Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский, ) (May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893) was a Russian composer of the Romantic era. While not part of the nationalistic music group known as "The Five", Tchaikovsky wrote music which, in the opinion of Harold Schonberg, was distinctly Russian: plangent, introspective, with modally-inflected melody and harmony.
In 1843, Tchaikovsky acquired a French governess, Fanny Dürbach. Her love and affection for her charge is said to have provided a counter to Alexandra, who is described by one biographer as a cold, unhappy, distant parent not given to displays of physical affection. However other writers claim that Alexandra doted on her son.
Tchaikovsky began piano lessons at age four with a local woman. Musically precocious, he could read music as well as his teacher within three years. However, his parents' passion for his musical talent soon cooled. Feeling inferior due to their humble origins, the family sent Tchaikovsky in 1850 to a school for the "lesser nobility" or gentry called the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg to secure him a career as a civil servant. The minimum age for acceptance was 12. For Tchaikovsky, this meant two years boarding at the School of Jurisprudence's preparatory school, from his family.
While music was not considered a high priority at the Institute, Tchaikovsky was taken to the theater and the opera with classmates regularly. He was fond of works by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Mozart. A piano manufacturer, Franz Becker, made occasional visits as a token music teacher and gave lessons. This was the only music instruction Tchaikovsky received at school. In 1855, Ilya Tchaikovsky funded private studies outside the Institute for his son with Rudolph Kündinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg. Ilya also questioned Kündinger about a musical career for his son. He replied that nothing suggested a potential composer or even a fine performer. Tchaikovsky was told to finish his course work, then try for a post in the Ministry of Justice.
Tchaikovsky graduated on May 25, 1859 with the rank of titular counselor, the lowest rung of the civil service ladder. On June 15, he was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later he became a junior assistant to his department; two months after that, a senior assistant. There Tchaikovsky remained for the rest of his three-year civil service career.
In 1861, he attended classes in music theory taught by Nikolai Zaremba through the Russian Musical Society (RMS). The following year he followed Zaremba to the new St Petersburg Conservatory. Tchaikovsky followed but did not give up his civil service post until his father agreed to support him. From 1862 to 1865, he studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Zaremba. Anton Rubinstein, director and founder of the Conservatory, taught him instrumentation and composition. Rubinstein was impressed by Tchaikovsky's talent.
Anton Rubinstein's younger brother Nikolai asked Tchaikovsky after graduation to become professor of harmony, composition, and the history of music at the Moscow Conservatory. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position as Ilya had retired and lost his property.
Since Tchaikovsky became Rubinstein's best known student, he was initially considered by association as a natural target for attack, especially as fodder for Cesar Cui's criticism. This attitude changed slightly when Rubinstein exited the St. Petersburg musical scene in 1867. Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with Balakirev. The result was Tchaikovsky's first masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, a work the kuchka wholeheartedly embraced. When Tchaikovsky wrote a positive review of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Fantasy on Serbian Themes, he was welcomed into the circle despite concerns about his academic background.
He remained friendly but never intimate with most of the Five, ambivalent about their music; their goals and aesthetics did not match his. He took pains to insure his musical independence from them as well as from the conservative faction at the Conservatory—a course of action facilitated by his accepting the professorship at the Moscow Conservatory offered to him by Nikolai Rubinstein. When Rimsky-Korsakov was offered a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory after Zaremba had left, it was Tchaikovsky to whom he turned for advice and guidance. Later, Tchaikovsky enjoyed closer relations with Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov and, at least on the surface, the older Rimsky-Korsakov.
Of undoubted significance was Tchaikovsky's ill-starred marriage to one of his former composition students, Antonina Miliukova. Tchaikovsky had decided to "marry whoever will have me" just before Antonina appeared on the scene. His favorite pupil Vladimir Shilovsky had married suddenly in late April 1877. Shilovsky's wedding may, in turn, have spurred Tchaikovsky to consider such a step himself. He may have hoped in marrying Antonina that marriage would lend him public respectability while he continued having his preferred sexual practices privately. The brief time with his wife drove him to an emotional crisis.
Paradoxically, the marriage's strain on Tchaikovsky may have actually enhanced his creativity. The Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin could be considered proof of this. He finished both these works in the six months from his engagement to his "rest cure" in Clarens, Switzerland following his marriage. They are arguably two of his finest compositions.
The intensity of personal emotion now flowing through Tchaikovsky's works was entirely new to Russian music. It prompted some Russian commentators to place his name alongside that of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Like Dostoyevsky's characters, they felt the musical hero in Tchaikovsky's music persisted in exploring the meaning of life while trapped in a fatal love-death-faith triangle. The critic Osoovski wrote of the two, "With a hidden passion they both stop at moments of horror, total spiritual collapse, and finding acute sweetness in the cold trepidation of the heart before the abyss, they both force the reader to experience those feelings, too."
Von Meck remained a fully dedicated supporter of Tchaikovsky and all his works. She also became a vital enabler in his day-to-day existence. As he explained to her,
There is something so special about our relationship that it often stops me in my tracks with amazement. I have told you more than once, I believe, that you have come to seem to me the hand of Fate itself, watching over me and protecting me. The very fact that I do not know you personally, while feeling so close to you, accords you in my eyes the special status of an unseen but benevolent presence, like a benign Providence.
Tchaikovsky and von Meck also became related by a marriage. One of her sons, Nikolay, married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova in 1884. However, after 13 years von Meck suddenly ended the relationship. She claimed bankruptcy. Tchaikovsky, now a success throughout Europe, no longer needed her money. Her friendship and encouragement were another matter. Losing that companionship devastated him.
While Tchaikovsky's reputation grew rapidly outside Russia, "it was considered obligatory [in progressive musical circles in Russia] to treat Tchaikovsky as a renegade, a master overly dependent on the West," Alexandre Benois wrote in his memoirs. In 1880, this assessment changed practically overnight. During commemoration ceremonies for the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, Dostoyevsky charged that the poet had given a prophetic call to Russia for "universal unity" with the West An unprecedented acclaim for Dostoyevsky's message spread throughout Russia. Disdain for Tchaikovsky's music dissipated. He even drew a cult following among the young intelligentsia of St. Petersburg, including Benois, Leon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev.
During 1884, Tchaikovsky began to shed his unsociability and restlessness. In 1885 Tsar Alexander III conferred upon Tchaikovsky the Order of St. Vladimir (fourth class). With it came hereditary nobility. The tsar's decoration was a visible seal of official approval that helped the composer's social rehabilitation. That year he resettled in Russia. The tsar asked personally for a new production of Eugene Onegin to be staged in St. Petersburg. The opera had previously been seen only in Moscow, produced by a student ensemble from the conservatory. He had Onegin staged not at the Mariyinsky Theater but in the Bolshoi kamennïy theater. This act served notice that Tchaikovsky's music was replacing Italian opera as the official imperial art. Thanks to Vsevolozhsky, Tchaikovsky received a lifetime pension of 3000 rubles per year from the tsar. This essentially made him the premier court composer, at least in practice if not in actual title.
1885 also saw his debut as a guest conductor. Within a year, he was in considerable demand throughout Europe and Russia in appearances which helped him overcome a life-long stage fright and boosted his self-assurance. He wrote to von Meck, "Would you now recognize in this Russian musician traveling across Europe that man who, only a few years ago, had absconded from life in society and lived in seclusion abroad or in the country!!! Conducting brought him to America in 1891. He led the New York Music Society's orchestra in his Marche Slave at the inaugural concert of New York's Carnegie Hall.
Tchaikovsky died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893, nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. His death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. However, some have theorized that his death was a suicide.
Tchaikovsky believed that his professionalism in combining skill and high standards in his musical works separated him from his contemporaries in "The Five." He shared several of their ideals, including an emphasis on national character in music. His aim, however, was linking those ideals to a standard high enough to satisfy Western European criteria. His professionalism also fueled his desire to reach a broad public, not just nationally but internationally, which he would eventually do.
He may also have been influenced by the almost "eighteenth-century" patronage prevalent in Russia at the time, still strongly influenced by its aristocracy. Tchaikovsky found no aesthetic conflict in playing to the tastes of his audiences. The patriotic themes and stylization of 18th-century melodies in his works lined up with the values of the Russian aristocracy.
Tchaikovsky sought expressive value in music that was immediately comprehensible and appreciable — in other words, what was apparent on the surface. He admired Bizet's Carmen for exactly this reason. "This music has no pretensions to profundity, but it is so charming in its simplicity, so vigorous, not contrived but instead sincere, that I learned all of it from beginning to end almost by heart." He felt the high demands of Wagner's music on its audiences conflicted with these ideals, and his objections to Brahms were similar. Tchaikovsky was however fascinated by the music of Mozart, which he felt combined simplicity with profundity.
Self-expression was not a central principle for Tchaikovsky. In a letter to von Meck dated December 5, 1878, he explained there were two kinds of inspiration for a symphonic composer, a subjective and an objective one:
In the first instance, [the composer] uses his music to express his own feelings, joys, sufferings; in short, like a lyric poet he pours out, so to speak, his own soul. In this instance, a program is not only not necessary but even impossible. But it is another matter when a musician, reading a poetic work or struck by a scene in nature, wishes to express in musical form that subject that has kindled his inspiration. Here a program is essential.... Program music can and must exist, just as it is impossible to demand that literature make do without the epic element and limit itself to lyricism alone.
This meant program music such as Francesca da Rimini or the Manfred Symphony was as much a part of the composer's artistic credo as the expression of his "lyric ego." Labeling all his works based on literary subjects as confessional music would be unwarranted. The character of Hermann in the opera The Queen of Spades has sometimes been mentioned as an expression of the composer's morbidity and suicidal tendencies. Tchaikovsky's letters and diary entries disprove this notion, showing that he did not identify with Hermann. His diary entry for March 2, 1890, when he had just completed the opera, shows a characteristic mixture of empathy and detachment. "Wept terribly when Hermann breathed his last. The result of exhaustion, or maybe it is truly good."
There is also a group of compositions which fall outside the dichotomy of program music versus "lyrical ego," where he hearkens toward pre-Romantic aesthetics. Works in this group include the orchestral suites, Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings. He displays his clearest link to pre-Romantic sensitivities in retrospective works such as the Variations on a Rococo Theme and Mozartiana, a collection of orchestrations based on Mozart piano pieces and a Liszt transcription of a Mozart work. The Violin Concerto also looks back to pre-Romantic aesthetics. While Tchaikovsky does not follow classical practice, most notably in the lack of a double exposition in the first movement, he also does not follow the conventions of other 19th-century violin concertos. It is not written as a virtuosic work for virtuosity's sake, like Paganini's concertos, nor virtuosity used to express a symphonic concept, as in the Brahms Violin Concerto. The tone of the orchestral introduction could almost be considered classicist; the same is true for the transparent orchestration, with the orchestra itself relegated for the most part to background for the soloist.
Capriccio italien, evoking Italian urban folklore, was the continuation of a tradition begun with Haydn and Mozart. The Serenade for Strings was intended as a tribute to Mozart. While not copying any style, Tchaikovsky attempts to convert the spirit of the Classical approach into his own compositional idiom. The Serenade's unique tone comes from a subtle balance between Tchaikovsky's lyrical sentimentality and his attention to classical measure and clarity.
An interpretation of Tchaikovsky's approach can be found in Hermann Laroche's contemporary review of Sleeping Beauty:
The Russian way in music ... is the issue at hand.... The point is not in the local color, in the internal structure of the music, above all in the foundation of the element of melody. This basic element is undoubtedly Russian. It may be said, without lapsing into contradiction, that the local color [in Sleeping Beauty] is French, but the style is Russian.... One may thank Pyotr Ilyich that his development has coincided with a time when the influences of the soil became stronger among us, when the Russian soul was inspired, when the word "Russian" ceases to be a synonym of "peasant-like," and when the peasant-like itself was recognized in its proper place, as but part of being Russian.
Tchaikovsky may have best summed his perception of music himself to von Meck: "It alone clarifies, reconciles, and consoles. But it is not a straw just barely clutched at. It is a faithful friend, protector, and comforter, and for its sake alone, life in this world is worth living."
Nonetheless he frequently adapted Russian traditional melodies and dance forms in his music, which enhanced his success in his home country. The success in St. Petersburg at the premiere of his Third Orchestral Suite may have been due in large part to his concluding the work with a polonaise. He also used a polonaise for the final movement of his Third Symphony.
Tchaikovsky used a Russian folk song in the finale of the First Symphony and a Ukrainian folk song in the finale of the Second. In both cases, as with the Third, this had undertones of glorifying the Russian empire and the victories of Russian arms. Even the finales of the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies could be argued to be in imperial nationalistic vein, as patriotic and heroic appeals; the Fourth by repeating the opening motto at a climactic point and the Fifth with a version of the opening melody of the introduction transposed to a major key—both.
Tchaikovsky made full use of the emotional and symbolic possibilities of the Russian anthem "God Save the Tsar" in several commemorative works, including two of his most popular compositions, the Marche Slave and the 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky wrote Marche Slave in support of Pan-Slavism. This was one of the most cherished ideas of imperial Russia. When Serbia rebelled against Turkish rule in 1876, they elicited great support in Russia. Performances of the Marche Slave, with its Serbian folk melodies provoked outbursts of patriotism. The 1812 Overture likewise glorified the greatest military and political victory of the Romanov dynasty, in the Patriotic War against Napoleon.
... a cardinal flaw in the Russian character: inertia. It is a flaw that has conditioned every sector of the nation's life. It has dogged its history, which has tended to unfold as long periods of stasis, followed by short, sometimes very violent periods of activity when the state has been convulsed into progress....
Inertia of a kind is also intrinsic to Russian creativity. In literature it produces the novel that proceeds as a succession of self-contained sections, even set-piece scenes....Indeed, such tableau organization is fundamental to the most Russian of operatic scenarios.... [T]he most characteristic Russian scenario is like a strip cartoon, each scene presenting a crucial incident or stage in the plot, leaving the spectator to supply in his imagination what has happened in the gaps between these incidents....
Using a series of self-contained sections is also at the heart of the most characteristic structures of Russian composers—one that would occur as a natural fall-back, since many Russian folk songs are actually a series of variations on one basic shape or pattern of a few notes. Constant repetition of this pattern means the song remains essentially static; noting truly moves forward or progresses as in Western music. This static quality is at the heart of Russian creativity, whereas Western practice would have two contrasting themes interacting like a conversation or an argument—discussing, agreeing and disagreeing, but always building toward an inevitable and hopefully persuasive conclusion.
Nor was Tchaikovsky the only composer at the time who faced this problem. Dramatic turns of phrase, highly colored melodies and "atmospheric" harmony—all things the Romantics loved—were primarily opposed to the nature of the symphony. Because of this challenge, many composers turned their interest toward the symphonic poem, where large-scale orchestral writing could be combined with the strong emotions and brilliant color of Romanticism. . With a new range of emotions meeting the old classical symphony, the symphony's whole nature was changed and widened. However, the same principles do not apply to both genres. A symphonic poem is not simply a bad symphony.
To Tchaikovsky, the only difference between a symphony and a symphonic poem lay in the vagueness of the program underlying the one and the explicitly literary programme of the other. More revealing is Tchaikovsky's description of the symphony as "the most purely lyrical of forms." "Lyrical," could be that emotion or mood which can be expressed only on music—the spontaneous expression in sound of those fears, longings and desires both too vague and too violently definite for expression in words. Whether that lyrical expression could be expressed naturally in sonata form is not implausible. This would only be true, he counters, if that form is so natural to a composer, both by instinct and habit, to become second nature, and Tchaikovsky was never that kind of composer. Instead, Tchaikovsky learned to adapt the form to fit the music he wished to pour into it. He described his method, regarding the Fourth Symphony, to von Meck:
You ask if I keep to established forms. Yes and no. There are certain kinds of compositions which imply the use of familiar forms, for example symphony. Here I keep in general outline to the usual traditional forms, but only in general outline, i.e. the sequence of the work's movements. The details can be treated very freely, if this is demanded by the development of the ideas. For instance, in our symphony the first movement is written with very marked digressions. The second subject, which should be in the relative major, is minor and remote. In the recapitulation of the main part of the movement the second subject does not appear at all, etc. The finale, too, is made up of a whole row of derivations from individual forms....
Tchaikovsky had already written three well-crafted but comparatively minor symphonies in which his concern for good form conflicted with his ability to express himself. This was a challenge he may or may not have recognized but was definitely not equipped or ready to meet. When he discovered a method to put his emotional life to work in large-scale abstract structures, Tchaikovsky was able to match his temperament fully to his talent. By doing so, he successfully enlarged the scope of his talent to its fullest potential.
In each of his symphonies except the First, he begins with a slow introduction , setting the atmosphere for the mood of the listener instead of alerting him that a piece of musical action is going to take place. The ensuing sonata movement follows basically the same pattern. A first subject or melody is introduced. This subject cannot be developed readily, so it is repeated with new orchestration and changes in emotional emphasis taking the place for musical development. A second, more lyrical subject follows and is similarly extended. After a second long transition, both melodies are recapitulated and the movement ends with a coda.
What has taken place in this movement has been an ingenious episodic treatment of two contrasting melodies. Because these melodies are self-sufficient in themselves, they do not act upon each other in an organic, evolutionary progress. Instead, they impose a comparatively mechanical role upon those passages where the substance of a symphonic movement should properly reside.
To keep this mechanism going, and to give the impression that something is actually happening, Tchaikovsky falls back on a number of musical devices mainly for the sake of generating listener expectation for the next entry of a melody. He employs ostinato figures, dramatic pedal points, sequences to fuel anticipation. The melody being re-introduced must therefore live up to this expectation being created. It must be more sensationally scored, perhaps made more intense by a passionately throbbing accompaniment figure or anguished fluctuations of tempo from bar to bar.
If Tchaikovsky's symphonies were be judged on strictly academic terms, they might be considered fine music but poor symphonies. However, if they were to be judged as a hybrid species of symphony and symphonic poem, they could be considered completely successful.
Public Domain Sheet Music: