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Prominent Russians: Pyotr Tchaikovsky

May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893

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“Truly there would be a reason to go mad were it not for music,” - P. I. Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most loved Russian composers. His music is famous for its strong emotion, and his technical skill and strict work habits helped guarantee its lasting appeal. His deep sensitivity saturated his music, producing lush melodies that have enamored listeners for over a century.

Tchaikovsky 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, and modal-sounding.

Tchaikovsky's personal life was turbulent from the very beginning. As a youth, Tchaikovsky faced the hardship of losing his mother at the age of 14 and was forced to deal with the cold atmosphere of a military boarding school. As such, the young Pyotr shied away from the harsh and cold world and found solace in music. It was upon hearing Mozart's Don Giovanni that Tchaikovsky decided to dedicate his life to music.

In 1843, Tchaikovsky’s parents hired French tutor Fanny Dürbach. Her love and affection for her charge is said to have provided a counter to Tchaikovsky’s mother Aleksandra, who has been described by one biographer as a cold, unhappy, distant parent not open to displays of physical affection. However, other writers claim that Aleksandra doted on her son.

Musically precocious, Pyotr began piano lessons at the age of five with a local woman, Maria Palchikova, and within three years could read music at the same level as his teacher.

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In 1850, his father was appointed director of the St. Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the young Tchaikovsky obtained an education at the School of Jurisprudence. Though music was not considered a high priority on the curriculum, Tchaikovsky was taken with classmates on regular visits to the theater and the opera. He was very taken with the works of Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Mozart. The only music instruction he received at school was some piano tuition from Franz Becker, a piano manufacturer who made occasional visits as a token music teacher.

Tchaikovsky's mother died of cholera in 1854. The 14-year-old Tchaikovsky took the news hard; for two years. He could not write about his loss, and reacted by turning to music. Within a month of her death, he was making his first serious efforts at composition; a waltz in her memory.

Tchaikovsky's father indulged his interest in music, funding studies with Rudolph Kundinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg, starting in 1855. However, when Tchaikovsky's father consulted Kundinger about prospects for a musical career for his son, Kundinger wrote that nothing suggested a potential composer or even a fine performer. Tchaikovsky was told to finish his coursework, then to try for a post in the Ministry of Justice.

Tchaikovsky graduated on May 25, 1859, with the rank of titular counselor, the lowest rung on the civil service ladder. On June 15, he was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later the Ministry made him a junior assistant to his department and a senior assistant two months after that, where he remained.

In 1861, Tchaikovsky learned of music classes being held by the Russian Musical Society (RMS) by accident. According to Tchaikovsky's friend Nikolay Kashkin, Tchaikovsky enjoyed a friendly rivalry with a music-loving cousin, an officer in the Horse Grenadiers. This cousin boasted one day that he could make the transition from one key to any other in no more than three chords. Tchaikovsky took up this challenge and lost, then learned his cousin had learned it from Nikolay Zaremba's RMS class in music theory.

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Tchaikovsky promptly began studies with Zaremba. The following year, when Zaremba joined the faculty of the new St. Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher and enrolled, but still did not give up his post at the ministry, until his father consented to support him. From 1862 to 1865, Tchaikovsky studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Zaremba, and instrumentation and composition under the director and founder of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, who was impressed by Tchaikovsky's talent.

After graduating, Tchaikovsky was approached by Anton Rubinstein's younger brother Nikolay to become professor of harmony, composition, and history of music. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position, as his father had retired and lost his property.

As Tchaikovsky studied with Zaremba, the critic Vladimir Stasov and the composer Mily Balakirev formed a nationalistic school of music, recruiting what would be known as “The Mighty Handful” (better known in English as “The Five”) in St. Petersburg. As he became Anton Rubinstein's best known student, Tchaikovsky was associated by The Five with the conservative opposition. However, when Rubinstein exited the St. Petersburg musical scene in 1867, Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with Balakirev, resulting in the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet.

Tchaikovsky remained ambivalent about The Five's music and goals, and his relationship with its members was cordial but never close. Tchaikovsky enjoyed close relations with Aleksandr Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov and, at least on the surface, the elder Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.

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Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, as well as its importance to his life and music, has been known to the West for at least 75 years. Suppressed in Russia by the Soviets, it has only recently become widely known in post-Soviet Russia. Evidence that Tchaikovsky was gay is drawn from his letters and diaries, as well as the letters of his brother Modest, who was also gay. Some historians still consider evidence to this effect scant or non-existent. Dr. Peter Beckmann claims Tchaikovsky's homosexuality has been asserted “not without bias ... too often ... done by tone setters who had a stake in the outcome.” Most, however, including Rictor Norton and Aleksandr Poznansky, conclude some of Tchaikovsky's closest relationships were homosexual, citing Tchaikovsky's servant Aleksey Sofronov and his nephew, Vladimir “Bob” Davydov, as romantic interests. E.M. Forster, in fact, mentions Tchaikovsky and Davydov in his homosexual love story Maurice, written in 1913-14 but not published until 1971. Forster writes in Chapter 32 that “...Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with his own nephew, and dedicated his masterpiece [Symphonie pathetique] to him.”

More controversial is how comfortable Tchaikovsky might have been with his sexual nature. Poznansky surmises that the composer “eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage.” Richard Taruskin writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, “Professional success brought with it entree to aristocratic circles where Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was more readily tolerated; this, plus a loving and protective family (including a worshipping younger brother, Modest, who, sharing his sexual orientation, became his literary collaborator and personal confidant, later his biographer), seems to have helped the composer towards self-acceptance in his later years.”

On the other hand, the British musicologist and scholar Henry Zajaczkowski's research “along psychoanalytical lines” points instead to “a severe unconscious inhibition by the composer of his sexual feelings”:

“One consequence of it may be sexual overindulgence as a kind of false solution: the individual thereby persuades himself that he does accept his sexual impulses. Complementing this and, also, as a psychological defense mechanism, would be precisely the idolization by Tchaikovsky of many of the young men of his circle [the self-styled ‘Fourth Suite’], to which Poznansky himself draws attention. If the composer's response to possible sexual objects was either to use and discard them or to idolize them, it shows that he was unable to form an integrated, secure relationship with another man. That, surely, was [Tchaikovsky's] tragedy.”

Russian musicologist Aleksandra Orlova also asserts that Tchaikovsky’s letters and diary entries over the years confirm that Tchaikovsky never reconciled himself with his sexuality. All he could do was to resign himself “to the impossibility of reforming himself.” Boris Nitkin, one of the few Tchaikovsky biographers, who was also an “approved” figure at the Tchaikovsky Museum at Klin, agrees with Orlova's view. So does writer Yury Nagibin, who wrote a novella based on the composer's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck and the screenplay for the 1969 Mosfilm motion picture based on Tchaikovsky's life.

Regardless of how, when or whether Tchaikovsky accepted his personal fate, music became an imperative and increasingly intense psychical outlet for him. As biographer Edward Garden suggests, “All the frustrations of his endemic homosexuality and bottled-up emotions, further engendered rather than released by the fiasco of his marriage, are let loose in [the Fourth Symphony] – the first and perhaps least important in a line of masterpieces or near-masterpieces in this vein which included the Manfred Symphony and the last two [numbered] symphonies, the symphonic ballad The Voyevoda and [the opera] The Queen of Spades."

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Tchaikovsky's marriage began as a classic case of life imitating art. One of his conservatory students, Antonina Milyukova, began writing him passionate letters as he worked on the “Letter Scene” in his opera Evgeny Onegin – a time, ironically, that he had made up his mind to “marry whoever will have me.” He hastily married Antonina on July 18, 1877. Within days, while still on their honeymoon, he deeply regretted his decision. Two weeks after the wedding the composer supposedly attempted suicide by throwing himself into the freezing Moscow River. Once recovered from the effects, he fled to St. Petersburg; his mind verging on a nervous breakdown.

Tchaikovsky's marital debacle forced him to face the truth concerning his sexuality. He wrote to his brother Anatoly that there was “nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature.”

Moreover, the mental and emotional strain the composer suffered from his abortive marriage may have enhanced rather than endangered his creativity. Despite some interruptions, the six months between Tchaikovsky's engagement to Antonina and his “rest cure” in Clarens, Switzerland, following his marriage saw him complete two of his finest works, the Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin.

Because of the intense emotional directness now manifest in Tchaikovsky's music, starting with the Fourth Symphony, in Russia the composer's name began being placed alongside that of the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A typical passage about the two reads: “With a hidden passion they both stop at moments of horror, total spiritual collapse, and finding acute sweetness in the cold trepidation of the heart before the abyss, they both force the reader to experience those feelings, too.”

Beginning with the Fourth, Tchaikovsky's younger contemporaries equated his symphonies with Dostoyevsky's psychological novels. This was because they heard, for the first time in Russian music, an ambivalent, suffering personality at the heart of these works. They felt that like Dostoyevsky's characters, Tchaikovsky's hero persisted in exploring the meaning of life while trapped in a fatal love-death-faith triangle in the Dostoyevsky fashion.

One who was especially taken with Tchaikovsky's music was Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon. Von Meck had commissioned some minor works from Tchaikovsky and begun an ongoing correspondence just before his marital episode. Tchaikovsky in turn had asked her for loans to cover his marital and living expenses. Now von Meck suggested paying Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy of 6,000 roubles, in monthly installments, to avoid any embarrassment of asking for future loans. This would also allow Tchaikovsky to resign from the Moscow Conservatory in October 1878 and concentrate primarily on composition.

Von Meck and Tchaikovsky's correspondence would grow to over 1,200 letters between 1877 and 1890. The details of these letters are extraordinary for two people who would never even meet, let alone become lovers. Tchaikovsky was also prepared to be more openly and abundantly confiding to his patroness about some of his attitudes to life and about his creative processes than to any other person.

However, after 13 years, she ended the relationship unexpectedly, claiming bankruptcy. During this period, Tchaikovsky had already achieved success throughout Europe and the United States by 1891. Von Meck's claim of financial ruin is disregarded by some who believe that she ended her patronage of Tchaikovsky because she supposedly discovered the composer's homosexuality. The two later became related by marriage – one of her sons, Nikolay, married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova.

After a year away from his post following his marriage and its aftermath, Tchaikovsky returned to the Moscow Conservatory in the fall of 1879. Shortly into that term, however, he resigned. Tchaikovsky eventually settled at his sister's estate in Kamenka, just outside Kiev. Even with this base, he traveled incessantly. With the assurance of a regular income from von Meck, he took advantage of open-ended wandering around Europe and rural Russia. He did not stay long in any one place, lived mainly solitary and avoided social contact whenever possible. During these rootless years, Tchaikovsky's reputation as a composer grew rapidly outside Russia.

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In 1880, during the commemoration of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, Dostoyevsky gave a famous speech on Pushkin, in which he called for the Russian “to become a brother to all men, unman, if you will.” While Dostoyevsky had been a fervent nationalist, like Tchaikovsky he also had a trait that Osip Mandelstam would call “a longing for world culture.” The conclusion he gave in his speech on the “European” essence of Pushkin's work was that the poet had given a prophetic call to Russia for “universal unity” with the West. The reaction to this speech was unprecedented, with acclaim for Dostoyevsky's message spreading quickly throughout Russia.

The benefit of the “unman” speech for Tchaikovsky was overwhelming. Before it, Aleksandr Benois writes in his memoirs, “it was considered obligatory [in progressive musical circles] to treat Tchaikovsky as a renegade, a master overly dependent on the West.” After Dostoyevsky's speech, this disdain for Tchaikovsky's music dissipated. The composer also drew a cult following among the young intelligentsia of St. Petersburg, including Benois, Leon Bakst and Sergey Diaghilev.

In 1885, Tsar Alexander III conferred upon Tchaikovsky the Order of St. Vladimir (Fourth Class). This gave the composer the right of hereditary nobility. That year, Tchaikovsky resettled in Russia – at first in Maidanovo, near Klin; then Frolovskoye, also near Klin, in 1888; and finally in Klin itself in 1891. After Tchaikovsky's death, Modest and “Bob” Davydov converted the house into a museum in the composer's honor.

Tchaikovsky took to orchestral conducting after filling in at a performance in Moscow of his opera The Enchantress. Overcoming life-long stage fright, his confidence gradually increased to the extent that he regularly took to conducting his pieces.

Tchaikovsky visited America in 1891 in a triumphant tour to conduct performances of his works. On May 5, he conducted the New York Music Society's orchestra in a performance of Marche Slave on the opening night of New York's Carnegie Hall. That evening was followed by subsequent performances of his Third Suite on May 7, and the a cappella choruses Pater Noster and Legend on May 8. The US tour also included performances of his First Piano Concerto and Serenade for Strings.

In 1893, Cambridge University awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Other composers similarly honored on the same occasion included Camille Saint-Saens, Max Bruch, Arrigo Boito and Edvard Grieg (who was unable to attend personally due to illness).

Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique, on November 6, 1893.

Most biographers of Tchaikovsky's life have considered his death to have been caused by cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. In recent decades, however, theories that his death was suicide have been advanced. According to 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 homosexuality.

Written by Tatyana Klevantseva for RT

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