical gifts were clearly evident as a child. However, his father preferred for him to have a career in the Russian civil service. After graduating and working as a low-level cleric, Tchaikovsky entered the newly formed St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied piano, as well as composition with Anton Rubenstein. Although he was on friendly terms with most of the “Mighty Five” group of composers that included Borodin, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky’s Western-influenced conservatory training often put him at musical odds with the group.

Tchaikovsky’s first great success was with his fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. The love theme from this is one of the most famous melodies in the world and has been repeatedly used (and often caricatured) in movies and television. One of his next masterpieces was the First Piano Concerto. It was written for Anton Rubenstein’s brother, Nikolai, who declared it unplayable. The piece was eventually premiered in Boston by conductor Hans von Bülow. Today, it is the most frequently performed and recorded of all piano concertos. Tchaikovsky also wrote a popular Violin Concerto and a concertante work for cello, the Variations on a Rococo Theme. Some additional orchestral works include 6 numbered symphonies, the Capriccio Italien, the Russian Easter Overture and the famous 1812 Overture. He also wrote several popular pieces of chamber music, including string quartets, a piano trio, and many songs.

Tchaikovsky worked not only as a composer, but as a pianist, conductor, music critic, and professor at the Moscow Conservatory. He enjoyed a long-lasting patronage from a wealthy Russian widow, who enjoyed his music. This support, along with income from foreign concert tours and an eventual pension from the Tsar, enabled Tchaikovsky to concentrate on music full-time during the last few years of his life.

In addition to the previous compositions, Tchaikovsky enjoyed tremendous success on the stage, composing 10 operas, of which Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are still regularly performed. His most enduring popularity, however, is due to his 3 ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and the perennial holiday favorite, The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky died in 1893 from cholera. (Although a few biographers attribute his death to suicide, there is no clear evidence of this.) His music and influence helped open the doors in Western Europe and America to Russian music and paved the way for future Russian composers, including Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Viewing:

The Nutcracker (with Mikhail Baryshnikov)

Suggested Reading:

David Brown. Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music.