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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofiev: Literature Connection Essay

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Updated: Oct 27th, 2021

Music and literature are among the aspects of the society that have had an invaluable contribution from educating to entertaining. Several works of art in literature and music have left behind an unforgettable memory due to their emotional aspects. Works like Romeo and Juliet, have withstood the test of time since the time of their composition centuries ago. Also, Christmas carols like silent night and others have sailed through years of new compositions and changes of lifestyles and song styles without being put into oblivion. This is because of the mastery that used during their composition. The composers used mature themes and writing skills. Among the most popular artists who have caused ripples in the field of art are William Shakespeare in literature, Alexander Pushkin in literature, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in classical music and Sergei Prokofiev in music (Leighton, 1997).

A close analysis of their works reveals a close relationship. This is as a result of their themes. With both literature and music playing a role in the reflection of the state of the society morally, politically or socially, the two genres of art thus stand a high chance of relating to one another. To show this relationship, a comparative analysis of the works of several artists and writers can be done. This will show how two or more works majored on a common theme or how two or more artists had a similar approach to given situation of the society (Leighton, 1997).

For the lovers of classical music, the name Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky can be termed as a house hold name. His contribution in the world of classical music cannot be valued. Born in Votkinsk to Ilya Petrovich and Alexandra, Tchaikovsky was brother to Ilyich Tchaikovsky who was a librettist, dramatist and translator. At age four, Tchaikovsky started music lessons wit h a certain woman. After a period of three years, he could read music as well as her teacher. Later, Tchaikovsky was moved to a lesser school in St. Petersburg called School of Jurisprudence to study and attain a career as a civil servant. Having great love for music, Tchaikovsky later continued with private music lessons which enabled him to become a music tutor. His works received criticism from Russian audiences as being too much Western. Despite this, he had large followership in the United States and Britain. Eventually, his works started being appreciated the world over with most musicians and composers accrediting him for his ingenious melody and surcharged emotions. This could only be attributed to a real craftsman. Tchaikovsky’s works were varied. Not only did he write and perform ballets, but he also completed 10 operas and several symphonies. In addition to this, Tchaikovsky has to his name four orchestral suites and a number of concerti and concert pieces. These are among the works that Tchaikovsky contributed in the world of music (Mazeppa 2009)..

Another musician of repute from Russia is Sergei sergeyevich Prokofiev. Born in Sontsovka in the former Republic of Soviet Union which is currently Ukraine on 23 April, 1891, Sergei was brought up by well-educated parents. His father was an engineer while his mother was also an educated woman who had a musical sense combined with commendable piano playing skills. With a music loving mother, Prokofiev grew up in musical environment with his mother teaching him how to play the piano. Including his piano lessons, he grew up to become one of the strongest names in the world of classical music. His works were highly accepted including those works he did during the bad times of the Soviet Union’s History. Even the new Government highly welcome his works after the revolution. In the 1917, the Bolshevik takeover brought many changes to the music industry of the Soviet Union. No musician was allowed to perform without having permission from the authority. This led to many of the musicians fleeing Russia and continue with their careers in Europe. This marked Prokofiev’s beginning of the journeys abroad (Prokofiev’s Page, 2005).

Romeo and Juliet is one of the most known works by William Shakespeare. It is vastly known for its tragic end. In the world of literature, the book has been noted as one of the greatest works of all times. Several literary reviews have been done on the same book. In addition, films have also been made based on the same book. From this book, we can get the connection between music and literature. Both Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky had works related to Romeo and Juliet (Nordlinger, 2006).

While a professor at Moscow conservatory in 1861, Tchaikovsky received an invitation from Balakirev to write a musical piece based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky then wrote a sonata to fit Balakirev’s specifications. He chose on a sonata due to its dramatic potential. In his work, Tchaikovsky brings out the theme of love and tragedy as expressed by William Shakespeare’s original work. In the first edition which is rejected by Balakirev, the main theme of love is so well brought out that it impresses Balakirev himself. The only problem is the unco-ordinating structure. This forces Tchaikovsky to redo his sonata in more brilliant way. In this new structure, Tchaikovsky dwells heavily on the conflict of Capulets and Montagues. This conflict is what builds the foundation for the love that builds later. In the end, it is the same conflict that leads to the tragic end of the story and of the sonata. Just like the book Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky’s work reaches the climax by the tragic catastrophe. This work received great appreciation from other composers like Rubinstein. The structure of the symphonic poem is based on the introduction then the epilogue. The choice of keys and the cords in the first part are aimed at bringing out the conflicts that arise in the story Romeo and Juliet. Later, the violent rhythm then slows down to introduce the theme of love and eventually the tragedy that follows (Mazeppa, 2009).

Prokofiev also does a ballet based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. On December 30, 1938, Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet premiered in Czechoslovakia. This was followed by several premiers for other cities like New York, and Leningrad. The ballet included three acts and the epilogue. In each act, the instrumentation and theme was made to go in accord to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It included scenes of the original work. The ballet was arranged as follows. The first act included the following scenes: introduction, Romeo, the street awakens, morning dance, the quarrel, the fight, the prince gives his order and finally the interlude. The second scene of the first act included the preparation for the ball, Juliet as a young girl, arrival of the guests, Masks, dance of the knights, Juliet’s variations, Mercutio, Madrigal, Tybal recognizes Romeo, the guests departure, the balcony scene, Romeo’s variation then the love dance. This leads to act II where the first scene contained scenes like the folk dance, Romeo and Mercutio, dance of the five couples, dance with the mandolins, the nurse, the nurse gives Romeo the note from Juliet. Scene two of the second act includes Romeo with Friar and then Juliet with Friar Laurence. This leads to the third scene in the same act. The scenes contained here include people continuing to make merry, Tybal meets Mercutio, Tybal and Mercutio fight, Mercutio dies, and Romeo decides to revenge mercutio’s death then the finale. This leads straight to act III. This scene starts with the introduction then goes through to Romeo and Juliet’s bedroom then Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris and ends wit h Juliet’s bedside. This leads to the final part which is the epilogue that brings out Romeo’s funeral and the death of Juliet (Prokofiev’s Pages 2005).

Alexander Pushkin is another poet whose work has been redone by Tchaikovsky. In his 18th century poem Poltava, Pushkin brings out an intriguing plot which combines both romance and a strong political desire. Based on a true historic figure, Poltava rotates around the life of Mazeppa who wanted to be the ruler of an independent Ukraine. Driven by his desires to rule, Mazeppa allies with a Swedish King and thus joins his battalion in one of his camps during the great Northern War. To his disdain, the Swedish army is defeated by the Russian army and are forced to flee. Mazeppa’s political adventure is intermingled with his romance with Maria a daughter of one of his friends. Trouble begins when their marriage is opposed by the church and the parents of Maria. As a result, the two decide to elope. This infuriates his friend Kochubey who is Maria’s father and he decides to reveal the secrets of Mazeppa to the Tsar. Unbelieving Kochubey, the Tsar turns him to Mazeppa who sentences him to death. This results to Maria’s going insane. The poem then ends with the narrator relating the story to the war of Poltava that occurred 100 years later (Debreczeny, 1997).

Between 1881 and 1883, Tchaikovsky composed an opera that was directly based on the story of Poltava. Obsessed by the tragic ending of the love story between Mazeppa and Maria, Tchaikovsky composed four numbers which he incorporated with some materials from the symphony Romeo and Juliet. They Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow was the first to premiere the opera. It was the 1884. Although it was marred by poor performance, it was received warmly and the criticism was somehow kind. The opera opens with Maria who is represented as a dove declining an invitation her friends to go out and have fun. This is solely because she has to be home as her parents are entertaining a mister Mazeppa whom she confesses to be deeply in love. The second scene is opens with the two men discussing and then Mazeppa asks Maria’s father for her hand in marriage. This infuriates him almost causing a war between them. Maria’s intervention cools down the impeding war. Later, Maria is forced to choose between the two and she goes for Mazeppa. They then elope. The second act brings out scenes where truth is overpowered by lies. When Kachubey reveals Mazeppa’s plan to betray Russia, the tsar does not believe him and thus condemns him to death and sends him to the chambers beneath the castle. Maria doubting his love for her demands to know why he acted differently towards her. He puts her into a tight position of choosing between her family and him and she says she would do any thing for him. Later, her mother comes in and reveals the truth of the situation. This sends her insane. The last scene portrays the Mazeppa as a failure who has been defeated by the Russian army in his collaboration with the Swedish King. He comes in Kachubey’s garden and has a terrible fight with Andrey whom he later wounds with a pistol. When Maria wonders into the garden, he tries to woe her back to him but fails as she is unable to recognize her. He is forced to run away from the approaching army, leaving Maria behind (Mazeppa, 2009).

Tchaikovsky’s mixture of sweet and dull sounds is used in the bringing out the different theme in the story line. In addition, he uses choral singing to strengthen the opera’s performance. In addition, the use of Great Russian dancers is a great contribution to the opera Mazeppa, 2009).

In Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin brings out the theme of the relationship between art and real life. He shows how art can influence and form a person’s life. To bring out this theme, Pushkin writes about one Eugene Onegin who after being bored with life retires to a mansion in the countryside which he inherits from his uncle. While there, he becomes a friend to Vladmir Lensky who later invites him to a party at his fiancée Olga’s. While there, Onegin meets Olga’s younger sister Tanya who happens to fall in love with Onegin. She later writes a later to express her love to him. He rejects the offer. When Lensky tricks him back to his fiancée’s place, Onegin deliberately infuriates him by dancing with Olga. When later Lensky organizes a duel between the two, Onegin kills him and is forced to flee. Time goes by and Tanya grows up into a mature beautiful lady. Onegin meets her in St. Petersburg and tries to win back her affection but he fails as Tanya is then married (Burton, 2008).

Tchaikovsky on his part brings out the story of Onegin in a creatively written opera which brings to real life the theme of Pushkin’s work. Majoring its performance on Tanya’s heart, Tchaikovsky creates an atmosphere of intimacy by using appropriate performances of sound and words. The opera which is set in three acts sustains the mood of romance created from the beginning. Tchaikovsky uses delicate and gentle melodies with a beautiful background melody to sustain the romantic atmosphere (Burton, 2008).

Prokofiev also staged a performance based on the same work by Pushkin. Under the directorship of Alexander Tirov the director of Kamerny theater of Moscow, the poem was to be narrated as the narration combined with Prokofiev’s compositions. The poem contained 44 musical numbers. The performance was later banned by the Committee of Arts citing that it violated Pushkin’s work. This was as a result of the alterations done in several sections. Several scenes had been restructured with other sentences being restructured (Prokofiev’s Pages, 2005).

Pushkin’s short story the Queen of Spades is another work of art which both Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky base on as they create their works. In the story, Herman who served in the army and doubled up as a card player is so impressed by the story he hears about an old countess winning the previous year using a secret three consecutive winning cards. He therefore uses all his means to gain entrance to the house of the old countess. He tries to persuade her to give him the secret but she claims the story was not true. His desire to get the secret burning in him, he decides to move from begging to threatening. Frightened by his threats, the old countess dies. During her funeral, Herman goes to view her body and in the process, the old lady in the coffin opens her eyes and looks at him. He is frightened and runs away. At night, the ghost of the old lady haunts Herman but eventually tells him the secret. It also instructs him to marry Liza, the old countess’ ward. During the card game, Herman takes all his wealth and puts it in the game. The first two cards are correct but a mistake in the final card makes him lose all he had (Lauren, 1997).

In 1889, Tchaikovsky accepted to prepare an opera that marched the plot of queen of spades. He prepared the opera and in 44 days in Florence. In his opera performance, he made a number of changes including composing lines for Lisa, Yeletsky, and also in the chorus. Herman’s part in the opera contained performance (singing) in all the scenes. The part was played by Nikolay Figner.

The works mentioned above are among the many instances where Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev have had contact with literature. Apart from preparing operas and ballets matching a given plot of literature, their compositions were also incorporated in the field of film and provided music sound tracks for certain movies. It is also evident that some of their works were received in a very cold way. This leads us to asking ourselves, what determines the audience’s response to a work of art? Paul Debreczeny gives us an insight on how to answer this question. In his analysis, he divides the process of response into three. First of all, he bases on the writer as the engineer of human souls. These means that from the works read, a reader stands a high chance of being influenced and forming a new personality. A good example is brought out by Pushkin in his short story Onegin. We find that when Tanya goes to Onegin’s house, he finds several literary works and notes and immediately understands that Onegin was not self. His nature had been shaped by literature (Mazeppa, 2009).

Debreczeny goes ahead to explain the determinants of an aesthetic response. He explains the importance of social environment in the formation of response. The elements of social environment include social groups and how they earn their living. The second element is how the people measure popularity. Thirdly, the general culture of the people influences their aesthetic response to a work of art and finally, the literary Elites. Through analysis from his research, Debreczeny is able to show that through the different perceptions of people (selective perception) the appreciation of Pushkin’s work varied diversely. Among the causes of the differences was the individual perception and the public perception. There are those who appreciated and loved his works. In his memoirs, there are those experiences that people confessed of the effect of Pushkin’s work in their lives. There are those who confessed that Pushkin’s poems helped them form a personality, others confessed that during times of stress, Pushkin’s work gave them cathartic relief. It was a form of outlet for emotions. Tsvetaeva is one of the writers who formed a personality through the influence of Pushkin’s work. Being a dual process, the individual part is purely psychological while the public part is the general or collective view. Pushkin’s works started to gain more readership after more and more of his poems were included in text books and in anthologies. This happened as Pushkin’s name started being edified in different journals. This created a desire for readership of his works. Consequently, several intellectuals were pulled into reading more and more of his work. This led to more and more mentions of Pushkin and thus appreciation (Debreczeny, 1997).

In conclusion, the edification of Pushkin by people like Gogol led to more and more readership. This is why several writers and composers were pulled to compose works based on his poems. Providing a bourgeoisie setting, the attraction to these poems was to be inevitable as the general culture of the people is one of the elements that determines an aesthetic response. Secondly, the way people measure popularity is another determinant of aesthetic response. In Pushkin’s case, the fact that journals and anthologies continued to edify Pushkin gave him an edge. Finally, the psychological state of an individual affected his aesthetic response to a work of art as demonstrated by Tchaikovsky’s compositions based on Romeo and Juliet and the story of Mazeppa which reflected his own troubled love life.


  1. Fisher, Burton. Opera journeys. Updated 2008. Web.
  2. Leighton, Lauren. Canadian Slovanic Papers. The Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. 1997.
  3. Nordlinger, Jay. New York Chronicle. The new criterion. 2006.
  4. Paul Debreczeny. The Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. 282 PP.
  5. The free dictionary encyclopedia. (opera).updated 2009. Web.
  6. The Prokofiev’s Page. Biography. Updated 2005.
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