The Music of Tchaikovsky: 5 Favorites

Today we’re going to take a look at the music of Tchaikovsky in a wide range of genres. This should give you a decent sense of his musical style, and serve as a launching point for exploring his music further.

The music of Tchaikovsky: Style

Tchaikovsky was not just a Russian Romantic composer, he was the Russian Romantic composer. He integrated Western musical techniques with Russian styles, and ended up with his own personal, emotional and highly individual style.

One of Tchaikovsky’s best musical traits is his penchant for melody, much like Mozart (who was probably Tchaikovsky’s greatest influence). This is just one reason of many that his music is so popular today.

On the subject of Tchaikovsky’s melodies, the music critic Harold Schonberg wrote that he had a

“sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody”.

But Tchaikovsky’s success wasn’t a cakewalk. Many of his best compositions were heavily criticized and met with mixed reviews, which would end up pushing him to improve and revise them. Whether the criticism was deserved or not, it undoubtedly made him a better musician.

On the emotive aspects of Tchaikovsky’s style, the musicologist Hermann Ktretzchmar says that his later symphonies offer

“full images of life, developed freely, sometimes even dramatically, around psychological contrasts … This music has the mark of the truly lived and felt experience.”

Another musicologist, Leon Botstein, said that listening to Tchaikovsky’s music

“became a psychological mirror connected to everyday experience, one that reflected on the dynamic nature of the listener’s own emotional self.”

Music of Tchaikovsky: Ballet

The Nutcracker (suite), Op. 71a

Tchaikovsky wrote three ballets – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. The Sleeping Beauty was Tchaikovsky’s personal favorite, though The Nutcracker is very well-known and the one we’ll take a glance at today.

It premiered in St. Petersburg near Christmastime in 1892, a year before Tchaikovsky’s death. Interestingly, it didn’t go over very well at first – the dancing in particular was criticized.

Tchaikovsky used a new instrument in the score that he’d discovered in Paris called the celesta. He described it as having a “heavenly sweet sound”, and you’ll hear it momentarily in “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”.

Music from the Nutcracker is all over pop culture, especially around Christmastime. Not only is it popular in television and movies, but video games as well (such as Tetris).

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

From: The Nutcracker (suite), Op. 71a: Act I, No.3. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Video credits: Performed by European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Tchaikovsky: Symphonies

Symphony no. 6 in Bm “Pathétique”, Op. 74

The sixth and final symphony by Tchaikovsky was premiered just 9 days before his death. He conducted the performance himself in St. Petersburg, his final public premiere.

His early attempts at the symphony in 1891 didn’t go so well – he apparently tore up some original drafts. But by 1893 he was consumed with it. As he wrote in a letter to his brother, Modest,

“I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.”

This symphony is so sad and morose that it spawned suicide theories regarding Tchaikovsky’s death. His official cause of death was cholera, but some people became convinced that this symphony was a sort of musical suicide note.

His Sixth Symphony has four movements, and is the only of his symphonies to end on a minor key. It’s a popular work and I encourage you to listen to it in full – here we’ll listen to a short clip from the beginning of the first movement.

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

Symphony no. 6 in Bm “Pathétique”, Op. 74

Video credits: Performed by Musopen Symphony

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Tchaikovsky: Program music

Overture to Romeo and Juliet

Tchaikosvksy also wrote program music, which is basically symphonic music that follows a specific story. He especially enjoyed writing music for Shakespeare’s stories, such as The Tempest, Hamlet and – the one we’re looking at today – Romeo and Juliet.

His fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet is one of his best-known works, which is why I’m sharing it with you today. And, like so many of Tchaikovsky’s well-loved works, it wasn’t well-loved at first.
Tchaikovsky had this to say of the premiere in 1870:

“After the concert we dined…. No one said a single word to me about the overture the whole evening. And yet I yearned so for appreciation and kindness.”

Since it wasn’t well-received, he ended up making major revisions a couple of times. His third iteration of the fantasia-overture was completed 10 years later in 1880, and premiered in 1886. This is the version that you’ll hear nowadays.

The full work is about 20 minutes long.

Romeo and Juliet Overture

Romeo and Juliet: Overture-Fantasia

Video credits: Performed by Skidmore College Orchestra

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Tchaikovsky: Concertos

Piano Concerto no. 1, op. 23

Tchaikovsky wrote four concertos in total, three for piano and one for violin. He also wrote several other concerto-like works.

Today we’re going to look at his first Piano Concerto, op. 23, which was written in 1875. Again – as is the theme for many of his important compositions – it wasn’t initially well-received. One of Tchaikovsky’s mentors, Nikolai Rubinstein, heavily criticized it, which motivated Tchaikovsky to rework it a couple times (the final version being revised in 1888).

Rubinstein himself ended up loving this concertos, as did the rest of the world – not only is it one of Tchaikovsky’s most well-known concertos, but it’s one of the most well-known among all composers.

Like most concertos, this one is in three movements and a full performance is about 30 minutes long. An interesting thing about this concerto, if you listen to it in full, is that Tchaikovsky shifts his tonality around and really makes us feel unstable as a listener. You won’t get that from the brief clip I’m about to share, but it’s one of the reasons I enjoy this one so much.

Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto

Video credits: Performed by European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Music of Tchaikovsky: Solo piano

The Seasons, op. 37a

Tchaikovsky wasn’t a particularly gifted pianist himself, but he did compose some notable piano music. One of his best-known sets is called The Seasons, op. 37a. There are twelve pieces in this set, each depicting a month of the year.

All of the pieces in this collection are at around a grade 8 or 9 level, so ordinary mortals are able to play them. They’re also quite musically interesting for their level, and show a strong influence from other Romantic composers such as Robert Schumann.

This collection was actually a commissioned work that Tchaikovsky accepted from a music magazine in 1875. Tchaikovsky wanted the supplemental income, and the magazine wanted a piece to publish each month for a year.

But writing for commission didn’t mean the pieces had less value. In fact, they’re quite popular, especially June and November (Rachmaninoff was known to sometimes perform November for encores).

The one I’ll be sharing with you today is November. Like all the pieces in this collection, it’s quite short and lovely. Be sure to check out the others!

The Seasons: November

The Seasons, Op. 37a – XI. November

Video credits: Performed by Charles Ko (October)

Copyright: Attribution 3.0 Unported

Tchaikovsky’s other compositions

This just scratches the surface of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. He also composed in other major genres, such as:

-Opera (notably the Queen of Spades)

-Other commissioned works (such as the 1812 Overture)

-Orchestral suites

-Choral music

-Chamber music

-Lieder (songs)

Tchaikovsky’s Musical Contributions

Tchaikovsky single-handedly brought Russia into the wider European music scene.

Tchaikovsky’s accomplishments are all the more impressive when you consider that he didn’t really have any major Russian predecessors – he was the first big professional Russian composer, and had no one to follow in the footsteps of. Instead, he created the footsteps.

He also had really high standards – not only did he want to incorporate Russian elements in his music, but he wanted his music to be on par with music from the rest of Europe.

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and program music were especially influential to future Russian composers, such as Stravinsky. But beyond specific genres, it was his emotive, yet controlled and professional, style that really sets him apart.

xo,

Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.