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Roman’s Tchaikovsky Top 10

Peter Tchaikovsky 1874

You hear me talk about Beethoven often. But it is Tchaikovsky who is my favorite. Aesthetically, nobody can touch him.

The very first time I heard his 6th, I was 17 years old. And I thought to myself “this is the greatest piece of music ever written”.

My opinion hasn’t changed. But it was his suicide note. I can’t listen to it more than once a year.

Too much emotion. Too tragic.

And Serenade for Strings? Listen to it with your lover. If this doesn’t lead a passionate moment, you’re with the wrong person.

Tchaikovsky melodically is in a class by himself.

10. Romeo and Juliet Overture 1880

You have heard the Love Theme from this ballet numerous times as it has been adopted into pop culture. The whole fantasy is brilliant, having been rewritten numerous times. Had this been written by any other composer, it wouldn’t have been so far down on the list. But you know how much I love Tchaikovsky.

9. Sleeping Beauty 1890

Still a beautiful ballet, this one falls behind Swan Lake and The Nutcracker.

The music is gorgeous. My dream of course is to see this in St. Petersburg. I’ve seen the local ballet perform it and it was quite lovely.

8. 1812 Overture 1880

Being a Metalhead, you’d assume I’d rank this one a lot higher. I love it, don’t get me wrong. But doing a Tchaikovsky top 10 isn’t easy – he wrote so many great compositions.

One thing that makes me proud about being American is we have adopted this piece for July 4th. I couldn’t tell you how many times and in how many cities I’ve seen this performed. Some of the orchestras were mediocre, but regardless, they’d pour their hearts into the performance and it showed.

7. Serenade for Strings 1880

I adore this piece, and I’m sure a lot of people would say I overrate it. I don’t care. Show me a composition along these lines this that is more beautiful. You can’t.

If this doesn’t make you want to dance, you may be missing your soul. I also had gone so far that I used this as a test to gauge if a woman was worthy of my love. I’d play the Waltz (the second movement) and if she found it boring, we were through.

Yes, I’m quite serious. I won’t apologize for having high standards and I refuse to fall in love with a philistine.

6. Symphony No. 4 1878

I absolutely love the Finale but the whole symphony is quite good. Dedicated to his patroness and best friend Madame von Meck, purists would argue it had weak parts.

I’d counter that those parts are what helps it stand out. As much as Tchaikovsky wanted to be Western, he also wanted to be Russian. If that doesn’t define Romanticism…

One thing I especially liked was that an American critic called it too Russian and “semi-barbaric.” One of these days, I’ll do a write-up how Russian Romanticism was a precursor to Metal and of course this symphony would be an example.

5. The Nutcracker Suite 1892

We all know how gorgeous the Suite is. You’ve heard it many times, even if you never looked for it.

I find it fascinating that despite being an intensely patriotic Russian, two of Tchaikovsky’s pieces have a huge influence on American culture. Every Fourth of July, we get to hear the 1812 Overture. And every Christmas, we get to hear the Nutcracker.

4. Swan Lake Ballet 1876

My favorite ballet. If you’re young, you probably know this ballet from the movie Black Swan. Of course, I won’t thumb my nose up to anyone who knows it that way – it was a pretty good movie. The ballet itself is chocked full of delicious melodies.

We’ve seen this ballet twice live now. I’d love to see it in Russia.

Musically, the best ballet ever written.

3. Piano Concerto No.1 1875, 1888

I’m a lucky man. I got to see the great Van Cliburn perform this on his comeback tour. The best piano concerto ever written.

The main theme is one of the most lovely themes ever written. However, Tchaikovsky barely does anything with it. It only appears a few times. That said, there’s so much excellent content in this concerto that it doesn’t need to keep coming back.

2. Violin Concerto 1878

As depressing as his Sixth Symphony (the Pathetique) is, this piece is joyous. Which is ironic considering he was writing it while recovering from his famously disastrous marriage. Contains one of the best melodies ever written. If that melody doesn’t move you, you have no soul.

One of my Grandfathers only loved Jazz. He hated rock and roll with a passion. He didn’t like Classical music at all. And when he heard Heavy Metal music for the first time, oh boy. He had nothing good to say about it. At all.

However, he still loved this piece. It was the only Classical record he owned.

1. The Pathetique 1893

Best piece of music ever written. Period. Peter Tchaikovsky killed himself nine days after its first performance. I have a minority opinion (although you will hear other Historians agree) that this piece was a suicide note. It’s hard to listen to and I only listen to it on special occasions.

I’m not the only one who said it. For the record though, I said it immediately upon hearing it, and I thought it before I read other critics say it. Yes, as a teenager, I came up with that thought independently.

Definitely give it a listen and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this piece a suicide note?

Regardless, it’s the most tragic piece ever written. The fade out at the end is hard to listen to. It sounds like a slow, lingering death, like Tchaikovsky had been dying inside for months and finally decided to commit and end it all.

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The 3 greatest symphonies of all time

What are the three greatest symphonies of all-time? What an excellent question to ask.

Here are my three. What I say is the top, most of the experts will have in the top three but almost never as number one.

I’m a minority here, but I’m totally comfortable with that. Your experiences may differ. Anyways, here’s my list:

3. Beethoven’s 9th

Imagine. Writing something that you know is a masterpiece. They know it’s a masterpiece. Everyone knows it’s a masterpiece.

But you are entirely deaf and you cannot hear it.

That was Beethoven by the time he first performed Beethoven’s 9th.

After the performance, a standing ovation. The audience roared. They immediately knew. Beethoven had just released greatness and you got to hear one of the pinnacles of Western Civilization right in front of your eyes.

Yes. He was deaf. So one of the singers, Caroline Unger, had to run Beethoven around to show him that they got it. They knew they just witnessed greatness.

The symphony has four movements. It starts off with what sounds like an orchestra warming up and ends with a chorus, the melody of which you’ve heard hundreds of times. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

Beethoven believed in the greatness of man. He truly believed we can accomplish great things in our lifetimes. And you know what? He did. If I ever need inspiration, this is the piece.

2. Beethoven’s 6th

A lot of the experts will rate this one number one – the greatest symphony ever written. Actually, I’m in a minority. I’m fine with that.

As great as Beethoven’s 9th is, his 6th is even better.

The Pastorale. It sounds like nature.

Yes, Beethoven loved nature. He found peace with nature and was one with nature. I would have loved to see Austria back then. It must have been magical.

This was the peak of the Romantic era, except Romanticism in music actually came after Romanticism in poetry and literature. That’s just how it worked though.

Beethoven himself kicked off the Romantic era with his 3rd symphony.

Anyways, back to the 6th. You hear everything from bird calls to a raging tempest, then the peaceful aftermath.

Close your eyes. And listen.

Beethoven will take you to another time, a more dangerous time. But one where the outdoors still existed and it took forever to get from city to city.

Beethoven produced a lot of great works, from the 5th of his symphonies I love to his piano concertos to his solo piano pieces to his string quartets. No, I actually don’t like his violin concerto. I think it’s just ok.

But this is my favorite of all his pieces.

Beethoven statue San Francisco
Statue of Beethoven taken in Golden Gate Park San Francisco by yours truly

1. Tchaikovsky’s 6th

I remember hearing this for the first time when I was 18 years old. I immediately, upon hearing it for the first time, knew that this was going to be my favorite piece of all time.

It was a haunting feeling though. Because I also knew upon hearing it for the first time that Tchaikovsky just wrote his eulogy.

Six days after the first performance of the symphony, Peter Tchaikovsky took his life.

This is hands down the greatest piece of music ever written. Except with a caveat.

It’s also the most dangerous piece of music ever written.

I can only listen to this piece on special occasions. And I never listen to this piece alone, especially if I had been drinking.

I’ve had bouts of depression in the past. Yes, the past is the past. But still. I won’t take the risk.

Yes, it’s that powerful.

If you’re emotionally healthy, then I don’t think you’ll have any problem with this symphony whatsoever. I also don’t think you’ll get the same feeling from it.

Tchaikovsky often hid his melancholia from the rest of the world. You couldn’t hear it in his 1812 Overture or his Violin Concerto. Or his Piano Concerto Number 1, often (correctly) seen as the greatest piano concerto ever written.

But this piece. Four movements. All sadder than the previous one. Until the final movement where the composer dies from his sadness. And it ends. Slowly. And sadly. Fading away without anyone else noticing he’s dead.

He dies alone. And not understood.

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Classical Music for Newbies

What are the absolute best Classical pieces?

Wrong question to ask. Rather, this article is Classical music for newbies. So, we expect the reader to not know Classical that well. And you don’t want to introduce them to hard-core Classical music that will just turn them off to Classical music.

For instance, I’m not going to say “dude! You need to listen to Wagner’s entire…”

That will guarantee the newbie won’t listen to Classical for another five years.

So instead, let’s start with something accessible.

I’m not a fan of Baroque. But a few Baroque pieces make sense for the Classical newbie. Start off with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue and Air on G String and Pachelbel’s Canon. Then work in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Those pieces are great to get started with, simply because they’re accessible.

Then I’d dive into Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and 1812 Overture. Once again, we’re shooting for accessibility. They’re not his best works, but the easiest to get started with.

I also think some lovely piano pieces would be great to get you going. How about Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 9 No 2 and Beethoven’s Fur Elise? Both lovely pieces, and both accessible. If you like those two pieces, you could try Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which is a little bit more involved.

Then I would recommend Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. It’s a very accessible piece.

I’m not going to recommend symphonies, concertos, or operas just yet. These are after you got some short pieces under your belt.

So yes, this is a very short list. It’s just a splash. It’s a list to get you going into Classical music.

I’ll write a part II to this later. Stay tuned…