Great Masters: Tchaikovsky—His Life and Music

Course No. 753
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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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
 |  Average 45 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 4.8 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best overview of Tchaikovsky Best overview of Tchaikovsky, full of great moments, yet overshadowed by personal tragedy of a genius.Sounds very true indeed, as history can be...?
Date published: 2020-09-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Biography I enjoy Tchiakovsy's music and the presentation of his life's work and story.
Date published: 2020-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good A very good course. I enjoyed it very much. My wife enjoyed it too.
Date published: 2019-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Lecturer I've bought several courses, all of them excellent, but Greenberg is the cream of the crop among instructors. Shared info about Tchaikovsky utterly unknown by me previously. His animated style keeps you engaged, believe me!
Date published: 2019-09-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful lectures with an amazing professor! I listened to this course after a night at the symphony with only Tchaikovsky music. I loved learning about this great composer and his incredible life.
Date published: 2019-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Biography! Very informative and entertaining account of Tchaikovsky's life, complete with an excellent range of musical excerpts. The description of his phobias and orientation and of his end were completely new to me. Dr. Greenberg made it all come alive.
Date published: 2018-10-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and interesting Through lesson 4 of 6. Very interesting. Good mix of commentary and music.
Date published: 2018-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Flawed Genius, but Still a Genius I’ve likely lost count, but I this is around the 14th review I’ve done on one of Professor Robert Greenberg’s courses—some in audio and others in video. And I have a few more in my purchased but unwatched (un-listened) file. While the quality of the material has varied a bit from time to time, and Dr. Greenberg’s delivery has sometimes been less frenetic than other times, I have always learned a lot, while being highly entertained. This course is no exception. True enough that Tchaikovsky is presented with all of his warts, some in graphic detail, but at least for me, this was not only a part of who Tchaikovsky was, but is necessary to understand his often sad life and its ending. I note that Dr. Greenberg also reveals unseemly details about many (most) of the other composers in his courses about their lives, so I think that no one should be surprised. While I have listened to his music ever since Van Cliburn won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, playing the Tchaikovsky 1st (and the Rachmaninoff 3rd) to a standing ovation, I really knew very little about his life. I found it really interesting to listen to Dr. Greenburg’s critique of that piano concerto, as well as his unmitigated praise for the Violin Concerto in D and the Serenade for Strings (a piece with which I was not familiar). So not only did I learn a lot about Tchaikovsky’s life (and more of the good than the bad), I have been presented with more music to love. As always in reading Greenberg course reviews, there are those who dislike his humor and delivery. While I understand those who object, he hits the mark with me in leavening dates, times, places and people with levity. And not for the first time, have reviewers complained about Professor Greenberg’s pronunciation of non-English words. I am not competent to comment as to his mispronunciations, but given my very heavy accent when speaking Spanish, I find this not at all off-putting and understandable. Perhaps not the most compelling bio in this series, but still worth a full rating from me.
Date published: 2018-09-12
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