Even though many of Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved masterpieces like Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and the 1812 Overture are regularly heard in concert halls, an argument can be made that the 19th-century Russian composer’s works remain in some ways underappreciated. Indeed, Philip Ross Bullock, author of the 2016 biography, Piotr Tchaikovsky, argues that the composer’s popularity has actually worked against him.
“He is undervalued but perhaps overexposed in some ways,” said Bullock, a professor of Russian literature and music at Oxford University’s Wadham College. “His very popularity, these warhorses, the First Piano Concerto, the [Sonata] Pathetique, become so familiar that people stop hearing them in original ways.”
A member of the academic advisory board of the International Tchaikovsky Society, Bullock offered three other reasons for the under-assessment of the composer. For starters, Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was once subject to what the scholar called a “moral squeamishness” — a distancing by certain academics and others because of his homosexuality and now-outdated notions of how his private life affected his music. “I think that’s not been true for a long time, academically speaking,” Bullock said. “We’ve learned to rehear him.”
Second, Tchaikovsky was a more modern composer than some might think. Mahler was another composer who was discounted for decades after his death in 1911, and then starting in the 1950s and ‘60s with the efforts of Leonard Bernstein and others, he began to be seen as a modern master. “Mahler conducted Tchaikovsky at the Vienna Opera House and at the Met when he came to the United States,” Bullock said. “Mahler learned to be Mahler by listening to what Tchaikovsky did to symphonic form.” In his Sixth Symphony, for example, Tchaikovsky broke from tradition and put the movements in the “wrong” order, much as Mahler did in his Ninth Symphony.
“But we always forget to put Tchaikovsky in that place in music history as someone who took us from the 19th century,” he said, “and then ushered in the symphonic practices of Mahler, of Elgar, in many ways, of Shostakovich in the Russian tradition and Sibelius in the Finnish tradition.”
Finally, Tchaikovsky was his own worst enemy. He was self-deprecating about his abilities as a composer. “It’s all rubbish,” Bullock said. “He was a brilliant symphonist.” But the self-criticism, often taken out of context, has affected the way critics view his work.
Among the qualities that have made Tchaikovsky’s music so memorable is his gift for melody. Notable examples can be found across his output, especially what Bullock called his “extraordinary lyrical outpourings” in many of his slow movements, such as that in the Symphony No. 5. The composer wrote 10 operas and more than 100 art songs, and the expressive qualities heard in those pieces often carry over to his instrumental works, as indicated by such markings as “cantabile,” “cantando” or “espressivo.”
Bullock also praised Tchaikovsky’s “winning way” with titles, programs (a pre-conceived theme or narrative) and particularly, hints of programs, where the composer deliberately withheld details from the audience. “So he engages our capacity as a listener to imagine,” he said. Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini (an 1876 ode to the famed story from Dante’s Divine Comedy) clearly have narratives, but Tchaikovsky’s programmatic intent for the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies remains unclear, despite scholars’ eager efforts to uncover it. “What’s fascinating is the way that Tchaikovsky can use that hint of a story, hint of a personality, to make us do the work, to fill in the gaps and to imagine while we’re listening.”
Although Tchaikovsky’s music is overtly romantic in many ways, he had strong ties to the Classical era, and his favorite composer was Wolfgang Mozart. “When he got to see the original score of Don Giovanni, he was completely transfixed by the connection he had to the 18th century,” Bullock said. Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades contains an intermezzo borrowed from a Mozart piano concerto, and the Orchestral Suite No. 4 (Mozartiana) is an arrangement of four works by the composer’s hero. “I think his interest in these classical forms of the 18th century, and his interest in charm, delight, order, proportion — all these things we think of with the 18th century — is often misunderstood because we tend to see him through a romantic, 19th-century prism.”
Igor Stravinsky, who turned to neo-classical music in the 1920s, was fascinated by Tchaikovsky. “Maybe we have evolved a performing tradition that emphasizes the heart-on-sleeve romanticism of Tchaikovsky’s work,” he said, “but sometimes we mishear or misunderstand or are not shown the works that would allow us to hear this very different side of him.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.