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Tchaikovsky, Chopin & Mussorgsky: Eastern European Romantic Composers

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  • 0:01 Musical Nationalism
  • 0:34 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • 2:22 Frederic Chopin
  • 4:15 Modest Mussorgsky
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

If you want to explore the lives and careers of major Romantic-era composers from the eastern side of Europe, this is the lesson for you! Learn more about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Frederic Chopin, and Modest Mussorgsky.

Musical Nationalism

If you've been following the timeline of music history, you've probably noticed that many major composers have been from Western and Central Europe. During the Romantic era, Eastern European composers came into the spotlight. This lesson looks at three of those composers: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Frederic Chopin, and Modest Mussorgsky. All three were key figures in 'musical nationalism', a Romantic era trend that stressed patriotism.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

'Russian…in the fullest sense of the word!' is how Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky described himself and his music. At the time, musicians were on the lowest level of Russian social hierarchy. Born in 1840, Tchaikovsky's parents pushed for him to become a civil servant, but music won the day. Tchaikovsky's first successes were with opera composition, the most famous of which is Eugene Onegin.

Wealthy Russian widow Nadezhda von Meck liked Tchaikovsky's music and decided to provide him with ongoing financial support that came with a rather strange condition: that the two never meet in person. Although they never spoke face to face, she became Tchaikovsky's important friend and confidante, exchanging over 1,200 letters with him during their 13-year collaboration.

Tchaikovsky was homosexual and was in danger of being ostracized or even imprisoned if his sexuality became public knowledge. To hide his sexual orientation, he married his former student, Antonina Miliukova. The marriage was a disaster, and they parted ways after only a few months.

Tchaikovsky is best remembered for his rich ballet music, including Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and, most famously of all, The Nutcracker. Some of his other well-known works include his Piano Concerto No. 1, the 1812 Overture, and the popular love theme from the orchestral work Romeo and Juliet.

Tchaikovsky was prone to severe depression, which may have played a role in his death in 1893. Although the official report said that he died of cholera, the evidence suggests that he took his own life.

Frederic Chopin

Born in 1810, Chopin was a talented child prodigy from Warsaw, Poland. When he was 21, Chopin moved to Paris. Although his father was French, Chopin never truly embraced his French heritage, thoroughly identifying as a Pole.

Many of his compositions reflect his Polish heritage by incorporating Polish folk tune idioms, which can be heard in his polonaises and mazurkas, which are both national dances of Poland.

Chopin loved the piano, and almost all his compositions are character pieces, which are short, one-movement piano works. In addition to his nationalistic dances, other character piece styles include stately preludes and marches and dreamy night music called nocturnes.

Chopin was shy and actually hated performing in public. Luckily, his music sold very well, and coupled with income from teaching piano lessons, he was able to earn a good living without having to tour. He continued to play at salons: small, private concerts in wealthy patrons' homes, but preferred to play for friends during small parties. It was at one of these parties that Chopin met the writer Aurore Dupin, who went by the pseudonym George Sand. Sand was a headstrong, independent woman who wore trousers, smoked cigars, and spoke her mind. Before long, the effeminate Chopin and the domineering Sand were involved in what was to become a 10-year affair. Unfortunately, Chopin's career was cut short by an early death at the age of 39 in 1849, probably from tuberculosis.

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