Composer Notes

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

If anyone composer can be said to encapsulate the essence of Russianism, it is Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, and yet he was the one major composer of 19th-century Russia who cannot be bracketed with the Russian nationalist school.   Although he associated with prominent nationalist figures, particularly Balakirev, Tchaikovsky followed a fiercely independent path, and he paid heavily for his determination to be true to himself above all else -- few major artists have ever suffered the sort of critical savaging that was meted out to Tchaikovsky. Nowadays it's difficult to understand why his music aroused such antipathy, for Tchaikovsky is the most powerful and direct of composers:  characterized above all by its tunefulness and sweeping orchestral sound, Tchaikovsky's music appeals directly to the heart. Certainly he was prone to bombastic gestures and sentimentality, but these weaknesses are the oberse  of his chief strength, which is his sincerity.  The emotional fluctuations and contradictions of his work reflect the turbulence of an extraordinarily life.

Tchaikovsky was born some 900 kilometers east of Moscow in the provincial town of Votkinsk, where his father was a mining engineer.  His formal tuition began at home, where his parents played him pieces by Mozart and Rossini and gave him lessons in piano and music. In 1848 the family moved to St. Petersburg, and in 1850 he was sent to a boarding school in the city; nine years later, after intensive and extended law studies (and the death of his mother, a trauma that was to scar him for the rest of his life), he found employment at the ministry of justice. Aged 22 he left the ministry and entered the city music conservatory to study with Anton Rubenstein, a composer and stupendous pianist. In 1866 he went to Moscow, where Anton's brother Nikolai appointed Tchaikovsky professor of harmony at the conservatory. 

In Moscow he came into contact with Rimsky-Korsakov and his cabal of young nationalists, and for a short while Tchaikovsky was swept up by their enthusiasm for Russia's folk heritage. He even composed a nationalist symphony -- the Symphony No. 2, known as the “Little Russian” -- but it was not long before his cosmopolitan instincts prevailed.  By the time of the first performance of his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1875, he had created a style that was strongly individual while being equally accessible to any audience raised on the wider European tradition -- indeed, the Concerto at first found greater acclaim abroad than at home.

1877 was the most crucial year in Tchaikovsky's life, and the point from which is music radically expands its emotional depth and profundity.  Bizarrely, this transformation was prompted by his contact with two women hitherto unknown to him. The first was Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who, impressed by some of his early music, now commissioned Tchaikovsky to produce some violin and piano arrangements of his more recent works. Thus began a relationship between the two that lasted 14 years, during which time they never once met. Convinced of Tchaikovsky's genius, she supplied him with an annuity that would enable him to devote all his time to composition.

The second woman was Antonina Milyukova, who in May 1877 started sending Tchaikovsky infatuated love letters in which she threatened to take her life unless he responded. Initially cautious, Tchaikovsky seems suddenly to have seen in his unstable admirer a solution to the problem of his homosexuality (homosexual acts were punishable by death in Russia).  Within several weeks of meeting her, and unbeknown to most of his family, the two were married. Predictably it was an unmitigated disaster Tchaikovsky immediately sank into an overwhelming depression and the couple separated after just a few weeks.

The love of his family and friends, in particularly his increasingly intimate correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, helped Tchaikovsky over the breakdown caused by his marriage and, remarkably, this period corresponds with the composition of two of his greatest works, the Symphony No. 4, dedicated to "my best friend" (ie Nadezhda), and the best love of his eight surviving operas, Eugene Onegin, which he completed in 1878.

By the 1880s his music was being played as far afield as the USA, and in 1885 he ended his nomadic existence by moving to a house at Klin, the first of several houses he was to rent in the Russian countryside. He lived there are in almost complete isolation until 1887, when he ventured back to Moscow to begin a second successful career as a conductor. In this capacity he toured Europe in the following year, and in the winter of 1889-90 he spent a long period inn Florence, where he composed the opera The Queen of Spades.  The works triumph was marred by the collapse of his relationship with von Meck, but although he deeply distressed by their falling out he made an incredibly successful visit to the USA and 1891, conducting at the opening night of what was to become Carnegie Hall. "I am a much more important person here than in Russia", he wrote, bewildered by his reception.

In 1893 his achievement was recognized in France, where he was elected a member of the Académie Francaise, and England, where Cambridge University awarded him an honorary doctorate.  In August he completed his Symphony No. 6, the Pathetique, a creation that typifies the work of a composer who poured the whole of his life into his music. It was premiered in St. Petersburg on October 28: nine days later he was dead.

The circumstances of Tchaikovsky's death remains controversial to this day.  The official version was that he had died from cholera after drinking unboiled water.  Many people surmised that Tchaikovsky had hoped this reckless act would bring about his death, but in the 1970s a Russian scholar produced a new account of Tchaikovsky's last days, a version which, it was claimed, established suicide as the cause of death. Shortly before his death, the story goes, Tchaikovsky had been caught in flagrante with a nephew of high-ranking official.  Tchaikovsky's law school colleagues, determined to avert a scandal that would reflect badly on them, summoned Tchaikovsky before a “court of honor” on October 31 and ordered him to commit suicide. Two days later he took arsenic.

Information from the “Rough Guide to Classical Music” published by Rough Guides.

About the person...Tchaikovsky

by Kathleen Krull

Was there anyone ever so unhappy as Peter Tchaikovsky?

As a baby, he constantly drummed on windowpanes, tapping out melodies. One day he tapped to hard, broke the glass, and badly cut his hand. At age 7, after hearing Mozart's Don Giovanni on a music box, he begged for piano lessons. But the playing the piano made him too excited to sleep.

His father didn't think music was a fit career, so Tchaikovsky became a law clerk. The separation from his mother when he was sent away to law school crushed him.  One month after her death, he was writing his first music.

He got musical ideas quickly: "I forget everything and behave like one demented. Everything inside me begins to pulse and quiver." Writing music, he felt, was the only thing that redeemed him from worthlessness.

Tchaikovsky gave away half of any money he received and spend the rest.  He had expensive tastes -- in transportation (he always took cabs), food, wine, cigarettes (he smoked constantly), and perfumes. He was a handsome "man about town." He dressed impeccably, down to is white clothes and cane.  When he didn't want to be recognized he wore huge dark glasses. He liked to play cards, especially whist and solitaire.

Though Tchaikovsky frequently had houseguests, he lived quietly. He rose at 8 and had strong tea with lemon. When composing, Tchaikovsky would forget to sleep and eat -- or maybe he thought of his music as food. Once, in the middle of a song-writing frenzy, he wrote, "I continue to bake musical pancakes." The last country house he lived in was very private and was surrounded by flowerbeds.  It had a grand piano with a seven-foot couch nearby where he could rest.

Tchaikovsky had constant headaches and indigestion.  He always thought he was about to die.  One night he burned all volumes of his diary when he realized that when he died people would know his secrets.

His most nerve racking time was when he had to conduct an orchestra: he was terrified of literally losing his head while conducting. So he would hold onto it with his left-hand while beating time with his right.

Musical notes

  • It is said that the Nutcracker Suite (six selections from the Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky) has gotten more people interested in classical music than any music in history.  It is one of the most recorded works ever. Many ballet dancers, including Margot Fonteyn, started their careers with roles in this ballet.
  • The noisy 1812 Overture, celebrating the retreat of Napoleon's troops from Moscow, was not performed in the Soviet Union the way Tchaikovsky intended -- outdoors, with ringing of church bells, live cannon fire, and fireworks -- until 1990.
  • Tchaikovsky was the conductor of the opening night of Carnegie Hall in New York City, in 1891. But Tchaikovsky was unhappy there, to -- he cried all the time in his hotel room.

Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904)

(born Nelahozeves, 8 September 1841; died Prague, 1 May 1904).

With the tide of revolutions that swept across the continent during the 1840s, nationalism became a dominating factor in European art. Nowhere was this process more important than in Czechoslovakia, and no composer was more prominently nationalistic than Antonin Dvorak.  Of the three great Czech composers -- Smetana and Janacek are the others -- Dvorak was the one whose influence upon the development of a national voice was the most original and lasting, and it was Dvorak who was most successful in reconciling folk traditions with symphonic music. Few composers of his time could match his flair for infectious melody or his ability to orchestrate with kaleidoscopic color and nuance.

Born in Bohemia, Dvorak spent his uneventful early life in study and practice, then in 1863 played in a concert of Wagner excerpts, conducted by the composer himself -- an experience that had a significant impact on his approach to opera.

He studied with Antonin Liehmann and at the Prague Organ School (1857-9). A capable viola player, he joined the band that became the nucleus of the new Provisional Theatre orchestra, conducted from 1866 by Smetana. Private teaching and mainly composing occupied him from 1873. He won the Austrian State Stipendium three times (1874, 1876-7), gaining the attention of Brahms, who secured the publisher Simrock for some of his works in 1878. Foreign performances multiplied, notably of the Slavonic Dances, the Sixth Symphony and the Stabat mater, and with them further commissions. Particularly well received in England, Dvorak wrote The Spectre's Bride (1884) and the Requiem Mass (1890) for Birmingham, the Seventh Symphony for the Philharmonic Society (1885) and St. Ludmilla for Leeds (1886), besides receiving an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. He visited Russia in 1890, continued to launch new works in Prague and London and began teaching at the Prague Conservatory in 1891 (where Joseph Suk was among his most gifted pupils). Before leaving for the USA he toured Bohemia playing the new Dumky Trio. As director of the National Conservatory in New York (1892-5) he taught composition, meanwhile producing the wellknown Ninth Symphony ('From the New World'), the String Quartet in F, the String Quintet in E-flat and the Cello Concerto. Financial strain and family ties took him back to Prague, where he began to write symphonic poems and finally had his efforts at dramatic music rewarded with the success of the fairytale opera Rusalka (1901). The recipient of honours and awards from all sides, he remained a modest man of simple tastes, loyal to his Czech nationality.

In matters of style Dvorak was neither conservative nor radical. His works display the influences of folk music, mainly Czech (furiant and dumky dance traits, polka rhythms, immediate repetition of an initial bar) but also ones that might equally be seen as American (pentatonic themes, flattened 7ths); Classical composers whom he admired, including Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert; Wagner, whose harmony and use of leitmotifs attracted him; and his close friend Brahms (notably his piano writing and mastery of symphonic form). Despite his fascination with opera, he lacked a natural instinct for drama; for all their admirable wit and lyricism. his last five stage works rank lower than his finest instrumental music. Here his predilection for classical procedures reached its highest level of achievement, notably in the epic Seventh Symphony, the most closely argued of his orchestral works, and the Cello Concerto, the crowning item in that instrument's repertory, with its characteristic richness and eloquence, as well as in the popular and appealing Ninth Symphony and the colourful Slavonic Dances and Slavonic Rhapsodies. Among his chamber works, landmarks are the String Sextet in A op.48, a work in his national style which attracted particular attention abroad; the f Minor Piano Trio op.65, one of the climaxes of the more serious, classically 'Brahmsian' side of his output - unlike the e Minor op.90, a highly original series of dumka movements alternately brooding and spirited; the exuberant op.81 Piano Quintet; and several of the string quartets, notably the popular 'American' op.96, with its pentatonic leanings, and the two late works, the deeply felt op.106 in G and the warm and satisfying op.105 in A-flat.