Wednesday, 22 April 2015

T is for Tchaikovsky

Now we head to Russia. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in what was then the Russian Empire, into a large family. His father was an engineer but his parents both had schooling in the arts, given the potential need for it during postings to remote communities.  At his own insistence he began formal study at an early age and quickly learned several languages and the piano.  Recognizing his talent, the family sent him to school in Saint Petersburg in 1850.  However the sudden death of his mother from cholera in 1854 would haunt him for the rest of his life; one of his earliest compositions was a waltz dedicated to her.

Although he studied for the civil service and spent three years as an assistant counselor after he graduated school, he preferred music and enrolled in the new Saint Petersburg Conservatory.  This move gave him the tools he needed to become a professional composer and musician, and he gained the sense that his art belonged to the world and not any one country.  After graduation he faced financial difficulties, but then was offered a post as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1865.  There he began his career in earnest: teaching, producing compositions, and travelling around Europe.  During this time he formed lasting friendships with several other composers who became known as The Five, who shared similar goals of creating a singular Russian style of music.

In 1869, inspired by compositions from other countries, began to create operas.  He wasn't satisfied with his first attempts and destroyed the manuscripts.  However his opera "The Oprichnik" staged in 1874 was relatively well received and he continued in this vein with other operas, ballets, and symphonic works.  As his career in music was gaining traction, his personal life was difficult.  He married on three occasions but all failed after a short time, forcing him to admit that he was likely homosexual.  For several years after this he wandered extensively across Russia and Europe, and despite his personal difficulties his reputation remained solid.

Finally in 1884 he returned to Russia to great favour: he was awarded the Order of St. Vladimir by the Tsar and commissioned to produce music for the nobility.  He disdained the public life but saw it as his duty to promote Russian music.  Soon he was in considerable demand throughout Europe and even traveled to the United States.  In 1892 he was voted a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, only the second Russian subject to be honored so.  The following year, the University of Cambridge in England awarded him an honorary doctorate in music.

Late in 1893 Tchaikovsky died suddenly in Saint Petersburg.  The cause of his death is unknown; current theories include cholera, deterioration from the long-term effects of alcohol, or suicide.  Regardless, his music remains popular with world audiences to this day, and are considered a bridge between classic Russian music and modern works.

Here is a segment from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, Waltz of the Flowers.
Waltz of the Flowers

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