Russian Romantic Music and Tchaikovsky
Russian music bears its own styles and emotions, free from the outside influence of other European countries during the Romantic period. Politics play an indirect role in the development of Russian music, isolating the country both politically and musically.
Until the Decembrist revolt in 1825, Russia was under the unrelenting rule of czars. Russia retained the ways of the old — its caste system, its severity of censorship — while the rest of Europe had already shed its Middle Age characteristics. Since the revolt, it had become fashionable for the educated public to promote social reform.
Political activity in Russia was a dangerous game, likely to lead to death or exile. Because of this, Russians turned to their national roots, finding solace in rich folk culture and explorations in art, literature, and music. A new concern for national differences in language and the arts provoked a new age of nationalism. For Russia, music was seen as a particularly strong way of expressing the soul of a people.
In Russia, the leader of the nationalist revival was Mikhail Glinka. His followers Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Csar Cui, Borodin, and Mussorgsky became known as The Five. These composers were an unusual crowd of dedicated drinkers, but despite that, they were also exquisitely talented amateur composers. Borodin worked as a chemist; Csar Cui was a military engineer; and Modest Mussorgsky was a civil servant whom the rest of the group regarded with contempt.
The most successful of The Five was Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who was an accomplished and skillful orchestrator. His operas, based on Russian folk songs, were very popular in their time, while his attractive orchestral works such as Sheherazade and the famous Spanish Capriccio are still often heard today.
The leader of the group was Mily Balakirev, whose judgement was feared by everybody in the group. Balakirev was a fierce nationalist, actively detesting any form of art that was not purely Russian. His aim was to establish a truly national music, and much of The Fives time was spent criticizing and rewriting other peoples compositions including each others in the approved Russian style.
No one dared challenge the authority of The Five. One man attempted to project his own voice. That man was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His music had a special appeal to his listeners: memorable tunes, whether passionately eloquent or stylishly graceful; wild, abandoned dance music; the sheer grandeur of pieces such as the 1812 Overture or the famous opening of his Piano Concert No. 1; and most strikingly, his masterful handling of a vast palette of orchestral color. Ironically, Tchaikovsky was to win far more renown for Russian music abroad than any of his fellow nationalists.
Tchaikovskys music was always easy to listen to, giving immense pleasure even at its most tragic and overwhelmingly emotional climaxes. In contrast to his enjoyable music, Tchaikovskys life was exceedingly tumultuous and unhappy. The man himself was often melancholy and moody. These qualities were result of his own temperament: he was a hypochondriac, and was homosexual, which was regarded as a great shame and disgrace at that time. But after all, he was Russian, and like many of his fellow countrymen, was impelled towards displays of extreme emotion.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, a small industrial town east of Moscow. His father, Ilya Petrovich, was a mining engineer. He was a person of high standing in Kamsko-Votkinsk and was able to comfortably provide for his wife and four children. Pyotrs mother Alexandra was a nervous epileptic, of whom Pyotr inherited his tendency to real or imagined ill-health, fits of hysteria, and deep depression..
Even as a youngster, Pyotr Tchaikovsky was hypersensitive; the slightest scolding would reduce him to a flood of tears. Besides this, his parents were also worried about his addition to music, which often ironically seemed to upset him. One night after a party, Alexandra found him awake, pointing to his forehead, and crying, Oh this music, this music! Take it away! Its here and it wont let me sleep!
Pyotrs father was in possession of a great variety of music, playable on the Orchestrion, a rudimentary form of a record player. It was his listening of tunes from the opera Don Giovanni on the Orchestrion that Pyotr dedicated his lifelong admiration to Mozart. It was due to Mozart that I devoted my life to music, he wrote many years later.
Tchaikovsky began to play the piano early in childhood. His first teacher was Maria Palchikova, a freed serf. As mentioned earlier, the influence of the czar retained the old caste system. Within a year, Tchaikovsky was able to play better than she could.
At the age of ten, Pyotr was send to St. Petersburg to study at the School of Jurisprudence. A reluctant student, Tchaikovsky worked without much interest, but was naturally gifted and quickly passed through his schools upper divisions. Meanwhile, he kept up with his profound interest in music, taking lessons from the well-known concert pianist Rudolph Kndinger. Kndinger was impressed by Pyotrs ability to improvise, but beyond that, Pyotrs teacher though that he had no unusual talent for music. When Pyotrs father asked Kndinger if he should change his mind and consider encouraging the boys interest in the piano with a view to a career, Kndinger advised him against it. Kndinger later said, certainly Pyotr was gifted, he had a good ear and a good memory, a fine touch, but otherwise there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that suggested a composer.
Tchaikovsky entered the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg as civil servant. To ordinary Russians, civil servants were then people to be shunned and hated: they represented petty officialdom and oppression. Tchaikovsky was not naturally suited to such a job: he was not really interested in politics, and he was once said to have absentmindedly torn up an important document, rolled the scraps into pellets and swallowing them. He remained at the Ministry of Justice for four years, bored but dutiful.
While Tchaikovsky worked as a civil servant, he found that his duties were not heavy ones. He was able to take a leave of three months to accompany a relative around Europe, acting as his interpreter. Also, Tchaikovsky had plenty of time for music, playing the piano and going to concerts. He joined the Ministrys own choral group, and in 1861, he began to study musical theory under Nikolai Zaremba, the Head of the Russian Musical Society.
One of Tchaikovskys music teachers was the pianist and composer Anton Rubenstein, who became the first directory of the St. Petersburg Music Conservatory. He had observed that Tchaikovskys technique was merely ameteur, so he corrected the young mans exercises. Rubenstein was the first to see real signs of talent, but had to criticize Tchaikovsky for years of careless work.
Tchaikovsky began to realize that he had to be serious about his music in order to make true progress. When he failed to get a promotion he had wanted at the Ministry, he decided to resign and start his career all over again. Tchaikovsky entered the St. Petersburg Music Conservatory at the age of twenty-two, and was much older than most of the other students. But he also had more experience, and supported himself by teaching pupils of his own. He learned how to play the organ and mastered the flute, which he then played in the Conservatory orchestra.
Rubenstein had been a moving force in Tchaikovskys composing career by criticizing all of his compositions. In 1864, Rubenstein was very critical of Tchaikovskys most important student piece, The Storm Overture, inspired by a melancholy play by Russian dramatist Ostrovsky. While Rubenstein had expected Tchaikovskys 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 furious because this was not the kind of thing he expected from his normally obedient students. He was also very critical of Tchaikovskys graduation exercise, a cantata representing Schillers Ode to Joy. The cantata was performed January 12, 1866, in the presence of a distinguished audience but Tchaikovsky was too nervous face the pressure of the occasion. Rubenstein threatened to withhold Tchaikovskys diploma, but nobody could deny Pyotrs outstanding talent. His presence was now known.
Tchaikovsky was later offered a job as professor of harmony at the newly-established Moscow Conservatory, where Anton Rubensteins younger brother, Nikolai, was directory. Nikolai offered lodgings and support to Pyotr for the following five years. Nevertheless, as Tchaikovsky faced the new pressures of teaching, he overworked himself and his students. Like many of the Russian upper classes, he had found refuge in heavy alcoholism.
Tchaikovskys first major musical success came when Anton Rubenstein conducted his Overture in F major at a concert on March 16, 1866. Tchaikovsky was so inspired that he immediately began to work on his first symphony. This composition cost him many sleepless nights and provoked a nervous breakdown; he was unable to sleep, suffered from terrible headaches, and was convinced that he was on the brink of death.
Despite his nervous problems, Tchaikovsky was determined to complete Symphony No. 1, which he named Winter Daydreams. And when he made his first public appearance as a conductor, the experience terrified him so much that it was ten years before he ever attempted another public performance.
The first two movements of Symphony No. 1 had subtitles: Daydreams of a Winter Journey, and Land of Desolation, Land of Mists. Both movements possessed tunes influenced by Russian folk-melodies, and evoked the bleak Russian countryside in the grips of winter. Tchaikovskys Symphony No. 1 was performed in 1868 with Anton Rubenstein conducting.
In the same year, Tchaikovsky met Mily Balakirev, who had succeeded Anton Rubenstein as head of the Conservatory at St. Petersburg. Unfortunately, Balakirev was driven out from his post because his opponents had despised his controversial ideas. He settled in Moscow, where he met Tchaikovsky. He suggested to Pyotr that he should compose an overture-fantasy on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Not only did Balakirev fuel the idea, but he also sketched the outline of the work and supervised its composition in great detail. In gratitude, Tchaikovsky dedicated Romeo and Juliet to Balakirev. This was Tchaikovskys first great success, and remains one of his most enduring and popular works.
The young Tchaikovskys progress, however, continued to be uneven. His first attempt at an opera, The Voyeda, proved to be a disaster because he had lost the original manuscript written by Ostrovsky. His symphonic poem, Fatum, was bitterly criticized by Balakirev. Tchaikovskys second opera, Undine, was also rejected. He was so distressed that he destroyed the scores of both operas.
What began as a failure turned out to be one of Tchaikovskys best known works: Piano Concerto No. 1. On Christmas Eve of 1874, Pyotr played it for his friend Nikolai Rubenstein, intending that he should give the piece its first public performance. Tchaikovsky was at best a competent pianist, but the response he received from Nikolai was stinging and severe. He had said the concerto was worthless, impossibly to playclumsy and awkward beyond possibility of correction.
Tchaikovsky was bitter about Nikolais criticism and Russian rejection of the concerto. He decided to pass on the concerto to friend and distinguished German pianist Hans von Blow, who was invited by America to give the concerto its first public performance at Boston, Massachusetts in October 1875. The American audience was absolutely stunned and demanded an encore of the entire finale of the concerto. Nikolai Rubenstein later changed his attitude completely and conducted the first Moscow premiere given by Taneyev, Tchaikovskys favorite pupil.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky was a very forgiving man, unable to bear a grudge for long. When Nikolai Rubenstein died in 1881, Tchaikovsky wrote a beautiful trio for piano, cello, and violin as a tribute to all the support and services that Nikolai had offered him through the years.
The success of Piano Concerto No. 1 had brought Tchaikovsky international fame. He was now recognized as a leading composer, but he was still unhappy. His prizewinning opera Vakula the Smith (1876) was not well-received, and his now renowned ballet Swan Lake in 1877 was nothing less than a theatrical disaster.
In 1877, Tchaikovsky began to work on another opera, Eugene Onegin, based on a story by the great Russian poet Pushkin. This opera offered opportunities for all of Tchaikovskys favorite themes: from exuberant dances to vivid scenes of Russian country life. The story tells how a young woman, Tatyana, sends a letter to an older man, confessing her love for him, but is cruelly rejected. Quite by coincidence, Tchaikovsky received a letter much like how the story tells. The writer was Antonina Milyukova, who was desperately in love with Tchaikovsky since she had been a student at the Conservatory. At first, he tried to push her away, but then she threatened suicide. Finally, Pyotrs father urged him to marry Antonina. The marriage took place in July 1877.
The marriage made Pyotr extremely unhappy. He attempted to give himself pneumonia by standing in the chest-deep waters of the Moscow river, trying to avoid the disgrace of suicide. He failed to catch even a cold, and fled to St. Petersburg. He put responsibility on his younger brother Anatol, to explain to Antonina that the marriage was over. She was packed off to Odessa at the familys expense.
There was another woman in Tchaikovskys life: Nadezha von Meck, who was to be the mainstay of Tchaikovskys life, both emotionally and financially. Throughout the rest of Tchaikovskys life, they exchanged over one thousand letters. It was to her that Tchaikovsky admitted his homosexuality in light of his failure of a marriage.
Von Mecks family made a fortune out of railroads, and she was soon Tchaikovskys patron. She had been a great admirer of his music and was a pianist herself. She began by overpaying Pyotr for arrangements of piano works. After 1878, she had settled upon paying Tchaikovsky an annual income of 6,000 roubles, which was a large sum at the time. This enabled him to give up teaching and concentrate entirely upon composing. He returned her generosity by dedicating his fourth symphony to her.
Another masterpiece emerged during this tumultuous period of Tchaikovskys life: the Violin Concerto, written during his long stay in Switzerland. He dedicated this concerto to the great Russian violinist Leopold Auer. However, this concerto suffered the same fate as Tchaikovskys first piano concerto; Auer claimed it was far too difficult and refused to play it. In 1881, another violinist, Adolf Brodsky, gave the first performance in Vienna. A famous critic declared that the music gave off a bad smell.
The Violin Concerto, like Piano Concerto No. 1, possessed a powerfully lyrical opening theme, a nostalgic cadenza, and an exhilarating Finale in the style of a wild Russian Cossack dance. It is now established as among one of the best-loved violin concertos of all time by players and performers alike.
When Tchaikovsky returned to Russia in 1880, he moved out to the country to be alone. There, he completed the Serenade for Strings, and the piece most often associated with his name the 1812 Overture, complete with cannons, a commemoration of the historic Russian defeat of Napoleons army.
The new Czar of Russia, Alexander III, commissioned three pieces from Tchaikovsky for his coronation, from the opera Mazeppa. From Czar Alexander III, Tchaikovsky received an official decoration the Order of St. Vladimir. This was a great and distinguished honor.
By now, Tchaikovsky had felt the need to settle down. He was elected head of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society and found a quaint cottage in the Moscow countryside to reside. He was finally happy and at peace. He had maintained acquaintance with Balakirev, who inspired Pyotr to compose two more brilliant pieces: Manfred Symphony based on Lord Byrons heroic poem; and The Sorceress. In December of 1877, Tchaikovsky set out on his first European tour as a conductor, meeting several famous composers: Brahms, Grieg, Busoni, and Dvorak. His musical tour was a success, especially in Paris, where the current fashion was for anything of Russian/Slavic nature.
After his tour, Tchaikovsky returned to his country cottage and composed the Fifth Symphony, which is said to embody a heroic struggle against Fate. Despite its popularity, Tchaikovsky had ominous feelings about it: There is something repulsive about it, and excessive cheapness and insincerity, even artificiality. This was foreshadowing his fate tragedy.
In December of 1888, he set to work on a new ballet score, based on the old French fairy tale of the exquisite Princess Aurora who is cursed by a wicked fairy at her christening, put to sleep on her seventeenth birthday for a hundred years, and finally woken by the kiss of a Prince. Whereas Swan Lake had been ruined by poor staging, Tchaikovsky worked closely with the great French ballet master Marius Petipa. His detailed sequence of dances gave Tchaikovsky true enthusiasm for working on this composition.
The Sleeping Beauty inspired some of Tchaikovskys finest music. Eloquent solo dances, tender duets, and brilliant waltzes all interwoven together by a strong and unforgettable plot. The Sleeping Beauty was considered by Stravinsky as the most convincing example of Tchaikovskys great creative power. It remains one of the greatest of all classical ballets.
Tchaikovskys final ballet was The Nutcracker. The story is agbout a magic nutcracker which turns into a Prince, defeats the evil Mouse-King, and whisks Clara off into an enchanted kingdom of toys and sweets. Tchaikovsky utilized the new distinctive silvery sound of instruments such as the celeste, used to depict the Sugar Plum fairy.
By now, Tchaikovsky felt that his creative powers were lessening, as indicated by the lukewarm reception of The Nutcracker at its first performance in Christmas 1892. His last symphony was titled Pathetque. Its melodies covered a vast range of emotion from violent passion to a tender, yearning love theme. The last movement, Adagio Lamentoso, slides painfully downward until it disintegrates into an anguished silence. Pathetque undoubtedly reflected Tchaikovskys acceptance of his impending death.
It is believed that Tchaikovsky was having a scandalous relationship with the nephew of duke. Fearing that a scandal would shake society, the authorities gave Tchaikovsky the option of poisoning himself in return for a cover story that he had died from sudden illness, thus sparing his family from shame of either scandal or suicide. One week after Pathetques first performance at St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky committed suicide on November 6, 1893.
Tchaikovsky had left behind a legacy unlike that of any Russian composer, or any composer. His ballet music, violin and piano concertos, symphonies, and even his delicate Serenade for Strings had made their mark as the epitome of Russian Romantic music. His life, though tragic, added an emotional dimension to his compositions not seen in any other genre. Tchaikovskys personal suffering had come through only as beauty in all his music.