Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (/ /; Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский; tr. Pyotr Ilyich Chaykovsky; 25 April/7 May 1840 – 25 October/6 November 1893), often anglicised as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky / .../, was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States. One of these appearances was at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.
Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time, and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent 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, with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky's 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—a task that did not prove easy. 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. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great, and this resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia of the country's national identity.
Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his leaving his mother for boarding school, his mother's early death, as well as that of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether it was accidental or self-inflicted.
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 were suspicious that Europeans accepted it for its Western elements. In apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music more substantive than base exoticism, and thus transcending stereotypes of Russian classical music. Tchaikovsky's music was dismissed as "lacking in elevated thought," according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and its formal workings were derided as deficient for not stringently following Western principles.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a small town in Vyatka Governorate (present-day Udmurtia) in the Russian Empire. His family had a long line of military service. His father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, was an engineer who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Department of Mines, and manager of the Kamsko-Votkinsk Ironworks. His grandfather, Petro Fedorovych Chaika, received medical training in Saint Petersburg and served as a physician's assistant in the army before becoming city governor of Glazov in Viatka. His great-grandfather, a Cossack named Fyodor Chaika, distinguished himself under Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. His mother, Alexandra Andreyevna née d'Assier, the second of Ilya's three wives, was 18 years her husband's junior and of French ancestry on her father's side. Both of Tchaikovsky's parents were trained in the arts, including music. This was considered a necessity as a posting to a remote area of Russia was always possible, bringing with it a need for entertainment, both private and at social gatherings.
Tchaikovsky had four brothers (Nikolai, Ippolit, and twins Anatoly and Modest), a sister, Alexandra and a half-sister Zinaida from his father's first marriage. He was particularly close to Alexandra and the twins. Anatoly later had a prominent legal career, while Modest became a dramatist, librettist, and translator. Alexandra married Lev Davydov and had seven children, one of whom, Vladimir Davydov, became very close to the composer, who nicknamed him 'Bob'. The Davydovs provided the only real family life Tchaikovsky knew as an adult, and their estate in Kamenka (now Kamianka, Cherkasy Oblast, part of Ukraine) became a welcome refuge for him during his years of wandering.
In 1843 the family hired Fanny Dürbach, a 22-year-old French governess, to look after the children and teach Tchaikovsky's older brother Nikolai and a niece of the family. While Tchaikovsky, at four and a half, was initially considered too young to begin studies, his insistence convinced Dürbach otherwise. Dürbach proved an excellent teacher, teaching Pyotr Tchaikovsky to be fluent in French and German by the age of six. Tchaikovsky became attached to the young woman and her affection for him is said to have provided a counter to Tchaikovsky's mother, who has been described as a cold, unhappy, distant parent, although others assert that the mother doted on her son. Dürbach saved much of Tchaikovsky's work from this period, which includes his earliest known compositions. She was also the source of several anecdotes about his childhood.
Tchaikovsky took piano lessons from the age of five. A precocious pupil, he could read music as adeptly as his teacher within three years. His parents were initially supportive, hiring a tutor, buying an orchestrion (a form of barrel organ that could imitate elaborate orchestral effects), and encouraging his study of the piano for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Nevertheless, the family decided in 1850 to send Tchaikovsky to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg. This decision may have been rooted in practicality. It is not certain whether Tchaikovsky's parents had grown insensitive toward his musical gift. However, regardless of talent, the only avenues for a musical career in Russia at that time – except for the affluent aristocracy – were as a teacher in an academy or an instrumentalist in one of the Imperial Theaters. Both were considered on the lowest rung of the social ladder, with no more rights than peasants. Also, because of the growing uncertainty of his father's income, both parents may have wanted Tchaikovsky to become independent as soon as possible.
Since both parents had graduated from institutes in Saint Petersburg, they decided to educate him as they had themselves been educated. The School of Jurisprudence mainly served the lesser nobility and would prepare Tchaikovsky for a career as a civil servant. As the minimum age for acceptance was 12 and Tchaikovsky was only 10 at the time, he was required to spend two years boarding at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence's preparatory school, 800 miles (1,300 km) from his family. Once those two years had passed, Tchaikovsky transferred to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to begin a seven-year course of studies.
Tchaikovsky's separation from his mother to attend boarding school caused an emotional trauma that tormented him throughout his life. Her death from cholera in 1854, when Tchaikovsky was 14, further devastated him, affecting him so much that he could not inform Fanny Dürbach until two years later. He mourned his mother's loss for the rest of his life and called it "the crucial event" that ultimately shaped it. More than 25 years after his loss, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, "Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday." The loss also prompted Tchaikovsky to make his first serious attempt at composition, a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky's father, who also contracted cholera at this time but fully recovered, immediately sent him back to school, hoping that classwork would occupy the boy's mind. In partial compensation for his isolation and loss, Tchaikovsky made lifelong friendships with fellow students, including Aleksey Apukhtin and Vladimir Gerard. Music became a unifier. While it was not an official priority at the School of Jurisprudence, Tchaikovsky maintained an extracurricular connection by regularly attending the opera with other students. Fond of works by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Mozart, he would improvise for his friends at the school's harmonium on themes they had sung during choir practice. "We were amused," Vladimir Gerard later remembered, "but not imbued with any expectations of his future glory." Tchaikovsky also continued his piano studies through Franz Becker, an instrument manufacturer who made occasional visits to the school; however, the results, according to musicologist David Brown, were "negligible".
In 1855, Tchaikovsky's father funded private lessons for his son with the teacher Rudolph Kündinger. He also questioned Kündinger about a musical career for the boy. Kündinger replied that, while impressed, nothing suggested to him a future as a composer or performer. Kündinger later admitted that his assessment was also based on his own negative experiences as a musician in Russia and his unwillingness for Tchaikovsky to be treated likewise. Tchaikovsky was told to finish his course and then try for a post in the Ministry of Justice. Even though he gave this practical advice, his father remained receptive about a career in music for Tchaikovsky. He simply did not know what Tchaikovsky could accomplish, nor whether he could make a living at it. No public education system in music existed at the time in Russia and private education, especially in composition, was erratic.
On 10 June 1859, the 19-year-old Tchaikovsky graduated with the rank of titular counselor, a low rung on the civil service ladder. Appointed five days later to the Ministry of Justice, he became a junior assistant within six months and a senior assistant two months after that. He remained a senior assistant for the rest of his three-year civil service career.
In 1861, Tchaikovsky attended classes in music theory taught by Nikolai Zaremba at the Mikhailovsky Palace (now the Russian Museum) in Saint Petersburg. These classes were organized by the Russian Musical Society (RMS), founded in 1859 by the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna (a German-born aunt of Tsar Alexander II) and her protégé, pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. The aim of the RMS was to foster native talent, in accordance with Alexander II's stated intent. Previous tsars and the aristocracy had focused almost exclusively on importing European talent. The RMS fulfilled Alexander II's wish by promoting a regular season of public concerts (previously held only during the six weeks of Lent when the Imperial Theaters were closed) and providing basic professional training in music. The classes held at the Mikhailovsky Palace were a precursor to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862. Tchaikovsky enrolled at the Conservatory as part of its premiere class but held on to his Ministry post until the following year, wanting to make sure his course lay in music. From 1862 to 1865 he studied harmony and counterpoint with Zaremba. Rubinstein, director and founder of the Conservatory, taught instrumentation and composition.
Tchaikovsky benefited from his Conservatory studies in two ways. First, it transformed him into a musical professional and gave him tools that helped him thrive as a composer. Second, his in-depth exposure to European principles and forms for organizing musical material gave Tchaikovsky the sense that his art belonged to world culture and was not exclusively Russian or Western. This mindset became important in his reconciling Russian and European influences in his compositional style and showed that both these aspects of Russian culture were actually "intertwined and mutually dependent". It also became a starting point for other Russian composers to build their own individual styles.
While Rubinstein was impressed by Tchaikovsky's musical talent on the whole (citing him as "a composer of genius" in his autobiography), he was less pleased with the more progressive tendencies of some of Tchaikovsky's student work. Nor did he change his opinion as Tchaikovsky's reputation grew in the years following his graduation. He and Zaremba clashed with Tchaikovsky when he submitted his First Symphony for performance by the RMS in Saint Petersburg. Rubinstein and Zaremba refused to consider the work unless substantial changes were made. Tchaikovsky complied but they still refused to perform the symphony. Tchaikovsky, distressed that he had been treated as though he were still their student, withdrew the symphony. It was given its first complete performance, minus the changes Rubinstein and Zaremba had requested, in Moscow in February 1868.
After graduating from the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky briefly considered a return to public service due to pressing financial needs. However, Rubinstein's brother Nikolai offered the post of Professor of Music Theory at the soon-to-open Moscow Conservatory. While the salary for his professorship was only 50 rubles a month, the offer itself boosted Tchaikovsky's morale and he accepted the post eagerly. He was further heartened by news of the first public performance of one of his works, his Characteristic Dances, conducted by Johann Strauss II at a concert in Pavlovsk Park on 11 September 1865 (Tchaikovsky later included this work, retitled, Dances of the Hay Maidens, in his opera The Voyevoda).
From 1867 to 1878, Tchaikovsky combined his professorial duties with music criticism while continuing to compose. This exposed him to a range of contemporary music and afforded him the opportunity to travel abroad. In his reviews, he praised Beethoven, considered Brahms overrated and despite his admiration took Schumann to task for poor orchestration. He appreciated the staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen at its inaugural performance in Bayreuth, Germany, but not the music, calling Das Rheingold "unlikely nonsense, through which, from time to time, sparkle unusually beautiful and astonishing details." A recurring theme he addressed was the poor state of Russian opera.
In 1856, while Tchaikovsky was still at the School of Jurisprudence and Anton Rubinstein lobbied aristocrats to form the RMS, critic Vladimir Stasov and an 18-year-old pianist, Mily Balakirev, met and agreed upon a nationalist agenda for Russian music. Taking the operas of Mikhail Glinka as a model, they espoused a music that would incorporate elements from folk music, reject traditional Western methods of musical expression and use exotic harmonic devices such as the whole tone and octatonic scales. Moreover, they saw Western-style conservatories as unnecessary and antipathetic to fostering native talent; imposing foreign academics and regimentation would stifle the Russian qualities Balakirev and Stassov wished to nurture. Followers trickled in. César Cui, an army officer who specialized in the science of fortifications, and Modest Mussorgsky, a Preobrazhensky Lifeguard officer, came in 1857. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a naval cadet, followed in 1861 and Alexander Borodin, a chemist, in 1862. Like Balakirev, they were not professionally trained in composition but possessed varying degrees of musical proficiency. Together, the five composers became known as the moguchaya kuchka, translated into English as the Mighty Handful or The Five.
Balakirev and Stassov's efforts fueled a debate, begun by Russian intelligentsia in the 1830s, over whether artists negated their Russianness when they borrowed from European culture or took vital steps toward renewing and developing their culture. Rubinstein's criticism of amateur efforts in musical composition (he insisted that creativity without discipline was a waste of talent) and his pro-Western outlook and training fanned the flames further. His founding a professional institute where predominantly foreign professors taught alien musical practices heated the controversy to boiling point. Balakirev attacked Rubinstein for his musical conservatism and his belief in professional music training. Mussorgsky jumped on the bandwagon, calling the Conservatory a place where professors, dressed "in professional, antimusical togas, first pollute their students' minds, then seal them with various abominations." Tchaikovsky and his fellow conservatory students were caught in the middle, well aware of the argument but directed by Rubinstein to remain silent and focus on their own artistry. Nevertheless, as Rubinstein's pupil, Tchaikovsky became a target for The Five's scrutiny and was criticized for not following their precepts. Cui, who championed the nationalist cause as a music critic for the next half-century, wrote a blistering review of a cantata Tchaikovsky had composed as his graduation thesis. The review devastated the composer.
In 1867, Rubinstein resigned as conductor of the RMS orchestra and was replaced by Balakirev. Tchaikovsky, now Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory, had already promised his Characteristic Dances to that ensemble but felt ambivalent. He wanted to fulfil his commitment, but had concerns over sending his composition to someone whose musical aims ran counter to his own and could thus be considered hostile. Compounding the issue was Balakirev's mentoring of composers whose work Tchaikovsky did not admire. He eventually sent the Dances but enclosed a request for encouragement should they not be performed. Balakirev, whose influence over the other composers in The Five had meanwhile waned, may have sensed the potential for a new disciple in Tchaikovsky. He replied "with complete frankness" that he considered Tchaikovsky "a fully fledged artist". These letters set the tone for their relationship over the next two years. In 1869, they worked together on what became Tchaikovsky's first recognized masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, a work which The Five wholeheartedly embraced. The group also welcomed his Second Symphony, subtitled the Little Russian. In its original form, Tchaikovsky allowed the unique characteristics of Russian folk song to dictate the symphonic form of its outer movements, rather than Western rules of composition. This was a primary aim of The Five. (However, Tchaikovsky became dissatisfied with this approach, choosing to make a large cut in the finale and rewrite the opening movement along Western lines when he revised the symphony seven years later.)
While ambivalent about much of The Five's music, Tchaikovsky remained on friendly terms with most of its members. Despite his collaboration with Balakirev, Tchaikovsky made considerable efforts to ensure his musical independence from the group as well as from the conservative faction at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
Tchaikovsky's successes during his first years as a composer were infrequent, won with tremendous effort. The disappointments in between exacerbated a lifelong sensitivity to criticism. Also, while Nikolai Rubinstein expended considerable effort in spreading Tchaikovsky's music, he was also given to fits of rage in private with the composer in critiquing it. One of these rages, later documented by Tchaikovsky, involved Rubinstein's rejection of the First Piano Concerto. The work was subsequently premiered by Hans von Bülow, whose pianism had impressed the composer during an appearance in Moscow. Eventually, Rubinstein reconsidered and took up the work. Bülow championed many other Tchaikovsky works both as pianist and conductor.
Several factors helped bolster Tchaikovsky's music. One was having several first-rate artists willing to perform it, eventually including Adele Aus der Ohe, Max Erdmannsdörfer, Eduard Nápravník and Sergei Taneyev. Another was a new attitude becoming prevalent among Russian audiences. Previously, they had been satisfied with flashy virtuoso performances of technically demanding but musically lightweight compositions. They gradually began listening with increasing appreciation of the music itself. Tchaikovsky's works were performed frequently, with few delays between their composition and first performances; the publication from 1867 onwards of his songs and great piano music for the home market also helped boost the composer's popularity.
Tchaikovsky began to compose operas. His first, The Voyevoda, based on a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, was premiered in 1869. The composer became dissatisfied with it and, having re-used parts of it in later works, destroyed the manuscript. Undina followed in 1870. Only excerpts were performed and it, too, was destroyed. Between these projects, he started to compose an opera called Mandragora, to a libretto by Sergei Rachinskii; the only music he completed was a short chorus of Flowers and Insects.
The first Tchaikovsky opera to survive intact, The Oprichnik, premiered in 1874. During its composition, he fell out with Ostrovsky. The author of the play The Oprichnik, Ivan Lazhechnikov, had died in 1869, and Tchaikovsky decided to write the libretto himself, modelling his dramatic technique on that of Eugène Scribe. Cui wrote a "characteristically savage press attack" on the opera. Mussorgsky, writing to Vladimir Stasov, disapproved of the opera as pandering to the public. Nevertheless, The Oprichnik continues to be performed from time to time in Russia.
The last of the early operas, Vakula the Smith (Op.14), was composed in the second half of 1874. The libretto, based on Gogol's Christmas Eve, was to have been set to music by Alexander Serov. With Serov's death, the libretto was opened to a competition with a guarantee that the winning entry would be premiered by the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. Tchaikovsky was declared the winner, but at the 1876 premiere the opera enjoyed only a lukewarm reception. After Tchaikovsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote an opera based on the same story, Christmas Eve.
Other works of this period include the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra, the Second and Fourth Symphonies, the ballet Swan Lake and the opera Eugene Onegin.
Discussion of Tchaikovsky's personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps 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, to efforts at armchair analysis by Western biographers.
Tchaikovsky lived as a bachelor most of his life. 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, overwrought emotionally and suffering from an acute writer's block. 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 also became his patroness for the next 13 years, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition.
Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and some of the composer's closest relationships were with men. He sought out the company of other same-sex attracted men in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them." 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.
More debatable is how comfortable the composer felt with his sexual nature. There are currently two schools of thought. Musicologists such as David Brown have maintained that Tchaikovsky "felt tainted within himself, defiled by something from which he finally realized he could never escape." Another group of scholars, which includes Alexander Poznansky and Roland John Wiley, have more recently suggested that the composer experienced "no unbearable guilt" over his sexual nature and "eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage."
Both groups have drawn the conclusion that Tchaikovsky remained aware of the negative consequences should knowledge of his orientation become public, especially of the ramifications for his family. While his father continued to hope Tchaikovsky would marry, other members of his loving and supportive family remained more open-minded. Modest shared his sexual orientation and became his literary collaborator, biographer and closest confidant. Tchaikovsky was eventually surrounded by an adoring group of male relatives and friends, which may have aided him in achieving some sort of psychological balance and inner acceptance of his sexual nature.
The level of official tolerance Tchaikovsky may have experienced, which could fluctuate depending on the broad-mindedness of the ruling Tsar, is also open to question. One argument is that general intolerance of same-sex orientation was the rule in 19th century Russia, punishable by imprisonment, loss of all rights, banishment to the provinces or exile from Russia altogether; therefore, Tchaikovsky's fear of social rejection was grounded in some justification. Musicologist Solomon Volkov mentions state documents that indicate men attracted to the same sex "were under tight police surveillance" and maintains that public life in Russia was "based not on laws but on 'understandings.' That means that formally existing laws are applied or ignored based on the position and wishes of the authorities.... No one could feel confident of the future in those conditions (which is one of the goals of a society built on 'understandings')." The other argument is that the Imperial bureaucracy was considerably less draconian in Tchaikovsky's lifetime than previously imagined. Russian society, with its surface veneer of Victorian propriety, may have been no less tolerant than the government. In the introduction to a French edition of her biography of Tchaikovsky (first published in Russian in 1936 and reissued in French in 1987) Nina Berberova cites many circumstances that confirm social visibility and impunity of homosexual men in 1890s Russia.
In any case, Tchaikovsky chose not to neglect social convention and stayed conservative by nature. His love life remained complicated. A combination of upbringing, timidity and deep commitment to relatives precluded his living openly with a male lover. A similar blend of personal inclination and period decorum kept him from having sexual relations with those in his social circle. He regularly sought out anonymous encounters, many of which he reported to Modest; at times, these brought feelings of remorse. He also attempted to be discreet and adjust his tastes to the conventions of Russian society. Nevertheless, many of his colleagues, especially those closest to him, may have either known or guessed his true sexual nature. Tchaikovsky's decision to enter into a heterosexual union and try to lead a double life was prompted by several factors—the possibility of exposure, the willingness to please his father, his own desire for a permanent home and his love of children and family. There is no reason however to suppose that these personal travails impacted negatively on the quality of his musical inspiration or capacity. An upcoming Russian film, Tchaikovsky, has attracted controversy due to the fact that Tchaikovsky's sexuality, mentioned in early drafts, has been written out of the film in order to secure funding from the Russian government.
In 1868, Tchaikovsky met Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, then touring Russia with an Italian opera company and causing a sensation with her performances in Moscow. Artôt, according to Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden, was "one of the most lustrous opera stars of her day," with a "beguiling voice". The composer's friend, music critic Hermann Laroche, called her "dramatic singing personified, an opera goddess fusing numerous gifts which would normally be shared among several different artists." Tchaikovsky and Artôt became infatuated and engaged to be married. Even so, Artôt told Tchaikovsky that she would not give up the stage or settle in Russia. Nikolai Rubinstein, fearful that living in a famous singer's shadow would stifle Tchaikovsky's creativity, warned against the union. Undeterred, and while still privately preferring a homosexual lifestyle, the composer discussed wedding plans at length with his father. However, on September 15, 1869, without any communication with Tchaikovsky, Artôt married a Spanish baritone in her company, Mariano Padilla y Ramos. Although it is generally thought that Tchaikovsky swiftly got over the affair, it has been suggested that he coded Désirée's name into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor and the tone-poem Fatum. They met on a handful of later occasions and, in October 1888, he wrote Six French Songs, Op. 65, for her, in response to her request for a single song. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved, although Holden and other biographers have surmised that it may have been "the glamorous yet talented diva, rather than the real woman behind the top billing, with whom he had fallen in love."
By the end of 1876, Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with Iosif Kotek, a former student from the Moscow Conservatory. Though he wrote to Modest that Kotek reciprocated his feelings, the composer distanced himself a few months later when Kotek proved to be unfaithful. At roughly the same time another friend, Vladimir Shilovsky, suddenly married. Tchaikovsky did not take the news well. He and Shilovsky, who may have also been homosexual, had shared a mutual bond of affection for just over a decade. Tchaikovsky had previously mentioned to Modest the possibility of marriage, out of concern that public knowledge of his sexuality might scandalize his family. Modest and their sister Sasha, in turn, had warned against such a step. However, Shilovsky's wedding may have spurred him to action. In doing so, he did not consider several factors. One was that his feelings on the matter may have been conflicted. While he wrote to his brother Anatoly about using marriage as a means of securing sexual freedom through leading a "double life," in the same letter he disparaged his homosexual acquaintances who had actually done so. Another factor was that, at 37, Tchaikovsky might have been more set in his bachelor's ways than he would have admitted.
In July 1877, Tchaikovsky married another former student, Antonina Miliukova, after receiving a series of impassioned letters from her. To ensure there would be no interference, he told only Anatoly and his father of his engagement. He did not inform Modest or Sasha until the day before his wedding or Vladimir Shilovsky until the day of the wedding. He invited only Anatoly to the ceremony. Almost as soon as the wedding ended, Tchaikovsky felt he had made a mistake and soon afterwards found that he and Antonina were incompatible psychologically and sexually. If Tchaikovsky attempted to explain his sexual mores to his wife, she did not understand.
As time passed, Tchaikovsky may have realized that marriage itself, not simply Antonina, may have been wrong for him. He wrote to Sasha that he had "become too used to bachelor life and I cannot recall my loss of freedom without regret." He concluded that, instead of strengthening his personal and social standing, his marriage had actually imperiled it because of the grief and scandal that could result from its failure. Money matters and an inability to compose compounded the situation and drove Tchaikovsky to deeper levels of despair. The couple lived together for only two and a half months before the mounting emotional crisis forced him to leave. He traveled to Clarens, Switzerland for rest and recovery. He and Antonina remained legally married but never lived together again nor had any children, though Antonina later gave birth to three children by another man.
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 and he apparently never again considered matrimony or considered himself capable of loving women in the same manner as other men. He admitted to his brother Anatoly that there was "nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature." Also, though Tchaikovsky would confess it only in periods of deep depression, the episode left him with a deep sense of shame and guilt and an apprehension that Antonina might fully realize and publicize his sexual orientation. Those factors made each of her occasional letters "a great misfortune" which would leave him shaken for days. Any news of her, regardless of how minor or innocent, would cause Tchaikovsky loss of sleep and appetite, an inability to work, and for him to fixate on imminent death.
Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railway tycoon, was one of the growing nouveau riche patronizing the arts in the wake of Russia's industrialization. She was eventually joined by timber merchant Mitrofan Belyayev, railway magnate Savva Mamontov and textile manufacturer Pavel Tretyakov. Von Meck differed from her fellow philanthropists in two ways. First, instead of promoting nationalist artists, she helped Tchaikovsky, who was seen as a composer of the Western-oriented aristocracy. Second, while Belyayev, Mamontov and Tretyakov made a public display of their largess, von Meck conducted her support of Tchaikovsky as a largely private matter.
Nadezhda von Meck's support began through Iosif Kotek, who had been hired as a musician in the von Meck household. In 1877, Kotek suggested commissioning some pieces for violin and piano from Tchaikovsky. Von Meck, who had liked what she had heard of his music, agreed. Her subsequent request to the composer became an ongoing correspondence, even as events with Antonina unfolded and made Tchaikovsky's life increasingly difficult. Von Meck and Tchaikovsky exchanged well over 1,000 letters, making theirs perhaps the most closely documented relationship between patron and artist. In these letters Tchaikovsky was more open about his creative processes than he was to any other person.
Von Meck eventually paid Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy of 6,000 rubles, which enabled him to concentrate on composition. With this patronage came a relationship that, while remaining epistolary, grew extremely intimate. She suddenly ceased her financial subsidy in 1890 as a result of her own financial difficulties. While there is no evidence she intended to also discontinue her friendship and communication, this was nevertheless brought about through the machinations of her son-in-law, Tchaikovsky's erstwhile student Władysław Pachulski, who had an exalted opinion of his own compositional abilities and was resentful that Tchaikovsky did not share his view. While Tchaikovsky was not in as urgent a need of her money as he had been, her friendship and encouragement had remained an integral part of his emotional life. He remained bewildered and resentful about her absence for the remaining three years of his life, and she was just as distressed about his apparent dropping of her friendship, which she was led to believe was because he had never cared for her personally and he had no further use for her once her subsidy had stopped. This was completely untrue.
Tchaikovsky remained abroad for a year after the disintegration of his marriage, during which he completed Eugene Onegin, orchestrated the Fourth Symphony and composed the Violin Concerto. He returned to the Moscow Conservatory in the autumn of 1879 but only as a temporary move; he informed Nikolai Rubinstein on the day of his arrival that he would stay no longer than December. Once his professorship had ended officially, he traveled incessantly throughout Europe and rural Russia. Assured of a regular income from von Meck, he lived mainly alone, did not stay long anywhere and avoided social contact whenever possible. His troubles with Antonina continued. She agreed to divorce him, then refused. While he was on an extended visit to Moscow, she moved into an apartment directly above where he was staying. Tchaikovsky listed her accusations in detail to Modest: "I am a deceiver who married her in order to hide my true nature ... I insulted her every day, her sufferings at my hands were great ... she is appalled by my shameful vice, etc., etc." He may have lived the rest of his life in dread of Antonina's power to expose him publicly. This could be why his best work from this period, except for the piano trio which he wrote upon the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, is found in genres which did not require deep personal expression.
Tchaikovsky's foreign reputation grew rapidly. In Russia, though, it was "considered obligatory to treat Tchaikovsky as a renegade, a master overly dependent on the West." In 1880 this assessment changed. During commemoration ceremonies for the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky charged that poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin had given a prophetic call to Russia for "universal unity" with the West. An unprecedented acclaim for Dostoyevsky's message spread throughout Russia, and with it disdain for Tchaikovsky's music evaporated. He even drew a cult following among the young intelligentsia of Saint Petersburg, including Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev.
In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour neared completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II in 1881 was imminent; and the 1882 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition was in the planning stage. Nikolai Rubinstein suggested a grand commemorative piece for association with these related festivities. Tchaikovsky began the project in October 1880, finishing it within six weeks. He wrote to Nadezhda von Meck that the resulting work, the 1812 Overture, would be "very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits in it." He also warned conductor Eduard Nápravník that "I shan't be at all surprised and offended if you find that it is in a style unsuitable for symphony concerts." Nevertheless, this work has become for many "the piece by Tchaikovsky they know best."
On 23 March 1881, Nikolai Rubinstein died in Paris. Tchaikovsky, holidaying in Rome, went immediately to attend the funeral. He arrived in Paris too late for the ceremony but was in the cortege which accompanied Rubinstein's coffin by train to Russia. In December, he started work on his Piano Trio in A minor, "dedicated to the memory of a great artist." The trio was first performed privately at the Moscow Conservatory on the first anniversary of Rubinstein's death. The piece became extremely popular during the composer's lifetime and became Tchaikovsky's own elegy when played at memorial concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in November 1893.
Now 44 years old, in 1884 Tchaikovsky began to shed his unsociability and restlessness. In March of that year, Tsar Alexander III conferred upon him the Order of St. Vladimir (fourth class), which carried with it hereditary nobility and won Tchaikovsky a personal audience with the Tsar. This was a visible seal of official approval which advanced Tchaikovsky's social standing. This advance may have been cemented in the composer's mind by the great success of his Orchestral Suite No. 3 at its January 1885 premiere in Saint Petersburg, under von Bülow's direction, at which the press was unanimously favorable. Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck: "I have never seen such a triumph. I saw the whole audience was moved, and grateful to me. These moments are the finest adornments of an artist's life. Thanks to these it is worth living and laboring.".
In 1885 the Tsar requested a new production of Eugene Onegin to be staged at the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre in Saint Petersburg. (Its only other production had been by students from the Conservatory.) By having the opera staged there and not at the Mariinsky Theatre, he served notice that Tchaikovsky's music was replacing Italian opera as the official imperial art. In addition, thanks to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theaters and a patron of the composer, Tchaikovsky was awarded a lifetime annual pension of 3,000 rubles from the Tsar. This made him the premier court composer, in practice if not in actual title.
Despite his disdain for public life, Tchaikovsky now participated in it both as a consequence of his increasing celebrity and because he felt it his duty to promote Russian music. He helped support his former pupil Sergei Taneyev, who was now director of Moscow Conservatory, by attending student examinations and negotiating the sometimes sensitive relations among various members of the staff. Tchaikovsky also served as director of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society during the 1889–1890 season. In this post, he invited many international celebrities to conduct, including Johannes Brahms, Antonín Dvořák and Jules Massenet, although not all of them accepted.
Tchaikovsky also promoted Russian music as a conductor, as which he had sought to establish himself for at least a decade, believing that it would reinforce his success. In January 1887 he substituted at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow at short notice for performances of his opera Cherevichki. Within a year of the Cherevichki performances, Tchaikovsky was in considerable demand throughout Europe and Russia, which helped him overcome life-long stage fright and boosted his self-assurance. Conducting brought him to America in 1891, where he led the New York Music Society's orchestra in his Festival Coronation March at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall.
In 1888 Tchaikovsky led the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in Saint Petersburg, repeating the work a week later with the first performance of his tone poem Hamlet. Although critics proved hostile, with César Cui calling the symphony "routine" and "meretricious", both works were received with extreme enthusiasm by audiences and Tchaikovsky, undeterred, continued to conduct the symphony in Russia and Europe.
In November 1887, Tchaikovsky arrived at Saint Petersburg in time to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts, devoted exclusively to the music of Russian composers. One included the first complete performance of his revised First Symphony; another featured the final version of Third Symphony of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whose circle Tchaikovsky was already in touch. Rimsky-Korsakov, with Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov and several other nationalistically minded composers and musicians, had formed a group known as the Belyayev circle, named after a merchant and amateur musician who became an influential music patron and publisher. Tchaikovsky spent much time in this circle, becoming far more at ease with them than he had been with the 'Five' and increasingly confident in showcasing his music alongside theirs. This relationship lasted until Tchaikovsky's death.
In 1892, Tchaikovsky was voted a member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, only the second Russian subject to be honored so (the first was sculptor Mark Antokolski). The following year, the University of Cambridge in England awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary Doctor of Music degree.
On 28 October/9 November 1893 Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died there, aged 53. 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, Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev were also buried nearby.
While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier from the local river, some have theorized that his death was a suicide. Opinion has been summarized as follows: "The polemics over death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ....."
Tchaikovsky wrote many works that are popular with the classical music public, including his Romeo and Juliet, the 1812 Overture, his three ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) and Marche Slave. These, along with his First Piano Concerto and his Violin Concerto, the last three of his six numbered symphonies and his operas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, are among his most familiar works. Almost as popular are the Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, the Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings.
Tchaikovsky displayed an unusually wide stylistic and emotional range, from salon works of innocuous charm to symphonies of tremendous depth, power and grandeur. Some of his works, such as the Variations on a Rococo Theme, employ a poised "Classical" form reminiscent of 18th-century composers such as Mozart (the composer whose work was his favorite). Other compositions, such as his Little Russian symphony and his opera Vakula the Smith, flirt with musical practices more akin to those of the Five, especially in their use of folk song. Other works, such as the last three symphonies, employ a personal musical idiom that facilitated intense emotional expression.
American music critic and journalist Harold C. Schonberg wrote of Tchaikovsky's "sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody," a feature that has ensured his music's continued success with audiences. British musicologist David Brown named Italian cantilena as a possible influence for Tchaikovsky's most characteristic melodies, noting that these themes are "expressively full" and tend to unwind broadly; their "clear periodic structure" can be "disguised by the very expansiveness of the individual phrase and by its sequential extension, which may be prolonged." The love theme in Romeo and Juliet is the best-known example.
While the kind of melody Brown mentions is the composer's most typical, Tchaikovsky's complete range of melodic styles is as wide as that of his compositions. Sometimes he used Western-style melodies, sometimes original melodies written in the style of Russian folk song; sometimes he used actual folk songs. British musicologist John Warrack wrote, "the obsessive thirds of Russian folk-song permeate Tchaikovsky's tunes; and he must also at some time been haunted by the interval of the falling fourth, so strongly does it the invention in the early symphonies, always prominently placed in the melodies and acting as emotional rather than implying a harmonic progression." Brown observed another practice derived from Russian folk song, which was "to think in terms of foreground projection of a background outline." One example is Tchaikovsky's use of the center of an oboe melody in the slow movement of the First Symphony as the starting point for another theme. Another is when the love theme that dominates the central portion of the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini turns back on itself, unfolding in "a new pattern against an old shape."
Unfortunately, Brown points out, Tchaikovsky's melodic gift could also become his worst enemy in two ways. The first was due to his ethnic heritage. Like the majority of 19th-century Russian composers, Tchaikovsky possessed a penchant for melody. However, unlike Western themes, the ones that Russian composers wrote tended to be even more self-contained than those in Russian folk songs, even when they were written with broad, multi-phrase structures as Tchaikovsky tended to do. This, Brown says, was typical of Russian creativity, which functioned with a mindset of stasis and repetition rather than the one of progress and ongoing development that dominated Western creative thought. On a technical level, it made modulating to a new key to introduce a contrasting second theme—literally a foreign concept that did not exist in Russian music—exceedingly difficult.
The second way melody worked against Tchaikovsky was one he shared with the majority of classical composers of his era. Romantic-age developments in widening expressive, timbral and harmonic ranges in their music led to a new and much more significant place for melody than it had occupied with Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. However, the melodies these composers wrote to accommodate these qualities were not the regular, symmetrical melodic shapes that worked well with sonata form. As Warrack points out, they were complete, independent melodies, which as Tchaikovsky's friend and former pupil Sergei Taneyev observed cannot be easily combined or used as structural elements. All a composer like Tchaikovsky could do with them, Taneyev says, even when modifying them to generate tension, maintain interest and generally satisfy listeners, was essentially repeat them. This was why, Cooper maintains, the Romantics "were never natural symphonists."
Harmony was a potential trap for Tchaikovsky, according to Brown. Russian creativity revolved around inertia, he explains, with plays, novels and operas that were essentially a sequence of self-enclosed tableaux, while Western harmony was a study in motion, propelling the music and, on a larger scale, giving it shape. Modulation, the shifting from one key to another, was a driving principle in both harmony and sonata form, the primary Western large-scale musical structure since the middle of the 18th century. Modulation maintained harmonic interest over an extended time-scale, provided a clear contrast between musical themes and showed how those themes were related to each other.
These principles were part of Tchaikovsky's studies at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. How he put them into practice without sacrificing his individuality, Brown states, was a potentially great challenge. A factor that may have helped was "a flair for harmony" that "astonished" Rudolph Kündinger, Tchaikovsky's music tutor during his time at the School of Jurisprudence. That flair, added to his Conservatory studies, may have aided Tchaikovsky in employing a varied range of harmony in his music, from the Western harmonic and textural practices of his first two string quartets to the use of the whole tone scale in the center of the finale of the Second Symphony, a practice more typically used by The Five.
Tchaikovsky often follows European practice of harmonic progression, according to Brown, such as using the circle of fifths to undergird the love theme of Romeo and Juliet. Occasionally, though, he falls back on Russian practice, in Romeo oscillating at times "between passages of almost static harmony and others where the fundamental bass movement is solidly, sometimes swiftly, in fifths." In the development section of Romeo, he lets the harmony rock between two chords with only one held note in common. This was a practice taken from Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, Brown says, and became "a minor fingerprint of Russian harmony." Other Russian features include the liberal use of pedal points and the employment of chromaticism for decorative counterpoint and as an abrasive counterfoil to a melody.
Rhythmically, Tchaikovsky sometimes experiments with unusual meters. More often, he uses a firm, regular meter, a practice that serves him well in dance music. At times, his rhythms become pronounced enough to become the main expressive agent of the music. They also become a means, found typically in Russian folk music, of simulating movement or progression in large-scale symphonic movements—a "synthetic propulsion," as Brown phrases it, which substitutes for the momentum that would be created in strict sonata form by the interaction of melodic or motivic elements. This interaction generally does not take place in Russian music. (For more on this, please see Repetition below.)
Tchaikovsky struggled with sonata form. Its principle of organic growth through the interplay of musical themes was alien to Russian practice, which placed themes into a series of self-contained sections with no interaction or clear transition from one section to the next. Without organic growth, building a large-scale, evolving musical structure would be daunting, if not impossible. Nor did sonata form take into account the heightened emotional statements that many Romantic-era composers were inclined to make since it was designed to operate on a logical, intellectual level, not an emotive one.
According to Brown and musicologists Hans Keller and Daniel Zhitomirsky, Tchaikovsky found his solution to large-scale structure, while composing the Fourth Symphony, by sidestepping thematic interaction and keeping sonata form only as an "outline," as Zhitomirsky phrases it, containing two contrasting themes. Within this outline, the focus now centered on periodic alternation and juxtaposition. Instead of offering what Brown calls "a rich and well-ordered argument," Tchaikovsky integrates what Keller calls "new and violent contrasts" between musical themes, keys and harmonies by placing blocks of dissimilar tonal and thematic material alongside one another. The block containing the main theme, Zhitomirsky writes, alternates with the one containing the second theme, with the former "steadily enlivened in reiteration with the result that the very contrast of the two blocks is consistently sharpened." These themes, he explains, are demarcated by their distinct contrast in musical material and "by the fact that each theme usually constitutes an independent and structurally complete episode."
An important part of this process, Keller states, is that "thematic and harmonic contrasts" are "not allowed to coincide." Mozart, he writes, evidently preceded Tchaikovsky in this tactic of modulatory delay and may have helped give Tchaikovsky the impetus in attempting it himself, although Tchaikovsky develops this form of contrast "on an unprecedented scale." Keller offers the second theme in the first movement of the Fourth Symphony as an example of how this process works. In sonata form, he writes, the first subject enters in the tonic and the second subject follows in a contrasting but related key harmonically. Tension occurs when the music (and the listener with it) is pulled away from the tonic. Tchaikovsky "not only increases the contrasts between the themes on the one hand and the keys on the other," but ups the ante by introducing his second theme in a key unrelated to the first theme and delaying the transition to the expected key. In the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky introduces the second theme in A-flat minor. Since the symphony is written in the key of F minor, the second theme should go either to the relative major (A-flat major) or the dominant (C minor). By the time Tchaikovsky establishes the relative major, this theme has finished playing. Thus, Keller says, "the thematic second subject precedes the harmonic second subject" (italics Keller).
This process, according to Brown and Keller, builds momentum and adds intense drama. While the result, Warrack charges, is still "an ingenious episodic treatment of two tunes rather than a symphonic development of them" in the Germanic sense, Brown counters that it took the listener of the period "through a succession of often highly charged sections which added up to a radically new kind of symphonic experience" (italics Brown), one that functioned not on the basis of summation, as Austro-German symphonies did, but on one of accumulation.
Repetition is commonly cited as an integral part of Russian music—many of its folk songs are essentially a series of variations on one basic shape or pattern of a few notes, "using similar intervals and phrases with an almost ritual insistence," according to Warrack. It is also a natural part of Tchaikovsky's music. His use of sequences within melodies (repeating a tune at a higher or lower pitch in the same voice) could go on for extreme length. The problem with repetition is that, over a period of time, the melody being repeated remains static, even when there is a surface level of rhythmic activity added to it. Beneath that surface, nothing really moves or goes anywhere; the effect of that rhythm is decorative, not organic, because no true progress has taken place. Sonata form, on the other hand, operates by progression. Two contrasting themes interact like people in a conversation or an argument. They discuss an issue, agree, disagree, but the conversation goes somewhere; it grows and builds toward some conclusion. If a conversation, and by extension a musical work in sonata form, becomes static, everything stalls.
Tchaikovsky kept the musical conversation flowing while essentially repeating himself by integrating melody, tonality, rhythm and sound color as an indivisible whole, rather than as separate elements, and manipulating different parts of it as needed. By making subtle but noticeable changes in the rhythm or phrasing of a tune, modulating to another key, changing the melody itself or varying the instruments playing it, Tchaikovsky could keep a listener's interest from flagging. By extending the number of repetitions, he could increase the musical and dramatic tension of a passage, building "into an emotional experience of almost unbearable intensity," as Brown phrases it, controlling when the peak and release of that tension would take place. Musicologist Martin Cooper calls this practice a subtle form of unifying a piece of music and adds that Tchaikovsky brought it to a high point of refinement. (For more on this practice, see the next section.)
Tchaikovsky seldom used the European form of theme and variations in his compositions. (The second movement of his Piano Trio and the finale of his Third Orchestral Suite are two exceptions.) However, Brown states that the principle of variation was very much a part of Russian musical thought and creativity. Folk songs were extended by a continual series of variations which played behind the melody as it was repeated. This practice is called "changing backgrounds" by Brown, Francis Maes and other musicologists. On a slightly larger scale but in what Brown calls a "brilliantly sophisticated form," Glinka uses this principle in his orchestral scherzo Kamarinskaya to establish how the two seemingly dissimilar folk melodies he used were actually related. This process did not catalyze the music into saying something new; it did not combine or develop these themes toward a final point of argument as in European compositions. What it did do was consolidate the experience of hearing the music and keep listener interest from flagging.
Tchaikovsky was highly familiar with Kamarinskaya. He wrote to von Meck in 1880, "What a stunningly original piece is Kamarinskaya, from which all Russian composers up to the present day (and I, of course, among them) draw, in the most obvious fashion, contrapuntal and harmonic combinations as soon as they have to develop a Russian dance tune." To him, Russian orchestral music began with that piece, "just as the whole oak is in the acorn." Tchaikovsky uses "changing backgrounds" in a number of his pieces, varying accompaniments in rhythm, harmonization, counterpoint and timbre as he repeats the melody. In the First Piano Concerto, Brown explains, this occurs in the development section of the opening movement, immediately before and after the reentry of the soloist, when Tchaikovsky subtly changes the backgrounds for both principal themes but not the themes themselves. On a larger scale, Tchaikovsky uses Kamarinskaya's structural conceits to build the finale of his Second Symphony.
Like other late Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky relied heavily on orchestration for musical effects. Tchaikovsky, however, became noted for the "sensual opulence" and "voluptuous timbrel virtuosity" of his scoring. Like Glinka, Tchaikovsky tended toward bright primary colors and sharply delineated contrasts of texture. However, beginning with the Third Symphony, Tchaikovsky experimented with an increased range of timbres He continued further along this path with the Fourth Symphony and the orchestral suites, especially the Second. By the time he scored the scherzo of the Manfred symphony, Tchaikovsky was able to conjure what Brown calls "a kaleidoscopic web of delicate sound of remarkable virtuosity." Tchaikovsky tends to balance timbral extremes, matching high, delicate tones with darker, sometimes gloomier ones. The most familiar example of his extreme range of sound is in The Nutcracker.
Tchaikovsky's scoring was noted and admired by some of his peers. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, regularly referred his students at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to it as a model of how to orchestrate. He felt his own style of orchestral writing "too highly peppered," in his words, for his pupils to emulate. He considered Tchaikovsky's scores, again in his own words, "devoid of all striving after effect, give a healthy, beautiful sonority." This sonority, musicologist Richard Taruskin points out, is essentially Germanic in effect. Tchaikovsky's expert use of having two or more instruments play a melody simultaneously (a practice called doubling) and his ear for uncanny combinations of instruments resulted in "a generalized orchestral sonority in which the individual timbres of the instruments, being thoroughly mixed, would vanish."
Maes writes that self-expression "was not as central to aesthetic as is generally believed." Nevertheless, partly due to the composer's nature and partly due to the melodic and structural intricacies of his compositional style, expressive intensity came as a direct product of his music making. This intensity was entirely new to Russian music and prompted some Russians to place his name alongside that of Dostoyevsky. Soviet musicologist Aleksandr Ossovsky writes of the two men, "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."
The last few words of Ossovsky's statement made a point upon which critics have agreed universally. Tchaikovsky's music cannot be listened to passively and, according to another Soviet musicologist, Boris Asafyev, in fact strives to gain the attention and sympathy of its listeners. In this regard, Asafyev suggests, the composer could be considered an emotional dramatist in music, "with a gift for directing the attention of his hearers to the action of the sound images as effectively as the great classical dramatists, and primarily Shakespeare." Tchaikovsky's predecessor in this regard, Asafyev continues, is Robert Schumann, for whom
music served not only as a medium of self-expression a means of developing spiritual conflicts in accordance with the laws of drama; in other words, it was the artistic vehicle by whose means the emotions of the audience could be involved in the portrayal of human passion. The influence of the psychologically realistic principles propounded by Schumann proved stronger and more fruitful than the results he himself achieved.... This was achieved by Tchaikovsky who became not only the "regisseur of human emotion" as expressed through opera and plays but a dramatic symphonist and thinker.
German musicologist Hermann Kretzschmar credits Tchaikovsky in his later symphonies with offering "full images of life, developed freely, sometimes even dramatically, around psychological contrasts ... This music has the mark of the truly lived and felt experience." Botstein, in elaborating on this comment, suggests that listening to Tchaikovsky's music "became a psychological mirror connected to everyday experience, one that reflected on the dynamic nature of the listener’s own emotional self." This active engagement with the music "opened for the listener a vista of emotional and psychological tension and an extremity of feeling that possessed relevance because it seemed reminiscent of one’s own 'truly lived and felt experience' or one’s search for intensity in a deeply personal sense."
In works like the Serenade for Strings and the Variations on a Rococo Theme, Tchaikovsky shows himself highly gifted at writing in a style of 18th century European pastiche. As Soviet musicologist Daniel Zhitomirsky points out, the composer "was fond of delving into old music and had a great feeling and gift for conveying the spirit of distant historical periods." In the ballet The Sleeping Beauty and the opera The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky graduates from imitation to full-scale evocation. This practice, which Alexandre Benois calls "passé-ism," lends an air of timelessness and immediacy, making the past seem as though it were the present. By infusing The Queen of Spades with Rococo elements (Tchaikovsky himself describes the ballroom scenes as a "slavish imitation" of 18th century style), he uses the story's layers of ghostly fantasy to conjure up a dream world of the past—the Saint Petersburg of Catherine the Great, where the Russian capital was fully integrated with and played a major role in the culture of Europe.
On a practical level, Tchaikovsky was drawn to past styles because he felt he might find the solution to certain structural problems within them. His Rococo pastiches also may have offered escape into a musical world purer than his own, into which he felt himself irresistibly drawn. (In this sense, Tchaikovsky operated in the opposite manner to Igor Stravinsky, who turned to Neoclassicism partly as a form of compositional self-discovery.) Tchaikovsky's attraction to ballet might have allowed a similar refuge into a fairy-tale world, where he could freely write dance music within a tradition of French elegance.
Of Tchaikovsky's Western contemporaries, Robert Schumann stands out as an influence in formal structure, harmonic practices and piano writing, according to Brown and musicologist Roland John Wiley. As mentioned earlier, Asafyev comments that Schumann left his mark on Tchaikovsky not just as a formal influence but also as an example of musical dramaturgy and self-expression. Leon Botstein claims the music of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner also left their imprints on Tchaikovsky's orchestral style. The late-Romantic trend for writing orchestral suites, begun by Franz Lachner, Jules Massenet and Joachim Raff after the rediscovery of Bach's works in that genre, may have influenced Tchaikovsky to try his own hand at them. His teacher Anton Rubinstein's opera The Demon became a model for the final tableau of Eugene Onegin. So did Léo Delibes' ballets Coppélia and Sylvia for The Sleeping Beauty and Georges Bizet's opera Carmen (a work he admired tremendously) for The Queen of Spades. Otherwise, it was to composers of the past that Tchaikovsky turned—Beethoven, whose music he respected; Mozart, whose music he loved; Glinka, whose opera A Life for the Tsar made an indelible impression on him as a child and whose scoring he studied assiduously; and Adolphe Adam, whose ballet Giselle was a favorite of his from his student days and whose score he consulted while working on The Sleeping Beauty. Beethoven's string quartets may have influenced Tchaikovsky's attempts in that medium. Other composers whose work interested Tchaikovsky included Hector Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Henry Litolff.
Maes maintains that, regardless of what he was writing, Tchaikovsky's main concern was how his music impacted his listeners on an aesthetic level, at specific moments in the piece and on a cumulative level once the music had finished. This meant that, instead of the intellectual working-out of themes in the manner of Beethoven or Brahms, Tchaikovsky focused on how his listeners would respond to a beautiful melody, how captivated they would be with the instrument or instruments playing it or how moved they would be with the emotional build-up and release in a musical passage. What his listeners experienced on an emotional or visceral level became an end in itself. Tchaikovsky's focus on pleasing his audience might be considered closer to that of Mendelssohn or Mozart. Considering he lived and worked in what was probably the last 19th century feudal nation, the statement is not actually that surprising.
Tchaikovsky saw no conflict in making his music accessible to his listeners or playing to their tastes. He remained highly sensitive to their concerns and expectations and searched constantly for new ways to meet them. His use of stylized 18th-century melodies and patriotic themes was geared toward the values of Russian aristocracy. He was aided in this by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who commissioned The Sleeping Beauty from Tchaikovsky and the libretto for The Queen of Spades from Modest with their use of 18th century settings stipulated firmly. Tchaikovsky also used the polonaise frequently, the dance being a musical code for the Romanov dynasty and a symbol of Russian patriotism. Using it in the finale of a work could assure its success with Russian listeners.
Tchaikovsky received a mixed reception from the people for whom he wrote. Like Nikolai Rubinstein with the First Piano Concerto, virtuoso and pedagogue Leopold Auer rejected the Violin Concerto initially but changed his mind; he played it to great public success and taught it to his students, who included Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. Wilhelm Fitzenhagen "intervened considerably in shaping what he considered 'his' piece," the Variations on a Rococo Theme, according to music critic Michael Steinberg. Fitzenhangen dropped one variation, reshuffled the order of the others (which necessitated further cuts and splices) and added notes to the solo part in the autograph copy of the score, all to increase the showiness of the piece. Tchaikovsky did nothing, though he was angered by Fitzenhagen's license, and the Rococo Variations were published with the cellist's amendments. The composer's original has since been published but most cellists still perform Fitzenhagen's version.
Tchaikovsky's collaborations on his three ballets proved more consistently positive and in Marius Petipa, who worked with him on the last two, the composer may have had an advocate. Petipa and Tchaikovsky accorded each other the utmost respect and civility. When The Sleeping Beauty was seen by its dancers as needlessly complicated, Petipa went out of his way to convince them that the music was worth the extra effort. For his part, Tchaikovsky understood he had to compromise to make his music as practical as possible for the dancers and otherwise had more creative freedom than ballet composers were usually accorded. He responded with scores that minimized the rhythmic subtleties normally present in his work but were inventive and rich in melody, with more refined and imaginative orchestration than in the average ballet score.
Tchaikovsky's reception with critics has been mixed but has improved over time. Inside Russia, even after Dostoyevsky's Pushkin Memorial speech in 1880, some considered Tchaikovsky suspect for two reasons—that his music was not Russian enough and that Western European critics appreciated it because it was more like theirs than that of the nationalists. At least in the latter, according to Botstein, there may have been a grain of truth as critics, especially in the Germanic countries, lauded him for the "indeterminacy of his artistic character" and for "being truly at home in the non-Russian." Tchaikovsky was "painfully aware" of this skepticism at home, Botstein writes, but also realized that critics abroad recognized "the apparent synthesis of a genuine national element with the presumed compositional norms of Western music" and saw his compositions as offering music more substantive than the base exoticism of works by his nationalist countrymen. Of the foreign critics who did not care for his music, Eduard Hanslick lambasted the Violin Concerto as a musical composition "whose stink one can hear" and William Forster Abtrop wrote of the Fifth Symphony, "The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a hoard of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delerium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!
The division between Russian and Western critics remained through much of the 20th century but for a different reason. According to Brown and Wiley, the prevailing view of Western critics was that the same qualities in Tchaikovsky's music that appealed to audiences—its strong emotions, directness and eloquence and colorful orchestration—added up to compositional shallowness. While Russian critics and musicologists such as Asafyev considered it musical snobbery, comments such as British musicologist Edward Lockspeiser's on "the garish exteriorisation of a composer who can never refrain from wearing his heart on his sleeve" remained typical in the West for this time. The music's use in popular and film music, Brown says, lowered its esteem in their eyes still further. There was also the fact, pointed out earlier, that Tchaikovsky's music demanded active engagement from the listener and, as Botstein phrases it, "spoke to the listener’s imaginative interior life, regardless of nationality." Conservative critics, he adds, may have felt threatened by the "violence and 'hysteria' " they detected and felt such emotive displays "attacked the boundaries of conventional aesthetic appreciation—the cultured reception of art as an act of formalist discernment—and the polite engagement of art as an act of amusement."
There has also been the fact that the composer did not follow sonata form strictly, relying instead on juxtaposing blocks of tonalities and thematic groups. Maes states this point has been seen at times as a weakness rather than a sign of originality. Even with what Schonberg termed "a professional reevaluaton" of Tchaikovsky's work, the practice of faulting Tchaikovsky for not following in the steps of the Viennese masters has not gone away entirely, while his intent of writing music that would please his audiences is also sometimes taken to task. In a 1992 article, New York Times critic Allan Kozinn writes, "It is Tchaikovsky's flexibility, after all, that has given us a sense of his variability.... Tchaikovsky was capable of turning out music—entertaining and widely beloved though it is—that seems superficial, manipulative and trivial when regarded in the context of the whole literature. The First Piano Concerto is a case in point. It makes a joyful noise, it swims in pretty tunes and its dramatic rhetoric allows (or even requires) a soloist to make a grand, swashbuckling impression. But it is entirely hollow."
In the 21st century, however, critics are reacting more positively to Tchaikovsky's tunefulness and craftsmanship. "Tchaikovsky is being viewed again as a composer of the first rank, writing music of depth, innovation and influence," according to cultural historian and author Joseph Horowitz. Important in this reevaluation is a shift in attitude away from the disdain for overt emotionalism that marked half of the 20th century. "We have acquired a different view of Romantic 'excess,'" Horowitz says. "Tchaikovsky is today more admired than deplored for his emotional frankness; if his music seems harried and insecure, so are we all."
Horowitz maintains that, while the standing of Tchaikovsky's music has fluctuated among critics, for the public, "it never went out of style, and his most popular works have yielded iconic sound-bytes , such as the love theme from Romeo and Juliet." Along with those tunes, Botstein adds, "Tchaikovsky appealed to audiences outside of Russia with an immediacy and directness that were startling even for music, an art form often associated with emotion." Tchaikovsky's melodies, stated with eloquence and matched by his inventive use of harmony and orchestration, have always ensured audience appeal. His popularity is considered secure, with his following in many countries, including Great Britain and the United States, second only to that of Beethoven. His music has also been used frequently in the realms of popular music and film.
According to Wiley, Tchaikovsky was a pioneer in several ways. "Thanks in large part to Nadezhda von Meck", Wiley writes, "he became the first full-time professional Russian composer". This, Wiley adds, allowed him the time and freedom to consolidate the Western compositional practices he had learned at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory with Russian folk song and other native musical elements to fulfill his own expressive goals and forge an original, deeply personal style. He made an impact not only in absolute works such as the symphony but also in program music and, as Wiley phrases it, "transformed Liszt's and Berlioz's achievements ... into matters of Shakespearean elevation and psychological import." Wiley and Holden both note that Tchaikovsky did all this without a native school of composition upon which to fall back. They point out that only Glinka had preceded him in combining Russian and Western practices and his teachers in Saint Petersburg had been thoroughly Germanic in their musical outlook. He was, they write, for all intents and purposes alone in his artistic quest.
Maes and Taruskin write that Tchaikovsky believed that his professionalism in combining skill and high standards in his musical works separated him from his contemporaries in The Five. Maes adds that, like them, he wanted to produce music that reflected Russian national character but which did so to the highest European standards of quality. Tchaikovsky, according to Maes, came along at a time when the nation itself was deeply divided as to what that character truly was. Like his country, Maes writes, it took him time to discover how to express his Russianness in a way that was true to himself and what he had learned. Because of his professionalism, Maes says, he worked hard at this goal and succeeded. The composer's friend, music critic Hermann Laroche, wrote of The Sleeping Beauty that the score contained "an element deeper and more general than color, in the internal structure of the music, above all in the foundation of the element of melody. This basic element is undoubtedly Russian."
Tchaikovsky also encouraged himself to reach beyond Russia with his music, according to Maes and Taruskin. His exposure to Western music, they write, encouraged him to think it belonged not just to Russia but to the world at large. Volkov adds that this mindset made him think seriously about Russia's place in European musical culture—the first Russian composer to do so. It steeled him to became the first Russian composer to personally acquaint foreign audiences with his own works, Warrack writes, as well as those of other Russian composers. In his biography of Tchaikovsky, Anthony Holden recalls the dearth of Russian classical music before Tchaikovsky's birth, then places the composer's achievements into historical perspective: "Twenty years after Tchaikovsky's death, in 1913, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring erupted onto the musical scene, signalling Russia's arrival into 20th-century music. Between these two very different worlds Tchaikovsky's music became the sole bridge."
The following recording was made in Moscow in January 1890, by Julius Block on behalf of Thomas Edison.
According to musicologist Leonid Sabaneyev, Tchaikovsky was not comfortable with being recorded for posterity and tried to shy away from it. On an apparently separate visit from the one related above, Block asked the composer to play something on a piano or at least say something. Tchaikovsky refused. He told Block, "I am a bad pianist and my voice is raspy. Why should one eternalize it?"
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