Tchaikovsky: The Cosmopolitan of Russian Music

Last entry focused on the Nationalism-charged, folk-inspired and Eastern-looking sounds of many Russian composers of the Romantic era. Meanwhile, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) grew up surrounded by multiculturalism, and this would color his identity as a Russian and a composer. His mother was of French descent, and he learned German and French from his governess by the age of 6. As a young composer he listened to the music of Schumann and Brahms, studying and critiquing it. He fell in love with Mozart’s operas, Chopin’s solo piano works and other Western European sounds. He was one of St. Petersburg Conservatory’s first students, and there he learned counterpoint and harmony just as his European contemporaries did.

For the entirety of what would be a prolific and celebrated career in music, Tchaikovsky would be at personal odds with his taste for European music and his own identity as a Russian composer. Nationalistic composers had a tenuous relationship with him. Instead of picking a side, Tchaikovsky developed a distinctly personal sound somewhere in between European style and the folk sounds we heard last entry. This sound is characterized by soulful melodies, daring harmonies, repetition for dramatic effect, and huge contrast between the most tender and most bombastic of moods.

We have Tchaikovsky to thank for blockbuster ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the pan-patriotic 1812 Overture, Symphonies, and many other gorgeous works for large and small ensembles, piano and more. Where do we start? I’ll just start with my favorites.

The Nutcracker: In the Pine Forest

Tchaikovsky’s legacy is most iconic in the Ballet repertoire. Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and annual runs of The Nutcracker are firm favorites that draw millions of people to theaters that might not go otherwise. As a musician in the ballet pit I know Tchaikovsky’s ballets at a perhaps uncomfortably intimate level, but each of his scores have moments that I admit I look forward to in each and every show.

We all know the Swan Lake theme, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy and the rest of the Greatest Hits, and frankly I’ve played them enough times lately not to dwell much on this section on the entry. However, I must highlight a particular, lower-profile movement of the Nutcracker that is my personal favorite track from any of Tchaikovsky’s ballets.

As a pit musician I can’t see any of the actual ballet, and can only hear the score around me. Most of my love for this scene is the score itself regardless of the story, but the story that goes along with it is helpful to know.

This movement, called “In the Pine Forest,” is (apparently) a dance between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. After a battle with the mouse king during which the Nutcracker becomes a prince, Clara and the now-prince have escaped on a sleigh to a magical pine forest. This is their first meeting as two humans instead of a nutcracker and a human, and they have their first dance.

Regardless of the story, what I enjoy most about this scene’s score is the rich harmony and counterpoint between voices. The highest voices are equal to, not greater than, the middle and lower voices for most of this movement. Some of the most compelling moments are in the bass clarinet, lower strings, and middle voice woodwinds. Contrary motion (two voices moving exactly opposite directions) make two voices equally interesting. The harp adds atmosphere, but not as an outright soloist, and remains part of a bigger texture.

The overall trajectory of the piece is also attractive due to its bell-curve shape. Despite all of the contrary motion, a songful melody line is repeated, followable for the entire movement. It clearly builds to a high point, the high point is illustrated with unison strings, brass, percussion, etc, and at the end we hear another iteration back in a place of calm.

Enjoy this excellent and underrated movement from the Nutcracker!

Piano Concerto no. 1

Tchaikovsky loves a good scene of drama. When it comes to chords, dynamics and repetitions: the bigger, the more, the better. His first piano concerto has a larger-than-life quality as soon as it begins. As we discussed with Beethoven’s 5th concerto, it’s surprising when a concerto features the soloist immediately because usually both A and B themes are introduced before the soloist’s first entry. Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto follows this tradition and the soloist doesn’t play their first note for several minutes.

Not so with Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Within just a few seconds of the stately opening phrase, the pianist makes themselves proudly known. The opening piano phrase isn’t even a melody; it’s just a series of emotionally packed chords that usher in the real A theme in the strings. When the piano finally takes over the A theme it adds repeated pitches, ornamental scales, arpeggios, and more. The ornamentation on the melody gets so verbose that the music eventually becomes a full cadenza for the soloist, as if the accompaniment gives up waiting for the soloist and the soloist takes off on their own.

This is all within essentially the opening phrase of the concerto, so Tchaikovsky has started big with barely anywhere bigger to go. Therefore, the B theme is a completely different universe of introversion, tenderness, and mysterious cycles of chords.

The relationship between these two contrasting and equally tuneful themes makes for an epic first movement, and the cadenza at the beginning was only a shadow of the emotional journey contained in the “traditional” cadenza (at the end of the first movement).

The second movement is a showcase of classic Tchaikovskian melodies; it’s easy to imagine singing them and tempting to actually do so! Enjoy the creative harmonies, the mercurial scherzo variation, and various instrumental solos included this theme and variations.

The third movement is a rondeau, so you’ll hear the A melody several times with different contrasting material in between. Each other piece of material is a classic Tchaikovsky sound; Romantic melodies, skittering chromatic-infused scales, rich string and woodwind blend, brass chorales (like a choir: instruments playing the same rhythm, together in harmony, as a main feature), athletic bass lines, and chromatic (jarringly close together) harmonies.

By now many of these technical terms should be familiar, and if they aren’t make sure to brush up on earlier entries where the older terms are explained!

The coda, or ending tag, is extended to several minutes of music and is as large-scale and heroic as you’d expect. The orchestra plays with the piano in a giant chorale presenting melodic material one last time before a frenzied, chromatic race to the finish.

1812 Overture: Let’s really listen to it

Commissioned to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon before Tchaikovsky was even born, Tchaikovsky wrote this now wildly famous overture with sarcasm and spite. In his own words, the overture is: “… very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” 

Yikes. Would he be surprised that this would become the title track for patriotism around the world? Maybe not.

The first several times I performed this overture at patriotic events, I only played the very end. As a young player I admittedly never listened to the piece since I knew it by ear. Finally I was booked to perform the entire thing, start to finish. I discovered how much I had missed before the cannons: this overture is 16 minutes long, full of interesting color, and the very beginning has some of the most beautiful string playing in the Romantic period.

The reason 1812 Overture made it onto this list is this; many people don’t know what they’re missing by never hearing the entire thing. There are great A and B themes, it’s in sonata form just like so many other overtures, and it even has a fugue!

The theme at the beginning is most important, played by violas and cellos, because of its return at the end. About 3/4 of the way through the overture, as the strings have been playing a furious, scale-based fugue for several minutes, there’s a short brass chorale (with the cannons, if used). We think, “this is it!”

But it’s a fake out. Anyone who has listened from the beginning and remembers the rules of sonata form (both themes come back at the end!) knows that one theme hasn’t been brought back yet. The scales in the strings come back, descending very dramatically downward. This evolves into a heroic brass and bell chorale (canons pyrotechnics etc), and guess what it is? It’s the theme from the low strings in the beginning. Look how much it has changed over its 15-minute journey! That is quite a bit more heroic than cutting straight at the end of the piece just for the cannons.

Everything about 1812 is indeed overkill, but somehow in the best of ways. It beings a smile to my face every time I hear it, even if it’s overplayed and ridiculous. Enjoy what even Tchaikovsky himself admitted was just too over-the-top.

My favorite version on youtube. Warning that this is a no-cannons version!

Tchaikovsky’s signature compositional style won him immense popularity not only in his own lifetime (which isn’t always the case) but also one of the most significant positive legacies in popular opinion of classical music. Thank you, Tchaikovsky, for encouraging so many people to love music!

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