Sérénade mélancolique, Op. 26, for violin and orchestra (1875).
Oh sing to me beauties which in peril return!
A mournful air of perished golden days;
All gain hope who hear these emboldened lays.
Per Scriptum E. Wesley – Mackinac Center Intern
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s compositions were the last petals of Russian classical music before the winter of Communism, and as such, his music affords an unassuming glimpse of Russian art just before its fall. The lavishness of Russian ballet is imperishably preserved in his Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty ballets, and his Romeo and Juliet Opera, to say nothing of the 1812 Overture, embody the Russian Romanticism of his day (although Tchaikovsky believed himself to be a realist). Unknowingly, Tchaikovsky was of the last great musicians of his country. His work would be as a burning coal of freedom during the dark days of Communism.
Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 and died on November 6, 1893. During his life, his music was met both with initial criticism and later with highest praise. Separated from his family at the age of ten, Tchaikovsky was sent away to the School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, a separation that would become permanent with the passing of his mother when Tchaikovsky was only fourteen. Working with the Ministry of Justice from about 1859-1863, Tchaikovsky still found time to develop his passion for music and also take an extended trip to Western Europe. He entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1863 while teaching private lessons on the side, and in 1866 he began as a professor of harmony at Moscow’s conservatory. Being at first unable to satisfy either conservative musicians or those of a nationalistic frame of mind, it wasn’t until the performance of his First Symphony in 1868 at Moscow that the public viewed him favorably. He preferred to interject themes into his work rather than build a melodic transition from one theme to another. In 1870 Tchaikovsky released his first version of the “Romeo and Juliet” opera, and reconstructing material from his rather unpopular opera, “The Voyevoda,” he released “The Oprichnik” in 1874 at Saint Petersburg. In 1875, he composed his Third Symphony and “Swan Lake,” and after another trip to Western Europe, he wrote the “Rococo Variations” set in the 18th century. The setting for his “Eugene Onegin” (1879) was rural Russia, with many lavish ball scenes that idealized Russian drama. Tchaikovsky was preserving the artistic atmosphere of his homeland.
Then in 1880 began Tchaikovsky professional connection with the Russian royal family. That year, Czar Alexander II asked him to compose an accompaniment for the Czar’s 25th anniversary as Czar of Russia. Unfortunately, that arrangement was suddenly canceled, but later Alexander II asked Tchaikovsky to commemorate the opening of the nation’s primary Orthodox Christian church, Christ the Savior Cathedral. This church was built to honor Russia’s victory over Napoleon in 1812, and for the dedication ceremony Tchaikovsky composed his flamboyant 1812 Overture. Alexander III, who also loved Tchaikovsky’s music, soon succeeded Alexander II as Czar of Russia. Tchaikovsky received the high honor of composing Alexander III’s Coronation March, much like what Elgar would later do in Great Britain for King Edward and Queen Alexandra. For this, he was invited to the Palace of Facets, and later was given a diamond ring for his services. Although Alexander III was not the last Czar before the Communist takeover (his son, Nicolas II was), Tchaikovsky drew the curtain on the Russian imperial age. Tchaikovsky’s musical abilities far surpassed most in Russia, and Alexander III was certainly the last prestigious Czar of Russia, if not tyrannical and repressive to the people of Russia. The combination of Alexander III and Tchaikovsky was certainly the height of Russian pomp and circumstance, both musically and imperialistically. Next, Alexander advised Tchaikovsky in 1885 to write more Christian pieces, and Tchaikovsky accordingly composed many choral chants for the Orthodox Church. He was awarded a sum of 3,000 rubles per year for his efforts, enough to set him financially among the rich.
His final years saw perhaps his finest works, including the Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Nutcracker (1892) ballets, and the 1890 “Queen of Spades” (a highly emotional drama of Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great). Tchaikovsky’s own view of art was simple: “I think that I really am endowed with the ability to truthfully, honestly, and straightforwardly express through music those feelings, moods, and images which the text of a libretto or poem awakens in me. In this sense I am a realist and a deeply Russian person.” That Russian spark of art would have to last for just under 70 years of communism before the arts could lawfully be resumed in Russia. Still, to this day, Russia’s greatest composer is Tchaikovsky, who preserved for all time a specific time and culture that no longer exists.
Here is a list of some of Tchaikovsky’s accomplishments from PBS:
The Voyevoda (1869)
The Oprichnik (1874)
Vakula the Smith (1876)
Eugene Onegin (1879)
The Maid of Orleans (1881)
The Sorceress (1887)
The Queen of Spades (1890)
Swan Lake (1877)
The Sleeping Beauty (1890)
The Nutcracker (1892)
Sym. no. 1, G, "Winter Daydreams" (1866, rev. 1874)
Sym. no. 2, C, "Little Russian" (1872, rev. 1880)
Sym. no. 3, D, "Polish" (1875)
Sym. no. 4, F (1878)
Sym. no. 5, E (1888)
Sym. no. 6, B, "Pathétique" (1893)
Manfred, sym. (1885)
Romeo and Juliet, fantasy ov. (1870, rev. 1880)
Francesca da Rimini, sym. fantasia (1876)
1812, ov. (1880)
Hamlet, fantasy ov. (1888)
Pf Conc. no. 1, B-flat (1875)
Pf Conc. no. 2, G (1880)
Pf Conc. no. 3, E-flat (1893)
Vn Conc., D (1878)
Variations on a Rococo Theme, vc, orch, A (1876)
Serenade, strs (1880)
over 20 other works
Chamber and keyboard music
3 str qts (1871, 1874, 1877)
Pf Trio, A (1882)
Souvenir de Florence, str sextet (1890)
12 other chamber works
Pf Sonata, G (1879)
over 100 other pf pieces
circa 30 choral works, incl. sacred pieces, secular cantatas
over 100 songs and duets”
Here are some free samples of Tchaikovsky’s music:
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - romeo and juliet- overture-fantasy
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - 1812 overture