Celebrating Tchaikovsky’s Birthday: Remembering the Man and His Music
According to the Gregorian Calendar, 7 May 2020 commemorated Tchaikovsky’s 180th birthday. Deemed “a musical giant”, Tchaikovsky’s work speaks for itself. In his lifetime he created an extensive catalogue of symphonies, operas, chamber pieces and liturgical music, but it is his masterful handling of the ballet genre, which remains remarkably captivating. Tchaikovsky’s work exhibits a wide range of breadth, varying from raw sensitivity to flooding pathos, which is achieved through his robust decorative techniques. In his time, his music stood out as “Slavic soul”, but unlike his contemporaries, his sensibility always denoted a “Peter the Great” mentality. Today, listeners simply fall in love with the emotional undertones of his music.
Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, east of St. Petersburg. As a boy, he developed a love for music, both playing (he especially loved Mozart) and composing. After an obligatory term in the Civil Service, Tchaikovsky attached himself to the Rubenstein brothers and their respective burgeoning musical schools. There he developed his skills and eventually joined the faculty, where he wrote his first book of harmonies in Russian. Tchaikovsky also had a special affinity for Ukrainian culture, often visiting his sister Alexandra and his nieces in Kamianka. Legend has it that Tchaikovsky composed the first elements of Swan Lake in his living room, as entertainment for his nieces. His benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, hosted him at her estate in Ukraine (albeit during her absence) where he wrote Memory of a Sweet Place. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.2 presents a symphonic treatment of Ukrainian folk melodies that creates a captivating and rousing image of Ukrainian culture. Tchaikovsky especially enjoyed coming to Kyiv to watch the performances of his work at the Theatre of Opera and Ballet.
Tchaikovsky’s signature talent was honing orchestral energy — this was sometimes celebratory, other times grief-stricken. History reveals him to be a tender man who internalised a lot of his emotions. Allegedly homosexual and closeted, the complications of his love-life — including the failure of two hetero-marriages — offers insight into his pain. Tchaikovsky was known to grieve death quite profoundly, and did so for the passing of his mother and his sister; he also grieved in anticipation of his own death, caused by Cholera in 1893. However, he could be equally as jovial, and his gentleness made him a favourite amongst his nieces. Overall, Tchaikovsky’s gift to the world was his ability to channel his emotions into his music, which, joyful or solemn, continues to inspire audiences to this day.
Tchaikovsky’s ballets were revolutionary. Traditionally, ballet used uncharacteristic yet danceable music, but Tchaikovsky brought emotion to the forefront, making the music symphonic. This combination proved excellent and inspired future scores. His most exquisite pieces included: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
- Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades — both based on Pushkin, treat the love and loss of real life.
- Chereviki — a Ukrainian village is the setting for Gogol’s Christmas Eve.
- Shakespeare: Two fantasy overtures for Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, and incidental music for Hamlet.
- No.1 “Winter Daydreams”
- No.3 “Polish”
- No.6 “Pathetique”
- String Quartet No.1
- Serenade in C. for Strings
Album for the Young — initially written for aspiring piano students