Tchaikovsky and Russian Nationalism

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Russian Classical Music in 19th Century

Apart from the canon Western European composers, Tchaikovsky was born in the Russian Empire in 1840, got educated and initiated his career in there. Here, what I would like to emphasize is the location that he was born in, along with the date. In order to understand Tchaikovsky, we shall first take a glimpse on the realities of Russian classical music in the 19th century.

In contemporary history, we might locate Russia where is way more different than Western European history, politics and culture. However, historically, even though Russia was still different from Western Europe, it was not different as it is today until 19th century, not only in terms of politics but also in terms of arts and music. The patterns of non-religious classical music was extensively exported to Russian lands from Western Europe until the 19th century.

However, then, something happened which will change the history of Europe even until today. 19th century became the years of the rise of nationalism and national awareness in Europe as a result of Napoleonic Wars. As a consquence of a series of nationalism, we might trace the emergence different realities in Europe; changes in daily life, arts, culture, literature, politics and eventually, the emergence of the First World War in the 20th century.

Here, nationalism was also in rise in Russia in 19th century, in a way that separates the country and the culture from Europe. This found its place also in arts and in music, the composer and musicians in Russia were divided into two: nationalists and non-nationalists. Even though they might be politically inactive, nationalistic musicians and composers fought against classical music ideas from Western Europe, in contrast, they were advocating the creation of all-Russian style of music, in terms of harmony, melodies, rythms and so on.

This view also advocated the elimination of the hierarchy in between the classical music and the society -in Europe, it was still the view that the classical music is for bourgeois class during those times. Mikhail Glinka and Alexander Sergeyevich Dargomyzhsky initiated this movement of all-Russian-folk style of music, which would get followed by “The Russian Five”: five Russian composers worked together for the creation of unique Russian classical music: Mily Balakirev, Cesar Cul, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin.

On the other hand, there were non-nationalist musicians and composers who were incorporating Russian folk musical ideas with Western European patterns, or leaving Russian ideas behind – creating only with Western patterns.

Not only because of his frequent travels but also his musical style and affairs, Tchaikovsky followed a path combining Russian musical traditions with Western European, different than his contemporaries. Tchaikovsky’s beloved mother had also French and German descent.

Personal Life of P.I.Tchaikovsky: Bureaucracy, his mother and music education

Even though Tchaikovsky started to take music classes at early ages and became prominent by his talent and musical capabilities among family and friends, he studied bureaucracy and law.

He started his career as civil cervant for Ministry of Justice for Russian Empire. Meanwhile, Russian classical music was improving in terms of detecting talents and getting educate them, so he gained a chance to attend a conservatory, right after the sudden loss of his mother due to cholera.

As said before, Tchaikovsky was a musician still, before attending courses in St. Petersburg Conservatory, he started to take piano classes when he was 5 years old, yet his family was forcing him to stay away from music as a career. At the end, he found himself in the squealling classrooms. The advanced classes in the conservatory gave him the opportunity to compose and make music more professionally, he became a composer rather than a pianist. After the graduation, he started to teach harmony in Moscow Conservatory, meanwhile he was composing and conducting.

As he gained reputation in Western Europe, he also traveled frequently in between Italy, Germany, France and England and USA. He died in Russia, several years after back from his travels.

Even though it is not proven, there are evidences of Tchaikovsky’s involment in affairs with several young men in Europe and Russia, while he was married with Antonina Tchaikovskaya. His homosexuality was in target of most of the European scholars and musicians. It is still, in target, as an opposition to Russian culture and music.


As per the years he lived, he is definitely classified as a romantic musician and composer, as well as the people that he involved in musical projects with. Music scholars mentions on his music as it is tuneful, brilliant, theatrical, magical, sweet, inexhaustible, expressively full, broad, supersensuous.

The individual signature of Tchaikovsky

Basically, powerful musical constructions along with emotional tides are found in the works of Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky either used Western style melodies, or Russian folk melodies, or original Russian folk songs.

Tchaikovsky kept the musical conversation flowing while essentially repeating himself by integrating melody, tonality, rhythm and sound color as an indivisible whole, rather than as separate elements, and manipulating different parts of it as needed.  By making subtle but noticeable changes in the rhythm or phrasing of a tune, modulating to another key, changing the melody itself or varying the instruments playing it, Tchaikovsky could keep a listener’s interest from flagging.

Tchaikovsky was influenced by Schumann, Liszt, Wagner, whereas he influenced Berlioz and Mendelssohn.

Where the heart does not enter; there can be no music.


Musical Products

Along with the diversity in the musical style, Tchaikovsky composed diverse range of musical types; from symphonies to ballets, from chamber music to choral settings.

Even though he did not compose any successful sonata, most famous pieces of Tchaikovsky are the First Piano concerto, Violin Concerto in D Major, three ballets (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker),  Romeo and Juliet, the 1812 Overture (composed for the opening of Cathedral of Christ the Savior), Manfred Symphony and the Capriccio Italien.


BROWN, David (1980) Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich, New Grove Encylopedia of Music and Musicians, London: MacMillian

GROUT, Donald Jay (1973), A History of Western Music, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

N.A. (1996) Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky,  Classical Music Collection, Istanbul: Boyut

TANİLLİ, Server (2017), Uygarlık Tarihi, Istanbul: Cumhuriyet Kitapları


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