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Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich (1840-93)

The memorable melodies, strong colors and uninhibited emotionalism of Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky have long made him one of the most widely popular of all composers. These same qualities have also perhaps made it harder for some critics and professionals to fully appreciate Tchaikovsky's originality and accomplishments. In these biographical essays it has been noted how the opera is at the core of Mozart and the lied is central to Schubert. With Tchaikovsky, his essence is in many ways the idealized fairy tale world of the classic ballet, and this colorful and dramatic spirit pervades much of his music, including the great symphonies.

Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky was born to a middle class family in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840. Like Schumann, a composer who had a strong influence on him, Tchaikovsky dutifully studied law before following his true calling by entering the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied from 1863 to 1865. Among his teachers was Anton Rubinstein with whom he studied composition. In 1866 he went to Moscow to become the professor of harmony at the new conservatory headed by Nicholas Rubinstein (Anton's brother). In his first two years, he wrote his first symphony (Winter Daydreams) and first opera (Voyevod).

At the conservatory, Tchaikovsky became acquainted with the group of Russian composers headed by Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakierev whose nationalist passions inspired his second symphony (Little Russian). Tchaikovsky was later rejected by this group for being too conservatory trained, cosmopolitan and not sufficiently Russian. In fact, Tchaikovsky's music, while ultimately deeply Russian, is also imbued with his love of Mozart and other western European influences, particularly the French music of Bizet and Saint-Saëns. But as Stravinsky wrote, "Tchaikovsky's music, which does not appear specifically Russian to everybody, is more often profoundly Russian than music which has long since been awarded the facile label of Muscovite picturesqueness. This music is quite as Russian as Pushkin's verse or Glinka's song... Tchaikovsky drew unconsciously from the the true, popular sources of our race."

From 1869 to 1876, Tchaikovsky wrote three more operas, and the Piano Concerto No. 1 in Bb- (1st movement). He was also the music critic of "Russikye vedomosti," and this took him to the first Bayreuth festival in 1876, although Wagner's music meant nothing to him. Nor did Brahms' for that matter. "It angers me that that presumptuous mediocrity is recognized as a genius." Regarding Beethoven, "I acknowledge the greatness of some of his works, but I do not love him." Mozart however, was "a musical Christ." Meanwhile the piano concerto was premiered by Van Bulow in Boston after being rejected with scathing criticism by Nicholas Rubinstein. The reviews called it an "extremely difficult, strange wild, ultra-Russian concerto", and asked, "Could we ever learn to love such music?"

In 1877, Tchaikovsky made the disastrous mistake of marrying one of his pupils, Antonina Ivanova Miliukova. Tchaikovsky was a hyperemotional, unhappy and secretive homosexual hoping that a respectable marriage with a hero worshipping student would be a workable solution to his plight. Unfortunately he chose a woman who was not only not bright, but a nymphomaniac as well. The marriage lasted nine weeks culminating in Tchaikovsky attempting suicide by jumping in a river to give himself pneumonia (again reminiscent of Schumann). His brother Modest, also homosexual, saved him and took him back to St Petersburg where Tchaikovsky suffered a complete nervous breakdown.

About this time Tchaikovsky started a relationship with a wealthy widow, Nadejda von Meck, who became his patron for the next fourteen years. She was forty-six and the mother of seven. She offered to subsidize Tchaikovsky with the proviso that they never meet. During their voluminous correspondence she wrote, "...I fear your acquaintanceship. I prefer to think of you from afar, to hear you speak in your music and share your feelings through it." This of course was a perfect situation for the morbidly shy composer who wrote back, "You are afraid you will fail to find in my personality all those qualities with which your idealizing imagination has endowed me. And in that you are quite right." When they once met face to face at a concert, not a word was spoken as they turned away in embarrassment.

This unusual relationship along with increasing commissions allowed Tchaikovsky to resign from teaching and to live a comfortable life, replete with various country homes. His elegant lifestyle did not relieve him of his emotional problems however, and he continued to suffer from headaches, was often overcome with weeping, and drank too much. In his diary he wrote, "It is said that to abuse one's self with alcohol is harmful. I readily agree to that. But nevertheless I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the alcoholic poison."

When Nadja terminated their relationship suddenly in 1890 because of her own fears about going bankrupt, Tchaikovsky was devastated. She refused to answer his letters and consequently all his faith in humankind "have been overturned." Unknown to Tchaikovsky, Nadja was suffering from her own bout of mental instability. Tchaikovsky left for New York in 1891 to share in the opening ceremonies for Carnegie Hall. America fascinated him, but he wrote, "I enjoy all this like a person sitting at a table set with marvels of gastronomy, devoid of appetite." In 1892, he heard Mahler conduct his Pushkin opera, "Eugene Onegin" (Entr'acte and Waltz, Polonaise) in Hamburg.

Back in Russia, Tchaikovsky wrote the beloved Nutcracker Suite (1.Miniature Overture, 2.March, 3.Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, 4.Trepak, 5.Arab Dance, 6.Danse Chinoise, 8.Waltz of the flowers), completed in 1892, and began work on his programmatic Sixth Symphony, ultimately called the "Pathétique" (3.Allegro molto vivace), into which he "put his soul." Within a week after the premiere in St. Petersburg in 1893, he was dead, supposedly from cholera contracted from drinking unboiled water, perhaps intentionally. There is also some credence given to the theory that he may have been poisoned to prevent revelation of a homosexual scandal involving the aristocracy.

The emotional temperature in Tchaikovsky's music is high and in theforeground, but unlike some of his Russian contemporaries, he struggled very consciously to find lucid forms for his thoughts. The final three symphonies (Symphony No.4: 4th movement; Symphony No.5: 3rd movement) are the ultimate success of this search, culminating in the brilliant and unorthodox solution of ending the sixth symphony with an extended slow movement that releases and extinguishes all the energies of the brilliant preceding march movement.

Tchaikovsky, along with Brahms, is probably the most performed of the late 19th century composers. In addition to the symphonies and orchestral favorites such as the various concertos for piano, violin (Violin Concerto: 1st Movement) , and cello (the Rococo Variations), there are also "Romeo and Juliet" (Overture), the "1812 Overture," and "Capriccio Italien."

"Eugene Onegin" and the "Queen of Spades" are regularly performed at opera houses, and the "Sleeping Beauty" (Waltz) , "Swan Lake" (2.Waltz; 3.Dance of the four little swans), and "Nutcracker" ballets are universally part of the culture. Beautiful but less well known, are the three string quartets (Quartet No.1: 2nd movement), the Serenade for Strings (4th Movement), the Ami Piano Trio, works for solo piano, and many fine songs.

  1. Album for the Young Op.39
  2. Eighteen Pieces Op.72
  3. Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a
  4. Six Pieces Op.19
  5. The Seasons - Op.37b
Jan 5, 2016
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