Our Current Composer in the Spotlight is:

  • Our current Composer in the Spotlight is 

    Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

    Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, c. 1888 by Émile Reutlinger [de]

      Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer of the Romantic period born May 7, 1840. He died November 6, 1893.  He was the first Russian composer whose music would make a lasting impression internationally. 
    He wrote some of the most popular concert and theatrical music in the current classical repertoire, including the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, the 1812 Overture, his First Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy, several symphonies, and the opera Eugene Onegin.
    A clean-shaven man in his teens wearing a dress shirt, tie and dark jacket.

    Compositional style[edit]


    American music critic and journalist Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Tchaikovsky's "sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody", a feature that has ensured his music's continued success with audiences.[122] Tchaikovsky's complete range of melodic styles was as wide as that of his compositions. Sometimes he used Western-style melodies, sometimes original melodies written in the style of Russian folk song; sometimes he used actual folk songs.[120] According to The New Grove, Tchaikovsky's melodic gift could also become his worst enemy in two ways.

    The first challenge arose from his ethnic heritage. Unlike Western themes, the melodies that Russian composers wrote tended to be self-contained: they functioned with a mindset of stasis and repetition rather than one of progress and ongoing development. On a technical level, it made modulating to a new key to introduce a contrasting second theme exceedingly difficult, as this was literally a foreign concept that did not exist in Russian music.[123]

    The second way melody worked against Tchaikovsky was a challenge that he shared with the majority of Romantic-age composers. They did not write in the regular, symmetrical melodic shapes that worked well with sonata form, such as those favored by Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven; rather, the themes favored by Romantics were complete and independent in themselves.[124] This completeness hindered their use as structural elements in combination with one another. This challenge was why the Romantics "were never natural symphonists".[125] All a composer like Tchaikovsky could do with them was to essentially repeat them, even when he modified them to generate tension, maintain interest and satisfy listeners.[126]


    Harmony could be a potential trap for Tchaikovsky, according to Brown, since Russian creativity tended to focus on inertia and self-enclosed tableaux, while Western harmony worked against this to propel the music onward and, on a larger scale, shape it.[127] Modulation, the shifting from one key to another, was a driving principle in both harmony and sonata form, the primary Western large-scale musical structure since the middle of the 18th century. Modulation maintained harmonic interest over an extended time-scale, provided a clear contrast between musical themes and showed how those themes were related to each other.[128]

    One point in Tchaikovsky's favor was "a flair for harmony" that "astonished" Rudolph Kündinger, Tchaikovsky's music tutor during his time at the School of Jurisprudence.[129] Added to what he learned at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory studies, this talent allowed Tchaikovsky to employ a varied range of harmony in his music, from the Western harmonic and textural practices of his first two string quartets to the use of the whole tone scale in the center of the finale of the Second Symphony, a practice more typically used by The Five.[120]


    Rhythmically, Tchaikovsky sometimes experimented with unusual meters. More often, he used a firm, regular meter, a practice that served him well in dance music. At times, his rhythms became pronounced enough to become the main expressive agent of the music. They also became a means, found typically in Russian folk music, of simulating movement or progression in large-scale symphonic movements—a "synthetic propulsion", as Brown phrases it, which substituted for the momentum that would be created in strict sonata form by the interaction of melodic or motivic elements. This interaction generally does not take place in Russian music.[130] (For more on this, please see Repetition below.)


    Tchaikovsky struggled with sonata form. Its principle of organic growth through the interplay of musical themes was alien to Russian practice.[123] The traditional argument that Tchaikovsky seemed unable to develop themes in this manner fails to consider this point; it also discounts the possibility that Tchaikovsky might have intended the development passages in his large-scale works to act as "enforced hiatuses" to build tension, rather than grow organically as smoothly progressive musical arguments.[131]

    According to Brown and musicologists Hans Keller and Daniel Zhitomirsky, Tchaikovsky found his solution to large-scale structure while composing the Fourth Symphony. He essentially sidestepped thematic interaction and kept sonata form only as an "outline", as Zhitomirsky phrases it.[132] Within this outline, the focus centered on periodic alternation and juxtaposition. Tchaikovsky placed blocks of dissimilar tonal and thematic material alongside one another, with what Keller calls "new and violent contrasts" between musical themeskeys, and harmonies.[133] This process, according to Brown and Keller, builds momentum[134] and adds intense drama.[135] While the result, Warrack charges, is still "an ingenious episodic treatment of two tunes rather than a symphonic development of them" in the Germanic sense,[136] Brown counters that it took the listener of the period "through a succession of often highly charged sections which added up to a radically new kind of symphonic experience" (italics Brown), one that functioned not on the basis of summation, as Austro-German symphonies did, but on one of accumulation.[134]

    Partly owing to the melodic and structural intricacies involved in this accumulation and partly due to the composer's nature, Tchaikovsky's music became intensely expressive.[137] This intensity was entirely new to Russian music and prompted some Russians to place Tchaikovsky's name alongside that of Dostoevsky.[138] German musicologist Hermann Kretzschmar credits Tchaikovsky in his later symphonies with offering "full images of life, developed freely, sometimes even dramatically, around psychological contrasts ... This music has the mark of the truly lived and felt experience".[139] Leon Botstein, in elaborating on this comment, suggests that listening to Tchaikovsky's music "became a psychological mirror connected to everyday experience, one that reflected on the dynamic nature of the listener's own emotional self". This active engagement with the music "opened for the listener a vista of emotional and psychological tension and an extremity of feeling that possessed relevance because it seemed reminiscent of one's own 'truly lived and felt experience' or one's search for intensity in a deeply personal sense".[140]


    Sequence ascending by step Play . Note that there are only four segments, continuously higher, and that the segments continue by the same distance (seconds: C–D, D–E, etc.).

    As mentioned above, repetition was a natural part of Tchaikovsky's music, just as it is an integral part of Russian music.[141] His use of sequences within melodies (repeating a tune at a higher or lower pitch in the same voice)[142] could go on for extreme length.[120] The problem with repetition is that, over a period of time, the melody being repeated remains static, even when there is a surface level of rhythmic activity added to it.[143] Tchaikovsky kept the musical conversation flowing by treating melody, tonality, rhythm and sound color as one integrated unit, rather than as separate elements.[144]

    By making subtle but noticeable changes in the rhythm or phrasing of a tune, modulating to another key, changing the melody itself or varying the instruments playing it, Tchaikovsky could keep a listener's interest from flagging. By extending the number of repetitions, he could increase the musical and dramatic tension of a passage, building "into an emotional experience of almost unbearable intensity", as Brown phrases it, controlling when the peak and release of that tension would take place.[145] Musicologist Martin Cooper calls this practice a subtle form of unifying a piece of music and adds that Tchaikovsky brought it to a high point of refinement.[146] (For more on this practice, see the next section.)


    Like other late Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky relied heavily on orchestration for musical effects.[147] Tchaikovsky, however, became noted for the "sensual opulence" and "voluptuous timbrel virtuosity" of his orchestration.[148] Like Glinka, Tchaikovsky tended toward bright primary colors and sharply delineated contrasts of texture.[149] However, beginning with the Third Symphony, Tchaikovsky experimented with an increased range of timbres[150] Tchaikovsky's scoring was noted and admired by some of his peers. Rimsky-Korsakov regularly referred his students at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to it and called it "devoid of all striving after effect, [to] give a healthy, beautiful sonority".[151] This sonority, musicologist Richard Taruskin pointed out, is essentially Germanic in effect. Tchaikovsky's expert use of having two or more instruments play a melody simultaneously (a practice called doubling) and his ear for uncanny combinations of instruments resulted in "a generalized orchestral sonority in which the individual timbres of the instruments, being thoroughly mixed, would vanish".[152]