Born in 1840 in Russia, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky began taking piano lessons when he was 5 years old. At the age of 25, he did his first public performance, and by 28 established himself with Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat Minor. Regarded as the most popular Russian composer in history, Tchaikovsky appealed to the general public due to his tuneful melodies, impressive harmonies, and picturesque orchestration, all of which evoke a profound emotional response.
Though he died early at the age of 53, by then Tchaikovsky had written unforgettable and popular classical works including the 1812 Overture and three ballets – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. His works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballet and chamber music. It is believed that Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the most popular concertos ever written; and his Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pathétique’, among the greatest symphonic masterpieces. He even turned to literary and dramatic sources, including Shakespeare, for a number of orchestral compositions.
Swan Lake (excerpt)
Employing a poised classical form for compositions such as the Variations on a Rococo Theme, it was reminiscent of 18th-century composers such as Mozart. While some of the compositions like Little Russian symphony and opera Vakula the Smith rely on their use of folk song, other works, notably the last three symphonies, use a personal musical idiom that facilitated intense emotional expression. In fact, the crux of his artistic philosophy was “emotional progression”, wherein an immediate connection was established with the audience.
Tchaikovsky’s music sincerely conveys the joys, loves, and sorrows of the human heart with striking and poignant sincerity, without striving for any lofty intellectual depth. Essentially the sensibilities that he weaved into his music represented the culture of Russian modernism by a fusion of the sublime with the introspective.
Piano Concerto No. 1 (excerpt)
It could be stated that he emerged as the leading exponent of Romanticism in its characteristically Russian mould, and displayed a particular gift for melody and orchestration. Excelling as a master of instrumental music, his brilliant use of instruments created powerful tunes which harmonised into stunning and innovative compositions. Further, Tchaikovsky is attributed with introducing integrity of design that enhanced ballet to the level of symphonic music; his unique sense of using melody to transform the dance gave his ballets a unique place in the world’s theatres.
In the backdrop of the times, he lived his personal life was traumatic as societal pressures forced him to repress his homosexuality, thereby compelling him into a marriage, which culminated in his abandoning his wife, and later suffering a nervous breakdown, and attempting suicide, and eventually fleeing the country.
Symphony No. 6 (excerpt)
Strangely enough despite the societal ostracisation that Tchaikovsky faced, he got the patronage of a wealthy widow who provided him with a monthly allowance for a decade or so. Even though they exchanged voluminous correspondence, their relationship stipulated that they would never meet.
On 28 October 1893 Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died there, aged 53.
It may be apt to end with a Tchaikovsky quote,“…You see, my dear friend, I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living”