Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Tragic Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 11 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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What would Christmas be without The Nutcracker? Many people know "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" without knowing the name of the work--or its composer.

Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky lived from 1840 to 1893.  The booming cannons and ringing church bells of his 1812 Overture are part of the pops repertoire all over the world, and you don't have to be familiar with ballet to recognize music from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, or the aforementioned Nutcracker. He also wrote symphonies, operas, and numerous other works.

Tchaikovsky was the first Russian composer to become internationally famous. He toured Europe and the United States as a guest conductor, and led the first concert at New York's famous Carnegie Hall in 1891.

Tchaikovsky had four brothers, and two sisters (one by his father's previous marriage). His father was an engineer, and both father and mother (who was half French) were well-trained in the arts, including music. Peter started playing the piano at age five, but his parents did not encourage him to pursue a musical career as a boy. At that time in Russia, the only job for people with musical training was teaching, considered to be a lowly position. Only later did his father change his mind.

Tchaikovsky studied in St. Petersburg. At first, he trained as a civil servant, but later entered a music school, graduating in 1865. There he learned a more European style, which he combined with native Russian music to create a unique sound.

Although he was a success professionally, he suffered many personal tragedies. While he was at school, his mother died. He never got over it, and called it "the crucial event" that shaped his life. His closest friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, died young; he himself had a failed marriage; and his patron of 13 years suffered financial losses and could no longer support him. Tchaikovsky died suddenly at age 53, supposedly from cholera, but some scholars think he may have committed suicide.

Background to Some Popular Works of Tchaikovsky

Napoleon watches Moscow burn in 1812 (by Adam Albrecht, 1841)

Let's take a closer look at the background to some of the works mentioned above.

The 1812 Overture (1880): In June of 1812, Napoleon's Grande Armée launched the "Russian Campaign." Though they outnumbered the Russians by more than two-to-one, it was no picnic for the French. When at last they occupied Moscow in September, they found the city abandoned--and soon, on fire. While waiting for negotiations that never happened, the French army ran low on supplies, and were ill-equipped for the bitter cold.

Napoleon left in early December, and the shattered remnants of the no-longer-Grande Armée within a few weeks. Many horses had died, and others had been eaten, so the cavalry ceased to exist--the remaining horsemen shuffled out on foot--and cannons and wagons were abandoned.

Nearly seven decades later, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write a work that commemorated this victory, and The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, with its booming cannons, ringing bells, and--these days--fireworks displays, was debuted in August of 1872. It remains Tchaikovsky's most popular work.


Swan Lake (1875-76): The first of Tchaikovsky's three ballets is based on Russian and German folk tales. There are several versions of the story, but in one of them, a princess named Odette has been turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. She and her flock become human again each night, and in that form she meets Prince Siegfried, whose mother has ordered him to marry. Siegfried swears to love Odette forever.

But the sorcerer Rothbart, who had cast the spell on the swan-maidens, tricks Siegfried into agreeing to marry his daughter Odile by making her look like Odette. Realizing his betrayal too late, Siegfried rushes to the lake, where he and Odette drown themselves in order to be together forever. In the end, they are seen ascending into the Heavens together, united forever in their love.


The Sleeping Beauty (1889): This one is based directly on the "original" fairy tale by French writer Charles Perrault--essentially the version we all know about Princess Aurora being cursed by an evil fairy to die on her sixteenth birthday, until another fairy converts the curse to falling asleep for 100 years, when she will be awakened by a handsome prince (here named "Prince Désiré"). The song used in the Disney version, "Once Upon a Dream" ("I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream...") was borrowed from Tchaikovsky's ballet, as was most of the other music in the film.


The Nutcracker (1892): The story is adapted from one by E. T. A. Hoffmann, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." There are several versions, but mainly the ballet goes like this: A talented toymaker joins the family of Clara and her brother Fritz for a party on Christmas Eve, bringing with him among other gifts a nutcracker carved to look like a man. Later, Clara sneaks down to see it as the clock strikes midnight and the room fills with mice. The nutcracker grows to man-size, and the mice battle an army of gingerbread soldiers. The nutcracker and his troops join the gingerbread soldiers, and with Clara's help he defeats the Mouse King.

The nutcracker becomes a handsome Prince and leads Clara to a pine forest filled with dancing snowflakes. They travel to the Land of Sweets, where personified treats from around the world--one of them the "Sugar Plum Fairy"--dance for Clara before sending her back home in a reindeer-drawn sleigh.

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in an early performance of The Nutcracker


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. abandoned
  2. ballet
  3. cholera
  4. commemorated
  5. composer
  6. lowly
  7. no picnic
  8. overture
  9. patron
  10. personified
  11. pops
  12. remnants
  13. repertoire
  14. suicide
  15. supposedly
  1. a difficult situation
  2. empty; OR left behind
  3. all of the pieces that an orchestra can perform, taken as a group
  4. a person who writes music
  5. a classical form of dance
  6. served as a memorial for; honored
  7. believed by many, but possibly not true
  8. classical music that is known and enjoyed by many people
  9. an often-fatal disease, usually spread by dirty water
  10. made like a human
  11. the act of killing oneself
  12. not respected
  13. the parts that are left
  14. a person who supports an artist
  15. a piece of music often (but not always) used as an introduction to a larger work, and usually made up of several distinct themes

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What are some of the "personal tragedies" in the life of Tchaikovsky?
  2. What event did the 1812 Overture commemorate?
  3. What is Swan Lake about?
  4. What famous film studio used Tchaikovsky's music in their version of The Sleeping Beauty?
  5. What sorts of creatures dance to please Clara in The Nutcracker?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Is it possible that "suffering"--as with Tchaikovsky's tragedies--helps contribute to the creation of great art?
  2. Which of the three ballets' stories do you like best? And least?
  3. Do you think being a music teacher is a "lowly position"? Why or why not?

1 comment:


    Vocabulary: 1. B; 2. E; 3. I; 4. F; 5. D; 6. L; 7. A; 8. O; 9. N; 10. J; 11. H; 12. M; 13. C; 14. K; 15. G

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. Tchaikovsky's mother died while he was at school; his closest friend died young; his marriage failed; and he lost his patron. He also died fairly young, perhaps by suicide.
    2. The 1812 Overture commemorated the failure of the French invasion of Russia in 1812.
    3. Swan Lake is about a girl turned into a swan, who is betrayed by the man she loves.
    4. The Disney Studios used Tchaikovsky's music in their version of The Sleeping Beauty.
    5. Treats from around the world that have become "human" dance for Clara in The Nutcracker.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").