Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability, and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical dernands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally accepted.
As a composer Tchaikovsky represented a happy synthesis of the West European or German school of composition, represented in Russia by his teacher Anton Rubinstein, and the Russian nationalists, led by the impossibly aggressive Balakirev. From Rubinstein Tchaikovsky learned his technique, while Balakirev attempted time and again to bully him into compliance with his own ideals. To the nationalists Tchaikovsky may have seemed relatively foreign. His work, after all, lacked the primitive crudity that sometimes marked their compositions. Nevertheless acceptance abroad was not universal. Hanslick, in Vienna, could deplore the "trivial Cossack cheer" of the violin concerto and other works, while welcoming the absence of any apparent Russian element in the last of the six symphonies. In England and America there had been a heartier welcome, and in the latter country he had been received with an enthusiasm that exceeded even that at home. In his diary of the American concert tour of 1891 he remarked on this and on the curious habit of American critics, who tended to concentrate their attention on the appearance and posture of a conductor, rather than on the music itself. At the age of 51 he was described in the American press as "a tall, gray, interesting man, well on to sixty".
Throughout his life Tchaikovsky wrote music for the piano, much of it to supply the demands of an amateur market. Among the earliest such pieces are the three grouped under the title Souvenir de Hapsal, Op. 2, the third of which, the most famous Song Without Words in F major, concludes the present collection. In 1867 Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest spent some six weeks at Hapsal with the Dav�dovs, the family of his sister Sasha's husband. Sasha's sister-in-law Vera Dav�dova showed some interest in Tchaikovsky, feelings that he was unable to reciprocate. He nevertheless dedicated the three pieces to her after his return to St. Petersburg.
The 6 Morceaux, Op. 19, were completed early in November, 1873, in Moscow, where Tchaikovsky was also occupied with scoring his Shakespearian Tempest, which was first performed on 3 December, bringing the composer a welcome 300 roubles. He sent Tolstoy, who had been deeply moved by a performance in Moscow of the String Quartet No. 1, a copy of the pieces, with a piano duet arrangement of the Symphony No. 1. The Nocturne of the Op. 19 set was later transcribed by Tchaikovsky for cello and orchestra.
Les Saisons (The Seasons), Op. 37b, were written between December 1875 and November 1876 in response to a commission from Nikolay Bernard, editor of the periodical Nouvelliste. Each monthly issue was to contain an appropriate piece by Tchaikovsky. who had instructed his servant to remind him when each was due. The resulting collection, however reluctant the composer may have been, has much charm, as it takes the listener through the year, from the fireside in January, through Carnival, the song of the lark, April snowdrops and the nights of May. to the Barcarolle of June, the cutter of the hay, harvest, hunting. October autumn, the November Troika and to Christmas, offering occasional challenges to the technical proficiency of the amateurs for whom the pieces were intended.
The 12 Morceaux of moderate difficulty, Op. 40, were written between February and May 1878, followed immediately by the Album for the Young, published as Op. 39, 24 little pieces in the manner of Schumann. 1877 had brought Tchaikovsky near to death, but after the breakdown of his marriage his fortunes had changed as a result of the pension offered him by Nadezhda von Meck and the prospect of release from his burdensome 26 hours a week of teaching. On his doctor's orders Tchaikovsky had taken refuge abroad towards the end of the year and seven of the pieces that make up Op. 40 were written in Italy and in Clarens, where, with the young violinist Kotek, he had been busy with the composition of the Violin Concerto. The set was completed at his brother-in-law's estate at Kamenka in the Ukraine. The Chanson triste is possibly the most successful of the series, coupled here with the Song Without Words in A minor. The commercial realities of music publishing are illustrated by the fact that Tchaikovsky asked his publisher Jurgenson for 50 roubles for his Violin Concerto but for Op. 40 he suggested a price of 300 roubles. Piano pieces, even of moderate difficulty, were easy to sell.