Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 Romeo and Juliet, FantasyOverture (1880)
Dance of the Tumblers Marche Slave, Op. 31 1812Overture, Op. 49
Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, the second son,by the second wife, of a mining engineer, manager of a metal works. At home heshowed musical precocity and in 1848 he had his first experience of school inSt Petersburg. Two years later he entered the School of Jurisprudence, where heremained for nine years, later entering the government service. In 1863 heresigned from his position in the Ministry of Justice and became a student atthe newly established Conservatory in St Petersburg, following this withappointment to the staff of the new Conservatory in Moscow. He remained on thestaff of the Moscow Conservatory until 1878, when a pension from a rich widow,Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he corresponded for years but whom he never met,gave him independence to continue a career as a composer. He died when heseemed at the height of his powers, in 1893.
This bald account of the course of Tchaikovsky's lifeignores aspects that caused him a great deal of misery. The departure of hisbeloved governess in 1848 and the death of his mother in 1854 moved him deeply,affecting a nature that had already proved morbidly sensitive and diffident,while an imprudent and short-lived marriage caused him much anxiety.Tchaikovsky was well enough liked by his contemporaries at the School ofJurisprudence and was never one to withdraw from social contact. Nevertheless,as a musician, he was easily depressed by harsh criticism and remainedintensely critical of what he wrote. His death in 1893 has been variouslyexplained as suicide or accident. It was officially attributed to cholera,whether the result of carelessness or a reckless disregard for his own life.
The Italian Capriccio was written in 1880. Tchaikovsky hadstarted the work in Rome, where he spent part of the winter of 1879/1880 withhis brother Modest and the latter's young pupil Kolya. Originally envisaged asan Italian Suite on folk melodies, the work was modelled to some extent onGlinka's Spanish fantasias. The Capriccio opens with a fanfare that echoes thesound that the composer heard every morning in Rome from the barracks next tohis hotel. Four other Italian melodies are used, the last a Neapolitantarantella known as Ciccuzza. The work received its first performance in Moscowin December, 1880, under the direction of Nikolay Rubinstein, director of theMoscow Conservatory.
In 1868 Tchaikovsky had written a symphonic poem Fatum andthis had elicited from Balakirev, in St Petersburg, harsh and detailedcriticism. Balakirev was the self-appointed leader of the group of nationalistcomposers, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky. He had taken overthe direction of the Russian Music Society concerts in St Petersburg after theresignation of their founder, Anton Rubinstein, in 1867. In 1869 Balakirev wasdismissed by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, and Tchaikovsky gallantlypublished an article deploring this. Tchaikovsky's defence of Balakirev and hisready acceptance of the criticism of Fatum led to the renewal of Balakirev'sinfluence over him, and it was from him that the idea of writing an orchestralwork on the subject of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet came. Balakirev wasalways ready to offer criticism of the music of his contemporaries, but wasequally generous with ideas.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is too well known to needrepetition. Tchaikovsky makes no attempt to follow the events as they occur inShakespeare's play. There is the solemnity of Friar Laurence, whosewell-intentioned intervention is the indirect cause of the tragedy, a themerecreating the traditional enmity of the houses of Montague and Capulet and asensuous melody expressing the love of Romeo and Juliet. The overture is intraditional sonata form, the exposition, with its principal thematic material,followed by a central development and a final recapitulation, in which loveends in death. The original Overture was revised in 1870, on the suggestion ofBalakirev, and underwent further revision in 1880, when it became an OvertureFantasy.
Tchaikovsky's incidental music for the play The Snow Maiden,by Alexander Ostrovsky, was written for the first staging of the work in Moscowin 1873. The fairy tale tells the story of the Snow Maiden, who seeks humanwarmth, only to melt, as Spring comes. The Dance of the Tumblers is part of anentertainment for the Tsar in a work that combined drama, music and ballet.
The Marche Slave was completed early in October 1876, inresponse to a request from Nikolay Rubinstein for a work to be played at aMoscow concert in aid of victims of the Turks in the Balkans, where Montenegroand Serbia had declared war against Turkey, and Russian pro-Slav feelings wererunning high. The original title of the work was the Serbo-Russian March, andTchaikovsky used in it fragments of three Serbian melodies, with a reference tothe Russian Imperial anthem before the reappearance of material of the opening ina final, third section. The anthem appears in fuller form at the climax of amarch that was well calculated to appeal to the patriotic emotions of the day.
About the 1812 Overture Tchaikovsky was diffident,describing it, in a letter to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, as \Without anyserious merits". The overture was written in response to an official commissionfrom Nikolay Rubinstein, and was to celebrate the opening of the Cathedral ofChrist the Saviour, an event timed to coincide with the Moscow Exhibition ofIndustry and the Arts and the silver jubilee of the Tsar. Since the building ofthe Cathedral was designed to commemorate the events of 1812, when the armiesof Napoleon had been forced to retreat from Moscow, Tchaikovsky chose to makehis overture a graphic description of the conflict, with the French representedby the Marseillaise and Russia by an Orthodox chant and a folk-song, and, infinal victory, by "God save the Tsar". The piece, therefore, aptly honoured aroyal occasion as well as a religious and patriotic one. The inclusion ofcannon in the scoring has made the overture a popular spectacle.