May 26, 2015

#04-023: The Tragic Tchaikovsky

black-and-white photo of a serious-looking man with a trimmed beard, balding, photo is vignetted
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Note: From the charming dances of the Nutcracker Suite to the bombastic 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky's music has entertained us for well over a century.

Get Ready: Can you hum anything by Tchaikovsky? (I'll bet you can--and you don't even know it!)

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

Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) lived at the same time as chemist Dmitri Mendeleev (1834-1907; see Lesson #04-022) and our next subject, author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910; see Lesson #04-024). 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.

He 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.

Like Mendeleev, 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 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.


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Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. cannons
  2. cholera
  3. creator
  4. lowly
  5. patron
  6. pops
  7. repertoire
  8. scholars
  9. suicide
  10. supposedly

  1. a person who supports an artist
  2. an often-fatal disease, usually spread by dirty water
  3. not respected
  4. classical music that is known and enjoyed by many people
  5. a person who makes something
  6. all of the pieces that an orchestra can perform, taken as a group
  7. people who study something
  8. believed by many, but possibly not true
  9. large guns usually used in wars
  10. the act of killing oneself

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for May 26, 2015

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. b; 3. e; 4. c; 5. a; 6. d; 7. f; 8. g; 9. j; 10. h