Great Masters: Tchaikovsky—His Life and Music
Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions-which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles-performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres. Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.
01: Introduction and Early Life
Tchaikovsky was an extremely sensitive child, obsessive about music and his mother. His private life was reflected to a rare degree in his music. His mother's death when he was 14 years old was a shattering experience for him—one that found poignant expression in his music.
02: A Career in Music
According to Tchaikovsky, Mozart's Don Giovanni was the inspiration for his musical career. After a brief turn as a civil servant, he joined the teaching faculty at the new Moscow Conservatory, and in 1868 his First Symphony was premiered. He was the only composer in Russia at that time with the education, craft, and talent to combine the best of Western European compositional technique with his own Russian heritage.
03: The First Masterworks
The Russian nationalist composer Mili Balakirev championed Tchaikovsky's music and suggested the idea for Tchaikovsky's first masterwork, the Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet of 1869. Tchaikovsky's first two symphonies and the iconoclastic First Piano Concerto were written between 1868 and 1872. His success allowed him to acquire his own apartment, freeing him to lead a double life as a homosexual. Yet he feared public exposure in a country that severely punished homosexuality.
Tchaikovsky took a number of structural liberties with his First Piano Concerto that drew criticism as well as praise. It soon became a favorite throughout Europe and the Americas. Despite his success, Tchaikovsky lacked confidence in his creative abilities and felt alienated by his homosexuality, which may have forced him to turn inward to a world of self-expression. Swan Lake, written in 1876, revolutionized the way ballet depicted mood, dramatic action, and characters in the tragic story.
05: Three Women—Tatyana, Antonina, and Nadezhda
In 1877, Tchaikovsky wrote Eugene Onegin, an opera inspired by Pushkin's tale of unrequited love. In July 1877, he married a former conservatory student, Antonina Milyukova. The marriage was such a disaster that Tchaikovsky would attempt suicide. He separated from her that October. He was then exchanging letters with a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who became his patroness and lifeline for the next 14 years.
06: “My Great Friend”
With the generous financial support of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky lived abroad, and in 1878 resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to compose full time. His Fourth Symphony was premiered in Moscow and was quickly followed by the brilliant Violin Concerto in D Major, which became a pillar of the repertoire within a few years.
07: “A Free Man”
Tchaikovsky's masterwork of 1879–80 is the Serenade for Strings, for which he himself had a special affection. In the 1880s, Tchaikovsky became an international celebrity. He conquered his fear of conducting and promoted his music across Europe. Yet he was still unhappy due to depression and anxiety over public discovery of his homosexuality. In the late 1880s he wrote the Fifth Symphony.
08: The Last Years, or Don't Drink the Water
In 1890, Tchaikovsky lost his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck; she could no longer support him. In 1891, he made a highly successful conducting tour of the United States. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University. In August 1893, he completed his Sixth Symphony. On November 4, 1893, he died of self-inflicted arsenic poisoning. It was publicly announced that he had died of cholera. Tchaikovsky's music endures—a unique marriage of Western European compositional technique and passionate Russian nationalism.