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Great Masters: Tchaikovsky-His Life and Music

Great Masters: Tchaikovsky-His Life and Music

Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances

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Great Masters: Tchaikovsky-His Life and Music

Course No. 753
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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4.8 out of 5
46 Reviews
76% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 753
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version features more than 60 visuals to enhance your experience, including illustrations, portraits of the composer and his contemporaries, images of events, and graphics to enhance your learning. On-screen spellings and definitions help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

The life of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) exhibits as close a link as you will find anywhere between an artist's inner world and the outward products of that artist's creative activity. As a man, Tchaikovsky was defined by and indivisible from his music, which became an outlet for all the shifting moods of his turbulent soul. As Professor Robert Greenberg says, "If Tchaikovsky felt it, it found a way into his music."

As an artist—and it is worth recalling that he was the first full-time, formally trained, professional composer in Russian history—Tchaikovsky walked a fine and difficult line between his Romantic penchant for expression and the demands of Classical structure.

This delicate balancing act—between heart and head, emotion and reason, release and control, Russian expressive content and German technique—is a key to his music that you find amply illustrated by Professor Greenberg's musical selections and commentary.

A Suitable Profession

"To know Tchaikovsky's music, we must be familiar with the details of his life because his music, as his Sixth Symphony so abundantly demonstrates, is so often an intimate confession, a mirror of a personal life tormented by doubt and sexual anxiety," states Professor Greenberg.

Tchaikovsky was an unusually sensitive child, with an abnormal dependency on his mother and an obsessive love of music.

As a child of a 19th-century upper-class Russian family, however, Tchaikovsky's musical talent was not particularly encouraged. His parents had him educated for the more "suitable" profession of the civil service at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg.

It was at school that Tchaikovsky discovered his homosexuality. It was also while still a schoolboy that Tchaikovsky lost his mother to cholera. Her death was a shattering experience for the 14-year-old Tchaikovsky and it found poignant expression in his later music.

After Tchaikovsky graduated from the School of Jurisprudence, he was employed as a government clerk—but not for long. His obsession with music eventually won out, and he entered the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory.

He graduated in 1866 at the age of 26 and joined the teaching faculty at the likewise newly established Moscow Conservatory.

In 1868, his First Symphony was premiered; it already possessed the hallmark of Tchaikovsky's musical style: formal Classical construction coupled with Romantic expression.

Growing Success Plagued with Self-Doubt

For the rest of his career, Tchaikovsky would successfully tread a fine line between Russian emotional excess and Germanic intellectual control. He was the only composer in Russia at that time who could combine the best of Western European technique with his own Russian heritage.

Despite his growing musical success, Tchaikovsky remained prey to self-doubt about his compositional abilities, to bouts of severe depression, and to anxiety that his homosexuality would be publicly exposed.

His sense of alienation seems to have turned him inward to a world of self-expression that he might not otherwise have discovered had he felt less isolated.

Among the great works of the 1870s were the iconoclastic First Piano Concerto and the music for the ballet Swan Lake, which revolutionized the art and substance of ballet.

Another masterwork was the opera Eugene Onegin of 1877. That year also marked the start of Tchaikovsky's brief but disastrous marriage and his unique relationship with his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.

A Long-Distance Musical Relationship

Nadezhda's devotion to Tchaikovsky and his music resulted in one of the strangest relationships in music history.

She supported Tchaikovsky with the agreement that they would never meet, but only exchange letters. Her generosity enabled Tchaikovsky to leave his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory in 1878 and concentrate on his compositional career.

By the early 1880s, he had become an international celebrity. He conquered his fear of conducting and toured Europe promoting his own music.

In 1890, however, he was devastated by the loss of his friendship with Nadezhda von Meck, who withdrew her financial support because of family problems. She also ceased to write letters to Tchaikovsky. He became embittered and began to age visibly.

Nevertheless, in 1891, he undertook a highly successful conducting tour of the United States and, a year later, received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.

Tchaikovsky's last years were filled with composing, traveling, performances of his music, and new friends, including mutual admirer Anton Chekhov.

In late August 1893 Tchaikovsky completed his Sixth Symphony, which reveals a composer at the height of his power. Two months later, he lay dying of self-inflicted arsenic poisoning. His homosexual affair with a young nobleman had been discovered, and it was in danger of becoming a public scandal.

A group of former classmates of the School of Jurisprudence, calling themselves a "court of honor," had decided that Tchaikovsky was jeopardizing the reputation of their alma mater. They forced him to commit suicide.

The public was told that he had died of cholera, a disease common at the time.

"A Genius of Emotion"

As was the case with Beethoven, the serious personal and psychological problems that plagued Tchaikovsky also profoundly enriched his music, opening up a font of expression that an equally talented but less troubled man might never have tapped.

From the suffering of the man, then, came the triumph of the artist—a triumph without which we we would not have Swan Lake, the Serenade for Strings, or the Pathétique Symphony.

Is this a sad irony, a thrilling testament to the transforming power of art, or perhaps both?

Discover Overlooked Musical Gems

Professor Greenberg points out that the essence of Tchaikovsky as a man and great artist is heard best in compositions that are often overlooked because of the tremendous popularity of his more famous orchestral works and ballet scores.

After taking this course, then, you will be among the relative few who know the true significance of such marvelous but underappreciated chamber pieces as the String Quartet no. 3 in E-flat Minor, op. 30.

In smaller, rarely heard works like this, Tchaikovsky reveals himself, his world, and his experience with deeply moving intensity.

Blending Passion and Technique

"Tchaikovsky's music remains an enduring monument to a man who was not only a great composer but also a highly popular composer," says Professor Greenberg.

"He possessed the unique ability in his day to blend the fire and passion of Russian nationalism with Germanic compositional technique. He infused his music with a rare intensity of expression and a rich harmonic and melodic beauty that guarantee his place among the greatest contributors to the repertoire."

Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Symphony no. 1 in G Minor, op. 13 (Winter Daydreams) (1868)
Six Songs, op. 6, no. 6 (None but the Lonely Heart ) (1869)
String Quartet no. 1 in D, op. 11 (1871)
Symphony no. 2 in C Minor, op. 17 (Little Russian) (1872)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23 (1874)
String Quartet no. 3 in E-flat Minor, op. 30 (1876)
Swan Lake, op. 20 (1877)
Eugene Onegin (1877)
Symphony no. 4 in F Minor, op. 36 (1877)
Serenade for Strings in C Major, op. 48 (1880)
Symphony no. 6 in B Minor, op. 74 (Pathétique) (1893)

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8 lectures
 |  46 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    “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. x
  • 7
    “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. x
  • 8
    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. x

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Your professor

Robert Greenberg

About Your Professor

Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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,...
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Great Masters: Tchaikovsky-His Life and Music is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Favorite composer. bt not my favorite person Oh my goodness, so many masterpieces in so many genres. Piano concertos, violin concerto, ballets (sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Swan Lake), symphonies, string quartettes, Operas, etc.. Yet he lived an absolutely miseable life, committing suicide in the end. To bad for us because he could surely have lived another 10 years and provided us with even more masterpieces.
Date published: 2017-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great course from one of the great teachers I've enjoyed every course I've taken from Prof Greenberg, including the 'biographies' of Beethoven, Haydn, and Brahms. I thought his course on Tchaikovsky excellent, and I learned a lot about his music and the man. I think the balance is right. It's essential to devote time to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, since being gay in a society and at a time when it was literally illegal to be gay had a huge influence on his music. I came away with a deeper appreciation of his music, and have already bought recordings of some beautiful compositions of which I had heard, but never really heard before.
Date published: 2017-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful introduction to Tchaikovsky I loved this course, it is a wonderful introduction to Tchaikovsky the human being, and to his profoundly beautiful music. Professor Greenberg presents Tchaikovsky in his historical and cultural context, and the composer's family and upbringing, while emphasizing his unique, extraordinary creative gift. Professor Greenberg is never dry, his presentation is alive, funny, and so appreciative. This course moved me to purchase some recordings of Tchaikovsky's music, and to buy Professor Greenberg's course "How to Listen To and Understand Great Music," which I am *greatly* enjoying!
Date published: 2017-02-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great overview of Tchaikovsky Great overview of his life and work. More heavy on anecdotes than I prefer, less focus on music per se. Professor states this intense biographical focus is to understand music in more depth, appreciate Tchaikovsky's emotional turmoil and pathos. I think some of the biographical detail could have been condensed, to focus on more of the music itself (good example: his course on Mozart's chamber works, only enough bio material as needed for the work in question). Overall a very good course, another solid offering from Dr. Greenburg.
Date published: 2017-01-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from If It's Greenberg, It's Good, But... Robert Greenberg is nothing if not entertaining, and the entertainment is in high style in this course. Robert Greenberg is nothing if not informative, and nformative is putting it mildly here. At the same time, I have more reservations about this one than any of Greenberg's other offerings with the Great Courses. First is his relation to his subject. While Greenberg expresses genuine admiration for Tchaikovsky's music, it's hard to avoid the feeling that he holds his subject in some disdain. More than once he seems to make light of Tchaikovsky's melancholy and depression. And while I am sure that Dr. Greenberg is not homophobic, some of his wisecracks relating to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality made me squirm. In a nutshell, he does not seem to be sympathetic to Tchaikovsky the man, a kindness he manages even for the notoriously difficult Beethoven. Second, as other reviewers have pointed out, there is more life story than music. Very little of the music is deconstructed in any helpful way. Which is unfortunate, because the pieces that Greenberg does explain are very tantalizing and eye-opening. Yet Greenberg focuses on Tchaikovsky's life, or more accurately, his personal failings and foibles. In fact, we really don't end up with a good life sketch, not like Greenberg's parallel courses on Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. It's not that Greenberg treats Tchaikovsky as a pathetic clown, but sometimes he comes dangerously close. Third, there are the constant needless mispronunciations. Look, Russian names and places really aren't hard to say if you put the stress where it belongs. Greenberg could easily have looked a few things up and thrown an accent mark on his notes. AnDREYevna, PeTROvich, FilaRETovna, even Tchaikovskaya (the female form of Tchaikovsky, in reference to the composer's mother and sister) are not that alien to the English-speaking tongue. But Greenberg stumbles over and butchers all these and more. Weirdly, every single time Greenberg says the name of Tchaikovsky's hometown of Votkinsk it comes out as - I have no other word for it - a snarl. Either he had a very bad experience there or he is struggling to say it. A couple of time he seemed to be under the impression that it's "Votkinksk." Two simple syllables, accent on the first. If you can say Minsk, you can say Kinsk, and if you can say Vot as well, then you can say Votkinsk. The fact is that any musicologist worth his salt should have a smattering of French, German, Italian and Russian, at least enough to know the pronunciations. Greenberg gives us a German pronunciation of "Bach" but mispronounces "Alsace." He even makes the freshman error of putting an English "th" sound in Pathétique. Minor irritants, to be sure. But they are distracting and, with ever so little checking, unnecessary. Fourth and most concerning are the errors of fact and history. Several times Greenberg gets the Julian (Old Style) and Gregorian calendars backwards. Nadezhda von Meck had eleven children, not 18. And her break with Tchaikovsky wasn't forced on her because "her children were bleeding her dry"; if anything, her outlandish largesse to the composer (even after he was funded by Tsar Alexander) was impoverishing the family business. (It is true that some loss occurred because her son Vladimir managed business affairs poorly.) Greenberg ignores the fact that Tchaikovsky's niece married von Meck's son - an occasion attended by the composer but not his patron - and a raging conflict between mother and her Tchaikovskaya daughter-in-law was probably a far more decisive factor. Not to mention von Meck's realization that her tuberculosis was terminal. Greenberg makes two comments that have given me pause about purchasing his course on Wagner. He refers to Wagner's patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, as "very rich and very crazy" in one lecture and in another refers to him as "Mad King Ludwig - who really was nuts." I'm sorry, but anybody at the turn of the 21st century who seriously thinks King Ludwig was mad is just plain guilty of sloppy research. Ludwig was overthrown in a palace coup while he was out of town. It was done by forcing a team of doctors (who had never examined him) to sign a document certifying him insane. He died under mysterious circumstances at Berg Castle (his captors claimed suicide by drowning, but the autopsy they frantically tried to prevent showed no water in his lungs). Ludwig was a hopeless romantic, reclusive, socially awkward, and guilt-ridden over his homosexuality, but no responsible historian since the 1950s seriously believes there was anything actually wrong with his mind. A final caution regarding this course: The exact cause of Tchaikovsky's death is a matter of lively dispute. But Greenberg presents the "forced suicide" theory as if it were the established consensus of historians. He says that the Soviet government covered up the truth but that previously suppressed documents released from the Communist archives under Yeltsin confirm this version of events. In fact, the "Court of Honor" theory, far from being hidden by the Soviets, was first aired by a Russian musicologist during the Brezhnev era. Among other problems, it relies on the interception of a letter to the Tsar from one Duke of Stenbok-Fermor, with whose nephew Tchaikovsky had allegedly had an affair. Problem is, no such Duke existed. There was a Count Stenbok-Fermor, and Greenberg has obligingly corrected the rank. But the Count was an intimate of the Tsar who lived in the palace. He would hardly have sent any correspondence, let alone such explosive correspondence, through an intermediary. In any case, Greenberg describes events as if they took place when in fact they're speculation. Which is not to say that the forced suicide theory is necessarily false. I happen to be inclined toward it. But it's important to acknowledge that it has at least as many holes as any of the other theories surrounding Tchaikovsky's death. The matter is not as resolved as Greenberg would have us believe. Even given all of the above, I do recommend this course. Some reviewers are turned off by Greenberg's style. I find it refreshing and stimulating. This course has prompted me to buy some music I did not previously own, and Greenberg is right - I wasn't sorry that I did. I only wish Greenberg had taken a little more time with the music and significant life events and gone lighter on the tabloid approach.
Date published: 2017-01-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent - but too short Prof. Greenberg is fantastic -- knowledgeable, funny, and incisive, with a distinct New York humor. The only "problem" with this course is that it is too short -- should have been double the length to do Tchaikovsky's corpus the depth it deserves. But for anyone who wants to get the "core" of this master Romantic composer -- a great course.
Date published: 2017-01-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wonderful content, presentation not so much This course content and organization is wonderful. Prof. Greenberg does a great job of providing the history of the times and of Tchaikovsky and explaining how Tchaikovsky's experiences informed his music. He intersperses segments of music with his discussion in a wonderful way so that you appreciate and have a better understanding of the music you are listening to. However, Prof. Greenberg's presentation style is pretty bad. He is clearly excited about his subject, and certainly is providing great information, but his excitable presentation style and his continual over stressing of words is rather jarring.
Date published: 2016-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative Dr. Greenberg is one of the best professors I have ever viewed. His presentation is both rewarding and informative. Tchaikovsky is one of the great music masters and I'll learned much about his life from this course. I took this course at an OLLI Class at UNLV and liked it so much that I decided to buy it for myself.
Date published: 2016-08-08
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