PYOTR (PETER) TCHAIKOVKSY 1840 -
Tchaikovsky: detail, by the Ukrainian portrait painter Nikolai Dmitrievich Kuznetsov (1850-
xxxxxThe Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, noted above all for his captivating melodies and his brilliant orchestration, was one of the first to gain fame outside of his home country. Apart from chamber and vocal music, his works included six symphonies, three piano concertos, a violin concerto, and a number of ballets and operas. Among his best known works are his Piano Concerto No.1, the ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the 1812 Overture, his opera Eugene Onegin, and his final work, his Symphony No.6.
xxxxxTchaikovsky was born into a middle-
xxxxxIt was during his eleven-
xxxxxIn 1877 -
xxxxxIn the early 1880s his reputation began to grow, assisted by the production of the 1812 Overture (commemorating the Battle of Borodino), Serenade for Strings, Capriccio Italien and the Manfred Symphony, based on the poem by Lord Byron. From 1887 Tchaikovsky embarked on a series of highly successful concert tours. Over the next six years he conducted his own works in major cities across Europe and the United States. His visit to America in 1891 included a visit to New York, where he took part in the opening of the Music Hall (later renamed Carnegie Hall), and concerts in Philadelphia and Baltimore. And on his return he visited London in the summer of 1893 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge. To this period belongs his ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, and his opera The Queen of Spades (also based on Pushkin). But it was also in this period, in 1890, that Madam von Meck, fearing that she faced financial ruin, suddenly stopped her annual allowance and her letters. By then he had a sizeable income of his own, but this decision was seen as a betrayal and triggered off a period of deep depression.
xxxxxIt was in February 1893, following the production of his Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, that Tchaikovsky began work on his Symphony No. 6, one of his greatest and best known works. Completed in the August at the second attempt, it was named the Pathétique (in the sense of passionate or emotional) and given its first performance at St. Petersburg in the October. It was, he wrote, “the best of my compositions”, but nine days later he was dead, struck down, it was officially recorded, by contracting cholera. As a result the final, slow movement -
xxxxxA vast amount of Tchaikovsky’s music has remained extremely popular with the general public. The emotional power he infused in his compositions -
xxxxxLike his music, Tchaikovsky was highly emotional. Shy by nature and of a nervous disposition, he was always terrified lest his homosexuality became known. Outwardly he seemed reasonably at ease in other people’s company, but when alone he would often dissolve into tears from the sheer strain of hiding his innermost fears and feelings. In his diary he wrote of his despair at meeting people and of his desire “to flee from them to the ends of the world”. Nor did his mental condition improve. Even after he had gained international recognition, he doubted his ability as a composer, suffered from a constant headache, and took to drink to ease his nervous state. As a musician he had no time whatsoever for Brahms and Handel, but he did admire some works by Beethoven, Bach, Haydn and Gluck. In contrast, he greatly valued the skill of Delibes, and he regarded Mozart as “a musical Christ”.
and Bedrich Smetana
xxxxxPyotr Tchaikovsky was one of the first Russian composers to gain fame outside of his homeland. His compositions, noted for their fund of melody and brilliant orchestration, are amongst the most popular of all time, and, apart from chamber and vocal music, include six symphonies, three piano concertos and a number of ballets and operas. Much of his music was imbued with Russian emotion and fervour, but at the same time it captured the style of the wider Romantic movement, and this made his works extremely popular across Europe and in the United States. A highly sensitive homosexual, his marriage in 1877 proved a disaster, but it was in that year that he received a generous allowance from a wealthy widow, Nadajda von Meck, and for the next fourteen years he was able to concentrate his efforts on composition. His best known works are the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet (1870), the 1812 Overture (commemorating the Battle of Borodino) (1882), the Ballets Swan Lake (1877), Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892), the Piano Concerto No.1 (1875), the Violin Concerto (1878), the operas Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890), and his last composition -
xxxxxTchaikovsky was one of the foremost composers of the 19th century. It might be argued that he was not the greatest of his time, but he was certainly the most popular. He is valued especially today for his fund of melody and his consummate skill in orchestration. Furthermore, in the musical sense he put Russia on the map, completing in full the work initiated in this respect by his countryman Mikhail Glinka earlier in the century. His works are full of Russian emotion and fervour. He said himself that he was a Russian “in the fullest sense of the word”. However, at the same time he incorporated this Russian spirit within the romantic movement sweeping through western Europe in his time, thereby captivating audiences across the musical world. Therein lay his greatness.
xxxxxIncidentally, the Brothers Rubinstein, both virtuoso pianists and prominent conductors, played a major part in the development of musical skills within Russia. Anton Rubinstein (1829-
xxxxx…… Tchaikovsky’ patron, Nadejda von Meck, a fiercely independent and domineering woman, also assisted other artists, including Nicolai Rubinstein and the French composer Claude Debussy, whom she hired as a music tutor to her daughters.
xxxxxThe Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky (1839-
xxxxxAs we have seen, Modest Mussorgsky (1839-
xxxxxIn his music Mussorgsky was greatly influenced by Russian folk music and legend. His first major work St. John’s Night on the Bare Mountain, produced in 1867, was based on a short story by the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol. It was a work which, as he put it, was “grown in our country’s soil and nurtured on Russian bread”. Unfortunately its harsh beauty, unusual style and ghostly theme was not fully appreciated by his colleagues, and it was not performed publicly in his life time.
xxxxxIn 1868 he turned his hand to opera. After abandoning two ambitious projects -
xxxxxBut though 1874 saw the peak of his career, his decline was quite rapid from then on. The group of five was breaking up and alcoholism, for many years a drag on his health, now began to take its toll. He began to have “fits of madness”. However, he managed to produce Pictures at an Exhibition, in 1874, a cycle of imaginative piano pieces conjuring up each painting, and the following year composed a song cycle entitled Sunless Songs and Dances of Death. Then in 1879 he went on a three-
xxxxxMussorgsky had a deep love of all that symbolised Russia, and he attempted to capture the spirit of his homeland in a style that was fresh, owing nothing to traditional Western music. But the originality of his music, particularly the strength of his dramatic expression, was not appreciated. As a result, many of his works were revised by others. His close friend Rimsky-
xxxxxIncidentally, the portrait of Mussorgsky above is by the Russian artist Ilya Repin (1844-
xxxxxAnother composer at this time who showed a passionate love for his homeland was Bedrich Smetana (1824-
xxxxxAnother composer at this time who had a passionate love for his homeland was Bedrich Smetana (1824-
xxxxxBorn in Litomysl in eastern Bohemia, he showed enormous musical talent at an early age both as a pianist and a violinist. He was playing the piano before the Austrian Emperor at the age of six. In 1843 he moved to Prague to continue his studies. He made a living as music master to an aristocratic family, and after his marriage to the pianist Katerina Kolarova, went to live in Goteborg, Sweden in 1856. There he was the conductor to the newly established Philharmonic Society, composed a great deal of piano music, and gave piano and chamber music recitals.
xxxxxAfter the death of his wife he went on a tour of Germany, Holland and Sweden to make some money before returning to Prague. It was then, in 1861, that he took part in the founding of the Provisional Theatre, the Society of Artists, and the Philharmonic Society, all important contributions to the development of Bohemian music and culture. In 1866 he was appointed conductor at the Provisional Theatre and he held this post for eight years.
xxxxxHis major work, the sparkling comic opera The Bartered Bride, was premiered at the Provisional Theatre, Prague, in 1866. Set in a small village and centred around a story in which true love eventually prevails, it was not an immediate success. However, after revision, its second showing in 1870 was well received, and the opera gained worldwide fame after a performance in Vienna in 1892. This work, with its traditional Bohemian dances like the polka and the fiery furiant -
xxxxxIn 1874, due to syphilis, Smetana went completely deaf, but he continued to compose. He produced his symphonic poems in 1879 and staged his festival opera Libuse in Prague in 1881. Two years later, however, he became insane, and died in an asylum in 1884. Today, as founder of the Czech national school -
xxxxxIncidentally, Smetana greatly admired the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, and it was due to his encouragement that he opened a piano school in Prague in 1848. ……
xxxxx…… The Smetana Society, established in Prague in 1931, maintains a museum dedicated to the composer’s life and work.