The ‘Just Listen’ section of this site deals with some of Tchaikovsky’s lesser known works, or piece which need little explanation from me.
Did you know that Tchaikovsky wrote operas? Perhaps you’ve heard of one or two of them? Eugene Onegin or even The Queen of Spades. In truth he wrote ten of them throughout his compositional career. His first one, Undine. was never completed but the fairy-like Wedding March can be heard fairly intact as the second movement of his Second Symphony, Opus 17. One of his last works, composed in 1892, was a double bill with a little ballet whose name you might just know – The Nutcracker! The other part of the bill was an opera called Yolade or sometimes known as Iolante.
So Tchaikovsky really did think of himself as an opera composer even more than a symphonist.
The problem with many of them is not that the music is bad (although sometimes that’s true) but that they deal with such Russian themes, almost impenetrable to the more European audiences. And they are difficult to translate.
But one of them surely needs and deserves more attention in the west. It is delightful in every possible way. It started life as Vakula the Smith in 1874 but it flopped – not because of the music but because of the staging, which proved a nightmare for the young composer, still not yet established as a major figure even in Russian circles. Tchaikovsky revised it in 1885 and it was first performed in Moscow in 1887, conducted by the composer himself.
Again, it was not hugely successful but first night audiences were rapturous in their approval. And I think they were right. He called this his favourite opera and that it would be performed and become known as his best.
Tchaikovsky’s prediction proved wrong and only Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades have remained favourites in opera houses throughout the world. But this opera, whose name has changed more times than the British weather; Cherevichki, The Tsarina’s Slippers, and so on is such a joy that I wanted to give it special mention here. I recommend it here because you’ll so rarely hear it in opera houses.
Here are the Overture and the Finale, with similar music at the end. I adore these unmistakably Russian melodies and Tchaikovsky is on top form with his orchestration and good humour. There are some complete versions on YouTube and if you can find a good translation or a version sung in English, there is so much delight and fun to be had.
Here, more than ever, is a Russian folk tune (actually composed by Tchaikovsky) given full rein in typical Tchaikovskian grandeur. I adore this melody. If you don’t then I won’t want to speak to you again…!