Classical Music Inspired by Winter: Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky has some beautiful winter music

It’s almost December! I hope you are all enjoying this season of love, family, and twinkling lights. 🙂

I personally love the cold weather – especially the snow and the music! And because Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” is a winter classic, that got me thinking. Has he written any other music inspired by winter? The answer is yes! So in honor of December (and everyone’s love for his famous ballet), grab a blanket and some hot chocolate as we listen to Tchaikovsky’s music inspired by winter.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Winter Music

A brief background: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1840-1893, was one of the most influential Russian composers of the 19th century. He pushed boundaries, experimented with new ideas, and paved the way for 20th century composers to try new things. Read more about him here.

Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”)

Nicknamed “Winter Daydreams”, Tchaikovsky wrote Symphony No. 1 in G minor just after the Moscow Conservatory hired him to teach music in 1866 (he was 26 years old at the time). Strangely, this symphony gave him a lot of grief  – he worked day and night to complete it, and in a letter to his brother he wrote, “My nerves are again as upset as they could be. This is for the following reasons: 1) my lack of success in composing the symphony; 2) [Fellow composers] Rubinstein and Tarnovsky who, noticing that I’m edgy, spend all day frightening me by the most varied means; 3) the ever-present thought that I shall soon die and won’t even complete the symphony successfully.” Basically his music teachers didn’t like the progressive style and his peers . . . . also didn’t like his progressive style, and that was hard for him.

The work was first performed in 1868 and, believe it or not, had an unsuccessful debut. Tchaikovsky spent the next several years revising it, and the freshly completed “Winter Daydreams” was premiered in 1883.

A Breakdown of “Winter Daydreams”

Symphony No. 1 is made of four movements. The first, “Dreams of a Winter Journey”, opens as the flute and bassoon introduce the main theme over soft strings. Can’t you feel the crisp air and sense the cold snow?

The second slow movement, “Land of Desolation, Land of Mists”, is folk-like and wistful, based on subtle variations on a single theme.

The third movement was actually the first of the movements to be written – Tchaikovsky salvaged it from an earlier piano sonata.

The last movement incorporates an invigorating folk theme into intricate orchestrations that vary from a slow introduction to a march-like climax.

Read more about this symphony here.

The Nutcracker Op. 71

Honestly this is probably Tchaikovsky’s most famous – or at least recognizable – work. However, like his first symphony, the original premiere of the ballet was not a box office success. It wasn’t until Tchaikovsky turned the ballet into an orchestral suite that people started paying attention. It garnered traction throughout the first half of the 1900s, and by the 1960s “The Nutcracker” was a Christmas staple (thanks to choreographer George Balanchine, who put on the ballet in 1955).

Ivan Vsevolozhsky's original costume sketch for The Nutcracker (1892)
Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s original costume sketch for The Nutcracker (1892)

Fun fact: Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to use the celesta in his music. This bell-sounding keyboard provides the sugar plumb fairy with her distinct, airy sound.

Sadly, Tchaikovsky didn’t actually like “The Nutcracker”. He thought the story was weak and his music was horrible. However, many have come to love and respect “The Nutcracker”, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without it. 🙂

Interested in the ballet’s storyline? Read here.

“November” and “December” from The Seasons

The next two winter-inspired pieces come from a piano cycle Tchaikovsky called The Seasons. Subtitled “12 Characteristic Scenes”, each movement portrays a month of the year.

November: Troika

“November: On the Troika” is one of the more well-known movements – its cheery, folk-like atmosphere describes a ride in a type of Russian horse-drawn sleigh (called a troika).

Each movement of The Seasons was inscribed with a poem in the first edition. Here’s the one for “November”:

In your loneliness do not look at the road,

and do not rush out after the troika.

Suppress at once and forever the fear of longing in your heart.

December: Noël

“December: Noël” is also quite cheerful. Written like a waltz, this piece is full of warmth and laughter. The poem that was inscribed with “December” paints that image:

Once upon a Christmas night

The girls were telling fortunes:

Taking their slippers off their feet

And throwing them out of the gate.

You can read more about this piano cycle here.

Well, there you go! Some of Tchaikovsky’s pieces inspired by winter. What are your go-to winter pieces? Let me know in the comments!

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I'm a pianist, composer, writer, photographer, and overall classical-music-lover who is always open to new sounds.

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