May 9, 2016

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

1840 ~ 1893

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Portrait by Nikolai Kuznetsov

This is an addendum to the article, Tchaikovsky ~ 1812 Overture (link below), which celebrated the birth of the composer.   
~ ~ ~

With the death of his mother from cholera in 1854, when he was fourteen, the loss prompted Tchaikovsky to make his first serious attempt at composition, a waltz in her memory.     

The works of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally. Even though he was musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. He entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Five. His training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music; this seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or from forming a composite style, and it caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky's self-confidence.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Moscow Conservatory

While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it was sufficiently representative of native musical values and expressed suspicion that Europeans accepted the music for its Western elements. In an apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music more substantive than base exoticism, and said he transcended stereotypes of Russian classical music. Others dismissed Tchaikovsky's music as "lacking in elevated thought," according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and derided its formal workings as deficient because they did not stringently follow Western principles.    


Many of Tchaikovsky's works have Ukrainian subjects or incorporate Ukrainian folk songs or melodies. Among these are the operas Mazepa (based on Aleksandr Pushkin's poem), Little Shoes, and Night before Christmas (or Vakula the Smith, based on Nikolai Gogol's story); symphonies No. 2 (Little Russian), No. 4, and No. 7 (finished and edited by Semyon Bogatyrev); the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in B-flat Minor; the 1812 Overture, the opening of which is based on the first mode of the Kievan chant; the transcription for piano solo of Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky's orchestral fantasy Kozachok; and songs to Russian translations of Taras Shevchenko, such as ‘Sadok Vyshnevyi’ (Cherry Orchard).            

Discussion of Tchaikovsky's personal life, especially his sexuality, has been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer of his time. It has also at times caused considerable confusion, from Soviet efforts to expunge all references to same-sex attraction and portray him as a heterosexual,   

He sought the company of other men in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them." However, the degree to which the composer might have felt comfortable with his sexual nature has remained open to debate. Relevant portions of his brother Modest's autobiography, where he tells of the composer's sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it.   

Tchaikovsky lived as a bachelor for most of his life. In 1868 he met Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt. They became infatuated with each other and were engaged to be married but due to Artôt's refusal to give up the stage or settle in Russia, the relationship ended. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved. In 1877, at the age of 37, he wed a former student, Antonina Miliukova. The marriage was a disaster. Mismatched psychologically and sexually, the couple lived together for only two and a half months before Tchaikovsky left. Tchaikovsky's family remained supportive of him during this crisis and throughout his life. He was also aided by Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate who had begun contact with him not long before the marriage. As well as an important friend and emotional support, she became his patroness for the next 13 years, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition. Tchaikovsky's marital debacle may have forced him to face the full truth about his sexuality; he never blamed Antonina for the failure of their marriage.

From October 28 to November 9, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died there. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, near the graves of fellow-composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, and Modest Mussorgsky; later, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Mily Balakirev, a Russian pianist, conductor and composer, were also buried nearby.  

photo by entazis 

Tchaikovsky's death has often been attributed to cholera, contracted through drinking contaminated water from the local river, but many writers have theorized his death was a suicide. He was 53 years old when he died.

“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.”
                                                    Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky  

Viewfinder links:  
1812 Overture        
The Nutcracker         
Symphony #6: (Pathétique)         
Swan Lake       
Van Cliburn             
PIL (Public Image Ltd.)            
John Willimas ~ A Soundtrack King        
Styrous® ~ Monday, May 9, 2016

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