And Tell Tchaikovsky The News

“Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news,” sang Chuck Berry in one of Rock’s classics.

It seems Tchaikovsky never did get the news. The “news” in this case was the sonata form traditionally used in the slow movement of symphonies. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, products of the Viennese tradition of symphonic composition, were masters of the sonata form, while Tchaikovsky, schooled in the Moscow Conservatory, never quite got it.

Tchaikovsky made up for it with some of the most beautiful melodies ever written for the symphony. Because the sonata form was lacking, critics dismissed his music as second-rate. The larger world, however, embraced Tchaikovsky and today he is recognized as one of the true giants. His melodies have been “borrowed” many times for movie scores.

Like Schumann, Tchaikovsky was a tortured soul. He attempted suicide once because he was homosexual. His music was often rejected initially. His first piano concerto and his violin concerto were rejected as “unplayable” by the soloists for whom they were composed. How’s that for thanks? Tchaikovsky’s music teacher went so far as to say his piano concerto was the worst music he’d ever heard. Today, Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto is number-one on the list of great concertos, and his violin concerto is not far behind.

Despite the negative criticism, Tchaikovsky achieved fame early in life. He left Russia, lived in Italy and Paris and performed in the United States. He died in 1893, age 53. Among his most famous pieces are three ballets: Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Another favorite is The 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky is tenth on the list of great composers, the only non-German/non-Austrian to make the top-ten.

American Van Cliburn made a career of playing just one work: Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. His recorded version trumps even Vladimir Horowitz’s famed version from the 1940s. Van Cliburn’s RCA/BMG recording earned a Grammy and went gold, a rare achievement in classical music.


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