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Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music at the Summer Olympics 2020/2021 in Tokyo and the Winter Olympics 2022 in Bejing

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

The Russian Concerto No. 1 for Piano and 0rchestra, written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский) in 1874-1875, was heard once more all around the world, due to its appearance at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Every time a Russian gold medal winner stood on the podium, this beautiful Russian music was played. It will be heard again quite often, when more Russian gold medal winners will receive their medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Bejing. Thus, the famous Russian composer’s music travels east, reaching the Asian capitals of Japan and China. Pyotr Tchaikovsky is probably smiling in his grave, as he listens to the epic opening of his Concerto No. 1 proudly scoring the podium ceremonies of Olympic Games, in the 21st century. He is the dominant figure of 19th century Russian Romanticism in music, with all of its generous vitality and profound sincerity.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky created this concert, in the winter of 1874-1875. The composer sent the manuscript of the concert to Hans von Bülow, who gladly agreed to perform it. Thus, the concert premiered in Boston, on the 25th of October 1875, and was well received by the audience and music critics. In Russia the concert was first performed in Saint Petersburg, on the 1st of November 1875.

During the composer’s lifetime, the First Concerto became very popular. In the 20th century, the First Concerto even entered the repertoire of the world’s leading pianists. It was performed and recorded by Vladimir Horowitz, Emil Gilels, Svyatoslav Richter, Lev Oborin, Vladimir Ashkenazi, Mikhail Pletnev and Andrei Gavrilov. The concert remains one of the most popular works by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Since 1958, this composition has been part of the compulsory programme of the final round of the International Tchaikovsky Competition.

The work is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets in B, two bassoons, four horns in F, two trumpets in F, three trombones (two tenor, one bass), timpiani, solo piano and strings. The concert consists of a solemn introduction and three parts: Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito; Andantino semplice – Prestissimo; Allegro con fuoco. The approximate duration of the performance is 35-40 minutes.

The pianist Andrei Gavrilov said: «Tchaikovsky’s first concert is a hit, today. No other classical piece is played so often. This musical composition is woven from the melodic modulations of the human soul. It is a symphonic philosophy of life and belongs to the best creations of the human genius. To perform the first Tchaikovsky Concerto, you need to be not only a technically perfect pianist but also have the appropriate life experience. You need to be in harmony with the wonderful Russian culture of the nineteenth century. You need to deeply understand Russian philosophy.»

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский; 1840-1893) was born in Votkinsk, a small town in the Vyatka Governorate, present-day Udmurtia. His family had a long history of military service. His father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, served as a lieutenant colonel and engineer in the Department of Mines. His mother, Alexandra Andreyevna, née d’Assier, had French and German roots.

In 1844, the family hired Fanny Dürbach, a 22-year-old French governess. She was a native of Montbéliard in the region of Bourgogne. The governess saved much of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s work from this period, including his poems and earliest known compositions. She also became a source of several childhood anecdotes.

The boy’s parents loved music: his father had played the flute in his youth, his mother played the harp, the piano and sang Russian romances. Fanny Dürbach had no musical education but loved listening to music. The Tchaikovsky house had a grand piano, as well as a mechanical organ, So Pyotr was introduced to music early in his life. He began to play the piano at the age of five. By the age of six, he had become fluent in French and German.

In 1850, his parents sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg to prepare him for a career as civil servant. In 1859, the 19-year-old Pyotr Tchaikovsky graduated as a titular counselor. Appointed to the Ministry of Justice, he became a junior assistant within six months and a senior assistant, two months later. He remained a senior assistant for the rest of his three-year civil service career.

In 1859, the Russian Musical Society was founded in Saint Petersburg. It hosted a regular season of public concerts and provided basic professional training in music. In 1861, Pyotr Tchaikovsky enrolled and attended classes in music theory. He studied counterpoint, harmony and instrumentation. This benefited him in many ways.

It transformed him into a musical professional with tools to become a composer. Furthermore, the exposure to European principles and musical forms gave him a sense that his own musical creations were not exclusively Russian or European. Pyotr Tchaikovsky combined Russian and European influences in his compositional style. He attempted to show that these aspects were intertwined and mutually dependent. His efforts became both an inspiration and a starting point for other Russian composers to develop their own individual styles.

In the summer of 1861, he had the opportunity of visiting Europe for the first time. From June 18 to September 21, he accompanied his father’s friend, engineer V. V. Pisarev, on a business trip across Europe. He worked for him as an interpreter. They visited Berlin, Hamburg, Brussels, Antwerp, Ostend, London and Paris. 

Before leaving, Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote to his sister, on June 9: “I am going abroad, you can imagine my delight, and especially when you take into account that, as it turns out, my trip will cost almost nothing, I will be something like a secretary, a translator.»

After his graduation, in 1865, he began to teach at the Moscow Conervatory. From 1867 to 1878, Pyotr Tchaikovsky combined his professorial duties with music criticism, while continuing to compose. These activities exposed him to a range of contemporary music and afforded him several further opportunities to travel abroad. His fame grew, as several first-rate artists became willing to perform his compositions.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s works were performed frequently, with few delays between their composition and first performances. The publication of his songs and piano music for the home market also helped to increase the composer’s popularity. During the late 1860s, he began to compose operas, which were performed in Russia and abroad.

In May 1870, Pyotr Tchaikovsky traveled to Europe again. This time, he stayed a few days in Paris, then went to Germany for a music festival in Mannheim to listen to Beethoven’s music. He spent the end of the summer in Interlaken, Switzerland, and visited Nice, Genoa, Venice and Vienna, before returning to Russia.

At the end of December 1875, Pyotr Tchaikovsky went to Europe again, this time with his brother Modest. The brothers visited Berlin, Geneva and Paris. In the summer of 1876, they were at the spa in Vichy for treatments and rested some more in the south of France, in the town of Palavas on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. 

On July 31, the composer traveled to Bayreuth in Germany for the premiere of «Ring der Nibelungen», an opera by Richard Wagner. He wrote a report for «Russkie Vedemosti», praising Wagner’s music.

In the following years, Pyotr Tchaikovsky spent much of his time in Europe, either to conduct his own works or to visit the performances of fellow composers. He loved Europe and felt very much at home there. However, he remained a true Russian in his heart and soul. 

The decade of the 1870s were a period of creative search in the work of the composer. He was attracted by the historical past of Russia, the Russian traditional way of life, the theme of human destiny. In this period, he composed operas and ballet music, symphonies, songs and romances, as well as his famous Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra.

Unfortunately there was an antisemitic streak in Pyotr Tchaikovsky, expressed in one of the letters he wrote while traveling through Russia, in 1878. When his train stopped at a railroad station, he noticed “a mass of dirty Yids, with that poisoning of the atmosphere which accompanies them everywhere.” 

This letter was written to his friend and patroness who supported him financially, Nadezhda von Meck. “Tchaikovsky was a man of the 19th century, when the intelligentsia in Russia and other European countries was anti-Semitic almost by reflex” (THE TIMES OF ISRAEL, 30.07.2017). We might take this explanation as an excuse for Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s pronounced antisemitism.

Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (Надежда Филаретовна фон Мекк; 1831–1994) was a Russian business woman who became an influential patron of the arts, especially music. She is best known today for her artistic relationship with Pyotr Tchaikovsky, supporting him financially for thirteen years, so that he could devote himself full-time to composition, while stipulating that they were never to meet.

In 1880, Tsar Alexander III conferred upon him the Order of Saint Vladimir, fourth degree, which included a title of hereditary nobility. He was furthermore awarded a lifetime annual pension of 3.000 rubles from the Tsar. This made Pyotr Tchaikovsky the premier court composer. With increasing celebrity, he was able to promote Russian music and served as director of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, during the 1889–1890 season. In this post, he invited many international celebrities to conduct in Moscow.

The 1880s were a time of retreat for the composer. He found his refuge on the Maidanovo estate in the region of Klin near Moscow. He felt the desire to live outside the bustle of big cities. In a letter to a friend he wrote: «What a joy to be at home! What a bliss to know that no one will come, will not interfere with my studies, reading, walking! I now understand once and for all that my dream of settling down in the Russian countryside is not a fleeting whim but the real need of my soul. The closer I move to old age, the more vividly I feel the pleasure of being close to nature.»

His country home was located 85 kilometers northwest of Moscow. The house stood on the high bank of the Sestra River in a picturesque park. He lived there, from May 1892 until his death in 1893. The house had been built in the 1870s by V.S. Sakharov. It was rarely used by the Sakharov family, who rented and then sold it to the composer.

The proximity of the railway made it possible for the composer to reach Moscow quickly, if urgent matters called him there. On his estate he worked every day, from 9:00 to 13.00. After lunch, he went for a walk, taking his indispensable notebook with him for sketches of musical themes.

The house is open for tourists, today. On the second floor they can see the reception room and study with his piano. It is the largest room of the house. Pyotr Tchaikovsky never played the piano in a concert hall for an audience but he did play at home for his guests and enjoyed duets on the piano with visiting musicians.

Many photos are hanging on the walls, mainly of his family, in particular of his father Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky and his mother Alexandra Andreyevna. The bookcases contain his musical library of Russian and foreign literature, as well as the bound sets of magazines to which he subscribed.

The composer’s bedroom adjoins the reception room through a doorway, covered by a curtain. He composed music in this room on a plain unpainted table, overlooking the garden. The table was made of Karelian birch by village workers in Maidanovo, when he first settled in the Klin region. This was the table on which Tchaikovsky composed his 6th Symphony, the «Pathetique», the last major work before his death.

On the 6th of November 1893, Pyotr Tchaikovsky died in Saint Petersburg, in his brother Modest’s flat. He received a national funeral, which was celebrated in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan and attended by nearly 8.000 people. His coffin was carried by noble friends, including Prince Alexander of Oldenburg, a cousin of the Tsar.

The costs of the funeral were covered by the House of His Imperial Majesty. The choir of the Cathedral and the choir of the Imperial Russian Opera accompanied the ceremony. The composer’s friend, Grand Duke Constantin of Russia, wrote the next day in his diary that «the walls of the Cathedral were not sufficient to contain those who wanted to pray for the soul of Pyotr Ilyich.»

He was buried at the Tikhvin Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. His tomb is located near those of his fellow composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Later, the graves of Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky were added.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s lasting fame is due to his wide stylistic and emotional range, from light salon works, songs and romances, to operas and grand symphonies. The range of his melodic styles is as wide as that of his compositions. Sometimes he used Western-style melodies, sometimes melodies written in the style of Russian folk songs. 

He also liked to use stylized 18th-century melodies and patriotic themes, geared toward the values of Russian aristocracy. Pyotr Tchaikovsky also used the polonaise frequently, the dance being a musical code for the Romanov dynasty and a symbol of Russian patriotism.

The composer’s main concern was how his music impacted listeners on an aesthetic level, at specific moments in the piece, and on a cumulative level, once the music had finished. What his listeners experienced became an end in itself. As a late Romantic composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky relied on orchestration for musical effects. His music became famous for its sensual opulence, bright primary colours and sharply delineated contrasts of texture.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s expert use of two or more instruments playing a melody simultaneously, a practice called doubling, as well as his ear for uncanny combinations of instruments resulted in a generalized orchestral sonority, in which the individual timbres of instruments, being thoroughly mixed, could vanish.

His music is intensely expressive. Some music critics have suggested that «listening to Tchaikovsky’s music is like looking into a psychological mirror connected to everyday experience, one that reflects the dynamic nature of the listener’s own emotional self. This active engagement with the music opens for the listener a vista of emotional and psychological tension and an extremity of feeling. It possesses relevance because it seems reminiscent of one’s own truly lived and felt experience or one’s search for intensity in a deeply personal sense.»

The Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra is immensely popular not only in Russia but also in Europe. On the 23rd and 24th of March 2022, it can be heard at the Paris Philharmonic, performed by the Paris Orchestra with Khatia Buniatishvili at the piano. The programme promises: «Under the virtuose fingers of Khatia Buniatishvili, the Concerto No.1 for Piano and Orchestra will plunge us into skin-deep romanticism.»

Khatia Buniatishvili (ხატია ბუნიათიშვილი) was born in Batumi, Georgian SSR, on the 21st of June 1987. She started playing the piano at the age of three with her mother and gave her first concert with the Tbilisi chamber orchestra, at the age of six. Later she attended the Central Music School in Tbilisi, then entered the Tbilisi State Conservatory, in 2004. Khatia continued her studies at the University of Music and Performing Arts and at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Vienna. In 2011, the pianist moved to France, where she obtained French citizenship, in 2017.

Those of us, who do not live in Paris and have no possibility of traveling to Paris, in March 2022, cannot «plunge into skin-deep romanticism» with the Paris Orchestra and the virtuose pianist from Georgia. However, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s famous Concerto No.1 can be watched and heard on youtube. And the thundering beginning of this Concerto will be played again at the Winter Olympics in China, when Russian gold medal winners are honoured on the podium in Bejing.

Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog:


The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of this site. This site does not give financial, investment or medical advice.

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Olivia Kroth
December 10, 2021
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Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Concert No. 1 for Orchestra and Piano:

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