Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893) is widely considered the most popular Russian composer of all time. He wrote many very popular classical works including the 1812 Overture and three ballets – Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. His works include symphonies, concertos, operas, ballet and chamber music. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the the most popular concertos ever written and his Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pathétique’, is one of the great symphonic masterpieces of all time. He turned to literary and dramatic sources, including Shakespeare, for a number of orchestral compositions. Tchaikovsky’s music combines beautiful melodies, impressive harmonies and colourful orchestrations.
Best Tchaikovsky Works: 10 Essential Pieces
The 1812 Overture (1880), Tchaikovsky’s most famous work, tells the story of Napoleon’s defeat at the hands of the Russian army, via the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Russian Imperial Hymn’, climaxing in a majestic celebration of cannon fire. It is one of the best examples of how Tchaikovsky was a master of orchestration and one of Tchaikovsky’s best works.
No other composer has ever succeeded in capturing the fairy-tale world of childhood innocence as inimitably as Tchaikovsky in this most cherishable of his three great ballet scores. The ballet’s title comes from a story written in 1814, by the German fantasy writer ETA Hoffmann, in which a young girl’s favourite Christmas present, a nutcracker, comes to life as a handsome prince who whisks her off to the Land of Sweets.
Swan Lake is arguably the greatest of all Romantic ballets and one of Tchaikovsky’s best works. The original version of Swan Lake, premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in 1877, was a failure, and it was not until the 1895 revival, with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, that the ballet finally won over the Russian public. Swan Lake is now adored by children and adults and is the world’s most frequently performed ballet.
The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty, based on a timeless fairytale, is one of the world’s most beloved ballets. Tchaikovsky’s radiantly inspired music reflected his contented state of mind at the time and he declared, “The subject is so poetical that I got quite carried away while composing it!” Sadly Tchaikovsky did not live long enough to witness the instant success of The Sleeping Beauty outside Russia.
Piano Concerto No.1
The first version of Piano Concerto No. 1 was severely criticised by Nikolai Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky’s desired pianist, who declared,”Only two or three pages are worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away!” However the concerto was an immediate success at the premiere, performed by Hans von Bulow, and is widely regarded as one of the most popular concertos ever written.
Eugene Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s best-loved opera, is based on Pushkin’s novel of the same name. Tchaikovsky’s natural sympathy with the situation of Eugene Onegin – composed around the time of the composer’s disastrous marriage – inspired him to new operatic heights of expression.
Violin Concerto in D major
Tchaikovsky composed his Violin Concerto in D major in Clarens, Switzerland, in 1878, where he had gone to recover from the depression brought on by his disastrous marriage. He was joined there by his violinist friend Iosif Kotek who advised him on the solo part. Tchaikovsky dedicated his Violin Concerto, one of the greatest in the repertoire, to the famous Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, for whom he had written his Sérénade Mélancolique. Unfortunately Auer and Kotek refused to perform the work, due to the technical demands of the part, and the first performance was eventually given by Adolph Brodsky in 1881.
Symphony No. 6 ‘Pathétique’
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the ‘Pathétique’, is one of the great symphonic masterpieces of all time. It was the composer’s last work – the symphony premiered on 28 October 1893, nine days before he died – and the work is forever associated with the tragedy of his sudden death. From the savage intensity of the opening movement to the unfathomable despair of the finale, no emotional stone is left unturned in this most emotionally draining of all Tchaikovsky’s works.
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture
Tchaikovsky was deeply inspired by Shakespeare and the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture is based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Composer Mily Balakirev recognised the special qualities of Tchaikovsky’s early concert overture from the first: “It is your first composition which truly draws itself to one in its total beauty.”
Serenade In C For Strings
Tchaikovsky’s mastery of string writing and composing for the ballet theatre comes to the fore in this magnificent Serenade, whose waltz movement had to be immediately encored at the premiere. It is now considered to be one of the late Romantic era’s definitive compositions.