Great Masters: Tchaikovsky—His Life and Music

Course No. 753
Professor Robert Greenberg, Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
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Course No. 753
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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 Poor Tchaikovsky Professor Greenberg spends so much time on Tchaikovsky's personal life--his depressions and obsessions--that the overall impact of the course is to make us conclude: Poor Tchaikovsky. On one hand, he was sensitive and emotional, and wrote ravishingly beautiful music. On the other hand, it was disconcerting to learn that he was willing to sexually exploit adolescent boys. The contradictions in his life led to a tragic ending with a coerced suicide, and we are left loving his music and grieving his life.
Date published: 2009-11-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from another great, SUPER Some are gifted to be a teacher, Prof Greenberg is the one. It is very easy to follow along the course, while commuting. His changing tone of voice, comments, jokes are well chosen. He is simply an excellent teacher (like others in teaching company), who will force me to listen to more of his courses. I usually listen to the course twice, but this course, you get it and master it from the first time. Super teacher The course itself, is great too; I learned a lot from it, now I enjoy Tchaikovsky work more, such as Eugene Oneign, Swan Lake.
Date published: 2009-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Biography is History and Music Professor Greenberg once again has put together a winning combination of biography and musical appreciation. His courses have added greatly to my appreciation of one of the greatest musical geniuses. After listening to this course I purchased the BBC docu-drama of Tchaikovsky's life. My wife and I have attended numerous Tchaikovsky performances at the Kennedy Center and Wolftrap and recently with my son in Yekaterinburg's excellent philharmonic. As I wrote in my review of Professor Greenberg's course on Shostakovich, I wish he would sit down with a Russian speaker and go over the pronunciation of names and other words before speaking. Sometimes his German gets off track as well. I'D LIKE TO SEE PROFESSOR GREENBERG DO SOME MORE BIOGRAPHIES. Mendelsohn, Wagner, Rimsky Korsakov, Britten and - yes, Peter Schikele!!!
Date published: 2009-06-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mother Russia's Greatest Composer Prof. Greenberg pulls no punches in telling the story of Tchaikovsky's private life. He was a homosexual who entered into a disasterous marriange in a vain attempt to be "normal" and was required by a "Court of Honour" to commit suicide or face exposure and public shame. According to Greenberg the composer's emotional anguish is directly reflected in his music. We are treated to a selection of some hauntingly beautiful melodies. Excellent.
Date published: 2009-05-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enlightening Discussion of a 19th Century Master Great Masters: Tchaikovsky - His Life and Music Taught by Robert Greenberg 8 lectures, 45 minutes/lecture Dr. Greenberg is one of the most prolific and popular speakers in the Teaching Company Collection. He is both a renowned scholar of music history and a composer in his own right, having had his own music recorded and performed worldwide. His many music courses with TTC include "How to Listen to and Understand Great Music", "The Symphony", "The Concerto" among many many others. This course titled "Tchaikovsky—His Life and Music" is one of ten courses highlighting the life and music of major classical composers from Hayden to Shostakovich. The courses in this series are interesting in that they emphasize the importance of the composers lives and the historical context in which the music was created. Dr. Greenberg believes Tchaikovsky, more than any other composer in the series, illustrates how an understanding of a composer and his work are inseparable. Tchaikovsky was the first full-time, formally trained, professional composer in Russian history. His music balances the rigor of structured Classicism with the expressiveness of Romanticism. With the fall of the Soviet Union, more information is now known about the life of Tchaikovsky than ever before. Despite the success he obtained in his lifetime, the composer was plagued with self doubt and depression. Dr. Greenberg discusses his personal life and the challenges leading up to his untimely death. Dr. Greenberg has selected excellent examples from the catalog of the music of Tchaikovsky. The selections serve to illustrate his belief that in order to understand the music of Tchaikovsky, one must understand the composer himself. In addition to examples from his six symphonies, numerous excerpts from his chamber works are provided. Also highlighted are Six Songs, op. 6, no. 6,Swan Lake, op. 20 and the opera Eugene Onegin. Dr.Greenberg is at his best when he refrains from the dramatic and focuses on the analysis of the music with examples.
Date published: 2009-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hubris and Homophobia It amazes me how Professor Greenberg consistently produces excellent lectures on every topic he chooses to address. As the Teaching Company's most prolific lecturer, Greenberg has tackled many aspects of western music giving each course a unique appealing twist - a hook, if you will - that draws in the listener making him or her wish the Professor would just keep on speaking. Here, Greenberg gives us a Greek tragedy in St. Petersburg: the tale of a brilliant talented composer whose social exploits in a time of prevalent homophobia resulted in his undoing - a gut wrenching story. Oh yeah, there's also a lot of beautiful music. Wonderful!
Date published: 2009-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another Winning Musical Bio What a wonderful and sad life Tchaikovsky had. This is one of the later composer biographies in Prof. Greenberg's must-have Great Masters series of 10 courses. Because of recent revelations after the fall of the Soviet Union, we now know more about Tchaikovsky's life and death. It's an amazing story, and Prof. Greenberg once again proves why he is the best of the best of The Teaching Company's professors.
Date published: 2009-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof. Greenberg is amazing. I could listen to him for hours on end.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love Robert Greenberg. He combines his intelligence of Leonard Bernstein with the manic wit of Robin Williams.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Greenberg's lectures are always a delight! With wit and nerve, he imparts a profound love and knowledge of music.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course was , as usual, Prof Greenberg was excelelnt.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bob Greenberg music courses are great.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent review of a troubled life and very good examples of the composer's works.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Robert Greenberg is in a class by himself- each course of his that I have taken has been outstanding. My favorite time each day is the hour in the car listening to my professor.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have thoroughly enjoyed and learned from every course I have purchased.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The courses are a wonderful way to use travel time & to placate my type A personality.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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