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Tchaikovsky Works

Updated on January 8, 2011

Tchaikovsky criticized Wagner for never writing a "broad, complete melody," and Brahms because "a melodic phrase is no sooner hinted at [in his work] than it is smothered in all sorts of harmonic ingenuities." Neither criticism can be aimed at Tchaikovsky. His custom of "working like a cobbler, day in, day out, and often to order," as he put it, sometimes drained dry even his reservoir of melodic inspiration. When the current flowed, however, he presented and fitted together his broad, complete melodies with superbly effective craftsmanship,

The quintessence of Tchaikovsky's best music lies in its intensely personal melody, which ranges from the grace of a waltz tune like that in the Serenade for string orchestra (1880) to the expression of anguish of the Pathetique symphony and owes nothing to contrivance or to folk music. It does owe something to Bellini and to Bizet, but its morbidezza (softness) is Russian, not Italian, and its emotional unrestraint is very un-French.

Tchaikovsky's orchestration is effective not merely because it is highly colored but because it is based on beautifully Huent harmony; a melody is shown now in one light, now in another, by counter subjects and subordinate melodic strands or novel and fascinating patterns of accompaniment. His natural Hair for colorful scoring was rather crude at first, but he went on refining it all his life.

One curious trait gave Tchaikovsky a special inducement to refine his style: his love of the 18th century idioms. Perhaps the earliest example of his pseudo-18th century style is the minuet in the court scene of Vakula, and it surfaces again and again, notably in the long "pastoral interlude" in The Queen of Spades.

Tchaikovsky Instrumental Music

Tchaikovsky excelled in instrumental music, particularly when he was unhampered by the limitations of chamber music or of the piano, for to produce his best work, he needed a range of tone color and the semihuman quality of string sound. Even the elements to which the Piano Concerto No. 1 owes its popularity are orchestral rather than pianistic, and the three string quartets, despite beautiful movements, are too orchestral in feeling to be good chamber music.

Given his mastery of the orchestra, Tchaikovsky had no difficulty in representing the warring families in Romeo and Juliet; Ariel, Cali han, and the sea in The Tempest; the whirlwind of the Inferno in Francesca da Rimini; and the Alpine waterf.all in the Manfred Symphony. These pictorial representations, however, are cleveI' contrivances, the exercise of technical skill.

Tchaikovsky's strength lay in the expression of powerful emotion. His seven symphonies, ranging from 1866 to 1893, reveal an evolution from objective to intensely subjective content.

The First Symphony, after the impressions of a winter landscape in the first two movements, gives way to a rehash of student work in the scherzo. The Second, preoccupied with folk song, has a march movement salvaged from the lost opera, Undine. The Third, in five movements, including a Liindler and a polonaise, is almost in the nature of a suite. In the Fourth Symphony, however, as Tchaikovsky confided to Nadezhda von Meck, the first three movements project his own moods, and the finale is an attempt to escape from them. The unnumbered Manfred Symphony, based on Byron's poem, is frankly programmatic, and the second, third, and fourth movements are pictorial music. But the first movement is a subjective self-portrait, since the guilt-laden composer could identify with Byron's guilt-laden hero. The Fifth Symphony is an obviously subjective, frankly emotional work, and the last symphony, the Pathetique, is one of the most unrestrainedly emotional pieces of musical autobiography ever written.

Tchaikovsky Operas

Tchaikovsky's relative failure as an opera composer is due not to musical deficiencies but to a psychological deficiency- his general inability to identify with characters. He recognized the importance of having characters who were "people, not dolls," but he was able to bring them to musical life only when they corresponded to something in himself, as did the chief characters of Eugene Onegin and the hero of The Queen of Spades. Both these masterworks also benefited from the inHuence of Carmen, which deeply impressed Tchaikovsky when he heard it in 1876. Bizet's work opened for Tchaikovsky a way of escape from the type of "grand opera" he had written till then, to a more intimate style in which he was far more successful.

Tchaikovsky longed all his life for success in opera, the medium that he felt "alone gives the means to communicate with the masses of the public .... Opera, and opera alone, makes your music familiar to the real public." Yet he admitted on another occasion, "Despite all the seductions of opera, I write a symphony, sonata, or quartet with infinitely greater pleasure." Ironically his operas have contributed little to his popularity, while those works written "with infinitely greater pleasure" have made him "familiar to the real public" all over the world.

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