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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Swan Lake: Act Two Pas De Quatre

Tchaikovsky was the second of six surviving children of Ilya Tchaikovsky, a manager of the Kamsko-Votkinsk metal works, and Alexandra Assier, a descendant of French migrs. He manifested a clear interest in music from childhood, and his earliest musical impressions came from an orchestrina in the family home. At age four he made his first recorded attempt at composition, a song written with his younger sister Alexandra. In 1845 he began taking piano lessons with a local tutor, through which he became familiar with Frdric Chopin’s mazurkas and the piano pieces of Friedrich Kalkbrenner. Since music education was not available in Russian institutions at that time, Tchaikovsky’s parents had not considered that their son might pursue a musical career. Instead, they chose to prepare the high-strung and sensitive boy for a career in the civil service. March 1871 the audience at Moscow’s Hall of Nobility witnessed the successful performance of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1, and in April 1872 he finished another opera, The Oprichnik. While spending the summer at his sister’s estate in Ukraine, he began to work on his Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, later dubbed The Little Russian, which he completed later that year. The Oprichnik was first performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in April 1874. Despite its initial success, the opera did not convince the critics, with whom Tchaikovsky ultimately agreed. His next opera, Vakula the Smith (1874), later revised as Cherevichki (1885; The Little Shoes), was similarly judged. In his early operas the young composer experienced difficulty in striking a balance between creative fervour and his ability to assess critically the work in progress. However, his instrumental works began to earn him his reputation, and, at the end of 1874, Tchaikovsky wrote his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, a work destined for fame despite its initial rejection by Rubinstein. The concerto premiered successfully in Boston in October 1875, with Hans von Blow as the soloist. During the summer of 1875, Tchaikovsky composed Symphony No. 3 in D Major, which gained almost immediate acclaim in Russia The growing popularity of Tchaikovsky’s music both within and outside of Russia inevitably resulted in public interest in him and his personal life. Although homosexuality was officially illegal in Russia, the authorities tolerated it among the upper classes. But social and familial pressures, as well as his discomfort with the fact that his younger brother Modest was exhibiting the same sexual tendencies, led to Tchaikovsky’s hasty decision in the summer of 1877 to marry Antonina Milyukova, a young and naive music student who had declared her love for him. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, combined with an almost complete lack of compatibility between the couple, resulted in matrimonial disaster—within weeks he fled abroad, never again to live with his wife. This experience forced Tchaikovsky to recognize that he could not find respectability through social conventions and that his sexual orientation could not be changed. On February 13, 1878, he wrote his brother Anatoly from Florence: “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.” The year 1876 saw the beginning of the extraordinary relationship that developed between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railroad tycoon; it became an important component of their lives for the next 14 years. A great admirer of his work, she chose to become his patroness and eventually arranged for him a regular monthly allowance; this enabled him in 1878 to resign from the conservatory and devote his efforts to writing music. Thereafter he could afford to spend the winters in Europe and return to Russia each summer. Although he and his benefactor agreed never to meet, they engaged in a voluminous correspondence that constitutes a remarkable historical and literary record. In the course of it they frankly exchanged their views on a broad spectrum of issues, starting with politics or ideology and ending with such topics as the psychology of creativity, religious faith, and the nature of love. On October 16 Tchaikovsky conducted his new symphony’s premiere in St. Petersburg. The mixed reaction of the audience, however, did not affect the composer’s belief that the symphony belonged among his best work. On October 21 he suddenly became ill and was diagnosed with cholera, an epidemic that was sweeping through St. Petersburg. Despite all medical efforts to save him, he died four days later from complications arising from the disease. Wild rumours circulated among his contemporaries concerning his possible suicide, which were revived in the late 20th century by some of his biographers, but these allegations cannot be supported by documentary evidence.

His oeuvre includes 7 symphonies, 11 operas, 3 ballets, 5 suites, 3 piano concertos, a violin concerto, 11 overtures (strictly speaking, 3 overtures and 8 single movement programmatic orchestral works), 4 cantatas, 20 choral works, 3 string quartets, a string sextet, and more than 100 songs and piano pieces.

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