Tchaikovsky was a leading Russian composer of the late 19th century, whose works are notable for their melodic inspiration and their orchestration. He is regarded as the master composer for classical ballet, as demonstrated by his scores for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty. Among the most subjective of composers, Tchaikovsky is inseparable from his music. His work is a manifestation, sometimes charming, often showy, of repressed feelings that became more and more despairing in later years and were most fully expressed in his Sixth Symphony, one of the greatest symphonic works of its time. Though his later work rejected conscious Russian nationalism, its underlying sentiment and character are as distinctively Russian as that of the Russian nationalist composers. His success in bridging the gulf between the musician and the general public partly accounts for the position he enjoys in Russia, as well as throughout the world of music.
No composer since Tchaikovsky has suffered more from changes of fashion or from the extremes of over- and under-valuation. He achieved an enormous popularity with a wide audience, largely through his more emotional works; but the almost hypnotic effect that he was able to induce led to serious questioning of his true musical quality. He is certainly the greatest master of the classical ballet. His last three symphonies are deservedly famous, and to these should be added the neglected Manfred Symphony, the First Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. Notable among his other orchestral works are the early Romeo and Juliet Overture and the exquisite Serenade for Strings. Of the operas,Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece and The Queen of Spades dramatically effective. His chamber music includes string quartets, solo piano music and many fine songs.
Early life and education
Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, a small industrial town east of Moscow. His father was superintendent of government-owned mines, and his mother Alexandra was half French. Tchaikovsky was musically precocious, but his interest was not actively encouraged because his parents felt it had an unhealthy effect on an already neurotically excitable child. One night after a party, Alexandra found him awake, pointing to his forehead, and crying, “Oh this music, this music! Take it away! It’s here and it won’t let me sleep!” Pyotr’s father played a great variety of music on his orchestrion, a rudimentary form of a record player. After hearing tunes from the opera Don Giovanni, Pyotr became a lifelong admirer of Mozart. His childhood piano teacher was Maria Palchikova, a freed serf, and within a year he was able to play better than she could. When his father moved to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg, the boy entered the School of Jurisprudence in 1850 and quickly passed through the school’s upper divisions. When he was 14 years old, Tchaikovsky’ mother died of cholera. Though his musical training was informal, the boy composed a waltz for piano in her memory.
After graduation, Tchaikovsky entered the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg as civil servant, a class of workers that represented petty officialdom and oppression to ordinary Russians. Tchaikovsky was not naturally suited to such a job but he remained at the Ministry of Justice for four years, bored but dutiful. He continued playing the piano and going to concerts. He joined the Ministry’s own choral group, and in 1861, he began to study musical theory under Nikolai Zaremba, the Head of the Russian Musical Society
The pianist and composer Anton Rubenstein, who became the first director of the new St. Petersburg Music Conservatory, was the first to see real signs of talent in Tchaikovsky. When he failed to get a promotion at the Ministry, Tchaikovsky resigned and entered the St. Petersburg Music Conservatory at the age of twenty-two. He supported himself by teaching music, learned to play organ and flute, and joined the Conservatory orchestra. Tchaikovsky’s first orchestral score (1864), an overture based on Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s melancholy play The Storm, is remarkable in that it shows many of the stylistic features that would later be associated with his music. Rubenstein, whose tastes were formed by earlier styles, was critical of the work; he had expected Tchaikovsky’s composition to be dark and dreary, Tchaikovsky instead created a colorful, dramatic piece of “program music,” including unusual instruments such as the harp, oboe, and tuba. Rubenstein was also critical of Tchaikovsky’s graduation exercise, a cantata representing Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The cantata was performed January 12, 1866, in the presence of a distinguished audience – but Tchaikovsky was too nervous to attend. Rubenstein threatened to withhold Tchaikovsky’s diploma, but nobody could deny Pyotr’s outstanding talent. In late 1865, Rubenstein’s brother Nikolai, director of the newly established Moscow Conservatory offered Tchaikovsky a post as professor of harmony, five years of lodging and monetary support to Tchaikovsky.
Tchaikovsky settled in Moscow in January 1866, although he underwent a mental crisis as a consequence of overwork on his Symphony No. 1 in G minor (Winter Daydreams), Opus 13 (1866). His compositions of the late 1860s and early ’70s reveal a distinct affinity with the music of the nationalist group of composers in St. Petersburg, both in their treatment of folk song and in their harmonies deriving from a common link with Mikhail Glinka, the “father” of a Russian nationalist style. He corresponded with the leader of the group, Mily Balakirev, at whose suggestion he wrote a fantasy overture, Romeo and Juliet (1869). Tchaikovsky’s intrinsic charm is nowhere more apparent than in the nationalist comic opera Valkula the Smith (1874; first performed 1876), which in its revised form, Cherevicki (The Little Shoes), is of similar merit to another opera, Sorochintsy Fair (also based on one of Nikolay Gogol’s Ukrainian tales), by the most original composer in the Petersburg group, Modest Mussorgsky. Tchaikovsky’s opera, however, is much closer to Balakirev’s own folkloric idiom than anything Mussorgsky wrote.
After a fleeting, but unsuccessful, love affair with Désirée Artôt, the prima donna of a visiting Italian opera company, he had only one further romantic relationship with a woman. In the mid-1870s he had another nervous breakdown. One of the symptoms of this nadir in his life was almost hysterical activity in composition culminating in the Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Opus 36 (1877), and the opera Eugene Onegin (1877-78), based on a poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. He felt in such sympathy with Pushkin’s heroine, Tatyana, that when a former music student, Antonina Milyukova, became infatuated with Tchaikovsky, threatening suicide should he reject her, he identified her in his mind with the cruelly spurned Tatyana and consented to marry her.
Late in 1876, Tchaikovsky had begun an extraordinary correspondence with an admirer of his compositions, the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. She created an annuity sufficient to allow Tchaikovsky to devote himself entirely to composition. By her wish, the two never met. Their intimate correspondence was more revealing of her than of Tchaikovsky. Wishing always to be liked, he was apt to write what he thought people wanted to read rather than what he really thought. The detailed program of his Fourth Symphony, which he made up especially for her, is generally regarded with circumspection. He later averred that replying to her frequently effusive letters had become “irksome.” All the same, this curious relationship apparently fulfilled a deeply felt psychological need for both, particularly for Tchaikovsky, whose wife, proving importunate even after a separation had been arranged, had to be bought off.
Tchaikovsky’s attempts to justify to himself her generous annuity caused him to overwork during the next few years. He composed the Piano Sonata in G major, Opus 37 (1878), the orchestral Suite No. 1 in D minor, Opus 43 (1878-79), music for the coronation of his patron the Emperor Alexander III, and the first of his mature attempts to write a commercially successful opera, The Maid of Orleans, (1878-79). The years 1878 to 1881 also included several major achievements: the Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35 (1878), and the popular Serenade for String in C major, Opus 48 (1880); Capriccio italien, Opus 45 (1880); and the 1812 Overture, Opus 49 (1880). Eugene Onegin, which was only a token success at its Moscow premiere, enjoyed great popularity in St. Petersburg because of the emperor’s admiration. The Manfred Symphony Opus 58, composed in 1885, not only called forth unstinted praise but showed in some of its histrionically despairing episodes the path that Tchaikovsky’s life and music were to follow in the last years.
In 1885 he bought a house at Maidanovo, near Moscow, where he lived until the year before his death, when he moved into the house that is now the Tchaikovsky House Museum in the nearby town of Klin. He began to travel more in Russia and vacationed twice in the Caucasus. He overcame an aversion to conducting and in 1888 undertook an important and well received foreign tour, directing his own works in Leipzig (where he met the composers Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg), Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Paris, and London.
This tour was the apex of Tchaikovsky’s later life. From then on, despite the continuing success of many of his former compositions and the acclamation of new ones, including his second Pushkin opera, The Queen of Spades, and his favorite ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, he was working his way toward another nervous breakdown. His major compositions, starting with Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Opus 64 (1888), became more and more intense and emotional, filled with both exaltation and despair.
Tchaikovsky went on further tours, including to the United States and England, where he conducted his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Opus 23 (composed 1874-75), in 1889 and his Fourth Symphony in 1893. In 1893 Cambridge University awarded him an honorary doctor of music degree. These and other successes, including the tumultuous reception accorded to the suite he hastily made for concert performance from his Nutcracker ballet music (1892), did not alter the inexorable decline in his mental condition, which was aggravated in 1890 when Nadezhda von Meck suddenly ended both their correspondence and the annuity. From a financial standpoint this hardly mattered, because the royalties from The Queen of Spades covered the loss without difficulty, and he was by this time a recipient of a state pension. Tchaikovsky never forgave her, and the nature of the psychological wound it inflicted upon him can be judged by the fact that in the delirium of his last illness he repeated her name again and again in indignant tones.
In August 1893 Tchaikovsky completed his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74 (Pathétique) which was his last and which he rightfully regarded as a masterpiece. On October 28 he conducted its first performance in St. Petersburg. Its novel slow finale could hardly have been expected to induce such applause as had greeted, only 18 months earlier, the premiere of the lighter Nutcracker Suite. Into this work, with its “secret” program, he had put his whole soul. Tchaikovsky was devastated by the public response. On November 2, 1893-six days after the premiere-he died.
Courtesy of The Kennedy Center, excerpted from an essay by Marcos Gazdarica