The most well-known Russian classical figure and composer of incredible ballets like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, today’s star of the Classical in Conversation blog is the fantastic Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky is arguably the most legendary composer to come out of Russia. His music made such a lasting impression all over the world, and he was even honoured by Tsar Alexander III in 1884, and awarded a lifetime pension!
So, how did he get there?
Well, back in the time of his life, there was little opportunity to create a career in music in Russia, and the few musical jobs around were considered the lowest of the low in terms of social status.
Tchaikovsky had begun piano lessons at the age of 5 and after a mere 3 years was already on a level with his teacher – the talent was certainly clear! His parents were initially supportive, but eventually they couldn’t resist a world that was more familiar. They sent little Tchaikovsky off at the age of 10 to a school in St Petersburg called the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, where he would study for a career in the civil service.
Being separated from his mother at such a young age, by no less than 800 miles, was something that Tchaikovsky would never really get over. He was traumatised by the event. By the age of 14, his mother had died which led to Tchaikovsky taking his first serious steps into composition. He composed his first waltz in her memory.
Finally, an opportunity arose for Tchaikovsky to study at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, where he received a pretty westernised teaching, setting him apart from other Russian composers who went down a nationalist route… Yes, we’re talking about the group that became known as The Five. Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Jorsakov and Borodin utterly rejected western elements of music, and would only use non-western harmonic devices like the whole tone and octatonic scales. Despite being on very separate musical paths, Tchaikovsky kept a friendly relationship with the group, and eventually worked with Balakirev on a composition which would become his first recognised masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet!
Classical Mash Up
Due to the combination of his western teaching and native roots, Tchaikovsky developed his own sound which was a pretty good mash up of the two! Critical opinion over the years has been mixed, and Russians who leaned more towards the nationalist ideals felt that his music didn’t represent their values, and that it was only popular with Europeans because of its western elements!
Tchaikovsky’s personal life has always been a popular topic of conversation. Much of the literature surrounding his life suggests that he was queer, and he even wrote of this himself when he was alive! It is believed that Russia frequently censor passages of his writing, and actively try to eradicate any reference to same-sex attraction in Tchaikovsky’s life.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Tchaikovsky left a distinct mark on the world of classical music. Many of his works have become legendary, titles like Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are ones known all over the world. For this reason, we couldn’t possibly leave some Tchaikovsky out of the RSL Classical Violin syllabus, so you can find “Theme from Swan Lake” in the Classical Violin Grade 2 syllabus. The story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil curse, is thought to be created from various Russian and German folk tales. It has been noted that he composed this one super quickly (it was finished within a year!), suggesting that he enjoyed the process very much.