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Composer in Focus – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Name: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Dates: 1840-1893
Country of Birth: Russian Empire
Musical Era: Romantic (Late)

Tchaikovsky showed his composing potential early on, apparently writing a song aged just four years old.  And while his family, who seemingly appreciated music as a past-time, showed support in his early years it was never considered that music was a serious path for a career.  With that in mind the youngster was packed off to boarding school (a harrowing experience, being separated from his family) with a view to training, eventually, as a civil servant. That Tchaikovsky did have a three year career in the Ministry of Justice is testament to his parents influence, and society’s view of music at that time.  However, with the revelation that a music school was to open – eventually becoming the St Petersburg Conservatoire – the aspiring performer (and composer) persuaded everyone that this was exactly what he wanted to do… and he did.  Of course his years at school and college weren’t without music; the young Tchaikovsky sang and played as much as he could.  At 25 he graduated from the new school and was soon recruited there as a teacher, which brought in much needed money while he pursued his dream of being a composer.

Russia was not the easiest place to be an artist in the 1860s and the burgeoning composer found himself regularly at odds with prescribed societal parameters, which indicated the kind of music he should be writing.  Form, tone and structure had to be distinctly Russian and Western musical influences were frowned upon…  Tchaikovsky seemingly transcended both musical idioms, instead composing music with elements of both. This set him apart from his contemporaries, such as Mussorgsky, Borodin and Rimsky-Korsokov (who very much stuck to what was accepted), and he had a hard time of it professionally.  That said, audiences across Russia, and Europe, couldn’t get enough of his music… at once fresh, interesting and accessible.

Tchaikovsky’s music is imbued with an inherent emotional intensity, brought on perhaps by depression, anxiety and tragedy.  The loss of a his Mother, good friends and an intense failed marriage are said to have contributed greatly to the essence of his work.  His personal life was wrought with loss and self doubt – of his music, the acceptance of his peers, and questions around his sexuality.  This led to a period of ‘wandering’, during which time Tchaikovsky travelled alone; a period of soul searching perhaps, and one of some healing.  On his return to Moscow, his star had risen, with attitudes around what it meant to be Russian changing. Suddenly Tchaikovsky was a prodigal son and he found himself in demand as a composer and conductor.  A peerage from the Emperor and regular work followed, with the composer’s music finding a new (old) audience and not just in Russia.  Conducting took him all around Europe and even to the USA.

His death at just 53 (apparently from Cholera) was too soon for an artist who was in the prime of his professional life; but he left behind some of the most popular music of the classical repertoire.

Key works… Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Serenade for Strings, Symphony No 6 ‘Pathetique’, Piano Concerto No 1, Eugene Onegin, 1812 Overture

Did you know?  Tchaikovsky was a music critic and reviewed concerts of music by Beethoven and Brahms, he was also a notable conductor and featured in the programme of the first ever concert at Carnegie Hall in New York…

Tchaikovsky in Bristol
Thurs 6 Oct, 7.30pm /
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra – ‘Piano Concerto No 1’ (Colston Hall)

Tues 11 Oct, 7.30pm /
Stephen Johnson & English Piano Trio – ‘Piano Trio in A minor’ (The Lantern)

Sat 15 Oct, 7.30pm /
The Hallé – ‘Fantasy Overture Hamlet’ (Colston Hall)

Thurs 20 Oct, 7.30pm / 
Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra – ‘Symphony No 5’ (Colston Hall)