The focus of this paper is to examine the connection between Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a renowned Russian composer, and the Romantic movement in music. Tchaikovsky was born in Votinsk, Russia in 1840. Although he displayed great aptitude for playing the piano from an early age, his family initially desired him to pursue a career in law. Consequently, at the age of 10, he enrolled at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence and later secured employment as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice when he turned 19 years old (Gilder 345).
At the age of 22, despite being a lawyer, Tchaikovsky made a brave decision to pursue his passion for music and enrolled at St. Petersburg’s Conservatory. He successfully finished his studies and eventually obtained a teaching job in Moscow. Unfortunately, this change did not bring him the happiness he desired as he faced profound sadness and uncertainties during his journey as a composer. In 1877, he married Antonina Miliukov, who was also studying with him at the Conservatory.
Tchaikovsky faced his suppressed emotions about his homosexuality during the same time period. His marriage to Antonina fell apart when he tried to take his own life and had a severe mental breakdown (Gilder 345). However, after their divorce, Tchaikovsky’s musical career took a positive turn thanks to the support of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow. Von Meck admired Tchaikovsky’s music and they corresponded regularly, with her providing financial help until his death, even though they never met in person.
Despite gaining increasing renown as a composer under the patronage of von Meck, Tchaikovsky remained emotionally troubled and reclusive in his personal life. At the age of 53, in 1893, he unexpectedly passed away from cholera contracted through consumption of contaminated water. While some music scholars believe that his death was an accident, renowned researcher of Tchaikovsky’s life, David Brown, argues that the despondent composer took his own life (Brown 626).
Despite facing personal challenges, Tchaikovsky showed impressive productivity. He composed a total of six symphonies, with his sixth one earning the nickname “Pathetique” and gaining widespread acclaim. Alongside these symphonies, he crafted 23 other orchestral works, including well-known overtures like Romeo and Juliet and the Festival Overture “1812”. Additionally, Tchaikovsky’s creative output extended to 11 operas, including the renowned The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin. Notably, he also made a lasting impact on ballet by producing three iconic pieces: The Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker.
The composer created a variety of musical compositions. They wrote 10 concertos for piano, violin, or cello. In addition to that, they composed six pieces for chamber orchestra, one piano duet, and 18 opuses for solo piano. Furthermore, the composer also produced five major choral works, 13 song cycles (each with six to 16 songs), and some incidental music. Their significance lies in their representation of the Romantic period in music during the 19th century in Europe. This was a contrasting period from the preceding Classical era.
During the Classical period, composers like Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven were financially supported by noble patrons. The musical style of this era was influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans and focused on harmonic proportion. Consequently, elegance and refinement took precedence over emotional expression. However, the Romantic period witnessed the downfall of the European patronage system.
The composers of Romantic music no longer had to create their works exclusively for the pleasure of royalty; instead, they began to express more emotion in their music. Moreover, the music itself became more expansive, incorporating a greater amount of chromaticism and tone color than ever before. Nationalism also played a significant role in Romantic music as composers expressed pride in their home nations. Another characteristic of this period was the use of “program music,” where instrumental pieces were inspired by various extramusical elements such as poems, novels, plays, paintings, or sculptures. The aim was to convey the essence of these entities to the listener (Griffel 589).
Unlike many of his Romantic period peers, Tchaikovsky managed to secure a patron’s support in his later years. Additionally, his music exemplifies several defining traits of the Romantic period. Notably, his compositions were known for their profound expressiveness and emotional quality. As David Brown points out, Tchaikovsky aimed to create a musical language that would effectively convey his intense emotions (628). Moreover, Tchaikovsky extensively employed and developed a style of composing that emphasized rich orchestral color.
Furthermore, a significant portion of his body of work consisted of “program music,” drawing inspiration from poetry, literature, and folklore (Claudon 288). Tchaikovsky’s compositions also display a strong sense of national pride, evident in his deeply rooted Russianness and appreciation for his country’s folk music (Brown 628). The Romantic era is clearly present in his music, exemplified by the Fantasy Overture (“Romeo and Juliet”) composed in 1870. It is worth noting that this piece also incorporates Classical influences by following the sonata form. Additionally, the overture commences with a four-part chorale that evokes pre-Romantic musical styles.
Romeo and Juliet is a clear example of Romanticism in program music, with a heavy emphasis on emotional expression rather than harmony or structure. The “feud theme” stands out as a representation of Romantic values, portraying the musical battle between Romeo and Juliet’s families. This melody is short and agitated, in contrast to the smooth and elegant melodies favored in the Classical era. Tchaikovsky enhances the agitation by incorporating syncopated rhythms marked by dotted notes and short rests.
Additionally, Romeo and Juliet exhibits Romanticism through its use of wide dynamics, highlighting the emotional nature of the piece. Another instance of Tchaikovsky’s Romanticism is evident in his Festival Overture (“1812”), composed in 1880. This composition incorporates elements of nationalism and program music, as it aims to commemorate Russia’s triumph over Napoleon’s army in 1812. Tchaikovsky incorporates various folk melodies within this overture, including the renowned French melody “The Marseilles,” which is now recognized as the national anthem of France.
In his composition of the 1812 Overture, Tchaikovsky prioritized the emotional elements of drama and excitement rather than structure or stability. Similar to Romeo and Juliet, the piece also incorporates a broad range of dynamics, a characteristic feature of Romantic period music. Furthermore, Tchaikovsky’s expressiveness in this piece is evident through his distinctive manipulation of tone color, even including unconventional “orchestral” elements such as bells and cannons.
Symphony Number 6 in B Minor (“Pathetique”) was composed in 1893, just before Tchaikovsky’s demise. The piece highlights emotional expression and prominently showcases the composer’s depression and pessimism during this phase of his life (Brown 626). Like Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture, this symphony’s expressiveness is evident through the use of contrasting dynamics, ranging from very loud to extremely soft (626).
The Pathetique Symphony exemplifies the characteristics of the Romantic period, prioritizing melody and tone color over harmony and form, while also demonstrating a tendency towards episodic rather than integrated symphonic movements (Whittall 129). This starkly contrasts with the compositional style of Classical symphonies. Furthermore, Tchaikovsky’s interest in musical experimentation is evident in his inclusion of 5/4 time in the second movement of the symphony, a departure from the traditional 3/4 time expected in a dance movement within the Classical tradition. Tchaikovsky showcases his innovative use of harmony in the Pathetique Symphony.