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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

1840 - 1893

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (25 April/7 May 1840 – 25 October/6 November 1893), often anglicized as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was a Russian composer of the late-Romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, bolstered by his appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. 

(b. Votkinsk, May 7, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893)

Russian composer. He was the most accomplished and professional Russian composer of the 19th century: conservatory trained, literate, astutely critical of his own work and others’, and highly disciplined. His music, always popular with audiences and righdy valued by musicians such as Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich, is no longer subject to the critical disparagement it suffered at times during the 20th century, when it was dismissed by some as maudlin or hysterical, by others as irrelevant or merely pretty.

The son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had a sheltered childhood, and his preternaturally sensitive nature and talent for self-expression were apparent early on; music would remain in the background, however, until he was in his 20s. In 1852 he was sent to board at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, from which he graduated in 1859. He spent a couple of years in the tsarist ministry of justice, and in 1861, still working at the ministry, he signed up for a theory class at the Russian Musical Society. In 1862 he entered the newly opened St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with Anton Rubinstein. In September of 1865, shortly after his graduation, he was offered a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory by Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton’s brother. He moved to Moscow in January 1866 and took up his duties as an instructor of music theory when the conservatory opened the following September.

Despite his teaching obligations and a less than optimal domestic situation (for the first five years he boarded with Rubinstein), Tchaikovsky composed prolifically over the next decade, penning, among other works, his first three symphonies, several tone poems, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the Piano Concerto in B-flat minor, three operas, and two string quartets. In the summer of 1876 he traveled to Bayreuth to attend the first performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle. The following year brought tumultuous changes in Tchaikovsky’s life. In December 1876 came the unforeseen appearance of a benefactress—the elusive Nadezhda von Meek, widow of a railroad baron—who was to provide much-needed encouragement, financial and emotional support, and above all an outlet for Tchaikovsky’s communicative urge. In July 1877, swayed from his better judgment by thoughts of Aleksandr Pushkin’s fatally cold-hearted hero Eugene Onegin (soon to be the subject of an opera), the homosexual Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova. The marriage proved to be disastrous and short-lived. By the end of September, the composer had made a halfhearted attempt at suicide and suffered a complete nervous breakdown. His younger brother Anatoly arranged a quick separation, then hustled Tchaikovsky out of the country, in the hope that he could work in peace and recover his sanity.

During the months that followed, Tchaikovsky visited Paris and Vienna and traveled widely in Italy. He completed his Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin, and he learned that Mme von Meek was willing to provide him with an annual stipend of 6,000 rubles. Out of respect for her wishes Tchaikovsky never met his mysterious patroness, but during the 14 years of their curious, arm’s-length relationship, carried on entirely by correspondence, they were often in close proximity. In 1878, during a joint but separate sojourn in Florence, he noted that she stopped in front of his villa every morning to try to catch a glimpse of him. “How should I behave?” he wrote his brother. “Should I go to the window and bow?”

Key Works

Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13 "Winter Dreams"

I. Allegro tranquillo (0:00)
II. Adagio cantabile (12:17)
III. Scherzo. Allegro scherzando giocoso (24:45)
IV. Finale. Andante lugubre (32:53)

Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17 "Little Russian"

I. Andante sostenuto - Allegro vivo (0:00)
II. Andante marziale (11:35)
III. Scherzo. Allegro molto vivace (18:53)
IV. Finale. Moderato assai (24:21)

I. Introduzione e Allegro. Moderato assai (Tempo di marcia funebre) - Allegro brillante (0:00)
II. Alla tedesca. Allegro moderato e semplice - Trio (15:30)
III. Andante. Andante elegiaco (26:38)
IV. Scherzo. Allegro vivo - Trio (36:32)
V. Finale. Allegro con fuoco (Tempo di polacca) (42:42)

Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

Begun in 1877 before his marriage and finished the following year after his separation, the symphony is an emotional diary in music.

An ominous brass fanfare, denoting fate, is followed by a string theme reminiscent of decisive moments in Bizet’s Carmen. The composer’s comment on the recurrence of the fanfare was: ‘All life is an unbroken alternation of hard reality and swiftly passing dreams of happiness.”


A lament for oboe becomes a warmly nostalgic string theme, which passes through noble desperation to a quietly resigned conclusion.

After the lament of the second movement recedes, the sprightly scherzo features pizzicato strings alternating with blocks of jaunty woodwind and brass in a good-natured jumble.

A hectic, clattering theme is contrasted with variations on a Russian children’s song about hopeful brides (“In the field a little birch tree stood”), evidently a reference to Antonina. The work ends in boisterous determination.

I. Andante sostenuto - Moderato con anima (0:00)
II. Andantino in modo di canzona (18:15)
III. Scherzo. Pizzicato ostinato - Allegro (29:33)
IV. Finale. Allegro con fuoco (35:09)

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

I. Andante - Allegro con anima (0:00)
II. Andantino cantabile, con alcum licenza (16:57)
III. Valse. Allegro moderato (31:32)
IV. Finale. Andante maestoso (37:49)

Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique"

I. Adagio - Allegro non troppo (0:00)
II. Allegro con grazia (20:25)
III. Allegro molto vivace (28:22)
IV. Adagio lamentoso (37:44)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23

I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso 0:22
II. Andantino semplice 21:25
III. Allegro con fuoco 28:47

Piano Concerto No 2 in G major, Op 44

I. Allegro brillante e molto vivace
II. Andante non troppo 
III. Allegro con fuoco

Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 75

Violin Concerto in D major, Op 35

1 Allegro moderato
2 Canzonetta: Andante
3 Finale. Allegro vivacissimo

1812 Overture

Capriccio Italien, Op 45

Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (Fantasia da Dante)

Romeo and Juliet, fantasy overture

The Nutcracker, ballet in two acts

Swan Lake, Op.20, ballet in  four acts

After its unsuccessful Moscow premiere in 1877, Swan Lake was revised in 1895, two years after Tchaikovsky’s death. That version, with choreography by Petipa and Ivanov, to a tighter libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest (complete with happier ending), is the basis of the ballet we know today.
ACT ONE (50:00)
At the royal palace, Prince Siegfried celebrates his coming-of-age. Various dances entertain the party to now-familiar themes, and a flight of swans appears, marked by the main oboe melody of the ballet.
ACT TWO (30:00)
At a moonlit lakeside, Siegfried and friends are hunting swans, denoted by the oboe melody. However, one swan - Odette - tells him she is a woman, turned into a swan by the evil magician Rotbart.

ACT THREE (45:00)
At the royal castle, Siegfried has to choose a wife at a ball, entertained by various dances.

He thinks he sees Odette there, but she is actually Odile, Rotbart’s daughter. Siegfried dances with her and nominates her as his bride, spelling doom for Odette.

ACT FOUR (15:00)
Back at the lake, 
Odette is about to die but Siegfried battles with Rotbart, breaks the spell and is reunited with her, as the swan theme triumphantly reappears.

"Eugene Onegin" - Overture

"Eugene Onegin" - Act 2: Entr'acte and Waltz with Chorus

"Eugene Onegin" - Act 1: Letter Scene

"Eugene Onegin" -  Final Scene. 
Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

 "Eugene Onegin" -  Kuda, Kuda - Lensky's aria

"Eugene Onegin" - opera


Completed in 1878, and based on a verse novel by Pushkin, this story of a bored, Byronic young aristocrat’s desultory and damaging love affairs constantly reminds us that “real life is not like a novel”; yet its “Letter Scene” eerily reflects the composer’s own personal struggles at the time.
Themes (including pre-Revolutionary Russia, town versus country, social convention, and death of inspiration) abound in this enduring opera, which in many ways is “about” Tatiana, the only character who grows, rather than the superficial, irredeemable Onegin.
ACT ONE (65:00)
Russia, c.1820. Eugene Onegin, having inherited his uncle’s country estate outside St Petersburg, is introduced by his poet friend Lensky to the Larin sisters: the flighty Olga, and the brooding, novel-reading Tatiana. Tatiana declares her love for Onegin by letter, but he brushes her off.

ACT TWO (40:00)
Onegin, provoking : his hot-headed friend takes Lensky’s beloved Olga to a ball. A duel inevitably results, in which Onegin kills Lensky.

ACT THREE (35:00)
Onegin falls in love with Tatiana, who is now married to his cousin Prince Gremin. She still loves him but stays with her husband, suspecting that her attraction is now only as a challenge.

Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov

The stipend from Mme von Meek brought Tchaikovsky a measure of financial independence and allowed him to leave his job at the conservatory. The epis-tolatory relationship that went with it provided him with a sounding board. He nonetheless would always struggle to recapture his emotional equilibrium. Free to travel, he wandered in Russia and through much of Europe for six years.

Realizing that he needed to put down roots, he settled in Klin, about 60 miles northwest of Moscow, in 1885. There he would live for the rest of his life, composing according to a rigorous daily routine, with frequent breaks for travel:

Italy in 1890; the United States in 1891 for a tour of the East Coast and the opening of Carnegie Hall, at which he conducted; England in 1893, to receive an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. Stability, of a sort, returned in his final years, enabling him to compose several works of towering greatness—including the ballet The Sleeping Beauty (1889), the opera The Queen of Spades (1890), and the Pathetique Symphony (1893)—in blazingly concentrated bursts of creativity.

Tchaikovsky’s death so soon after the premiere of the latter work was long believed to have been caused by cholera, but suicide cannot be ruled out. Theories abound as to why the composer might have chosen to end his own life, including one that Tchaikovsky took poison after being confronted by his old schoolmates from the School of Jurisprudence with a letter that would have exposed him as a homosexual. The true circumstances of his death may never be known.

At the very outset of his career, Tchaikovsky learned to sketch and score his works quickly, to polish and revise those that did not initially satisfy him (in the case of Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 and Romeo and Juliet, several times), and to resist the temptation to rush a score to completion. He composed numerous solo piano pieces, a small number of chamber works, and more than 100 songs, many of them quite lovely. But it was in the larger forms that he excelled. Here his output was evenly balanced between works for the stage—operas and ballets —and symphonic ones, the orchestra being the common denominator. Unlike many of his colleagues, who practiced orchestration as if it were a sartorial exercise, Tchaikovsky thought directly in terms of orchestral color. His resourcefulness in the use of instruments was unsurpassed, but for him it was the orchestra itself, not individual instruments, that had a sound—which is why all of his orchestral scores have a lustrous sonority that can be immediately identified as “Tchaikovskian.”

Like Mozart, whose music he admired, Tchaikovsky responded eagerly to the challenge of characterization in his stage music. Of his ten operas, the ones now most likely to be encountered are Eugene Onegin (1879), The Maid of Orleans (1881, derived from Schiller), Mazeppa (1884), and The Queen of Spades. Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both based on Pushkin, summoned music of extraordinary richness and vitality from the composer and have become standard repertoire works outside Russia. Their central characters— the one (Onegin) fatalistic and disdainful, the other (Hermann) feverishly obsessed with winning at cards—resonated powerfully with Tchaikovsky, in part, no doubt,
because both spurn love when it is offered. The composer can hardly be blamed for turning Pushkin’s cynical detachment from those characters into something much more emotionally involving.

Among the most beautiful of all Tchaikovsky’s works are his three ballets, Swan Lake (1877), The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker (1892), which inhabit a fairy-tale world, albeit one with a dark side. Thanks to his extraordinary skill as an orchestrator, Tchaikovsky was able to evoke a specific atmosphere in each and draw listeners into the enchanted stories. But while the plots are fanciful, the emotions touched on in the music are profoundly human. By transforming the role of music in the ballet from a grand decorative gesture into an essential component of the drama on the stage—first in Swan Lake and to an even greater extent in The Sleeping Beauty—Tchaikovsky revolutionized the art of composing for the dance.

As a symphonist Tchaikovsky enriched the repertoire and exerted a vital influence on later composers as diverse as Sibelius, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Of his first three symphonies, all accomplished exercises, the second (known as the Little Russian) has had the greatest success, mainly because of its rip-roaring finale and memorable melodic material. But it was only when he set to work on his Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1877) that Tchaikovsky discovered—in the expression of heated emotion—the key to both melodic inspiration and mastery of form, and as a consequence found his voice as a symphonic composer.

His technique had become noticeably more assured by the time he penned the programmatic Manfred Symphony (1886), even if his ideas weren’t quite so striking.

His final two works in the form, with interior programs known only to the composer, are notably dark. The funereal opening, wide swings of mood, and feverish—though, in the end, implausibly festive—climax of the Fifth Symphony (1888) convey a psychological drama that could hardly be put into words in any case. With the Pathetique (Symphony No. 6 in B minor), Tchaikovsky went much deeper, fashioning a symphony of the most profound personal confession, as original in method and formal concept as it was in tone and emotional content. The English musicologist David Brown has rightly characterized it as “the most truly original symphony to have been composed in the seventy years since Beethoven’s Ninth.”

Tchaikovsky was like Racine’s Phedre, desperately trying throughout his adult life to hide from the light of day the dark flame of passion—in his case, a passion for young men. That he was troubled by and ashamed of his sexuality to the depths of his soul, in a way we can scarcely imagine today, has been well documented. Deeply religious, he viewed it as a sickness: To say otherwise would be to graft a late-20th-century attitude onto his preternaturally sensitive 19th-century character. What he dreaded more than anything was public exposure.

Music was Tchaikovsky’s salvation. He saw the expression of emotion as the central concern of his art and found in the act of composition the freedom to emote, and the means to control emotion, that he sorely missed in his personal life. It is true that not all of his music is top-drawer; some of his scores appear to be formally awkward or short on content, and sometimes the process of argument seems feeble. But the best of his music is supremely accomplished, undeniably moving, and more than occasionally transcendent.


Grave of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
at Alexander Nevsky Cemetery

"Queen of Spades" - opera


Irina Arkhipova, Semen Stuchevski

1. 00:00 Six Romances, Op. 25 - 1. Reconciliation (Primiren'je), by Nikolai Fedorovich Shcherbina (1821--1869), from his poem of the same name (1848)

2. 04:26 Six Romances, Op. 63 - 3. I do not please you (Ja vam ne nravljus'), by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia (1858--1916), from an untitled poem (1883)

3. 07:14 Six Romances, Op. 6 - 6. None but the lonely heart (Net, tolko tot, kto zeal), by Lev Aleksandrovich Mei (1822--1862), from his poem Harpist's Song (Песнь Арфиста) (1857) — a translation from the German of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, in book 4 of the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1748--1832)

4. 10:12 Six Romances, Op. 57 - 3. Do not ask (Ne sprashivaj), by Aleksandr Nikolaevich Strugovshchikov (1845) — a translation from the German of Heiß mich nicht reden, in book 3 of the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749--1832)

5. 12:56 Seven Romances, Op. 47 - 1. If only I had known (Kaby znala ja), by Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoi (1817--1875), from an untitled poem (1858)

6. 17:14 Twelve Romances, Op. 60 - 7. A Gypsy song (Pesn' Cyganki), by Iakov Petrovich Polonskii (1819--1898), from his poem of the same name (1853)

7. 20:30 Six Romances, Op. 6 - 5. Why (Otchego), by Lev Aleksandrovich Mei (1822--1862), from his poem of the same name (1858) — a translation from the German of Warum sind denn die Rosen so blaß? (1822) by Heinrich Heine (1797--1856)

8. 23:00 Six Romances, Op. 63 - 5. The fires in the rooms were already out (Uzh gasli v komnatakh ogni), by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia (1858--1916), from an untitled poem (1883)

9. 25:40 Six Romances, Op. 38 - 2. It was in the early spring (To bylo ranneju vesnoj), by Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoi (1817--1875), from an untitled poem (1871)

10. 28:13 Two Songs (TH 96) - 1. Take my heart away (Unosi mojo service), by Afanasii Afanas'evich Fet (1820--1892), from his poem To a Songstress (1857)

11. 30:22 Six Romances, Op. 63 - 6. Serenade: Oh child, below your balcony (O ditja, pod okoshkom tvojim), by Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich of Russia (1858--1916), from his poem Serenade (1882)

12. 33:45 Twelve Romances, Op. 60 - 5. Simple words (Prostyje slova), by "N.N." 

13. 36:02 Six French Songs, Op. 65 - 1. Sérénade: Où vas-tu, souffle d'aurore (Ty kuda letish', kak ptica), Russian translation (author?) of Edouard Turquety (1807--1867), from his poem Aurore

14. 37:57 Six French Songs, Op. 65 - 3. Sérénade: J'aime dans le rayon de la limpide aurore (V jarkom svete zari, blistajushchem i jasnom), Russian translation (author?) of Paul Collin (1843--1915), from his poem Sérénade in the cycle Mélodies (by 1878)

15. 41:11 Six Romances )p. 38 - 6. Pimpinella (a Florentine song), Words and tune noted in 1878 in Florence. 

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