If you look at the most famous composers in classical music, the Russians don’t really make much of an appearance until the late 1800s. Once the Russians had made their mark, all classical music, not just that which came out of Russia, would never be the same again. Tchaikovsky didn’t actually start this revolution to “Russianise” Russian classical music, but plays an important part in it given he’s Russia’s most famous composer. Before this Russian Revolution, composers tended to imitate the Austro-German tradition.
Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk in Western Russia, about 800 miles from Moscow. He wasn’t a child prodigy when it came to performing or composing, and was actually on the way to become a civil servant. But it was music that he was interested, and in 1862 enrolled in the newly opened St Petersburg Conservatoire. After graduating in 1865 he took up a teaching position at the Moscow Conservatoire, and within the first five years he composed his First Symphony and the Romeo and Juliet overture. His more famous works, the ones which generated his popularity home and abroad, started appearing from the mid 1870s onwards. 1876 was an important year because he got a dedicated patron, Nadezhda von Meck, who paid him to compose allowing him to resign from the conservatoire aand go on a European tour. The really famous and important works came after this point, such as the Fourth and Fifth Symphony, Violin Concerto, 1812 Overture and the ballet Sleeping Beauty. He married in 1877 to a student who obsessed over him, but being pretty much incompatible (and gay), he fled weeks later never to live with her again. In 1890 his allowance stopped because von Meck was close to financial ruin. He died 3 years later, only days after premiering his final, and most haunting Symphony, the 6th in October 1893.
Unlike some of his contemporaries like Mikhail Glinka or Modest Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky was given a formal western style musical education at St Petersburg. That led to some criticising him for his music not being Russian enough. Hard to think anyone would say that today. Tchaikovsky liked Beethoven, called Brahms “giftless, self-inflated, mediocrity hailed as genius”, and said about the final notes of Wagner’s Gotterdammerung “I felt as though I had been let out of prison”. Tchaikovsky’s lasting influence was two-fold, firstly to the Russian symphonic tradition, which barely existed before him and would then be taken to new heights by subsequent Russian composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninov and particularly Dimitri Shostakovich. And secondly, to ballet, which he helped turn into an expressive art form inspiring composers to write for it.
- Tchaikovsky: Symphony No.6, Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture
Cond: Valery Gergiev. Orch: Kirov (now the Mariinsky Theatre) Orchestra
Tchaikovsky thought this was “the best thing” he ever composed. It’s about death, and ironically he died 9 days later in October 1893 due to cholera. This had led some to believe that this symphony was a sort of suicide or death note, which isn’t true. This symphony really is a whirlwind of emotions, one minute it’s all light and dance like, then suddenly the characteristic Tchaikovskian heavy darkness comes through with full orchestra. Out of that then come these fully romantic, really luscious sounds to sweep you off your feet into another world completely different from the one heard just seconds ago. But the really remarkable thing about this symphony is the way it ends. Symphonies up until this point ended with jubilation, on a (to reduce every ending to just one word) “happy” note. The 6th ends quietly, the music fading away into silence in the dark key of B minor.
- 1812 Overture
Cond: Mark Elder. Orch: Halle Orchestra and London Brass
If there is one piece, apart from some famous bits from his ballets, that you will have heard, then it’s this. Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1880 to write something to commemorate Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia in 1812. It was not, and I repeat NOT, written to commemorate the War of Independence, also fought in 1812. Suitably, then, this overture includes a fragment of La Marseilles, the French national anthem which is interrupted by said cannons. After this the former Russian national anthem, God Save the Tsar, kicks in accompanied by 11 canon shots. How very patriotic. And because conventional instruments weren’t enough, this overture calls for live canon fire. Yes, LIVE canon fire. Oh, and one last thing, even though audiences loved it and made him very popular, Tchaikovsky hated this piece. The orchestration is still controversial; do we use a choir, military band, actual cannons, chime bells, organ? Because of that there are quite a few recordings to dig through. But start with this 2004 Proms performance.
- Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.3/Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1.
Cond: Kyril Kondrashin. Orch: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Piano: Martha Argerich
One of the most famous concertos in the entire repertoire, and once you’ve heard that opening, you won’t forget it. It was written in 1875-75 and when Tchaikovsky’s friend, the composer and head of the Moscow Conservotoire, Nikolay Rubinstein, first heard the concerto, he hated it. He told Tchaikovsky to make some serious revisions and refused to premiere it otherwise. So, Tchaikovsky went to Hans von Bulow instead, and the concerto was an instant international success. In the end, Rubinstein changed his views and agreed to conduct the Moscow premiere, and even made it part of his repertoire. Martha Argerich is one of the greatest pianists alive today, and there are some great recordings of this piece. But for me, I haven’t yet heard a version that truly challenges hers.
- Tchaikovsky, Brahms Violin Concertos
Cond: Fitz Reiner. Orch: Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Violin: Jascha Heifetz.
It 1877 Tchaikovsky got a letter from a woman who professed her love for him, and need to keep the fact that he was gay out of the limelight, he married her. It was a disastrous marriage, he fled to Europe after only 3 months. During his European tour he wrote some of his most famous music, the Fourth Symphony, the opera Eugene Onegin and, his only Violin Concerto. The inspiration for the concerto did not come from his failed marriage per se, but from his former pupil, the violinist Josef Kotek. Kotek was with Tchaikovsky when he composed the Concerto, sketched out in just 11 days. Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate it to Kotek but didn’t “in order to avoid gossip of various kinds”. The two were probably lovers. This is probably the “go to” recording, performed by the great Jascha Heifetz who was taught by Leopold Auer, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated the work.
- Tchaikovsky: Ballet Suites
Cond: Herbert von Karajan. Orch: Berlin Philharmonic.
He wrote three ballets, and are among the most performed in the world. They were written in 1875-6, 1889 and 1892 respectively. Swan Lake wasn’t well received by critics, Sleeping Beauty was more favourably received, and the premiere of Nutcracker went pretty badly, but some critics praised the score. Before him, the Russian ballet scene was dominated by one figure, the choreographer Marius Petipa. Together with Tchaikovsky, they took it from mere decorative dance accompanied by some music into an expressive art form in its own right. This in turn inspired a new generation of ballet music. One of these ballets would onto revolutionise music, similar to the way Beethoven did with his Eroica Symphony. Tchaikovsky did not innovate all that much – except for maybe the ending of the 6th – but his lasting influence can be measured by what he made possible. Future Russian composers were completely in his debt.