Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
Who was Tchaikovsky?
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was one of the most prolific Russian composers of the Romantic Era. In his lifetime, he composed seven symphonies, eleven operas, three ballets, five suites, three piano concertos, one violin concerto, eleven overtures, four cantatas, twenty choral works, three string quartets, one string sextet, and over one hundred songs and piano pieces. He is hailed by scholars as one of the greatest Russian composers in history. But Tchaikovsky had a secret. From early childhood, he found himself emotionally drawn to his male classmates but felt he had to repress the feelings since that type of relationship was not socially acceptable. Despite being one of the most famous composers worldwide, Tchaikovsky found himself regularly overcome with frustration and loneliness. In addition to his moodiness, Tchaikovsky took it as a personal affront when the general public celebrated one of his simpler works over a composition that he personally treasured.
“1812 Overture” (1880)
The “1812 Overture” in the key of Eb Major, was written for the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Bordino between the Russian and French armies. The piece was commissioned for both the 1882 Moscow Exhibiton and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It lasts approximately fifteen minutes and includes multiple instances of live cannon fire. At this point in Tchaikovsky’s life, he had just divorced his wife, Antonina Miliukova, after only two and a half months of marriage. He felt alone and uninspired. About the overture, he said, it “was written without any feeling of love” and therefore had “little artistic merit.” Audiences worldwide, however, responded positively to the work and still appreciate its high level of excitement today. The overture is regularly used for various “pops” concerts and for the United States Independence Day (July 4) celebrations.
Based on the poem “Poltava” by Pushkin, “Mazeppa” was a Russian opera that told the story of the infamous 18th century military leader, Ivan Mazeppa. Tchaikovsky centered the opera around the Battle of Poltava in which rebel forces unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the Russian czar. The opera also includes a love interest, Mariya, who chooses to be with Mazeppa despite their considerable age difference and against her father’s wishes. Mariya’s father, Kochubey, takes matters into his own hands and warns the czar of the approaching militia. In retaliation, Mazeppa captures Kochubey and sentences him to death. The most famous song from the opera, “So This is What I've Lived For,” originates from this scene when Mariya’s father is contemplating the legacy he will leave behind. The final act depicts the Battle of Poltava and Mazeppa’s retreat. The premiere performance of this opera took place in the Bolshoy Theater in Moscow in 1884. During this time in Tchaikovsky’s life, he had begun to doubt his musical talents. About the opera, he said, “Mazeppa displeases me and cannot engage me.”
“The Nutcracker” (1891-1892)
In his career, Tchaikovsky composed only three ballets; “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake,” and “The Nutcracker.” The final and most popular of ballet of his career was a Christmas-themed ballet that tells the story of a young girl and her toy nutcracker that comes to life. Based loosely on “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the orchestral work consists of eight movements; Overture, March, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, Russian Dance, Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Reed Flutes, and Waltz of the Flowers. According to Betsy Schwarm from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the ballet was initially met with widespread disdain for the “much lighter” plot than Hoffman’s version. Tchaikovsky, having suffered the recent loss of his sister and the increasing fatigue of old age, could not find joy in this work. He referred to it as “rather boring” and “infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty.” Since its composition, over one hundred and twenty years ago, the ballet has gained international popularity, especially in the United States, and become a Christmas season staple.
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