Tchaikovsky's music is so popular and ubiquitous in our culture that we hardly remember who wrote it. Every holiday season, performances of The Nutcracker ballet delight our children, our grandchildren, and especially the child in each of us. Few can resist the charms of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" or the "Waltz of the Flowers," so memorably choreographed in Disney's first Fantasia movie. Ballerinas around the world dream of playing the lead role in Swan Lake, as seen in the recent film Black Swan.
Countless young pianists play the First Piano Concerto in international competitions, as American Van Cliburn did in 1958 when he "defeated" the Russians in Moscow at the First Tchaikovsky Competition. Every Fourth of July we enjoy the fireworks in major cities with American orchestras playing the 1812 Overture, a work that the composer himself conducted to celebrate the opening of Carnegie Hall in 1891. The sweeping love theme of his tone poem Romeo and Juliet is well known because of its appearance in numerous movies and TV shows. Tchaikovsky's Symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (the Pathétique) abound on concert programs. His Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades are gaining footholds in the opera houses of the world. Chamber music lovers can savor the string quartets and the great Piano Trio in A Minor. Pianists have numerous solo pieces, including The Seasons, cellists practice the Rococo Variations, and violinists strive to play the enduring Violin Concerto in D.
What accounts for Tchaikovsky's tremendous popularity? Why has his music endured, even in today's popular culture? We'll look at Tchaikovsky's skills as a composer-his mastery of orchestration, his gift for writing haunting melodies, his employment of rhythm to create energy and motion, and his subtle control of harmony and dissonance. We'll also examine the Russian qualities in his music, particularly his use of folksong and dance, as well as the Western European influences from French ballet, Italian opera, Mozart, and Wagner. It will be fascinating to consider the emotional and expressive qualities of his music in the context of Tchaikovsky's personal life, which was haunted by self-doubt, secretiveness, fear, and a characteristically Russian melancholy. Leading this investigation will be Professor Timothy Gaylard, of the music department, and Kenan professor of history emeritus Lamar Cecil.