Meet Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский for those who can read it). A flamboyant orchestral composer, he is best remembered for the range of his dynamics: the use of actual cannons in his 1812 Overture to his gentle The Nutcracker and heart wrenching Swan Lake.
Born in 1840 in a small town in Russia, Tchaikovsky grew up in the peak of Romanticism. He began piano at a young age and quickly proved his talent with the instrument. His parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg to give him a leg up. But, due to this separation and the death of his mother from cholera when he was 14, he suffered much emotional trauma that he carried for the rest of his life.
It is said that he wrote his first composition in memory of his mother: a waltz.
As he grew, he continued to practice music, but it wasn’t until he was much older that he or his father realized he had skill and love enough to be a professional composer or performer.
He went on to compose orchestral works, operas, and even ballets, and all of his works helped shape the music we know and love today.
Although many classical music students remember him as the guy who put cannons and hammers in his orchestral works, he also wrote touching works.
Swan Lake is based off the tale The Stolen Veil, a tragic tale of love that can only be shared in death (no, you don’t get spoiler warnings if the story is centuries old!). The most memorable theme comes from when the Swan Queen Odette and Prince Siegfried meet, and Odette transforms from a swan into a woman.
It’s a haunting theme that begins and ends in melancholy. It grows from a minor melody into one more triumphant (as she transforms) and then sings again of her imprisonment.
It is of note that he also created an orchestral suite from some of the pieces in the ballet in order to “save this music from oblivion.” This may have been from the poor first reception of the work. Regardless, it’s one of the most beloved romantic works of all time.
Although one may argue that true artists remain separate from their work, perhaps Tchaikovsky shared similar feelings. Nonetheless, the story and the theme continue to permeate the media.
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About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
- Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020)
- Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016)
- where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.