The Music of the 18th & 19th Centuries THE CLASSICAL PERIOD

THE CLASSICAL PERIOD: AN INTRODUCTION

From roughly 1750 to 1820, artists, architechts, and musicians moved away from the heavily ornamented styles of the Baroque and the Rococo, and instead embraced a clean, uncluttered style they thought reminiscent of Classical Greece. The newly established aristocracies were replacing monarchs and the church as patrons of the arts, and were demanding an impersonal, but tuneful and elegant music. Dances such as the minuet and the gavotte were provided in the forms of entertaining serenades and divertimenti.

At this time the Austrian capital of Vienna became the musical center of Europe, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the "Viennese" style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna, and gradually they developed and formalized the standard musical forms that were to predominate European musical culture for the next several decades.

Johann Stamitz contributed greatly to the growth of the orchestra and developed the idea of the orchestral symphony. The Classical period reached its majestic culmination with the masterful symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets by the three great composers of the Viennese school: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

With the increasing emphasis of the age on reason and enlightenment, the writings of thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, and Jefferson served to fuel a sense of mankind's being in charge of its own destiny—that through science and democracy, people could choose their own fate. Such prevailing philosphy and thought likely triggered such events as the French and American Revolutions. The results of these events brought to the artistic world an expanded freedom of thought, in which artists' creative impulses began to find a freer rein of imagination and felt less constrained to abide by the established "rules" of the preceding ages.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Born second of twelve children to a poor but music-loving family, at the age of eight Franz Joseph was accepted in the choir of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. In 1749, after enduring nine years at the cathedral, he was turned out when his voice broke. Without money, a job, or a home, the young man somehow survived by singing, playing the harpsichord where he could, and teaching, all the time practicing and continuing to study music.

He also began composing and making connections, and was given his first professional position leading the orchestra of a Count Morzin of Bohemia. His first symphony led to his being engaged in 1761 as orchestra conductor to the Hungarian Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. Haydn spent thirty years in the employ of the Esterházys, virtually as a servant, but nevertheless composing some 90 symphonies, two dozen operas, a number of masses, and vast amounts of chamber music. His fame spread across Europe due to the publication of his music and, almost unknown to him, the immense popularity of his music set the standard of the musical tastes and techniques of the next half century. He met the young Mozart in 1781 and the two became close friends and admirers of one another's music.

When Prince Nicolaus Esterházy died in 1790 (he had succeeded Prince Paul in 1762 and had retained Haydn's services), Haydn was dismissed by his successor. With a generous pension and income from publications and pupils, Haydn moved to Vienna. He was invited to London by impressario J. P. Salomon for a series of concerts. During this visit and a second trip to England, Haydn composed his last twelve "London" symphonies, his crowning achievements in the genre. He was also asked to compose an oratorio in the style of Handel. He composed two, and his music transforms the majesty of the Baroque into that of the early nineteenth century with such choruses as "The Heavens are Telling" from The Creation, which premiered in 1798.

Known today as the "the father of the symphony and the string quartet," Haydn actually invented neither, but did develop them into the forms that eventually swept throughout Europe. Joseph Haydn was evidently an unassuming man who seemingly without effort turned out literally hundreds of sonatas, quartets, symphonies, operas and concertos during his career. His music is always extremely well-crafted, simple, and charming, but there are always flights of fancy and pure jokes amidst the classical veneer. The most famous example is the "surprise" in the second movement of his Symphony no. 94 in G major, but his humor can also be heard in the finale of the Symphony no. 82, nicknamed "the Bear" as the bass drone and chortling bassoons in the finale conjured images of a dancing bear in the minds of the symphony's first audiences.

By 1802, Haydn, now an old man, felt himself played out. He spent his last years enjoying the adulation that came his way from all over Europe. When, in the spring of 1809, the French under Napoleon began their destruction of Vienna, Haydn suffered a quick decline and died on May 31.

HAYDN: A BRIEF HISTORY AND BASIC REPERTOIRE

Of humble origins, Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau, near Vienna. When he was eight years old he was accepted into the choir school of Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where he received his only formal education. Dismissed from the choir at the age of 17, he spent the next several years as a struggling free-lance musician. He studied on his own the standard textbooks on counterpoint and took occasional lessons from the noted Italian singing master and composer Nicola Porpora. In 1755, Haydn was engaged briefly by Baron Karl Josef von Furnberg, for whom he apparently composed his first string quartets. A more substantial position followed in 1759, when he was hired as music director by Count Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin. Haydn's marriage in 1760 to Maria Anna Keller proved to be unhappy as well as childless.

The turning point in Haydn's fortunes came in 1761, when he was appointed assistant music director to Prince Pal Antál Esterházy; he became full director, or Kapellmeister, in 1762. Haydn served under the patronage of three successive princes of the Esterházy family. The second of these, Pal Antál's brother, Prince Miklós Jozsef Esterházy, was an ardent, cultivated music lover. At Esterháza, his vast summer estate, Prince Miklós could boast a musical establishment second to none, the management of which made immense demands on its director. In addition to the symphonies, operas, marionette operettas, masses, chamber pieces, and dance music that Haydn was expected to compose for the prince's entertainment, he was required to rehearse and conduct performances of his own and others' works, coach singers, maintain the instrument collection and music library, perform as organist, violist, and violinist when needed, and settle disputes among the musicians in his charge. Although he frequently regretted the burdens of his job and the isolation of Esterháza, Haydn's position was enviable by 18th-century standards. One remarkable aspect of his contract after 1779 was the freedom to sell his music to publishers and to accept commissions. As a result, much of Haydn's work in the 1780s reached beyond the guests at Esterháza to a far wider audience, and his fame spread accordingly.

Miklós Jozsef Esterházy (1714-1790)

After the death of Prince Miklós in 1790, his son, Prince Antál, greatly reduced the Esterházy musical establishment. Although Haydn retained his title of Kapellmeister, he was at last free to travel beyond the environs of Vienna. The enterprising British violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon lost no time in engaging the composer for his concert series in London. Haydn's two trips to England for these concerts, in 1791-92 and 1794-95, were the occasion of the huge success of his last symphonies. Known as the "Salomon" or "London" symphonies, they include several of his most popular works: "Surprise" (#94), "Military" (#100), "Clock" (#101), "Drum Roll" (#103), and "London" (#104).

In his late years in Vienna, Haydn turned to writing masses and composed his great oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801). From this period also comes his Emperor's Hymn (1797), which later became the Austrian national anthem. He died in Vienna, on May 31, 1809, a famous and wealthy man.

Haydn was prolific in nearly all genres, vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular. Many of his works were unknown beyond the walls of Esterháza, most notably the 125 trios and other assorted pieces featuring the baryton, a hybrid string instrument played by Prince Miklós. Most of Haydn's 19 operas and marionette operettas were written to accommodate the talents of the Esterháza company as well as the tastes of his prince. Haydn freely admitted the superiority of the operas of his young friend Wolfgang Mozart. In other categories, however, his works circulated widely, and his influence was profound. The 107 symphonies and 68 string quartets that span his career are proof of his ever-fresh approach to thematic materials and form, as well as of his mastery of instrumentation. His 62 piano sonatas and 43 piano trios document a growth from the easy elegance suitable for the home music making of amateurs to the public virtuosity of his late works.

Haydn's productivity is matched by his inexhaustible originality. His manner of turning a simple tune or motive into unexpectedly complex developments was admired by his contemporaries as innovative. Dramatic surprise, often turned to humorous effect, is characteristic of his style, as is a fondness for folkloric melodies. A writer of Haydn's day described the special appeal of his music as "popular artistry", and indeed his balance of directness and bold experiment transformed instrumental expression in the 18th century.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

At the age of four he could learn a piece of music in half an hour. At five, he was playing the clavier incredibly well. At six, he began composing, writing his first symphonies at the age of eight. He was constantly traveling all over Europe with his father, Leopold Mozart, a violinist, minor composer and Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The musical feats and tricks of young Wolfgang were exhibited to the courts (beginning in Munich in 1762), to musical academicians, and to the public. Between the ages of seven and fifteen, the young Mozart spent half of his time on tour. During these tours, Mozart heard, absorbed, and learned various European musical idioms, eventually crystallizing his own mature style.

Leopold Mozart (1719-1787)

Fully expecting to find an ideal post outside his sleepy home town of Salzburg and the detested archiepiscopal court, Wolfgang went on a tour with his mother in 1777 to Munich, Mannheim, and Paris. It was in Paris that his mother died suddenly in July, 1778. With no prospects of a job, Mozart dejectedly returned to Salzburg in 1779 and became court organist to the Archbishop. Mozart finally achieved an unceremonious dismissal from the archiepiscopal court in 1781, and thereafter became one of the first musicians in history to embark upon a free-lance career, without benefit of a church, court, or rich patron. Mozart moved to Vienna where he lived for a time with the Webers, a family he had met in 1777. He eventually married Constanze Weber in August of1782, against the wishes and strict orders of his father.

Then, for a time, things began to look bright for the young composer. Beginning in 1782 with the Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio"), Mozart began turning out one masterpiece after another in every form and genre.

Mozart is probably the only composer in history to have written undisputed masterworks in virtually every musical genre of his age. His serenades, divertimenti and dances, written on request for the entertainment and outdoor parties of the nobility, have become synonomous with the Classical "age of elegance," and are perhaps best exemplified by the well-known Serenade in G major, which the composer called Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music").

In Vienna, Mozart became a regular at the court of Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790), where he wrote much of his greatest music. A sampling of Mozart's mature works comprise a virtual honor roll of musical masterpieces: the last ten string quartets, the string quintets, and the Quintet for clarinet and strings; the Mass in C minor and the unfinished Requiem; the Serenade for thirteen wind instruments, the clarinet concerto, the late piano concertos, and the last six symphonies. Mozart's more than twenty piano concertos remain models of the classic concerto form, developed by him over time into works of symphonic breadth and scope. In his last three symphonies, the second of which is the great Symphony no. 40 in G minor, Mozart infused this form with a passion and expressiveness unheard of in symphonic writing until the advent of Beethoven.

Of Mozart's operas, Le nozze di Figaro ("The Marriage of Figaro"), composed for the Viennese court in 1786, is the earliest opera still found in the repertoire of virtually all of today's opera houses. Through his dramatic and musical genius, Mozart transformed such operatic comedies and characters into living, breathing dramas peopled with real human beings. Figaro was followed in 1787 by Don Giovanni ("Don Juan"), written for Prague, where Figaro had been an overwhelming success. The intensity of Mozart's music in the penultimate scene of Don Giovanni, in which the title character is dragged down to hell, unrepentant, at the hands of an avenging spirit, might even be said to have helped usher in the Romantic era.

During his years in Vienna, Mozart also made the acquaintance of composer Franz Joseph Haydn. The two became close friends and the older composer's music had a profound influence on Mozart. Between 1782 and 1785, Mozart composed a series of six string quartets which he dedicated to Haydn. Upon playing through some of them together, Haydn said to Mozart's father, who was present, "Before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name."

Yet, through his mismanagement of money (as a successful composer of operas and a reknowned piano virtuoso, he made a great deal), and the documented incidences of his tactless, impulsive, and at times childish behavior in an era of powdered wigs and courtly manners, Mozart seemed to find it difficult to make a successful living. By 1790 he was writing letters to friends, describing himself and his family (he and Constanze had six children, only two of which survived) in desperate circumstances and begging for money. He was also by this time seriously ill, and had been intermittently for some time, with what was most likely disease of the kidneys. With the success of The Magic Flute and a newly granted yearly stipend, Mozart was just beginning to become financially stable when his illness brought an end to his life and career at the age of thirty-six. He was buried, like most Viennese in those days by the decree of Emperor Joseph, in a common grave, the exact location of which remains unknown.

"Before God and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by name." (Franz Joseph Haydn, speaking of the young Mozart)

The influence of Mozart on the composers that followed him cannot be emphasized too strongly. He was idolized by such late nineteenth century composers as Richard Wagner and Peter Tchaikovsky; and his music came to influence the neo-classical compositions of Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev in the twentieth century.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Born to a drunkard father and an unhappy mother, the young Beethoven was subjected to a brutal training in music at the hands of his father, who hoped that the boy would prove to be another prodigy like Mozart. Failing in this, the young Beethoven nevertheless embraced music and studied for a short time in 1792 with Franz Joseph Haydn in Vienna. Hailed as a genius and a master of improvisation at the piano, Beethoven soon made a name for himself and, by 1794, was known throughout Europe. He faithfully learned the Classical Viennese styles and traditions in music, and then proceeded throughout his career to completely revolutionize them. His earliest compositions reflect the classical restraint of Haydn and Mozart, yet there were always flashes of what was to come. The emotion he displayed while playing his own music was unheard of in his day, and the fiery intensity of his early Piano Sonata in C minor (known as the"Pathetique") is one of the first works in which Beethoven gives vent to his own dramatic musical voice.

By 1800, Beethoven had become aware of his advancing deafness: surely a most horrible fate for a musician and unendurable to a composer. Agonizing over his fate, Beethoven contemplated suicide, but in the end embraced life, determined to go on composing, if no longer performing. Unhappy with his compositions up to that time and stating that he would now be "making a fresh start," Beethoven began composing music such as had never before been heard. His Symphony no. 3 in E-flat major, subtitled the "Eroica," was completed in 1804, and was almost twice as long as any symphony written up to that time. Taking the classical symphony as a starting point, it introduces more themes, more contrasts, more instruments, more weight and more drama than previously heard in the symphonic form.

His sixteen string quartets span his creative life and developed from the classical restraint of the six "early" quartets to the sublime late quartets which contain music of such personal pain and suffering, that one wonders if an audience was intended to hear them at all. Beethoven's musical ideas, the "themes" he used and from which he painstakingly constructed his works, were revolutionary for his day. The well-known opening motto theme of the famous Symphony no. 5 in C minor was considered by many to be evidence of madness on Beethoven's part. At the same time, his love of nature and frequent walks in the countryside led to his composing one of the earliest of program symphonies, the "Pastoral" Symphony no. 6 in F major, complete with musical images of flowing brooks, thunderstorms, and bird calls. This work would later come to influence the symphonic works of later Romantic composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt.

The idea of universal freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of man was one the composer cherished. Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, is on this very subject, and the theme is nowhere expressed more powerfully or beautifully than in the final movement of the monumental Symphony no. 9 in D minor, composed in 1824 when Beethoven was completely deaf. With the introduction of four vocalists and mixed chorus, Beethoven sets the words of Ferdinand Schiller's Ode "To Joy" in the last movement of the symphony. To a tune so simple that half the world knows it and sings it, the genius of Beethoven seeks to embrace all humanity with his vision of equality, democracy, and love.

With plans for the future and sketches of a tenth symphony begun, Beethoven contracted a chill which led to a long illness. In and out of consciousness for weeks, Beethoven succombed on March 26, 1827. Some 10,000 people lined the streets of Vienna at his funeral to pay homage to the composer who had forever changed the musical climate of Western Europe. With Beethoven's passing, the stage was set for the onslaught of Romanticism in western music.

The Romantic Era: An Introduction

After Beethoven, composers turned their attention to the expression of intense feelings in their music. This expression of emotion was the focus of all the arts of the self-described "Romantic" movement. Whether in the nature imagery or passionate violence found in the paintings of Friederich, Delacroix, and Goya, the strange and fanciful literature of Edgar Allan Poe, or the adventure and myths of the great collections of fairy tales and folk poetry, the depiction in art of the beautiful, the strange, the sublime, and the morbid was the ruling credo of the period.

In music, the nineteenth century saw the creation and evolution of new genres such as the program symphony, pioneered by Beethoven and now developed by Hector Berlioz; its off-shoot, the symphonic poem was developed by Franz Liszt; the concert overture, examples of which were composed by Felix Mendelssohn and virtually every composer thereafter; and short, expressive piano pieces written for the bourgeois salons of Europe by Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin.

For inspiration, many Romantic composers turned to the visual arts, poetry, drama, and literature, and to nature itself. Using the classical forms of sonata and symphony as a starting point, composers began focusing more on new melodic styles, richer harmonies, and ever more dissonance, in the pursuit of moving their audiences, rather than concerning themselves with the structural discipline of Classical forms. Later composers of the nineteenth century would further build on the forms and ideas developed by the Romantic composers.

During the nineteenth century, composers from non-Germanic countries began looking for ways in which they might express the musical soul of their homelands. Many of these Nationalist composers turned to indigenous history and legends as plots for their operas, and to the popular folk melodies and dance rhythms of their homelands as inspiration for their symphonies and instrumental music. Others developed a highly personal harmonic language and melodic style which distinguishes their music from that of the Austro-Germanic traditions.

The continued modification and enhancement of existing instruments, plus the invention of new ones, led to the further expansion of the symphony orchestra throughout the century. Taking advantage of these new sounds and new instrumental combinations, the late Romantic composers of the second half of the nineteenth-century created richer and ever larger symphonies, ballets, and concertos. Two of the giants of this period are the German-born Johannes Brahms and the great Russian melodist Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)

Sent to Paris by his father to study medicine, Berlioz instead studied music, supporting himself by writing about music and giving lessons. Berlioz may well have been the first great composer to not be able to play a musical instrument, nor to have shown any musical talent at an early age. But he perservered, and became interested in the vast possibilities of orchestration and the different combinations of instrumental sounds. In 1844, he wrote a book on orchestration (Traite de l'Instrumentation), which is still widely regarded as one of the best in the field. Berlioz' advances in this area contributed greatly to the growth and development of the modern symphony orchestra.

In 1830, only three years after the death of Beethoven, Berlioz composed his most famous work, the programmatic Symphonie Fantastique. Having an autobiographical basis, the piece is a highly romantic program symphony in five movements, the story of which tells of an artist who, unhappy in love, takes an overdose of opium and dreams of his own passions and desires, his beloved, her murder, and his own death. Berlioz had seen the Irish actress Harriet Smithson perform in Shakespeare's Hamlet and had fallen passionately, even hysterically in love with her. He intended to immortalize his love in music with his Symphonie. The artist's beloved is represented throughout the work by a melodic motif known as the idée fixe, a device which serves to unify the disparate elements of the symphony. The fourth movement is titled March to the Scaffold and depicts the protagonist's dream of his own execution for having killed his faithless beloved. The symphony was wildly successful at its premiere, and made a name for its young composer, if not a fortune. (In the performance below, the final, decisive action of the guillotine lands just after a few singular, sustained notes from a clarinet at the end.)

Berlioz' remarkable gift for orchestration resulted in sounds never before heard from a symphony orchestra. Greatly criticized during his lifetime for his orchestral extravagance, the brilliance and overwhelming effect of such instrumental excerpts as the Rakoczy March from the dramatic cantata The Damnation of Faust and the Royal Hunt and Storm from Berlioz' immense grand opera Les Troyens ("The Trojans"), have earned Berlioz lasting fame as a composer who was definitely ahead of his time. His theories and creative use of the symphony orchestra influenced such composers as Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, but his greatness was not clearly recognized in his own country until the advent of theFrench composers of the late nineteenth century.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Having shown exceptional musical talent at an early age, Mendelssohn was encouraged by his family to study music and to make it his career. At the age of seventeen, he composed an overture based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" which was so successful that some years later he composed more music on the subject, resulting in a suite of pieces to be used in conjunction with productions of the play. Such a collection of pieces is known as incidental music, and the fleet and airy Scherzo from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is typical of the seemingly effortless and beguiling style of this composer.

Mendelssohn responded to nature as did most composers of the period. One of the results of nature's influence was the Fingal's Cave Overture, also known as The Hebrides, which depicts the rocky, wind-swept coast and ancient caverns of Scotland.

Mendelssohn's many travels also influenced two of his five symphonies—the third in A minor, known as the "Scotch" Symphony, and his popular Symphony no. 4 in A major, known as the "Italian" symphony, which incorporates melodies and dances that Mendelssohn heard while traveling in that country.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

A master of the more intimate forms of musical compostitions, Schumann is unique in music history as being one of the great composers who concentrated on one musical genre at a time, with the bulk of his earliest compositions being for the piano. Schumann's piano music (and later his songs) remain supreme examples of the Romantic style of the second quarter of the nineteenth-century. Immensely influenced by literature and poetry, it is the dreamy nature of his music which most affects the listener, as can be heard in the fifth movement from the piano suite titled Carnaval. Aside from three piano sonatas, most of his work for the instrument is in the form of suites comprising short, poetic pieces, each expressing a different mood.

In 1840, Schumann was finally able to marry Clara Wieck, the daughter of his first music teacher, and who had opposed their union. Schumann's happiness found an outlet in the great number of Lieder he wrote during that year. The first number from his song cycle Dichterliebe, "Im wunderschönen Monat mai" (A Poet's Love: "In the beautiful month of May") is another example of the composer's harmonic and melodic style.

In order to publicize his own music and to stimulate and improve the musical tastes of the burgeoning concert-going public, Schumann founded Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik ("The New Journal for Music") in 1834 and remained active as its editor for ten years. In the pages of this publication, Schumann considerably raised the standards of music criticism and did much to promote the careers of young composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Hector Berlioz, and especially Johannes Brahms, who was to become a very close friend of Schumann.

Throughout his life, Schumann felt himself divided by two contrasting natures: the gentle, poetic, Apollonian side, which he called "Eusebius"; and the more forthright, dramatic and stormy side he named "Florestan." Because of this rift in his personality, he feared insanity for much of his life, and eventually did spend his last years in an asylum.

The Late Romantics: Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Born to a poor family in the slums of Hamburg, Germany, Brahms studied music as best he was able while supporting himself by playing piano at bars and brothels and by turning out arrangements of light music. His early compositions continued in the progressive direction of the waning romanticism: huge sonatas, piano trios, and other works like the Piano Quartet in G minor, for the finale of which Brahms utilizes a flashy gypsy melody. But Brahms later abandoned this track, devoting himself instead to synthesizing the Classical forms with the almost by now forgotten early Romanticism, with its slowly unraveling sense of tonality. In so doing, Brahms created a repertoire of works that amounts to a glowing and majestic apotheosis of the musical traditions of the nineteenth-century.

This twilight quality is evident in the exquisite German Requiem, which was well-known all over Europe by the 1870s. At this time, having written only chamber works, concertos, piano music, and choral pieces, Brahms finally turned to the symphony. The Symphony no. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 was dubbed "Beethoven's Tenth" by a famous conductor because of its magesterial and intense tone. It also contains in the fourth movement one of Brahms' best loved melodies, which many compared to the famous theme of the finale of Beethoven's ninth symphony.

Many of Brahms' later works are undoubtedly his best, including the Four Serious Songs, the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B minor, and the last two of his four symphonies. The symphonies contain much that is stirring, heroic, gentle and melancholy, as can be heard in the wistful third movement of the Symphony no. 3 in F major, Op. 90.

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky studied music sporadically early in his life, but took a job as a government clerk. Hating the post, he turned to music and studied at the newly founded music school in St. Petersburg. Here his compositions garnered much attention and Tchaikovsky was hailed as the hope of Russia's musical future. Yet much of Tchaikovsky's early works were harshly criticized by his peers and teachers, especially by the Russian nationalist composers comprising "The Mighty Five." But his music usually always found favor with the public. Such works include his first three symphonies, the Violin Concerto in D major, and the immensely popular Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat minor. Tchaikovsky, always self-critical, felt he was unable to grasp the concepts of musical form, and so relied heavily on romantic melodies and colorful orchestration. This reliance on "the big tune" is apparent in his best works, and is largely responsible for his overwhelming popularity among newcomers to classical music and in concerts of "popular" classics. Among his most popular works is the 1812 Overture, composed in 1880 as part of the celebrations commemorating Russia's defeat of Napoleon.

In 1877, Tchaikovsky received some commissions from a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, whose continued patronage and financial gifts enabled Tchaikovsky to devote all of his time to composing. The Symphony no. 4 in F minor was the first of these later works, and although Madame von Meck and Tchaikovsky communicated almost daily by letters, during their fifteen-year relationship they never once met. One of his most successful and still popular works from this period is the opera Eugene Onegin. It was also at this time that Tchaikovsky, in anguish over his homosexuality, made the regrettable decision to marry. The union of the neurotic, hypersensitive homosexual and a mentally-disturbed and apparently sexually insatiable young girl was surely destined for disaster. The marriage was dissolved in only three months, after Tchaikovsky's mental breakdown and attempted suicide.

Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)

The romantic in Tchaikovsky found its greatest outlet in his three great ballet scores, all of which are eternally popular. The Nutcracker is a perrenial Christmas favorite, and the well-known theme of the tragic Swan-Princess from Swan Lake seems to embody the intense, heartfelt, romanticized suffering which Tchaikovsky's music gives voice to so often.

Nowhere is this sad, yearning quality more in evidence than in the first movement of his Symphony no. 6 in B minor, nicknamed by his brother Modeste "Pathetique." Tchaikovsky hinted that this symphony had a program of some kind, but never made clear what it was. That it is about suffering and tragedy is evident from this melody, one of the composer's greatest, and from the fact that the symphony's finale is in the highly unusual form of a brooding and sad lament. Tchaikovsky died soon after the premiere of the symphony, very likely (although unconfirmed) from suicide.

For better or worse, Tchaikovsky's music influenced many Russian composers throughout the twentieth century. The ballets, concertos, and orchestral music of Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev owe something of a debt to Tchaikovsky, while Igor Stravinsky referred to him as "the most Russian of us all."

Acknowledgements & Credits

Except where otherwise noted, the information provided here appears in Music History 102: A Guide to Western Composers and Their Music, which was designed, compiled and created by Robert Sherrane. The entire source is provided courtesy of ipl2, a web-based public service organization and learning/teaching environment.

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