“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius.” Tchaikovsky’s dismissal of Brahms’ music is often quoted, yet when the Russian composer met the German in 1888, he was disarmed by Brahms’ modesty and he was touched by the kindness shown him, noting "Brahms is not at all as proud as I had imagined."

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky © Nikolai Dimitriyevich Kuznetsov
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Nikolai Dimitriyevich Kuznetsov

What provoked Tchaikovsky’s animosity towards Brahms’ music? Perhaps he was annoyed at the way critics such as Eduard Hanslick had proclaimed Brahms as the “guardian of the classical tradition”, whereas his own works were being rubbished or ignored. This critical imbalance has persisted into the 21st century. Tchaikovsky is sometimes sneered at as a populist composer, yet he touches the heart in the way few other composers can manage. Much as I enjoy Brahms (the autumnal clarinet works are very special), the emotional qualities in Tchaikovsky’s music are remarkable. He was as fine a melodist as any 19th century composer and his mastery across a range of genres – symphonic, chamber, operatic, balletic – is remarkable by any standards.

In this battle of the birthday boys, enjoy the rich variety of music in the six clips below and cast your vote for Tchaikovsky by tweeting or adding a Facebook ‘like’. You know it makes sense!

Symphony no. 5 in E minor

Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were sometimes dismissed as too balletic (while The Sleeping Beauty was dismissed as too symphonic… critics, eh?) but I could have selected any movement to demonstrate his melodic gift. The Fifth, however, is a great favourite, full of angst. Like the Fourth, there is a ‘fate’ theme running through the work. Many people see the finale as a triumphant affirmation that all will be well… I see it more as a hollow victory: a stoic resignation before fate. Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra:

Swan Lake

Ballet companies depend upon Tchaikovsky: tickets for Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker always sell, and for good reason, not to mention other ballets based on his music (such as John Cranko’s Onegin). Swan Lake is the archetypal ballet for many people. The music for the Act II (‘White Swan’) pas de deux is exquisite… as is the performance here, with Marianela Núñez and Thiago Soares as Odette and Siegfried.

Eugene Onegin

Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin holds a special place in the hearts of Russians. Tchaikovsky’s opera (or ‘lyric scenes’ as he referred to it) contains some of his most heartfelt music. In the famous Letter Scene, Tatyana writes to Onegin, boldly declaring her love (which he then rejects). Life imitated art when student Antonina Miliukova wrote to Tchaikovsky in 1877, but with a very different outcome. Possibly to scotch rumours of his homosexuality, Tchaikovksy proposed and they were married (unhappily) later that year.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production of Eugene Onegin for the Bolshoi Opera caused controversy in Moscow, but the Letter Scene – sung here by Tatiana Monogarova – convincingly portrays Tatyana’s feverish infatuation:

Violin Concerto in D major  

Tchaikovsky has travelled to Switzerland to recover from the depression he suffered after his disastrous marriage to Antonina. The time working with violinist Josef Kotek on his Violin Concerto was a happy one, clearly heard in the finale, a vivacious cossack dance, although melancholy Russian introspection is never far away. Here, it is played by the legendary David Oistrakh, accompanied by the Moscow Philharmonic and Gennady Rozhdestvensky:

String Quartet no. 1 in D major

Tchaikovsky wrote some wonderful chamber music, from piano miniatures to string quartets. A melancholy thread runs through the second movement of the String Quartet no. 1, which now has a life of its own in many adaptations. Here, it is performed by the renowned Borodin Quartet:

None but the lonely heart

Tchaikovsky composed over 100 songs, but “Net, tol'ko tot, kto znal” – known popularly as “None but the lonely heart” – is the most popular. Based on a Russian setting of Goethe, it tells a familiar tale of romantic woe. Dmitri Hvorostovsky sings it here:

None but the lonely heart

Can know my sadness

Alone and parted

Far from joy and gladness

Heaven's boundless arch I see

Spread out above me

Oh, what a distance drear to one

Who loves me

 

Alone and parted far

From joy and gladness

My senses fail

A burning fire

Devours me

None but the lonely heart

Can know my sadness

 

Six remarkable works demonstrating Tchaikovsky’s versatility and his rich melodic gift. In this birthday battle, vote Tchaikovsky. You know it makes sense!