Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyitch (1840-1893)

Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.

Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky was a Russian Romantic era composer who transitioned to music after studying law and working in the Ministry of Justice. His music is filled with emotion, an element of Romanticism that is highlighted in his work, and a love of the landscape of Russia. He was an international figure and his music shows the influence of France, Italy and the United States. As such, he stood in contrast to a group of Nationalist Russian composers, known as the Mighty Five, whose aim was to create more of a purely Russian music.

Tchaikovsky taught at the Moscow Conservatory, but eventually left to devote his time to composing. He was able to do this largely from the financial support of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who patronized the arts. Their financial arrangement included an agreement that they never meet in person, but several letters between them have survived.

Tchaikovsky’s life was clouded by bouts of depression, his own often harsh self-criticism, and the need to conceal parts of himself that were not accepted at the time. Like many creative artists, the wide range of emotions throughout his life can be heard in his music. Many of us are inspired by the most glorious and related to the doubt and difficulty that his music portrays.

Listening – Flute Related

Click here to find out what all of those Op numbers mean.

Symphony 4 in f minor, Op 36

The composition of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 4 straddled one of the most turbulent times of his life – his short-lived marriage to Antonina Ivanova Milyukova. Symphony 4 explores the contradiction of human dreams and desires with the reality of what Fate brings. The symphony contrasts the sometimes harshness of Fate with the delicate hope of human longing.

The Scherzo movement has a piccolo solo that is included on virtually all major orchestral auditions. The piccolo plays nothing for the first half of the movement, then has a short line of quickly moving notes in the high register. Listen for the piccolo part in the Scherzo, but don’t miss the opening of the first movement which displays the grand power of the brass section introducing the Fate theme.

Video: Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, Valery Gergiev conductor

The Nutcracker

One of our favorite Christmas events, The Nutcracker, was actually not well received when it was first performed, even by Tchaikovsky! It was double-billed with a one-act opera of his, and Tchaikovsky’s observation afterwards was that the opera was pleasant, but the ballet kind of boring. Today The Nutcracker is a beloved event performed by student through professional groups every Christmas season. Many of the movements feature the flute.

Chinese Dance

The Chinese Dance (Chinese Tea) features the flute and piccolo playing the melody throughout. This video includes the Chinese Dance and Russian Dance.

Video: Marjinsky Ballet

Dance of the Mirlitons

Possibly the best know flute feature in the Nutcracker, Dance of the Mirlitons (i.e., Dance of the Reed Flutes) features the full flute section for most of the work.

Video: Mariinsky Ballet

1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky composed 1812 Overture to commemorate the Russian victory over France in the Napoleonic Wars. This concert overture opens with a Russian folk song, then proceeds with bits of the French national anthem, Le Marseillaise, signifying the invasion. After several musical battles, the piece ends in a joyful victory with church bells ringing and cannons firing along with the melody of God Save the Tsar.

Like The Nutcracker, this is a work that is enormously popular today, often performed at July 4 celebrations in America, but was not one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites, as he wrote of the 1812 Overture it was “very loud and noisy and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”

Many performances of this overture use the chimes instead of church bells and the bass drum instead of cannons. This video is an outdoor performance that features actual church bells and a real cannon firing at the end.

Video: Musical Society of Algemesi

Bonus Listening

Hymn of the Cherubim, from Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Op. 41

The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom was composed during a time when Russia was quick to censor music that contained religious text, and the Liturgy quickly became a target. Much of the work was confiscated by the Imperial Chapel in St. Petersburg. Lucky for us, Tchaikovsky’s publisher fought a legal battle over the Liturgy and eventually won.

Hymn of the Cherubim is an a cappella work that is the closest thing I have heard to Heaven on earth (even if it does not include the flute). Sit down and give yourself 8 quality minutes to enjoy the other-worldly beauty of this music.

Video: USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir, Valery Polyansky conductor

The Nutcracker

Arabian Dance

Honestly, you just have to see the dancing in this one. Moscow Ballet’s famed Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrichenko clearly have bones of rubber and muscles of steel. Enjoy!

Video: Moscow Ballet

Dove of Peace

Same dancers, along with the most glorious use of costume I have seen in dance.

Video: Moscow Ballet

Serenade for Strings, Op 48

This is a beautiful piece of music, performed in this video by the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. A true chamber orchestra, this group plays without a conductor, taking cues from various ensemble members (but often the Concertmaster and Principal players) to stay together.

Video: Norwegian Chamber Orchestra Terje Tønnesen, artistic director

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