Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky



Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky was not a happy man. But he had a special gift: he could write melodies that were better than anyone else’s. They seem to be sprinkled with magic dust!

In the mid 19th century, there was confusion about what Russian music should be like. Some composers believed in learning from European music (Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms); others wanted Russia to create its own non-European style, using folksongs. Tchaikovsky managed to do something in the middle. For audiences it was a winner!

At 10 years old Tchaikovsky was sent 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) away from home, to a school that trained pupils to work for the government. He couldn’t bear parting from his mother: he clung onto the wheels of her carriage to stop her leaving. He was 14 when she died and never forgot the pain of losing her.

Tchaikovsky didn’t want to work for the government – it had been his father’s idea. When he was 19 he finally went to music classes in St Petersburg. He ended up composing some of the most famous classical works ever. Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, the 1812 Overture… so many gems!

Composers often struggled to make a living and had a patron – somebody with money. Nadezhda von Meck was a rich widow who decided to support Tchaikovsky. For 13 years they wrote to each other, and she had just one rule: they should never meet. (They did meet once, by accident – they just said hello and kept on walking!) Her money helped him to write some of his most beautiful pieces.

Despite being successful and talented, Tchaikovsky suffered from depression. He got married but it was a disaster and didn’t last. He never found another companion, and he often felt a heavy sadness. He died suddenly, at the age of 53. We’re still not sure how.

His music is full of emotion, but it is not dark or depressing. It can be stormy, grand, exciting and incredibly alive, with a big orchestra on overdrive! And when it slows down, there are long, aching melodies that breathe out sadness and give comfort.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

See what you think of Tchaikovsky…

The Nutcracker, Op. 71: Overture

While the audience waits for the stage curtains to open, the orchestra plays this bouncy beginning to Tchaikovsky’s Christmassy ballet The Nutcracker.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.578214

Serenade in C major, Op. 48: II. Walzer

Many of Tchaikovsky’s waltzes are in his ballets but some are in his other works – like this one, in his Serenade for strings. A waltz has three beats in a bar: can you feel the ‘1–2–3, 1–2–3’?

Performers: Vienna Chamber Orchestra; Philippe Entremont

Taken from Naxos 8.578214

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44

Tchaikovsky’s two piano concertos are full of sparkle and energy. This is the third and final movement of the second one, with the piano and orchestra jumping around together!

Performers: Bernd Glemser, piano; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550820

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Tchaikovsky was paid money by a patron who loved his music. What was her name?

a. Catherine the Great
b. Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein
c. Nadezhda von Meck

 Tchaikovsky became a professor where?

a. Paris Conservatoire
b. St Petersburg Conservatory
c. Moscow Conservatory

 Which of the following is a famous opera by Tchaikovsky based on a novel by the great Russian writer Alexander Pushkin?

a. The Marriage of Figaro
b. Boris Godunov
c. Eugene Onegin

 Which work by Tchaikovsky commemorates the victory of the Russians over Napoleon?

a. ‘Pathétique’ Symphony
b. 1812 Overture
c. The Nutcracker

 Tchaikovsky disliked the music of a famous German composer; the German composer didn’t like Tchaikovsky’s music either. Who was he?

a. Beethoven
b. Brahms
c. Wagner

Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Tchaikovsky was the first full-time professional Russian composer.
  2. Tchaikovsky may have died of cholera, caught by drinking dirty water – but it is not certain.
  3. ‘Tchaikovsky’ comes from his great grandfather’s family name ‘Chaika’, which is Ukrainian for ‘seagull’.
  4. Tchaikovsky was awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge University in the UK.
  5. It took time for Tchaikovsky’s music to be accepted, especially by some other musicians in Russia, and he was very sensitive to criticism.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Music

Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36

Tchaikovsky wrote six symphonies: Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are the most famous. The brass fanfare announces the start of something serious here – no delicate ballet dancing now! The whole symphony is serious in mood, and Tchaikovsky once said that the fanfare was meant to signal the idea of ‘Fate’: a power over our future that we can’t avoid. He was able to write incredibly sad music that is comforting to listen to. The second movement (track 2) of this symphony has one of his long, sad melodies: the oboe begins it with just occasional ‘plinks’ from the string instruments. It’s as if the oboe is telling of its troubles. The orchestra comes in, and seems to understand… In the third movement (track 3), the string players don’t bow their instruments at all – they pluck the strings, so it’s all very spiky. Even when the woodwind and brass take over in the middle, the spikiness carries on. Listen to the piccolo at 2.42 and 2.47: like a little bird swooping in to say something, just before the string instruments start hopping about again. For the fourth movement (track 4), fasten your seat belts! With the help of percussion including bass drum and cymbals, the beginning really explodes. It’s an exciting movement. Even when it’s calmer, there’s the feeling that it’s going to blow up again – which it does! It uses the big symphony orchestra to the full. If nothing else, listen from 6.30 to the end as it rumbles quietly underneath, slowly getting louder and louder… Tchaikovsky dedicated the symphony to Nadezhda von Meck, the woman who helped him with money: he had just met her when he started writing it in 1877. He finished it in 1878.

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.555714

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, ‘Pathétique’

Like Symphony No. 4, this symphony – Tchaikovsky’s last one – is in a minor key. Music in minor keys is often darker, sadder, or more stormy. That suited Tchaikovsky: although he wrote a lot of cheerful ballet music, he felt a lot of pain when he thought about life. He actually called this his ‘passionate’ symphony, but passionate was translated wrongly into the French ‘pathétique’ (which, meaning ‘solemn’ or ‘pitiful’ isn’t quite the same thing) and the label stuck like that. After a stormy start, at 4.43 in the first movement we get one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous melodies. The string instruments (violins, violas, cellos) play it: their long phrases, flowing in and out, seem to tell a story, and you can hear the horns underneath, listening and nodding. For the second movement (track 2), the cellos begin a charming dance – a bit like a waltz with a limp! It is in 5 not 3, so it goes ‘1–2–3–4–5, 1–2–3–4–5’, which is a funny number of beats. See if you can count them to fit with the music, beginning with 1 at the very start. It all speeds up in the third movement (track 3), feeling a bit tense. Then the final movement shows why Tchaikovsky called it ‘passionate’: listen to how the beginning sighs. Hardly any other music sighs like this, with such charm. From the sighing at the start we move at 2.53 to another of Tchaikovsky’s tearful melodies. He could spread these like butter! This symphony is one of the most famous ever written. Tchaikovsky wrote it in 1893 and conducted its first performance in Moscow in October. Nine days later, he died.

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.553230

1812 Overture, Op. 49

Tchaikovsky wrote this in 1880: it remembers Russia’s defeat of Napoleon in 1812. The beginning uses the melody of a Russian hymn: just four cellos and two violas play it. They are lower string instruments, and it sounds serious and thoughtful. At 3.56 there is a rattling snare drum, then the horns play the French national anthem, the ‘Marseillaise’ – that signals the French army invading Russia. The two melodies – Russian and French – then fight each other through the piece, like the armies did! The thing it’s really famous for is cannon fire: at 12.27 you can hear the first explosions, above ‘La Marseillaise’. Then after the string instruments play scales that go down and down and down, the music erupts at 13.20 into a victorious explosion of sound: bells chime and there is more cannon fire. The final melody is ‘God Save the Tsar’: Russia has won. It is a very exciting piece to hear live!

Performers: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Adrian Leaper

Taken from Naxos 8.550500

Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a well-known love story. Tchaikovsky, with his long and beautiful melodies, was good at describing love. Unfortunately, the story is a sad one: Romeo and Juliet both die. But Tchaikovsky was good at describing tragedy too! So, beginning with a hint of the doom to come, the music has love (listen, for example, at 8.19) and tragedy (listen at 12.25).

Performers: Colorado Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop

Taken from Naxos 8.555714

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35

In 1878, Tchaikovsky was in a nice Swiss resort, recovering from his marriage (it was a disaster). A young violinist called Iosif Kotek joined him and together they played lots of music for violin and piano, Kotek on the violin and Tchaikovsky on the piano. They tried a piece by a French composer, Edouard Lalo, called Symphonie espagnole – it sparked Tchaikovsky to start composing his Violin Concerto. The result was one of the greatest and most popular violin concertos ever written. It is extremely difficult to play, exciting to listen to, and full of emotion. As you listen from the start, see if you can imagine the single violinist standing on the stage in front of a huge orchestra: the orchestra plays the introduction and hundreds of people in the audience have their eyes fixed on the violinist, who lifts the violin up at 0.47 and makes it sing like nothing they’ve ever heard before.

Performers: Ilya Kaler, violin; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Yablonsky

Taken from Naxos 8.557690

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23

Somehow, the opening of this concerto has become a kind of monument or statue in classical music: four big French horn notes, then a big chord from the orchestra… and within 10 seconds the pianist blasts in, showing off the whole length of the keyboard with chords from bottom to top. Instead of giving a big tune to the piano, the solo instrument, Tchaikovsky gives it to the orchestra: the strings sweep along with it, and the piano chords act like a kind of drumbeat to go with it. It’s not long before the piano takes over though (0.48), using the melody we just heard, but taking it on a journey. Sometimes the piano dances (e.g. 4.07), along with the orchestra; sometimes it is gentle and questioning (e.g. 10.25); sometimes it shows off with (e.g. 16.45); and sometimes it simply pours out from the heart (e.g. 0.44 in track 2). After the fireworks of the first movement, the second is so delicate. It begins with a fairy-like pizzicato (plucking) from the strings, then a melody from the flute. The piano takes over that melody. As usual in a concerto, the last movement is faster. It ends in a grand, exciting style. All that’s missing here is the applause!

Performers: Konstantin Scherbakov, piano; Russian Philharmonic Orchestra; Dmitry Yablonsky

Taken from Naxos 8.557257

Ballets and Operas

The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a

The Nutcracker is one of the most famous of all ballets. Tchaikovsky selected music from it to make a ‘Suite’. It is the night before Christmas, the tree is full of decoration, and the children, Clara and her brother Franz, have to wait until the next day to open their presents. Franz has already broken one of them – a nutcracker – and Clara is upset. At night, she slips into the room to look at it and can’t believe her eyes: there are mice about to fight an army of gingerbread soldiers! The Nutcracker has turned into a handsome prince and leads Clara into the Kingdom of Sweets… The music we hear first is the overture, which has tunes from the whole ballet. The ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ (track 3) stars an instrument called a celesta: it is a keyboard instrument, with little hammers that strike metal bars, and it sounds tinkly – perfect for a fairy. The ballet is often performed at Christmas.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550050

Swan Lake, Op. 20 (excerpts)

Swan Lake is another of Tchaikovsky’s popular ballets. Based on an old German fairy story, it tells the story of Princess Odette, who is turned into a white swan by a wicked magician. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette. But the magician tries to trick Siegfried into marrying his daughter, Odile, instead. So it all goes a bit wrong, and Odette decides she would rather be dead than live as a swan. Siegfried decides he would like to die with her, so together they leap into the lake. Love wins the day, as they are seen going up into heaven. Here is some of the best music from the ballet.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550050

The Sleeping Beauty: Suite, Op. 66a

Sleeping Beauty is a classic fairytale – perhaps you know it? Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet was completed in 1889, and the first performance was in St Petersburg in 1890. This is another ‘Suite’ – a set of pieces taken from the complete ballet. Princess Aurora is put to sleep and can only be woken by a kiss. Listen to the harp at the beginning of track 2: it creates a really magical feeling. In ‘Panorama’ (track 4), the Prince is making his way through the enchanted forest to the Princess: you can hear the tapping rhythms on wind instruments right at the beginning before the strings come in with their glorious tune. It all ends with another waltz: it really gets going, with its 1–2–3, 1–2–3 rhythm, at 0.31. Strong and bold, it is typical Tchaikovsky. Once you know it, you can sing along!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.553271


Eugene Onegin, Op. 24 (extracts)

Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin is based on a novel by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin. It tells of Onegin’s doomed love for Tatyana. In the garden of a country estate, the daughters Tatyana and Olga are greeted by Onegin and his best friend Lensky. Tatyana likes Onegin, and writes a love letter to him (track 1). But Onegin rejects her. At a party, he dances with Olga (track 2) – but Lensky is in love with Olga, so he’s angry with Onegin and challenges him to a duel (a fight). While he waits for Onegin, he sings a farewell to Olga (track 3). Onegin kills Lensky. He is horrified by what he’s done and goes off for years to be alone. When he comes back, he realizes he does love Tatyana. There is a ball, with dancing (track 4). But Tatyana has married someone else! Onegin is too late! This is the kind of tragic story that is perfect for Romantic opera.

Performers: Dinara Alieva, soprano (Tatyana); Vladimir Grishko, tenor (Lensky) ‡; New Russian State Symphony Orchestra *; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra †; Ukraine State Radio Symphony Orchestra ‡; Dmitry Yablonsky *; Ondrej Lenárd †; Vladimir Sirenko ‡

Taken from Naxos 8.572893, 8.550137, 8.554843

Chamber Music

Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50

This lovely piano trio, for violin, cello and piano, was written in memory of the great Russian pianist and composer, Nikolai Rubinstein. He had been a close friend of Tchaikovsky’s. It is a flowing work, full of passion – all three musicians are given plenty to do! The second movement is a ‘theme and variations’. This means that there is a theme – a tune – played at the start (by the piano alone) and then it comes back again and again in different ways, as if it’s dressed up in different costumes. So at 1.00, you can hear the violin begin to play it, while the piano has lots of notes underneath to support it and the cello ‘answers’ the violin. At 1.57, it’s the cello’s turn to get the tune, with the violin dancing above. In total there are 11 variations.

Performers: Richard Stamper, violin; Christine Jackson, cello; Vovka Ashkenazy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550467

String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

Tchaikovsky’s chamber music is not as well known as his ballet and orchestral music, but it does contain the same kind of expressive melodies. This string quartet (for two violins, viola and cello) was the first of two that he wrote, and people enjoyed it straight away. It was the second movement (track 2) that they particularly loved. In fact they loved it so much that Tchaikovsky was actually worried: he thought it was the only bit of his music that people wanted to listen to! It’s easy to understand why it was a favourite though: it is humble and gentle – like a perfect gift in a box tied with a bow. It is based on Russian folksong and the great writer Tolstoy thought it was so beautiful when he first heard it that it made him cry.

Performers: New Haydn Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550847

Other Works

Les Saisons (The Seasons), Op. 37b

In these piano pieces, Tchaikovsky describes each of the 12 months of the year. He was inspired by Schumann, who wrote some brilliant sets of short piano pieces. Some of these have become especially well known: e.g. the lazy, summery ‘Barcarolle’ of June (track 6).

Performers: Ilona Prunyi, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550233

6 Romances, Op. 6 No. 6: None but the Lonely Heart (arr. P. Nagy for piano)

This delicate piece began as a poem by the German writer Goethe. It was translated into Russian. Then it was set to music by Tchaikovsky for voice and piano. And, finally, here we have a version for piano alone. The tune became so popular it was used later in a film starring Cary Grant. The name of the whole film was the name of this piece: None but the Lonely Heart!

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550141

Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Op. 41: Cherubic Hymn

The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is a setting of texts from the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was composed in Ukraine in 1878, where Tchaikovsky spent many happy summers at his sister’s house. He visited fine ancient churches in Kiev, and listened to choirs. He wrote to his patron Nadezhda von Meck, ‘Yesterday morning I was in Podil and attended a service at the Bratsky Monatsery. I was so impressed by the lovely church and by the extraordinarily beautiful service. When you are present at such a service you begin to understand the power of religion for the masses.’ His Liturgy has a great feeling of light and peace. This ‘Cherubic Hymn’ sets words meaning ‘Holy God, Holy and mighty, Holy and immortal, have mercy upon us!’

Performers: Viktor Ovdiy, tenor; Pavlo Mezhulin, bass; Kiev Chamber Choir; Mykola Hobdych

Taken from Naxos 8.553854