Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky could claim to be the world’s most popular “classical” composer. His music holds a special appeal for its passion, lyricism, and glowing orchestral color, while much of his work draws on a rich vein of Russian folk culture that he successfully blended into the Western symphonic tradition.
The son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky was born near the Urals. Educated to be a civil servant, he graduated from the school of Jurisprudence in 1859 but found life in the civil service most uninteresting. When a new music Conservatory opened in St Petersburg in 1862, against the wishes of his family, he enrolled as a student.
He graduated in 1866, and was hired as a harmony teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, which had just been established by his mentor, the pianist, conductor and composer Nikolai Rubinstein (1836-1881). It is under Rubinstein’s baton that Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, entitled Winter Daydreams, was performed in 1866.
The next year, his first opera, Voyevoda, was performed at the Bolshoi Theatre.
Shortly afterwards, composer Balakirev, who recognized Tchaikovsky as an outstanding new talent, encouraged him to write Romeo and Juliet, a symphonic poem which quickly became one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works.
His first venture into the world of ballet, Swan Lake (1876), became one of his three great ballet scores – the others are The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892).
All are still cornerstones of the classical ballet repertoire.
The idea of Fate dominates his main operas, as evidenced in Eugene Onegin, based on the greatest Russian verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, and in The Queen of Spades, also based on Pushkin’s story, a chilling supernatural tale of death and destruction brought by a gambler’s obsession.
Tchaikovsky adored Pushkin’s poetry and composed a number of songs to his verses that became gems of the vocal repertoire, along with the passionate arias from his operas.
A prolific composer, he also wrote 4 concertos, 6 symphonies, chamber music pieces, 100 piano works, the famous 1812 Overture, 10 operas, and more.
Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the famous Pathetique, as dubbed by his brother Modest (the author of librettos for Tchaikovsky’s operas), represents his final confrontation with Fate. The anguished finale, marked Adagio lamentoso, represents Death.
Tchaikovsky conducted its premiere in St Petersburg nine days before his death on November 6, 1893, aged 53.