My First Tchaikovsky Playlist

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Tchaikovsky, illustration by James MayhewPyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (born in 1840; died in 1893) was just five when he started learning the piano – in his small home-town in Russia. Most families like his had a piano but very few small boys could play it so well. Then he started writing music, too.

Ideas for new music poured out of him, especially wonderful tunes. He wrote a lot of music for ballets as well as for big orchestras and small groups of instruments, such as string quartets (two violins, one viola, one cello). Pyotr was a sensitive man: he was upset if audiences at first didn’t like his music, even though sometimes it is difficult to like new things.

He had one particular fan, a rich lady called Nadezhda von Meck. She sent him money to help him but she made a strict rule: she and Pyotr must never meet. She knew what he looked like from seeing him play at concerts, but he saw only a photograph of her!

Pyotr died unexpectedly when he was 53. No one knows exactly why – perhaps he caught an illness. But his music became more and more popular…

The Nutcracker

1. Overture
2. Act II, Tableau III. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
3. Act II, Tableau III. Dance of the Toy Flutes

Keyword: Christmas

This is one of the most famous of all ballets. 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. Then comes the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’: can you hear the tinkly, glass-like sound of the celeste? Finally there is the ‘Dance of the Toy Flutes’: listen to the flutes playing the melody.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553271


4. Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48: II. Waltz

Keyword: Dance

This is also music to dance to, but not on the stage! The waltz was a famous dance for ladies and gentlemen to dance together in big parties at palaces and grand houses in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. He loved the waltz! You can hear its special rhythm: 1–2–3, 1–2–3, 1–2–3.

Performers: Vienna Chamber Orchestra; Philippe Entremont

Taken from Naxos 8.550404


5. Six Romances, Op. 16 (arr. for piano): No. 2. O Sing that Song

Keywords: Piano song

Tchaikovsky originally wrote this for a singer and a piano, but he liked the tune so much that he made a version for piano solo. The tune that the voice would have sung is played by the right hand, and the supporting music – the accompaniment – is played by the left hand.

Performers: Oxana Yablonskaya, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553330


6. Nocturne in C sharp minor, Op. 19 No. 4 (arr. for cello and orchestra)

Keyword: Dreamy

Here is a completely different instrument: the cello. The player – the cellist – sits in front of the orchestra and plays this dreamy but slightly sad tune. See if you can spot where the cellist is playing all by herself, without the orchestra. When the orchestra comes back, there is a solo flute. When you hear the flute, say ‘there it is’! The piece ends very quietly, so you have to stay very still to hear it right to the end.

Performers: Maria Kliegel, cello; National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland; Gerhard Markson

Taken from Naxos 8.550519


7. Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23: I. Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito (opening)

Keyword: Grand

Imagine hundreds of people in a big concert hall. The orchestra is on stage. On comes the conductor. Then on comes the pianist, who sits down at the keyboard. The orchestra starts to play, and then the hands of the pianist come down onto the keys with these enormous chords while the string instruments play The Big Tune! One of the most dramatic moments in music!

Performers: Joseph Banowetz, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550137


8. Eugene Onegin: Act II, Scene 1: Waltz

Keyword: Waltz

This is another waltz (remember the 1–2–3, 1–2–3, 1–2–3?). It is from Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera, Eugene Onegin. An opera is a bit like a play but the characters sing their lines instead of speak them. The scene here is a ballroom with ladies in long dresses and gentlemen in smart suits dancing to the cheerful music. But although you can’t hear it, two friends – Eugene Onegin and Lensky – begin to argue. So things are not quite as happy as they sound.

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.550924


The Seasons, Op. 37b

9. April: Snowdrop
10. May: May Nights

Keyword: Spring

There are 12 seasons in the year, so Tchaikovsky wrote 12 little pieces for his piano work The Seasons. He wanted to paint a picture in music of how the weather and the landscape change each month. Snowdrops in the garden mean that spring is coming, so here is a gentle, hopeful piece. In ‘May Nights’ you can hear the warmth of summer on its way.

Performers: Ilona Prunyi, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550233


11. Cherevichki (‘The Fancy Slippers’): Act III: Cossack Dance

Keyword: Russian

This music reminds us that Tchaikovsky was Russian! This Cossack dance is from his opera The Fancy Slippers – it was his only comic opera, so it is full of fun instead of sadness. Here, you can hear light, delicate music one moment and big cymbals and drums the next.

Performers: Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra; Theodore Kuchar

Taken from Naxos 8.554845


12. Nathalie-valse

Keywords: Tchaikovsky at the piano

Tchaikovsky loved the piano. As we’ve heard already, he also loved the waltz. Here is a little waltz he wrote for his friend Nathalie. You can just imagine him sitting down at the piano with Nathalie one afternoon, putting up the music, and playing this delightful piece. She must have been enchanted!

Performers: Oxana Yablonskaya, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553063


Four Movements for String Quartet

13. I. Allegretto (E major)
14. II. Allegro vivace (B flat major)

Keyword: Four

‘Quartet’ means ‘Four’: there are four players here. A string quartet always has these four instruments: two violins, one viola (slightly larger than a violin) and one cello (much larger). These instruments are all members of the string family: the violins sound highest and usually play the tune; the viola is in the middle; and the cello plays the lowest notes.

Performers: New Haydn Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.550848


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

Keyword: Changes

This started 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


Swan Lake

16. Act I: Goblet Dance
17. Act III: Spanish Dance

Keyword: Swan

Swan Lake is another very popular ballet by Tchaikovsky. It tells the story of Princess Odette, who has been changed 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. Here are two dances from the ballet that take place during a big party.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.553271


18. Six Pieces, Op. 51: No. 4. Natha-valse

Keyword: Friends

Tchaikovsky’s friend Nathalie was so pleased with the little waltz that he had written for her (track 12) that he decided to make a longer version of it. You can compare the two and see how it has changed!

Performers: Oxana Yablonskaya, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553063


19. Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64: III. Valse: Allegro moderato

Keywords: Dancing orchestra

Symphonies – big works for full orchestra – are normally quite serious. Tchaikovsky wrote six of them. You wouldn’t expect a dance such as a waltz in a symphony, but then again we know now how much Tchaikovsky loved waltzes! So here is a waltz that he slipped into his Fifth Symphony. As you listen to it, can you clap its 1–2–3, 1–2–3 rhythm?

Performers: Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra; Antoni Wit

Taken from Naxos 8.550716


Twelve Pieces, Op. 40 (arr. P. Breiner for violin and orchestra)

20. No. 2. Sad Song
21. No. 10. Russian Dance

Keyword: Violin

Here are two more pieces that have been ‘arranged’: they were written for piano but here they are for violin and orchestra. The ‘Sad Song’ does sound sad on the violin. When you listen to the ‘Russian Dance’, see if you can hear the two separate halves: a gentle melody with quiet orchestra underneath; then a faster, fiercer section.

Performers: Takako Nishizaki, violin; Queensland Symphony Orchestra; Peter Breiner

Taken from Naxos 8.553510


The Sleeping Beauty

22. Act II: Panorama
23. Act I: Waltz

Keyword: Magic

Finishing this selection are two of Tchaikovsky’s delightful ballet melodies. The Sleeping Beauty is about Princess Aurora, who is put to sleep and can only be woken by a prince. In ‘Panorama’, the prince is making his way through the enchanted forest on his way 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. And we end with another waltz: it is strong and bold. Once you know it, you can sing along! It is Tchaikovsky at his best!

Performers: Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd

Taken from Naxos 8.553271


Note writer: Nicolas Soames

Music selection: Sylvia Helsby

‘My First’ series editor: Genevieve Helsby