Music History 102

The Late Romantics

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

portrait of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Born: Votkinsk, Viatka district, May 7, 1840

Died: St. Petersburg, November 6, 1893

Tchaikovsky studied music sporadically early in his life, but took a job as a government clerk. Hating the post, he turned to music and studied at the newly founded music school in St. Petersburg. Here his compositions garnered much attention and Tchaikovsky was hailed as the hope of Russia’s musical future. Yet much of Tchaikovsky’s early works were harshly criticized by his peers and teachers, especially by the Russian nationalist composers comprising “The Mighty Five.” But his music usually always found favor with the public. Such works include his first three symphonies, the Violin concerto in D major, and the immensely popular Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor. Tchaikovsky, always self-critical, felt he was unable to grasp the concepts of musical form, and so relied heavily on romantic melodies and colorful orchestration. This reliance on “the big tune” is apparent in his best works, and is largely responsible for his overwhelming popularity among newcomers to classical music and in concerts of “popular” classics. Among his most popular works is the 1812 Overture, composed in 1880 as part of the celebrations commemorating Russia’s defeat of Napoleon.

In 1877, Tchaikovsky received some commissions from a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, whose continued patronage and financial gifts enabled Tchaikovsky to devote all of his time to composing. The Symphony No. 4 in F minor was the first of these later works, and although Madame von Meck and Tchaikovsky communicated almost daily by letters, during their fifteen-year relationship they never once met. One of his most successful and still popular works from this period is the opera Eugene Onegin . It was also at this time that Tchaikovsky, in anguish over his homosexuality, made the regrettable decision to marry. The union of the neurotic, hypersensitive homosexual and a mentally-disturbed and apparently sexually insatiable young girl was surely destined for disaster. The marriage was dissolved in only three months, after Tchaikovsky’s mental breakdown and attempted suicide.

The romantic in Tchaikovsky found its greatest outlet in his three great ballet scores, all of which are eternally popular. The Nutcracker is a perrenial Christmas favorite, and the well-known theme of the tragic Swan-Princess from Swan Lake seems to embody the intense, heartfelt, romanticized suffering which Tchaikovsky’s music gives voice to so often. Nowhere is this sad, yearning quality more in evidence than in the first movement of his Symphony no. 6 in B minor, nicknamed by his brother Modeste “Pathetique”. Tchaikovsky hinted that this symphony had a program of some kind, but never made clear what it was. That it is about suffering and tragedy is evident from this melody, one of the composer’s greatest, and from the fact that the symphony’s finale is in the highly unusual form of a brooding and sad lament. Tchaikovsky died soon after the premiere of the symphony, very likely from suicide, although the jury is still out on that.

For better or worse, Tchaikovsky’s music influenced many Russian composers throughout the twentieth century. The ballets, concertos, and orchestral music of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev owe something of a debt to Tchaikovsky, while Igor Stravinsky referred to him as “the most Russian of us all.”

Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music
Designed, compiled and created by

Robert Sherrane