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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter U

Letter U

Lying on the border between East and West, Ukraine was a nation with little say in its own destiny during Tchaikovsky's lifetime. The Western part, under Austrian rule since the partition of Poland, struggled for self-determination against several powers following the wave of uprisings in 1848 that shook the stranglehold of the Hapsburgs. The Eastern part, under Russian control, suffered more serious attempts to extinguish its ethnic identity: as part of his 'russification' policies across the Empire, Tsar Alexander II passed a law prohibiting Ukrainians from using their own language in public (1863), hoping to undermine any moves towards independence.

Orthodox Church in Kiev To Tchaikovsky, Ukraine (or 'Little Russia' as it was known) was a place of retreat where he could compose without the distractions of city life: he spent many summers there, staying from 1860 onwards with his sister Sasha Davidov in Kamenka and his friend Nikolai Kondratyev in Nizy, near Kharkov.

In the 1870s, encouraged by a new friendship with Mily Balakirev, he entered a particularly nationalist phase. Having collected folksongs in Kamenka, he turned one ('Sidel Vanya', overheard from a carpenter) into the celebrated Andante cantabile of his First String Quartet, the movement that famously moved Tolstoy to tears on first hearing. More appeared in the Second Symphony (1872), aptly nicknamed the 'Little Russian', and in the First Piano Concerto (1875). Little wonder then that in 1881 when trying to oust himself from an attack of composer's block he claimed the only thing that stirred him was the idea of an opera about Ivan Mazeppa, the Cossack hero who tried in vain to release Ukraine from the grip of Tsar Peter the Great. But in the end it proved an unsatisfactory experience and on revisiting the subject of Vakula the Smith in Gogol's version of the magical Ukrainian tale 'Christmas Eve' (it became Cherevichki, 'The Slippers'), Tchaikovsky headed in a new direction.

© Madeleine Ladell/BBC

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