Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
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Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.
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.
'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.
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.
Although Tchaikovsky considered himself to be a Russian nationalist composer, his music actually sounds very Western when compared to Modest Mussorgsky's. Mussorgsky, who was born in 1839, deliberately tried to break from European musical conventions to give his music a uniquely Russian sound, much like Chopin did with his Polish national character pieces.
As a young man, Mussorgsky met Mily Balakirev, a prominent member of the Russian musical elite. Before long, Mussorgsky had joined Balakirev's kuchka, or 'Mighty Handful', also known as 'The Russian Five'. These five composers sought to promote a Russian school of music in accordance with the general Romantic nationalist movement that was sweeping Europe.
Mussorgsky's best-known works include Night on Bald Mountain, the opera Boris Godunov, and a 10-movement piano suite called Pictures at an Exhibition, which was based on a series of works by artist Viktor Hartmann. The most famous of these movements is The Great Gate of Kiev, which is most often heard in the orchestral version created by another composer, Maurice Ravel.
Mussorgsky began drinking as a teenager and quickly became an alcoholic. As his alcoholism became progressively worse, his creative output grew sporadic, and his health declined. Eventually, he had to be hospitalized and passed away at the young age of 42 in 1881.
Eastern European nationalist composers Frederic Chopin, Pyotr Iliyich Tchaikovsky, and Modest Mussorgsky were influential contributors to Romantic era music. Tchaikovsky's orchestral music, including his popular ballets like The Nutcracker, are still well-loved today. The Polish-born Chopin wrote one-movement piano character pieces, including nocturnes and preludes, as well as nationalistic works like polonaises and mazurkas. Mussorgsky, a member of 'The Russian Five', was dedicated to creating a Russian national sound which he accomplished in works like Pictures at an Exhibition and Night on Bald Mountain before succumbing to severe alcoholism.
Many of the great composers came from Western or Central Europe, yet in the 19th century Eastern Europeans entered the Romantic Era. With this new wave of inspired patriotism, Eastern Europeans began to gain public recognition for their own works. Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Mussorgsky would go on to become some of Eastern Europe's greatest composers.
After reviewing this lesson, you should be able to identify and discuss the works and lives of Eastern European composers Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Mussorgsky.
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Back To CourseMusic 101: Help and Review
11 chapters | 355 lessons