Famous Composers: Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky
Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky first saw the light in Votinsk, an iron-and-steel centre in the basin of the river Kama which winds its way through the Ural foothills to join the Volga some fifty miles south of Kazan. His father Ilya Petrovitch Tchaikovsky, a mining engineer, was thrice married - in 1827, 1833 and 1865; the composer, born in 1840, was the second of six children by his middle wife Alexandra Andreevna nee d’Assier (French by ancestry). In 1849 the family moved to Alaparev near Nizhny-Novgorod and the following year Peter, a gifted child already showing signs of musical ability, was sent to St. Petersburg where he stayed with friends and continued his education with a view to becoming a lawyer. Morbidly sensitive, his regard for his mother as an ideal woman surpassed the bounds of normal filial affection and suggested an Oedipus complex; her death in 1854 (he later confessed) might have driven him literally mad but that he was able to immerse himself in music - not, be it noted, in legal studies. A few immature compositions do indeed date from this adolescent period; nevertheless he stuck to his allotted task, passed his law examinations and shortly after his nineteenth birthday secured a clerical post in the Ministry of Justice. But like other minor bureaucrats he seems to have spent most of his office hours playing darts and drinking tea, and in 1861 he took a long holiday abroad during the course of which he visited Berlin, Brussels and Paris.
On his return he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatoire recently founded by Anton Rubinstein, applied himself seriously to music — and form- ally resigned from the civil service. By 1866 he was sufficiently established as an oncoming musician to be appointed to the teaching staff of the Moscow Conservatoire under the direction of Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nicolas. (The Rubinsteins were of German-Polish descent and their outlook on music differed radically from that of Balakirev or Mussorgsky; both were distinguished pianists and in addition Anton was a prolific composer whose piano concertos were long favoured by virtuosi.) Moscow remained Tchaikovsky’s headquarters for the rest of his life, but from 1873 onwards he travelled much abroad - to Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and Britain on several occasions and to the United States once; meanwhile (except for a period of comparative stagnation in the early eighteen- eighties) compositions flowed fast from his pen. Thanks to this extensive travel he was even more influenced than Borodin by western music; for all their individuality his symphonies, taken as a whole, owed much to the classic Viennese models, his operas to the Italian, his ballets to the French; he was never a member of the kutchka and maintained little contact with his St Petersburg colleagues.
Perhaps it was Tchaikovsky’s idolization of his mother - and to a lesser extent of his sister, also christened Alexandra - which rendered him immune from feminine blandishment outside the family circle and led him to homosexuality. Unfortunately he was indiscreet in his amours and presently realized that he would have to take drastic action if he wished to avoid being involved in a first-class scandal. In 1877, therefore, he put up a smoke-screen by marrying Antonina Inanovna Milyukova, a vain and importunate young lady who had persistently been setting her cap at him. Three days after the wedding he wrote a distressing and distasteful letter to his young brother Anatole.
I have taken no advantage of her, for I warned her from the outset to expect no more than brotherly affection. Physically, she revolts me.
Brotherly affection was not what Antonina had been looking for, and the whole deplorable episode ended in utter and near-tragic fiasco: the remorseful husband had a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide by immersing himself in an ice-cold river - but only succeeded in catching pneumonia (from which he duly recovered). Meanwhile he had already embarked upon intimate pen-friend intercourse with Nadezhda von Meek - whom he never met face to face although she was often present in the audience when his works were played in public. She was the rich widow of a railway tycoon and the mother of twelve children, but her outlook on life was one more usually associated with a frustrated old maid: she was very much in love - at a safe distance.
I want you to speak to me, and to no one else, of nature and destiny, of heart-break, trampled faith, wounded pride, of happiness irretrievably lost, of self-abandonment to despair. No art can express all this like music can, and no one understands me better than you do.
How right she was! Tchaikovsky understood her perfectly and for fourteen years fed her starved emotions with pseudo-passionate songs and piano pieces - in return for substantial financial patronage. Eventually, as might have been foreseen, Nadezhda’s descendants, resentful that their inheritance was being frittered away on a composer with a dubious moral character, opened her eyes to the more un- romantic aspects of her protege’s private life; the love letters and the generous pension ceased forthwith - and the toucher was deeply touched.
My faith in my fellow-humans and my confidence in the world itself are undermined. I have lost my tranquillity, and the happiness that fate might yet have held in store for me is gone for ever.
Tchaikovsky was always subject to moods of extreme depression and it could have been with deliberate intent that while on a visit to St. Petersburg in 1893 years after his break with Nadezhda von Meek) he drank a glass of unboiled tap-water; a few days later he was dead of cholera.
Beside Beethoven’s 'Emperor’ concerto, seventh symphony, 'Waldstein’ sonata and Adelaide, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, fifth symphony, Chant sans paroles and None but the weary heart cannot be accounted master- pieces, but judged by any other standard they are admirable compositions and need not be disparaged because they are popular; moreover Tchaikovsky lovers are at liberty to point out that Eugen Onegin is a better opera, qua opera, than Fidelio. (And furthermore let me draw attention to the charming and accomplished vocal quartet in Act I scene 12 and to Lensky’s fine dramatic aria in Act II scene 2.) But there was never a composer whose temperament was more closely reflected in his music, much of which was redolent of self-pity - self-pity finding expression as early as the Romance in F minor for piano (1868) and the song E'en though my heart should break (1869). Later it reared its head in the third movement of the otherwise light-hearted symphony no. 3, in two movements of the string quartet in E flat minor op. 30, in the technically accomplished concert-overture Francesca da Rimini and in the tear-away treatment of the motto-themes of symphonies 4 and 5. It reached a climax in the last two operas (The Queen of Spades and Iolanta), in the elegiac gloom of the first movement of symphony no. 6 (the 'Pathetic’) and in the almost unrelieved pessimism of its finale. (Tchaikovsky deserves credit, however, for having thus ventured to conclude the 'Pathetic’ with a slow movement, a precedent of which Gustav Mahler and our own Ralph Vaughan Williams showed themselves fully conscious.) On the other hand, it would be a very squeamish critic who failed to appreciate the altogether healthier sentiment of the Serenade for Strings, the orchestral suite in G major op. 55, the concert-overture Romeo and Juliet, parts at least of the symphonic poem Manfred, a handful of the hundred or so songs - The Corals, for instance, and Does the day reign. And although, as we have seen, Tchaikovsky was not a strongly nationalist composer he often made effective use of Russian folk-idiom: notably almost throughout symphonies nos. 1 and 2, the string sextet curiously entitled Souvenir de Florence and the opera Vakula the Smith] as well as in the favourite andante cantabile from the string quartet in D major op. ii, the finale of the violin concerto and several scenes from two other little-known operas. The Oprichnik and Mazeppa.
But when all is said Tchaikovsky's main hold on one’s affections depends upon his ballet-music, where delicacy of touch and superb orchestral technique combined to make him a master. I am thinking not only of Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Casse-Noisette (which are hors concours in that field), but also of the unconventional ballet-like intrusions on other media - e.g. the waltzes of the Serenade for Strings and symphonies nos. 2 and 5, the so- called scherzos of the piano sonata op. 37 and of symphony no. 4- For simultaneous exposure of nearly all his qualities good and bad one must turn however to the first movement of this same symphony (no. 4), where echoes of the bleak Russian countryside and the gilded Russian ball- room are heard against a background of barely repressed hysteria; yet all these elements are incorporated in a frame- work of classical sonata-form skilfully adapted to the needs of the moment.
Peter Tchaikovsky’s approach to his art was in almost every respect the exact antithesis to that of his German contemporary Johannes Brahms, but his music has given pleasure to countless thousands and only high- brows will complain if it continues to do so.
Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.