Monday, May 7, 8840

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) - Ballets

[The Tchaikovsky family in 1848 -- Peter at left]

Peter (Pyotr) Il'yich Tchaikovsky (May 7 [O.S. April 25] 1840 – November 6 [O.S. October 25] 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 was distinctly Russian: plangent, introspective, with modally-inflected melody and harmony.

Tchaikovsky considered himself a professional composer. He felt his professionalism in combining skill and high standards in his musical works separated him from his colleagues in "The Five." He shared several of their ideals, including an emphasis on national character in music. His aim, however, was linking those ideals with a professional standard high enough to satisfy European criteria. His professionalism also fueled his desire to reach a broad public, not just nationally but also internationally, which he would eventually do.

Aesthetically, Tchaikovsky remained open to all aspects of St Petersburg musical life. He was impressed by Serov and Balakirev as well as the classical values upheld by the conservatory.

Both the progressive and conservative camps in Russian music at the time attempted to win him over. Tchaikovsky charted his compositional course between these two factions, retaining his individuality as a composer as well as his Russian identity.

A clear summation of Tchaikovsky's approach can be found in Hermann Laroche's 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.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia. His father, Ilya Petrovitch, was the son of a government mining engineer. His mother, Alexandra, was a Russian woman of partial French ancestry and the second of Ilya's three wives. Pyotr was the older brother (by some ten years) of the dramatist, librettist, and translator Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In 1843, Tchaikovsky acquired a French governess, Fanny Dürbach. Her love and affection for her charge provided a counter to Alexandra, a cold, unhappy, distant parent not given to displays of physical affection.

For all her undemonstrativeness, however, Alexandra doted on Pyotr.

Also, by her aloofness and demeanor, she may have seeded her son's lifetime fascination and sympathy for deprived, suffering or otherwise doomed women -- one he would later express musically in such works as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, Francesca da Rimini, and The Queen of Spades.

Pyotr began piano lessons at age five 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 Pyotr 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 Pyotr, this meant two years boarding at the School of Jurisprudence's preparatory school, 800 miles from his family. Pyotr adored Alexandra and was already hypersensitive emotionally. He lacked self-confidence and often clung to his mother's skirts.

Her abandonment of him at the preparatory school was extremely traumatic. It was to be the first of two brutally symbolic departures.

The second brutal leave-taking came on June 25, 1854 with her death from cholera. This was such a harsh blow that Pyotr could not inform his former governness Fanny Dürbach of it until two years later.

He reacted to her loss by turning to music; within a month of her death, he was making his first serious efforts at composition, a waltz in her memory. Several writers, including Poznansky, Holden, and Warrack, have claimed that the loss of his mother was formative on Tchaikovsky's sexual development, in particular because of the close emotional connection he had to her.

Regardless, the same-sex practices widespread among students at the all-male School of Jurisprudence, became his norm. With these proclivities came friendships with fellow students, such as Alexei Apukhin and Vladimir Gerard, intense enough to make up for the loss of his mother and isolation from the rest of his family. Some of these friendships would last the rest of his life.

While music was not considered a high priority at the Institite, Tchaikovsky was taken to the theater and the opera with classmates regularly. He was fond of works by Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Verdi. 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.

[A young Tchaikovsky[

As Tchaikovsky studied with Zaremba at the Western-oriented St. Petersburg Conservatory, critic Vladimir Stasov and composer Mily Balakirev espoused a nationalistic, less Western-oriented and more locally idiomatic school of Russian music. Stasov and Balakirev recruited what would be known as The Mighty Handful or kuchka (better known in English as "The Five") in St. Petersburg. Balakirev considered academicism to be not a help but a threat to musical imagination. Along with Stasov, he attacked Rubinstein and the Conservatory relentlessly in print as well as verbally at every opportunity.

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.


Symphony No. 1 ("Winter Daydreams") (1866)

Romeo and Juliet (1869)(Excerpt)


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, since 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, Rimsky.

Beginning with his Symphony No. 4, Tchaikovsky's music became an intense psychic outlet, allowing him to voice frustrations and emotions previously kept bottled up. The importance of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality and its consequences on the personal expression in his compositions cannot be underestimated. Tchaikovsky's gayness in itself has been known to the West for at least 75 years, gathered from the composer's own writings as well as those of his brother Modest, who was also gay.

More debatable is how well he accepted his sexuality or was comfortable with it.


Symphony No. 2 ("Little Russian") (1872)

Piano Concerto No. 1 (1874)

Swan Lake (1875) (Selection)

Symphony No. 3 ("Polish") (1875)

March Slav (1876)

Eugene Onegin (1877): Waltz

Symphony No. 4 (1877)


Pivotal in letting loose his psychic cataract 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, like Tchaikovsky, was gay.

They had shared a mutual bond of affection for just over a decade.

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 sex privately with other men.

The brief time with his wife drove him to the brink of emotional ruin.

Paradoxically, the marriage's strain on Tchaikovsky may have actually enhanced his creativity.

The Symphony No. 4 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.

The intensity of personal emotion now flowing through Tchaikovsky's works was entirely new to Russian music.

It prompted Russians to place his name alongside that of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Four months prior to Antonina's first letter came another at least as significant. Nadezhda von Meck, wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon and an influential patron of the arts, wanted to commission some chamber pieces. She eventually paid Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy of 6,000 rubles. This would also allow him to resign from the Moscow Conservatory in October 1878 and concentrate primarily on composition.

With von Meck's patronage came a relationship that, at her insistence, was mainly epistolary. They exchanged over 1,200 letters, some of them quite lengthy, between 1877 and 1890. For both of them, these letters would become a solace and a safety valve, filled with details extraordinary for two people who would never meet. Tchaikovsky was more open to von Meck about much of his life and his creative processes than to any other person.

Some could claim legitimately that Tchaikovsky and von Meck's friendship rose to a level similar to that of his future attachment to his nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Davydov.

This arrangement can often take place between a woman and a gay man who is spiritually and artistically oriented.

A parallel relationship would be the platonic affair between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna, marchioness of Pescara. Like von Meck, Vittoria was a mature widow. She withdrew into a convent, from which she exchanged passionate sonnets with Michelangelo. Von Meck remained a fully dedicated supporter of Tchaikovsky and all his works. She took the place of the mother figure he had lost -- and more. 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 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.

Tchaikovsky returned to Moscow Conservatory in the fall of 1879. He had been away from Russia a year after his marriage disintegrated. Shortly into that term, however, he resigned. He settled in Kamenka yet travelled incessantly. Assured of a regular income from von Meck, he wandered around Europe and rural Russia. Not staying long in any one place, he lived mainly alone, avoiding social contact whenever possible. This may have been due partly to troubles with Antonina. She alternately accepted and refused divorce and at one point exacerbated matters by moving into the apartment directly above her husband's.

Perhaps understandably, his music suffered in quality. Except for his piano trio, which he wrote upon the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, his best work from this period is found in genres which did not depend heavily on personal expression.

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 called for the Russian "to become brother to all men, uniman, if you will."

Dostoyevsky had been a fervent nationalist. Like Tchaikovsky, though, he also had what Osip Mandelstam termed "a longing for world culture."

Focusing on the "European" essence of Pushkin's work, Dostoyevsky's charged that the poet had given a prophetic call to Russia for "universal unity" with the West.

An unprecedented acclaim for Dostoyevsky's message rushed 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.


Capriccio Italien (1880)

1812 Overture (1882)

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. 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 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!!!"


Sleeping Beauty (1888)

Symphony No. 5 (1888)


Conducting brought him to America in 1891. He led the New York Music Society's orchestra in his Marche Slav at the inaugural concert of New York's Carnegie Hall.


The Nutcracker (1892) - Scene 12 Divertissement

a) Chocolate - Spanish Dance

b) Coffee - Arabian Dance

c) Tea - Chinese Dance

d) Trepak - Russian Dance

e) [Dance of the Reed Flutes]

Scene 14: c) Variation II - Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Symphony No. 6 ("Pathetique") (1893): II Allegro con grazia

(Older recording)

(Newer recording)


In 1893, the University of Cambridge awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Other composers similarly honored on the same occasion included Camille Saint-Saëns, Max Bruch and Arrigo Boito. Edvard Grieg was also to be honored but could not attend due to illness.

Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, nine days after the premiere of his Symphony No. 6, the Pathétique. His death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. However, some have theorized his death was a suicide. In one variation of the theory, a sentence of suicide was imposed in a "court of honor" by Tchaikovsky's fellow alumni of the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, as a censure of the composer's sexual preferences.

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."

[8841 Dvorak / 8840 Tchaikovsky / 8839 Mussorgsky]