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Music / Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский, 7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893) was a Russian Romantic composer, most famous for ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker. Also known for the 1812 Overture, which features cannons. His first name is usually anglicized as Peter. One of the first known gay composers, he suffered much during his lifetime, and it shows through his music.

The Capriccio Italien is another reasonably famous piece, a medley of various Italian songs he claimed to have heard on vacation. Or cribbed from anthologies, showing that the practice of sampling is nothing new in music.

Tchaikovsky is known for his exceptional gift as a melodist; his three ballets in particular show his ability to write an entire evening's worth of memorable tunes. This ability could sometimes work against him in symphonic and chamber music, since he has a tendency to repeat themes, both large sections of a piece and small bits of a few bars that make up those themes, rather than spin music from motifs in developmental style. Still, his last three symphonies are acknowledged as masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire.

Tropes present in Tchaikovsky's life and works:

  • Anonymous Benefactor: The patronage of Nadezhda von Meck allowed Tchaikovsky to devote himself full-time to composition from 1877 to 1890; the composer dedicated his Symphony No. 4 in F minor to her. The only stipulation the reclusive Meck put on their arrangement was that they never meet in person; the two exchanged a voluminous correspondence, numbering approximately 1200 letters, but indeed never met. Meck gave financial assistance to several other composers, including Henryk Wieniawski and a young Claude Debussy.
  • Awful Wedded Life: The composer was less than comfortable with his homosexuality and in 1877 married one of his former students, Antonina Miliukova, likely to please his family and quash rumors of his sexual orientation. It was a disaster, the couple being an utter mismatch on several levels, and they separated after six weeks — though they never officially divorced. Tchaikovsky often referred to her as "the reptile" in post-separation correspondence.
  • Badass Army: No matter how you look at it, the two warring factions in The Nutcracker — one an army of mice, the other of the nutcracker leading an army of tin soldiers and gingerbread men — are too cool for words.
  • Become a Real Boy: Applies to two of the composer's most famous ballets.
    • In The Nutcracker, the title toy turns into a handsome prince.
    • In Swan Lake, the swans turn into beautiful maidens.
  • Bowdlerize: The original tragic conclusion to the ballet Swan Lake is at times turned into a happy ending. Inverted at times in presentations of The Nutcracker which return Clara back to reality and her broken nutcracker at the end.
  • Christmas Special: The Nutcracker has become a Yuletide tradition in the United States and Europe.
  • Closet Gay: Needless to say, in a society where homosexuality was not only frowned upon but outright illegal, Tchaikovsky kept his sexuality a secret, and was never really comfortable with himself.
  • Crappy Holidays: The ballet The Nutcracker has elements of this. Clara is heartbroken when her brother Fritz breaks her nutcracker gift.
  • Culturally Religious: Tchaikovsky was raised a Russian Orthodox Christian, but he was not particularly devout, having written to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck: "As you can see, I am still bound to the Church by strong ties, but on the other hand I have long ceased to believe in the dogma." He was, however, profoundly attached to the Orthodox Church's rituals and music and wrote a liturgical composition based on the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, a Eucharistic service in the Eastern Christian Church.
  • Curse: The evil fairy Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty puts a curse on the young Princess Aurora that will have her prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die on her sixteenth birthday.
  • Curse Escape Clause: In Sleeping Beauty, the Lilac Fairy modifies Carabosse's curse to have the princess fall into a death-like sleep, which can be broken by her True Love's Kiss.
  • Dance Party Ending: The final act of The Nutcracker consists of a collection of dance scenes that involve magical beings (a sugar plum fairy), flutes, flowers, snowflakes, and various ethnic characters (Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Arab). Similarly, Sleeping Beauty wraps up the story at the end of Act 2, and the final act is a pageant for the wedding of the title character and the prince, with a suite of dances performed by other fairy-tale characters.
  • Dangerous 16th Birthday: Princess Aurora pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and goes into a deep slumber on her sixteenth birthday in Sleeping Beauty.
  • Downer Ending: Aside from his operas, this is found in some of his other works.
    • The Symphony No. 6 in B minor ("Pathétique") is accurately named, featuring a despairingly sad, pessimistic finale that doesn't so much end as fade away into nothing. A notable exception to the prevailing tendency to end symphonies in an upbeat and obvious way.
    • The original version of the ballet Swan Lake has its Star-Crossed Lovers die at the end. Versions exist, though that Bowdlerize the work into a happy ending.
    • Some presentations of The Nutcracker return Clara back to reality and her broken nutcracker at the end.
  • Fairy Devilmother: Wicked fairy Carabosse puts a curse on young Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
  • Fanfare:
    • The Fourth Symphony starts off with a striking fanfare that suddenly pops up again in the last movement.
    • Capriccio Italien starts out with a trumpet fanfare. One story is that during an Italian vacation, Tchaikovsky's hotel was near an army barracks and their reveille kept waking him, so he put it into the piece.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Tchaikovsky's relationship with the "Russian Five" was complicated. The group's members initially disliked Tchaikovsky because he had been a student of Anton Rubinstein, whose Westernized, academic music aesthetic clashed with "The Five"'s wish to make their works more authentically Russian. One of its members, composer and critic Cesar Cui, regularly wrote scathing reviews of Tchaikovsky's work. They eventually grew to like each other over time, however, helped in part by Tchaikovsky's writing a positive review of a work by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Despite this, he remained ambivalent about their music.
  • Happily Ever After:
    • In contrast to the Downer Ending of Swan Lake, both The Nutcracker (usually) and Sleeping Beauty conclude on a positive note.
    • Tchaikovsky's marriage inverts this trope in the strongest possible way. The totally incompatible pair separated for good after only six weeks.
  • Jump Scare: One of the most famous in the classical repertoire occurs in the first movement of the "Pathetique" Symphony, with first clarinet and then bass clarinetnote  playing pianississississimo before a sudden chord jolts the listener into the development section.
  • Lighter and Softer: Applies to several fine lesser-known pieces in this composer's output, including the Serenade for Strings in C major, Variations On A Rococo Theme for solo cello and orchestra, the first three symphonies, the four orchestral suites, and the second and third piano concertos. Tchaikovsky's favorite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and these works most clearly demonstrate that love.
  • Nice Mice: Inverted in The Nutcracker, where the mice are unalloyedly evil.
  • Orchestral Bombing: Pretty much the entire point of the 1812 Overture, in which the score (depicting Russia's defeat of Napoleon's army) actually calls for real cannons to be fired at the finale. To quote Calvin:
    "And they perform this in crowded concert halls?? Gee, I thought classical music was boring!"
  • Patriotic Fervor: Both the 1812 Overture and Marche Slav respectively feature Russian and Serbian nationalistic elements.
  • Prince Charming: Prince Désiré is Princess Aurora's true love in Sleeping Beauty.
  • Princess Protagonist: Applies to the heroine Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
  • Standard Snippet: His music is a particularly rich source of these. Many selections and passages from The Nutcracker (thanks to Fantasia), the 1812 Overture, Marche Slav, and the "swan theme" from Swan Lake, as well as the "love theme" from the overture to Romeo And Juliet quoted in several love scenes.
  • Small Reference Pools: To casual viewers, Tchaikovsky defines pretty nearly the entire genre of Ballet between The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. And if they know a third ballet, it’s most likely Sleeping Beauty.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Applies to Odette and Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, who die at the end of the original ballet.
  • Title by Year: 1812 Overture, about Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia (there were a buttload of wars in that year).
  • Travelogue Show: Or travelogue work in the case of Capriccio Italien, an Italian-flavored tone poem.
  • True Love's Kiss: Prince Désiré awakens Princess Aurora with a kiss in Sleeping Beauty.
  • Uncommon Time: The second movement of the Symphony No. 6 is written in 5/4, one of the first uses of quintuple time in classical music since the Baroque era.
  • What Were You Thinking?: Two biographical examples qualify.
    • The composer was less than comfortable with his homosexuality and in 1877 married one of his former students, Antonina Miliukova, likely to please his family and quash rumors of his sexual orientation. It was a disaster, the couple being an utter mismatch on several levels, and they separated after six weeks — though they never officially divorced. Tchaikovsky often referred to her as "the reptile" in post-separation correspondence.
    • Tchaikovsky died November 6, 1893 after inadvisably drinking an unboiled glass of water during a cholera epidemic. Those dining with him at the time were reportedly aghast when they saw him do so. However, he may have done this on purpose, with unconfirmed stories that he was being investigated for his homosexuality. Even today, there is no agreement on his motive.

In fiction


Video Example(s):


1812 Overture

Performed by the JGSDF Eastern Army Band, 1st Band, and 12th Band, with special appearance by a battery of M101 105mm howitzers.

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