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Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky

Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky in Geneva, 1889

(1840 - 1893)

Piotr Ilyitch (Pyotr Il'yich) Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840 - November 6, 1893) was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, in the western Ural Vyatka province of Russia. He studied law in St. Petersburg and took music classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There his teachers included the Russian composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, from whom Tchaikovsky subsequently took advanced instruction in orchestration. In 1866 the composer-pianist Nicholas Rubinstein, Anton's brother, obtained for Tchaikovsky the post of teacher of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. There the young composer met the dramatist Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, who wrote the libretto for Tchaikovsky's first opera, The Voyevoda (1868). From this period also date his operas Undine (1869) and The Oprichnik (1872), the Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor (1875), the symphonies #1 (called "Winter Dreams", 1868), #2 (1873, subsequently revised and titled "Little Russian"), and #3 (1875), and the overture Romeo and Juliet (1870). The first Piano Concerto was dedicated originally to Nicholas Rubinstein, who pronounced it unplayable. Deeply injured, Tchaikovsky made extensive alterations in the work and dedicated it instead to the German pianist Hans Guido von Bulow, who rewarded the courtesy by performing the concerto on the occasion of his first concert tour of the United States (1875-76). Rubinstein later acknowledged the merit of the revised composition and made it a part of his own repertoire. Well known for its dramatic first movement and skillful use of folk-like melodies, it subsequently became one of the most frequently played of all piano concertos.

In 1876 Tchaikovsky became acquainted with Madam Nadejda von Meck, a wealthy widow, whose enthusiasm for the composer's music led her to give him an annual allowance of 600 pounds. Fourteen years later, however, Madame von Meck, believing herself financially ruined, abruptly terminated the subsidy. Although Tchaikovsky's other sources of income were by then adequate to sustain him, he was wounded by the sudden defection of his patron without apparent cause, and he never forgave her. The period of his connection with Madame von Meck was one of rich productivity for Tchaikovsky. To this time belong the operas Eugene Onegin (1878), The Maid of Orleans (1879), Mazeppa (1883) and The Sorceress (1887), the ballets Swan Lake (1876) and The Sleeping Beauty (1889), the Rococo Variations for Cello & Orchestra (1876), the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878), the orchestral works Marche Slave (1876), Francesca da Rimini (1876), Symphony #4 in F minor (1877), the overture The Year 1812 (1880), Capriccio Italien (1880), Serenade for string orchestra (1880), Manfred symphony (1885), Symphony #5 in E minor (1888), the fantasy overture Hamlet (1885) and numerous songs. Meanwhile, in 1877, Tchaikovsky, perhaps hoping to still the sexual identity conflicts, had married Antonina Milyukova, a music student at the Moscow Conservatory who had written to the composer declaring her love for him. The marriage was unhappy from the outset, and the couple soon separated.

From 1887 to 1891 Tchaikovsky made several highly successful concert tours, conducting his own works before large, enthusiastic audiences in the major cities of Europe and the U.S. He composed one of his finest operas, The Queen of Spades, in 1890. Early in 1893 the composer began work on his Symphony #6 in B minor, subsequently titled Pathétique by his brother Modest. The first performance of the work, given at St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, under the composer's direction, was indifferently received. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died – of cholera, according to official records. Modern scholarship, however, is inclined to credit the story that he committed suicide at the prompting of a group of former law school classmates, who feared scandal because an aristocrat had complained to the czar about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality.

Many Tchaikovsky compositions – among them The Nutcracker (ballet and suite, 1891-92), the Piano Concerto #2 in G Major (1880), the String Quartet #3 in E Flat minor (1876), and the Trio in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1882) – have remained popular with concertgoers. His most popular works are characterized by richly melodic passages in which sections suggestive of profound melancholy frequently alternate with dance-like movements derived from folk music. Like his contemporary, the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, Tchaikovsky was an exceptionally gifted orchestrator; his ballet scores in particular contain many striking effects of orchestral coloration. His symphonic works, popular for their melodic content, are also strong (and often unappreciated) in their abstract thematic development. In his best operas, such as Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, he used highly suggestive melodic passages to depict a dramatic situation concisely and with poignant effect. His ballets, notably Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, have never been surpassed for their melodic intensity and instrumental brilliance. Composed in close collaboration with the choreographer Marius Petipa, they represent virtually the first use of serious dramatic music for the dance since the operatic ballet of the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. Tchaikovsky also extended the range of the symphonic poem, and his works in this genre, including Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, are notable for their richly melodic evocation of the moods of the literary works on which they are based.

Tchaikovsky's signature

Recommended Recordings

Capriccio italien

Capriccio Italien in A Major, Op. 45/Chandos CHAN8460 or CHAN8672/8
Mariss Jansons/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Capriccio Italien in A Major, Op. 45/London 417300-2
Charles Dutoit/Montréal Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Concerto #1 for Piano  1st movement

Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23/Deutsche Grammophon 415062-2
Martha Argerich (piano), Charles Dutoit/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23/London 417294-2
András Schiff (piano), Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23/Telarc CD-80124
Jon Kimura Parker (piano), André Previn/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Piano Concerto #1 in B Flat minor, Op. 23/Vox Music Group CDX5024
Michael Ponti (piano), Richard Kapp/Prague Symphony Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Concerto for Violin

Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35/London 410011-2 or 430725
Kyung-Wha Chung (violin), Charles Dutoit/Montréal Symphony Orchestra
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35/London 421716-2
Joshua Bell (violin), Vladimir Ashkenazy/Cleveland Orchestra
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35/Philips 416821-2
Viktoria Mullova (violin), Seiji Ozawa/Boston Symphony Orchestra
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35/EMI CDC7471062
Itzhak Perlman (violin), Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra

Eugen Onegin (opera)

Eugen Onegin (1879)/Deutsche Grammophon 415062-2
Thomas Allen, Mirella Freni, Anne Sofie van Otter, James Levine/Staatskapelle Dresden & Leipzig Radio Chorus
Eugen Onegin (1879)/Sony S2K45539
Yuri Mazurok, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Nicolai Gedda, Emil Tchakarov/Sofia Festival Orchestra & National Opera Chorus

Manfred Symphony

Symphony "Manfred" in B minor, Op. 58/EMI CDC7474122
Riccardo Muti/Philharmonia Orchestra
Symphony "Manfred" in B minor, Op. 58/London 421441-2
Richard Chailly/Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Symphony "Manfred" in B minor, Op. 58/Chandos CHAN8672/8 or CHAN8535
Mariss Jansons/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra

Marche slave

"Marche Slav" in B Flat Major, Op. 31/Mercury Living Presence 434305-2
Antál Doráti/Detroit Symphony Orchestra
"Marche Slav" in B Flat Major, Op. 31/Deutsche Grammophon 415379-2
Leonard Bernstein/Isreal Philharmonic Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Nutcracker (ballet)  Waltz of the Flowers

Nutcracker, Op. 71 (Compete)/Telarc CD-80137-2
Charles Mackerras/London Symphony Orchestra
Nutcracker, Op. 71a (Suite)/London 417300-2
Charles Dutoit/Montréal Symphony Orchestra

Overture 1812  1812 Overture

"1812" Overture in E Flat Major, Op. 49/Deutsche Grammophon 429984-2
Neeme Järvi/Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
"1812" Overture in E Flat Major, Op. 49/Deutsche Grammophon 415379-2 or 431047-2
Leonard Bernstein/Isreal Philharmonic Orchestra

Quartets for Strings

String Quartets #1 Op. 11, #2 Op. 22, #3 Op. 30 and String Sextet "Souvenir de Florence" Op. 70/EMI CDS7497752
Yuri Bashmet (viola), Natalia Gutman (cello), Borodin Trio
String Quartet #1 in D Major, Op. 11/Collins Classics 12372
Alberni Quartet

Roméo & Juliet Fantasy Overture  Love Theme

Fantasy Overture "Roméo & Juliet" in B minor/Chandos CHAN8310/11
Geoffrey Simon/London Symphony Orchestra
Fantasy Overture "Roméo & Juliet" in B minor/EMI CDE7677892
Carlo Maria Giulini/Philharmonia Orchestra
Fantasy Overture "Roméo & Juliet" in B minor/London 430707-2 or 430745-2
Georg Solti/Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Serenade for Strings

String Serenade in C Major, Op. 48/ Deutsche Grammophon 429488-2 or 423060-2
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
String Serenade in C Major, Op. 48/Omega OCD1010
Australian Chamber Orchestra

Sleeping Beauty (ballet)  Sleeping Beauty

Suite "The Sleeping Beauty", Op. 66/Telarc CD-80151
Charles Mackerras/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Suite "The Sleeping Beauty", Op. 66/EMI CDC7470752
Riccardo Muti/Philadelphia Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Swan Lake (ballet)  Swan Lake

"Swan Lake" (Complete), Op. 20 (Complete)/RCA 7804-2-RC
Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
"Swan Lake" (Complete), Op. 20 (Complete)/Vanguard OVC5008/9
Maurice Abravanel/Utah Symphony Orchestra
"Swan Lake" (Suite), Op. 20a/Telarc CD-80151
Charles Mackerras/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
"Swan Lake" (Suite), Op. 20a/Chandos CHAN8556
Neeme Järvi/Scottish National Orchestra

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Symphonies (2, 4, Core Repertoire - Start Here!5, Core Repertoire - Start Here!6)

Symphonies #1-6 (Complete)/ Chandos CHAN8672/8
Mariss Jansons/Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #2 "Little Russian" in C minor, Op. 17/Telarc CD-80131
Lorin Maazel/Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Symphonies #4 Op. 36, #5 Op. 64 and #6 "Pathétique" Op. 74/Deutsche Grammophon 419745-2
Evgeny Mravinsky/Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36/Telarc CD-80047
Lorin Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra
Symphony #5 in E minor, Op. 64/Telarc CD-80107
André Previn/Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Symphony #6 "Pathétique" in B minor, Op. 74/Deutsche Grammophon 419604-2
Leonard Bernstein/New York Philharmonic Orchestra

Trio for Piano & Strings

Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50/Dorian Recordings DOR90146
Rembrandt Trio
Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50/Chandos CHAN8348
Borodin Trio

Variations on a Rococo Theme

10 Variations on a Rococo Theme in A Major, Op. 33/Chandos CHAN8347
Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Geoffrey Simon/English Chamber Orchestra
10 Variations on a Rococo Theme in A Major, Op. 33/Mercury Living Presence 431001-2
Jano Starker (cello), Antál Doráti/London Symphony Orchestra
Trumpet