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13 Best Tchaikovsky Works and Pieces

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Tchaikovsky is one of the best-known composers of the Romantic era. He was also the first Russian composer to find international acclaim and make a significant impression outside Russia. Today’s classical repertoire would be utterly different without Tchaikovsky, with his published pieces covering operas, ballets, symphonies, and concertos. In this article, we’ll look at the 13 best Tchaikovsky compositions in history, from his most popular to his most influential.

1. The Nutcracker Suite

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker Suite - Sinfonia Rotterdam/ Conrad van Alphen

The Nutcracker is perhaps Tchaikovsky’s best-known work. The two-act ballet is one of the most recognizable tunes in classical music and has been continually used since its composition, with it being the most popular ballet performed today. It is originally a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The score by Tchaikovsky was also used in several film adaptations of the story. While it can be played solo, The Nutcracker was composed for a full orchestra, which really brings out the melancholy tones of the piece. 

2. Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky – Swan Lake

Swan Lake is another ballet that did not find initial success. Though today it is one of the most performed ballets in the world. Originally premiered at the Bolshoi Theater, Tchaikovsky studied the work of ballet composers like Cesare Pugni and Ludwig Minkus before beginning work on the score. Swan Lake is another great romantic and recognizable score in all classical music, seen in multiple films, television shows, and theater productions.

Next: Top classical music songs of all time featured list

3. 1812 Solemn Overture

1812 OVERTURE, P. I. Tchaikovsky (Canons i campanar) - Banda Simfònica d'Algemesí

The Year 1812, Solemn Overture, Op. 49 was written by Tchaikovsky to commemorate the successful defense against Napoleon’s grand army by Russian forces in 1812. The 15-minute piece includes the use of cannon fire, a brass fanfare finale, and is often played with fireworks going off in the background (potentially ironically) in the US on Independence Day.

It’s said Tchaikovsky took only six weeks to complete the overture, as it was suggested to him by a friend to write a piece to accompany the opening of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, commemorating the same military triumph.

4. Piano Concerto No. 1

Tchaikovsky - Piano Concerto 1 (B Flat Minor)

Among the composer’s best piano pieces of all time, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 underwent several revisions after being debuted in Boston by Hans von Bülow. The 1888 revision (the final one) is the one most often played today, though one version in 1884 was meant for two pianos instead of one. This piece was so influential that after Russian athletes were banned from Olympic competitions from 2020 until 2022 for doping, the song was played instead of the Russian national anthem.

Next: Top pianists in the history of music (our favorites)

5. Symphony No. 5

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5 - Semyon Bychkov | Concertgebouworkest

Tchaikovsky and critics did not find the finale of Symphony No. 5 compelling, even going so far as to call the work a failure. But, the piece has become extremely popular today and is considered one of his absolute best works. Symphony No 5. became exceptionally popular during World War II as it explores the theme of victory through strife. At the time it was composed, it was considered Tchaikovsky’s weakest symphony, but today, one of his best. 

6. Eugene Onegin

Tchaikovski : Eugène Onéguine (Braunschweig / Canellakis)

The novel Eugene Onegin is a classic of Russian literature, and Tchaikovsky added a score, which he arranged much of the verses from the novel into a lyrical opera. It premiered in Moscow in 1879 and was mostly handled by students at the Moscow Conservatory.

Today, the opera is regularly performed, but it has been recorded numerous times since its composition. The story follows a self-centered hero who regrets rejecting a woman’s love and causing a fatal duel with his best friend. Films based on the opera were released in 1955 and 1988 and were generally received well by critics.

Next: The best Operas of all time (our full featured list)

7. Symphony No. 6

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 Pathetique | Dresden Philharmonic & Marek Janowski

Don’t think of this one as pathetic. Tchaikovsky’s final symphony was initially titled the Passionate Symphony, but a French mistranslation turned it into Pathétique, which meant solemn or emotional. The symphony’s first performance was led by Tchaikovsky himself, though it happened only nine days before his death. After the premiere, Tchaikovsky had enough time to make some minor alterations, leading to the version we still hear performed today. 

8. Violin Concerto

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto D Major Op.35 - Bomsori Kim 김봄소리

Tchaikovsky composed pieces for various instruments, and his Violin Concerto in D major stands up with some of the greatest violin pieces of all time. Composed in 1878, Tchaikovsky wanted to dedicate the piece to Iosif Kotek but was wary that the dedication would bring scrutiny upon his relationship with him.

Though it’s the only violin concerto composed by Tchaikovsky, it remains one of the most famous violin concertos today. In truth, it only came about because he was struggling with a piano piece, and one of his students (a violinist) played together while Tchaikovsky was vacationing in Switzerland.

9. Romeo and Juliet

Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet (Fantasy Overture)

Tchaikovsky was known for dedicating his works to other great works of the past, and as with Eugene Onegin, Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky was based on the famous Shakespeare story. While an orchestral work instead of an opera, Tchaikovsky was inspired by Shakespeare and also wrote pieces for Hamlet and The Tempest as well.

Though, one of his great works, Romeo and Juliet, was interestingly not given an opus number by Tchaikovsky. The piece follows three main branches of the original story and would be reworked by Tchaikovsky several times to produce three total versions. The overture has been used consistently since its composition, even featuring in pop culture today in television shows like Sesame Street, The Simpsons, South Park, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Next: List of songs about Romeo and Juliet

10. Sleeping Beauty

Tchaikovsky - Sleeping Beauty Waltz

Sleeping Beauty is another excellent ballet and one of Tchaikovsky’s longest works, which clocks in at over 160 minutes. While he originally was approached to work on a ballet for the story, Ondine, it was eventually decided the story would be from The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods.

He based the ballet on the Brothers Grimm’s version of the story, but the ballet didn’t receive its true acclaim until after his death. Vsevolozhsky, the director who approached Tchaikovsky to compose the piece, incorporated other characters from Perrault’s stories into the ballet, such as Puss In Boots, Cinderella, and Tom Thumb. The original premiere took place at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty In The Woods remains one of the classical repertoires’ most famous ballets.

11. Serenade For Strings

Tchaikovsky: Serenade for Strings - Concertgebouw Kamerorkest / Chamber Orchestra - Live concert HD

This song was one of the few times Tchaikovsky meant to imitate another composer instead of simply being inspired by their works. The piece includes four movements, tied together with the inclusion of an introduction that appears in the first and fourth movements.

However, it is altered in the fourth to include the full orchestral accompaniment. The first movement was intended to be modeled after Mozart and had a slow introduction in the style of a classical sonatina. On its own, the second movement is a popular recording piece called valse. The first and second movements have been used numerous times in television, from football game broadcasts to intro and outros for news networks.

12. The Seasons

Tchaikovsky - The Seasons (full) | Piano: Vadim Chaimovich

The Seasons is a set of 12 short piano pieces meant for solo pianists. Each piece reflects a different month of the year in Russia, moving the listener through the year as the pieces are played, demonstrating the changes in the seasons. While composed for a solo piano, it is played extensively by orchestras, and individual portions (the twelve sections) are played individually as encore pieces by numerous different orchestral arrangements. Each piece is also accompanied by a short poetic epitaph, though the publisher chose these instead of Tchaikovsky himself.

13. Italian Capriccio

P.Tchaikovsky. Italian Capriccio

Italian Capriccio was originally titled Italian Fantasia by Tchaikovsky and was inspired by a trip to Rome Tchaikovsky took while recuperating from a nasty divorce from Antonina Miliukova. It was originally composed in 1880 and debuted under the masterful conducting hand of Nikolay Rubinstein in Moscow. One of the coolest parts of the piece is that it incorporates elements of Italian street and folk music, which Tchaikovsky was able to enjoy on his trip since Carnival was going on at the time. The piece has an interesting progression, starting with only the string section before moving to the full orchestra playing.