May 072016


Today is the birthday (1840) of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский), or 25 April in Old Style, a well-known Russian composer of the late-Romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, bolstered by his appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884, by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension.

Peter Tschaikovsky As A Student At Conse

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Mighty Five (César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov), with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky’s training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned about his native Russian musical practices, to which he had been exposed from childhood, with the norms of Western European styles. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music, and this divergence caused personal antipathies with local composers, critics, and audiences that dented Tchaikovsky’s self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great. This resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia about the country’s national identity—an ambiguity mirrored in Tchaikovsky’s career.


Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother when he went to boarding school which was followed by his mother’s early death; the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein; and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with the rich widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, although critics vary concerning its importance. Tchaikovsky’s sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether cholera was indeed the cause of death, or if it was accidental or self-inflicted.

While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it was sufficiently representative of native musical values and expressed suspicion that Europeans accepted the music for its Western elements. In an apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music that transcended stereotypes of Russian classical music. Others dismissed Tchaikovsky’s music as “lacking in elevated thought,” according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and derided its formal workings as deficient because they did not stringently follow Western principles. So there’s the rub – in trying to blend Western and Russian styles he proved to be not Russian enough for Russians, nor Western enough for Westerners.  I’m sorry, but I am not responsible for all the morons in the world.


I’ve talked about individual works of his before in some detail, such as the Nutcracker and the 1812 Overture and I don’t need to repeat myself. He was clearly a master of melody and of orchestral color and diversity. Most importantly we should not let the popularity of some of his pieces diminish his stature as a composer (which tends to be the usual bad habit of snobbish critics). I’ll take a rather more personal tack, therefore.

When I was a teenager in secondary school I admired some of Tchaikovsky’s work especially Capriccio Italien, Op. 45, which was inspired by a trip to Rome he took in 1880. Modern conductor JoAnn Falletta says:

Capriccio Italien has great power, even though it’s practically a pops piece, Tchaikovsky knows what the instruments can do in a virtuoso way. He brings them to their limit in the most thrilling fashion. He has a gift for mixing families of instruments just right – like cantabile strings along with mighty brass. I hear the ballet element in everything Tchaikovsky writes, in his sense of rhythm. You can practically dance to both these scores!

There you have a perfect summation of the reception of Tchaikovsky in his day and now – too popular, but pretty good. What exactly is wrong with being popular or appealing to popular tastes? It amounts to something like “I’m smart and people in general are dumb; so if they like it, I won’t.” I’d call that attitude pretty stupid in its own right.

Here’s my appraisal.

Nowadays some of Tchaikovsky’s work does suffer from being played a lot because of its popularity – Nutcracker being a shining example. But it is possible to see beyond that fact. It is also possible to look at Tchaikovsky’s complete oeuvre and not just pick on select pieces. The first thing you notice is the diversity – melody, structure, orchestration, harmony, etc. Sometimes he used Western-style melodies, sometimes original melodies written in the style of Russian folk song; sometimes he used actual folk songs. Here’s where things get a little tough. Unlike Western themes, the melodies that Russian composers wrote tended to be self-contained so there’s a degree of stasis and repetition in them rather than one of progress and ongoing development. On a technical level, this makes modulating to a new key to introduce a contrasting second theme exceedingly difficult. 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, but were complete and independent in themselves. This completeness hindered their use as structural elements in combination with one another. Many modern critics, therefore, claim that Russian composers did not do well with the symphony form. Arrant nonsense.


Let’s take his 6th symphony and start with common misperceptions. The Russian title of the symphony, Патетическая (Pateticheskaya), means “passionate” or “emotional.” The common translation into the French “Pathetique” conveys the wrong impression and leads to unwarranted interpretations – somehow the piece is filled with “pathos” imbued in it because of the composer’s imminent death which he somehow foresaw. Yes, Tchaikovsky conducted the first performance in Saint Petersburg on 28 October 1893 nine days before his death. Does that warrant calling it a martyr’s lament or a testament to homosexual guilt? I hardly think so. Tchaikovsky himself wrote:

I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up. [emphasis in the original]

It is recorded that for the first performance in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky arrived in excellent spirits, despite the fact that he began to feel apprehension over his symphony, when, at rehearsals, the orchestra players did not exhibit any great admiration for the new work. Nevertheless, the premiere was met with great appreciation. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest wrote, “There was applause and the composer was recalled, but with more enthusiasm than on previous occasions.” It was only after his death that the critics started referring to the symphony as a “suicide note” and the like.

I could go on.  As it happens, I don’t like much of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre. The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, is one of his enduringly popular works which I can’t listen to. The introductory orchestral theme is fine, but then it is overlaid by endless bang-bang-bang on the piano, interrupted eventually by repeated arpeggios. Yawn. Here’s the thing. That’s my personal taste – de gustibus non est disputandum. I’m not going to foist it upon you as THE TRUTH. I just don’t like it: end of story. If you like it – fine.

I’ve celebrated Tchaikovsky with recipes several times already and you can consult my previous posts if you like. Here I’d like to point to A Gift to Young Housewives (Пода́рок молоды́м хозя́йкам) written and compiled by Elena Ivanovna Molokhovets. It was the most successful book of its kind in 19th and early 20th-century Russia. Molokhovets revised the book continually between 1861 and 1917, a period falling between the emancipation of the serfs and the Communist Revolution, and square within Tchaikovsky’s lifetime.  You’ll find a partial pdf (in Russian) here:


Beef Stroganoff is a recipe that is now common in the West and has many variations that I have alluded to in the past. It was originally a 19th century Russian creation which Molokhovets highlighted in her inimitable style. Her recipe is rather different from modern versions in that you make the sauce and the beef separately and then combine them just before serving. It goes something like this:

About 2 hours before dinner cut 1 kilo of tender beef into small cubes and sprinkle them with salt and allspice.  Just before dinner, mix 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour and heat gently (i.e. make a roux) and add 2 cups of beef broth, 1 teaspoon of Sareptskaja mustard**, and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and strain.

Sauté the beef in butter. Add 2 tablespoons of fresh sour cream to the sauce, then add the beef and heat through.  

** This is homemade mustard made by combining ground mustard seeds with honey.

This can be served as it is, or, more commonly these days, over flat noodles along with green beans and pickles. Your choice.