Tchaikovsky, Petr Ilich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tchaikovsky, Petr Il’ich


Born Apr. 25 (May 7), 1840, in a settlement by the Kamsko-Votkinsk Plant, Viatka Province (now the city of Votkinsk, Udmurt ASSR); died Oct. 25 (Nov. 6), 1893, in St. Petersburg. Russian composer.

The son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky studied at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence from 1850 to 1859 and served in the Ministry of Justice from 1859 to 1863. In 1861 he began attending the music classes at the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Society of Music; the classes were reorganized as the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. Tchaikovsky studied theory under N. I. Zaremba and composition under A. G. Rubinstein and graduated with honors from the conservatory in 1865.

From 1866 to 1878, Tchaikovsky was a professor at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught composition, harmony, and orchestration; among his students was S. I. Taneev. Needing instructional materials, he translated several works on music theory and wrote a textbook, Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony (1872).

Tchaikovsky’s first works of music criticism were published in 1868. As music reviewer for the Moscow newspapers Sovremennaia letopis’ and Russkie vedomosti from 1871 to 1876 he fought in behalf of realism in Russian music. Tchaikovsky’s artistic and social interests led to friendships with N. G. Rubinstein and the critics N. D. Kashkin and G. A. Larosh; he also became acquainted with L. N. Tolstoy, A. N. Ostrovskii, and actors at the Malyi Theater, notably P. M. Sadovskii. His links with progressive artistic and ideological trends of the 1860’s were fostered by contacts with members of the Russian Five during private trips to St. Petersburg.

Tchaikovsky began to flourish as a composer in his Moscow period, from 1866 to 1877, during which he composed the Symphony No. 1 (Winter Daydreams, 1866), the Symphony No. 2 (1872; revised version, 1879), and the Symphony No. 3 (1875) and began work on the Symphony No. 4. In addition, he composed several program works for orchestra, including the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet (1869; second version, 1870; third version, 1880) and the symphonic fantasies The Tempest (1873) and Francesca da Rimini (1876).

During this period Tchaikovsky also wrote the Concerto No. 1 for Piano (1875); Sérénade mélancolique, for violin and orchestra (1875); Variations on a Rococo Theme, for cello and orchestra (1876); and three string quartets (1871, 1874, and 1876). Other important works from the Moscow period are the operas The Voyevoda (1868), Undine (1869, destroyed by Tchaikovsky in 1873), The Oprichnik (1872), and Vakula the Smith (1874; second version entitled Cherevichki, 1885), the ballet Swan Lake (1876), incidental music to A. N. Ostrovskii’s play The Snow Maiden (1873), art songs, and compositions for piano, including the cycle The Seasons (1876). In addition between 1868 and 1872 he transcribed for piano duet 50 Russian folk songs from the collections of K. P. Vil’boa and M. A. Balakirev and edited a collection of Russian songs compiled by V. P. Prokunin.

In the fall of 1877, Tchaikovsky traveled abroad, where he continued to work on the Symphony No. 4 (1876–77) and the opera Eugene Onegin (1877–78), which was staged at the Moscow Conservatory in 1879 through the efforts of the conservatory’s students and at the Bolshoi Theater in 1881. The financial support of N. F. von Meek, whom Tchaikovsky never met but with whom he carried on an extensive correspondence between 1876 and 1890, enabled him to devote full time to composition. Until 1885 he lived alternately abroad—in Switzerland, Italy, and France—and in Russia, usually with his sister A. I. Davydova at the estate of Kamenka in the Ukraine.

Works of this second period include the operas The Maid of Orleans (1879) and Mazeppa (1883), the cantata Moscow (1883), the 1812 Overture (1880), Capriccio italien (1880), three orchestral suites (1879,1880, and 1883), the Concerto for Violin (1878), the Piano Trio (1882, dedicated to the memory of N. G. Rubinstein), the Piano Concerto No. 2 (1880), and the Piano Sonata in G major (1878). These works show the diversity of Tchaikovsky’s creative interests and his mastery of a wide range of styles and genres.

After 1885, Tchaikovsky took up residence near Moscow, moving to Klin in 1892. Once again he became active in the music world. He was often in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and he took part in the musical life of those cities, especially in the activities of the Russian Society of Music—he was elected director of the society’s Moscow branch in 1885—and the Moscow Conservatory. The premiere of the opera Cherevichki in 1887 at the Bolshoi Theater marked the beginning of his career as a conductor, which lasted until 1893. Although he conducted mainly his symphonic works, he also conducted his operas in Russia and abroad. His work was highly regarded; in 1892 he was elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, and in 1893 Cambridge University awarded him an honorary doctorate in music.

Tchaikovsky composed a number of remarkable works between 1885 and 1893 in which tragic themes, as in the operas The Sorceress (1887) and The Queen of Spades (1890), the program symphony Manfred (1885), the Symphony No. 5 (1888), and the Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique, 1893), alternate with scores in which light and joy triumph, as in the ballets The Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892), the opera Iolanta (1891), and the orchestral suite Mozartiana (1887).

Tchaikovsky’s music, a landmark in realistic art, constitutes together with the works of A. S. Pushkin, L. N. Tolstoy, and A. P. Chekhov one of the supreme achievements of Russian culture. Tchaikovsky and the leading members of the Russian Five make up the pleiad of classic Russian composers who are the legitimate successors to the traditions of M. I. Glinka. Central to Tchaikovsky’s work, which often reached genuinely tragic heights, was the theme of man’s fierce struggle for the right to happiness. A sensitive lyric psychologist, he offered profound insights into man’s inner world.

Tchaikovsky was deeply interested in the masterpieces of Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Byron, N. V. Gogol, and A. N. Ostrovskii, as well as the events and color of various historical periods; he also found his subject matter in scenes from the life of the people, a wide variety of human characters, images of nature, the romantic atmosphere of fairy tales, and the child’s view of the world. At the same time, he always concentrated on his own feelings, which he expressed with unparalleled accuracy.

Tchaikovsky made use of the rich store of artistic devices to be found in the great musical classics, but the primary source of his richly melodic musical language, which was not only strikingly democratic but innovative in its lyric and dramatic power, was the Russian folk song—particularly the folk chorus—and the Russian popular art song. Tchaikovsky embodied moods, characters, and philosophic reflections in their dialectically complex, and often contradictory, continuous unfolding and development against a broad, pictorial background suffused with a life-affirming enthusiasm.

One of the greatest of symphonic composers, Tchaikovsky is a worthy successor to L. van Beethoven. His symphonic thought is clearly revealed in a variety of works in his extensive and multifaceted legacy, in which vocal and instrumental genres continually enrich one another, especially the operas and symphonies. Of the ten operas, those based on the works of Pushkin deserve a special place. In Eugene Onegin, which contains lyric scenes and constitutes a new type of opera, the composer realized his ideal of an “intimate but powerful drama.” The Queen of Spades, a vocal-symphonic tragedy, is matchless in its psychological profundity.

Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works, both program and nonprogram compositions, are distinguished by their significant content and, at the same time, accessibility of expression. The last three symphonies are true “instrumental dramas.” Tchaikovsky’s three ballets, into which he introduced the principles of the symphonic drama, mark a new stage in the history of the ballet. His concerti (particularly the First Piano Concerto), chamber works, and numerous (104) art songs have achieved popularity.

The great humanistic art of Tchaikovsky, which has inspired many composers of the late 19th and the 20th centuries, has been an inexhaustible source of lofty realistic traditions for progressive musical art. The music of Tchaikovsky has achieved world renown. The Moscow and Kiev conservatories, the theater of opera and ballet in Perm’, and a concert hall in Moscow have been named in honor of Tchaikovsky. The international Tchaikovsky Competition has been held in Moscow since 1958. There are Tchaikovsky museums in Klin and Votkinsk; a museum of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky is located in Kamenka.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.