Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich

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Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich

Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich, famous Russian composer, brother of Modest Tchaikovsky; b. Votkinsk, May 7, 1840; d. St. Petersburg, Nov. 6, 1893. The son of a mining inspector at a plant in the Urals, he was given a good education; had a French governess and a music teacher. When he was 10, the family moved to St. Petersburg and he was sent to a school of jurisprudence, from which he graduated at 19, becoming a government clerk; while at school he studied music with Lomakin, but did not display conspicuous talent as either a pianist or composer. At the age of 21 he was accepted in a musical inst., newly established by Anton Rubinstein, which was to become the St. Petersburg Cons. He studied with Zaremba (harmony and counterpoint) and Rubinstein (composition), graduating in 1865, winning a silver medal for his cantata to Schiller’s Hymn to Joy. In 1866 he became prof, of harmony at the Moscow Cons. As if to compensate for a late beginning in his profession, he began to compose with great application. His early works reveal little individuality. With his symphonic poem Fatum (1868) came the first formulation of his style, highly subjective, preferring minor modes, permeated with nostalgic longing and alive with keen rhythms. In 1869 he undertook the composition of his overture-fantasy Romeo and Juliet; not content with what he had written, he profited by the advice of Balakirev, whom he met in St. Petersburg, and revised the work in 1870; but this version proved equally unsatisfactory; Tchaikovsky laid the composition aside, and did not complete it until 1880; in its final form it became one of his most successful works. The Belgian soprano, Désirée Artot, a member of an opera troupe visiting St. Petersburg in 1868, took great interest in Tchaikovsky, and he was moved by her attentions; for a few months he seriously contemplated marriage, and so notified his father (his mother had died of cholera when he was 14 years old). But this proved to be a passing infatuation on her part, for soon she married the Spanish singer Padilla; Tchaikovsky reacted to this event with a casual philosophical remark about the inconstancy of human attachments. Throughout his career Tchaikovsky never allowed his psychological turmoil to interfere with his work. Besides teaching and composing, he contributed music criticism to Moscow newspapers for several years (1868-74), made altogether 26 trips abroad (to Paris, Berlin, Vienna, N.Y.), and visited the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, reporting his impressions for the Moscow daily Russkyie Vedomosti. His closest friends were members of his own family, his brothers (particularly Modest, his future biographer), and his married sister Alexandra Davidov, at whose estate, Kamenka, he spent most of his summers. The correspondence with them, all of which was preserved and eventually publ., throws a true light on Tchaikovsky’s character and his life. His other close friends were his publisher, Jurgenson, Nikolai Rubinstein, and several other musicians. The most extraordinary of his friendships was the epistolary association with Nadezhda von Meek, a wealthy widow whom he never met but who was to play an important role in his life. Through the violinist Kotek she learned about Tchaikovsky’s financial difficulties, and commissioned him to write some compositions, at large fees; then arranged to pay him an annuity of 6,000 rubles. For more than 13 years they corresponded voluminously, even when they lived in the same city (Moscow, Florence); on several occasions she hinted that she would not be averse to a personal meeting, but Tchaikovsky invariably declined such a suggestion, under the pretext that one should not see one’s guardian angel in the flesh. On Tchaikovsky’s part, this correspondence had to remain within the circumscribed domain of art, personal philosophy, and reporting of daily events, without touching on the basic problems of his existence. On July 18, 1877, he contracted marriage with a conservatory student, Antonina Milyukova, who had declared her love for him. This was an act of defiance of his own nature; Tchaikovsky was a homosexual, and made no secret of it in the correspondence with his brother Modest, who was also a homosexual. He thought that by flaunting a wife he could prevent the already rife rumors about his sexual preference from spreading further. The result was disastrous, and Tchaikovsky fled from his wife in horror. He attempted suicide by walking into the Moskva River in order to catch pneumonia, but suffered nothing more severe than simple discomfort. He then went to St. Petersburg to seek the advice of his brother Anatol, a lawyer, who made suitable arrangements with Tchaikovsky’s wife for a separation. (They were never divorced; she died in an insane asylum in 1917.) Von Meek, to whom Tchaikovsky wrote candidly of the hopeless failure of his marriage (without revealing the true cause of that failure), made at once an offer of further financial assistance, which he gratefully accepted. He spent several months during 1877-78 in Italy, Switzerland, Paris, and Vienna. During these months he completed one of his greatest works, the 4th Sym., dedicated to von Meek. It was performed for the first time in Moscow on Feb. 22, 1878, but Tchaikovsky did not cut short his sojourn abroad to attend the performance. He resigned from the Moscow Cons, in the autumn of 1878, and from that time dedicated himself entirely to composition. The continued subsidy from von Meek allowed him to forget money matters. Early in 1878 he completed his most successful opera, Evgeny Onegin (“lyric scenes,” after Pushkin); it was first produced in Moscow by a cons, ensemble, on March 29, 1879, and gained success only gradually; the first performance at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg did not take place until Oct. 31, 1884. A morbid depression was still Tchaikovsky’s natural state of mind, but every new work sustained his faith in his destiny as a composer, despite many disheartening reversals. His Piano Concerto No. 1, rejected by Nikolai Rubinstein as unplayable, was given its premiere (somewhat incongruously) in Boston, on Oct. 25, 1875, played by Biilow, and afterward was performed all over the world by famous pianists, including Nikolai Rubinstein. The Violin Concerto, criticized by Leopold Auer (to whom the score was originally dedicated) and attacked by Hanslick with sarcasm and virulence at its premiere by Brodsky in Vienna (1881), survived all its detractors to become one of the most celebrated pieces in the violin repertoire. The 5th Sym. (1888) was successful from the very first. Early in 1890 Tchaikovsky wrote his 2nd important opera, The Queen of Spades, which was produced at the Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg in that year. His ballets Swan Lake (1876) and The Sleeping Beauty (1889) became famous on Russian stages. But at the peak of his career, Tchaikovsky suffered a severe psychological blow; von Meek notified him of the discontinuance of her subsidy, and with this announcement she abruptly terminated their correspondence. He could now well afford the loss of the money, but his pride was deeply hurt by the manner in which von Meek had acted. It is indicative of Tchaikovsky’s inner strength that even this desertion of one whom he regarded as his staunchest friend did not affect his ability to work. In 1891 he undertook his only voyage to America. He was received with honors as a celebrated composer; he led 4 concerts of his works in N.Y. and one each in Baltimore and Philadelphia. He did not linger in the U.S., however, and returned to St. Petersburg in a few weeks. Early in 1892 he made a concert tour as a conductor in Russia, and then proceeded to Warsaw and Germany. In the meantime he had purchased a house in the town of Klin, not far from Moscow, where he wrote his last sym., the Pathétique. Despite the perfection of his technique, he did not arrive at the desired form and substance of this work at once, and discarded his original sketch. The title Pathétique was suggested to him by his brother Modest, and the score was dedicated to his nephew, Vladimir Davidov. Its music is the final testament of Tchaikovsky’s life, and an epitome of his philosophy of fatalism. In the first movement, the trombones are given the theme of the Russian service for the dead. Remarkably, the score of one of his gayest works, the ballet The Nutcracker, was composed simultaneously with the early sketches for the Pathétique. Tchaikovsky was in good spirits when he went to St. Petersburg to conduct the premiere of the Pathétique, on Oct. 28, 1893 (which was but moderately successful). A cholera epidemic was then raging in St. Petersburg, and the population was specifically warned against drinking unboiled water, but apparently he carelessly did exactly that. He showed the symptoms of cholera soon afterward, and nothing could be done to save him. The melodramatic hypothesis that the fatal drink of water was a defiance of death, in perfect knowledge of the danger, since he must have remembered his mother’s death of the same dread infection, is untenable in the light of publ. private letters between the attendant physician and Modest Tchaikovsky at the time. Tchaikovsky’s fatalism alone would amply account for his lack of precaution. Almost immediately after his death a rumor spread that he had committed suicide, and reports to that effect were publ. in respectable European newspapers (but not in Russian publications), and repeated even in some biographical dictionaries (particularly in Britain). After the grim fantasy seemed definitely refuted, a ludicrous paper by an emigre Russian woman was publ., claiming private knowledge of a homosexual scandal involving a Russian nobleman’s nephew (in another version a member of the Romanov imperial family) which led to a “trial” of Tchaikovsky by a jury of his former school classmates, who offered Tchaikovsky a choice between honorable suicide or disgrace and possible exile to Siberia; a family council, with Tchaikovsky’s own participation, advised the former solution, and Tchaikovsky was supplied with arsenic; the family doctor was supposed to be a part of the conspiracy, as were Tchaikovsky’s own brothers. Amazingly enough, this outrageous fabrication was accepted as historical fact by some biographers, and even found its way into the pages of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980). In Russia, the truth of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was totally suppressed, and any references to it in his diary and letters were expunged.

As a composer, Tchaikovsky stands apart from the militant national movement of the “Mighty Five.” The Russian element is, of course, very strong in his music, and upon occasion he made use of Russian folk songs in his works, but this national spirit is instinctive rather than consciously cultivated. His personal relationship with the St. Petersburg group of nationalists was friendly without being close; his correspondence with Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and others was mostly concerned with professional matters. Tchaikovsky’s music was frankly sentimental; his supreme gift of melody, which none of his Russian contemporaries could match, secured for him a lasting popularity among performers and audiences. His influence was profound on the Moscow group of musicians, of whom Arensky and Rachmaninoff were the most talented. He wrote in every genre, and was successful in each; besides his stage works, syms., chamber music, and piano compositions, he composed a great number of lyric songs that are the most poignant creations of his genius. By a historical paradox, Tchaikovsky became the most popular Russian composer under the Soviet regime. His subjectivism, his fatalism, his emphasis on melancholy moods, even his reactionary political views (which included a brand of amateurish anti-Semitism), failed to detract from his stature in the new society. In fact, official spokesmen of Soviet Russia repeatedly urged Soviet composers to follow in the path of Tchaikovsky’s aesthetics. His popularity is also very strong in Anglo-Saxon countries, particularly in America; much less so in France and Italy; in Germany his influence is insignificant.


dramatic: Opera: Voyevoda, op. 3 (1867-68; Moscow, Feb. 11, 1869; destroyed by Tchaikovsky; reconstructed by Pavel Lamm); Undine (destroyed by Tchaikovsky; only fragments extant); Oprichnik (1870-72; St. Petersburg, April 24, 1874); Kuznets Vakula (Vakula the Smith; 1874; St. Petersburg, Dec. 6, 1876); Evgeny Onegin (1877-78; Moscow, March, 29, 1879); Orleanskaya deva (The Maid of Orleans; 1878-79; St. Petersburg, Feb. 25, 1881; rev. 1882); Mazepa (1881-83; Moscow, Feb. 15, 1884); Cherevichki (The Little Shoes; 1885; Moscow, Jan. 31, 1887; rev. version of Kuznets Vakula); Charodeyka (The Sorceress; 1885-87; St. Petersburg, Nov. 1, 1887); Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades), op. 68 (St. Petersburg, Dec. 19, 1890); Manta, op. 69 (1891; St. Petersburg, Dec. 18, 1892). Ballet: Lebedinoye ozero (Swan Lake), op. 20 (1875-76; Moscow, March 4, 1877); Spyashchaya krasavitsa (The Sleeping Beauty), op. 66 (1888-89; St. Petersburg, Jan. 15, 1890); Shch-elkunchik (The Nutcracker), op. 71 (1891-92; St. Petersburg, Dec. 18, 1892). ORCH.: 6 numbered syms.: No. 1, op. 13, Winter Dreams (1st and 2nd versions, 1866; 2nd version, Moscow, Feb. 15, 1868; 3rd version, 1874; Moscow, Dec. 1, 1883), No. 2, op. 17, Little Russian or Ukrainian (1st version, 1872; Moscow, Feb. 7, 1873; 2nd version, 1879-80; St. Petersburg, Feb. 12, 1881), No. 3, op. 29, Polish (Moscow, Nov. 19, 1875), No. 4, op. 36 (1877-78; Moscow, Feb. 22, 1878), No. 5, op. 64 (St. Petersburg, Nov. 17, 1888), and No. 6, op. 74, Pathétique (St. Petersburg, Oct. 28, 1893); also Manfred Symphony, op. 58 (1885; Moscow, March 23, 1886) and Sym. in E- flat Major (1892; unfinished; sketches utilized in Piano Concerto No. 3, op. 75, and in Andante and Finale for Piano and Orch., op. 79; sym. reconstructed and finished in 1957 by S. Bogatyrev, and publ. as Sym. No. 7); Allegro ma non tanto for Strings (1863-64); Little Allegro for 2 Flutes and Strings (1863-64); Andante ma non troppo for Small Orch. (1863-64); Agitato and Allegro for Small Orch. (1863-64); Allegro vivo (1863-64); The Romans in the Coliseum (1863-64; not extant); Groza (The Storm), overture to Ostrovsky’s play, op. 76 (1864; St. Petersburg, March 7, 1896); Overture (1st version for Small Orch., 1865; St. Petersburg, Nov. 26, 1865; 2nd version for Large Orch., 1866; Moscow, March 16, 1866); Concerto Overture (1865-66; Voronezh, 1931); Festival Overture on the Danish national anthem, op. 15 (1866; Moscow, Feb. 11, 1867); Fatum, symphonic poem, op. 77 (1868; Moscow, Feb. 27, 1869; destroyed by Tchaikovsky; reconstructed, 1896); Romeo and Juliet, fantasy overture (1st version, 1869; Moscow, March 16, 1870; 2ndversion, 1870; St. Petersburg, Feb. 17, 1872; 3rd version, 1880; Tiflis, May 1, 1886); Serenade for Nikolai Rubinstein’s Name Day for Small Orch. (Moscow, Dec. 18, 1872); Burya (The Tempest), symphonic fantasia, op. 18 (Moscow, Dec. 19, 1873); 3 piano concertos: No. 1, op. 23 (Boston, Oct. 25, 1875), No. 2, op.44 (1879-80; N.Y., Nov. 11 [public rehearsal], Nov. 12 [official premiere], 1881), and No. 3, op. 75 (1893; St. Petersburg, Jan. 19, 1895); Sérénade mélancolique for Violin with Orch., op. 26 (1875; Moscow, Jan. 28, 1876); Slavonic March, op. 31 (Moscow, Nov. 17, 1876); Francesca da Rimini, symphonic fantasia, op. 32, after Dante (1876; Moscow, March 9, 1877); Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orch., op. 33 (1876; Moscow, Nov. 30, 1877); Valse-Scherzo for Violin and Orch., op. 34 (1877; Paris, Sept. 20, 1878); Violin Concerto, op. 35 (1878; Vienna, Dec. 4, 1881); 4 suites: No. 1, op. 43 (Moscow, Nov. 23, 1879), No. 2, op. 53 (1883; Moscow, Feb. 16, 1884), No. 3, op. 55 (1884; St. Petersburg, Jan. 28, 1885), and No. 4, op. 61, Mozartiana (Moscow, Nov. 26, 1887); Italian Capriccio, op. 45 (Moscow, Dec. 18, 1880); Serenade for Strings, op. 48 (1880; St. Petersburg, Oct. 30, 1881); 1812 Overture, op. 49 (1880; Moscow, Aug. 20, 1882); Festival Coronation March (Moscow, June 4, 1883); Concert Fantasia for Piano and Orch., op. 56 (1884; Moscow, March 6, 1885); Elegy for Strings (Moscow, Dec. 28, 1884); Jurists’ March (1885); Pezzo capriccioso for Cello with Orch., op. 62 (1887; Moscow, Dec. 7, 1889); Hamlet, fantasy overture, op. 67 (St. Petersburg, Nov. 24, 1888); Voyevoda, symphonic ballad, op. 78 (Moscow, Nov. 18, 1891); Shchelkunchik (The Nutcracker), suite from the ballet, op. 71a (St. Petersburg, March 19, 1892); Andante and Finale for Piano and Orch., op. 79 (1893; unfinished; finished and orchestrated by Taneyev; St. Petersburg, Feb. 20, 1896). CHAMBER: 3 string quartets: No. 1, op. 11 (1871), No. 2, op. 22 (1874), and No. 3, op. 30 (1876); Piano Trio, op. 50 (Moscow, Oct. 30, 1882); Adagio for 4 Horns (1863-64); Adagio for 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, English Horn, and Bass Clarinet (1863-64); Adagio molto for String Quartet and Harp (1863-64); Allegretto for String Quartet (1863-64); Allegretto molto for String Trio (1863-64); Allegro for Piano Sextet (1863-64); Allegro vivace for String Quartet (1863-64); Andante ma non troppo, prelude for String Quartet (1863-64); Andante molto for String Quartet (1863-64); String Quartet (1865; 1 movement only); Souvenir d’un lieu cher for Violin and Piano, op. 42 (1878); Souvenir de Florence for String Sextet, op. 70 (1890; rev. 1891-92; St. Petersburg, Dec. 7, 1892). Piano: Allegro (1863-64; unfinished); Theme and Variations (1863-64); Sonata, op. 80 (1865); 2 pieces, op. 1 (1867); Souvenir de Hapsal, op. 2 (1867); Valse caprice, op. 4 (1868); Romance, op. 5 (1868); Valse-Scherzo, op. 7 (1870); Capriccio, op. 8 (1870); Trois morceaux, op. 9 (1870); Deux morceaux, op. 10 (1871); 6 morceaux, op. 19 (1873); 6 morceaux, composés sur un seul thème, op. 21 (1873); Les Quatre Saisons, 12 characteristic pieces for each month of the year (1875-76); March for the Volunteer Fleet (1878); Album pour enfants: 24 pièces faciles (à la Schumann), op. 39 (1878); Douze morceaux (difficulté moyenne), op. 40 (1878); Sonata, op. 37 (1878); 6 morceaux, op. 51 (1882); Impromptu-Caprice (1884); Dumka: Russian Rustic Scene, op. 59 (1886); Valse-Scherzo (1889); Impromptu (1889); Aveu passioni (e. 1892); Military march (1893); Dix-huit morceaux, op. 72 (1893); Impromptu (Momento lirico) (e. 1893; unfinished; finished by Taneyev). VOCAL: Choral: K radosti (Ode to Joy), cantata for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (1865; St. Petersburg, Jan. 10, 1866); Cantata for the bicentenary of the birth of Peter the Great for Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, June 12, 1872); Cantata for Tenor, Chorus, and Orch. (1875; St. Petersburg, May 6, 1876); Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom for Chorus, op. 41 (1878); Vesper Service for Chorus, op. 52 (1881-82); Moskva (Moscow), coronation cantata for Soloists, Chorus, and Orch. (Moscow, May 27, 1883); 9 sacred pieces for Chorus (1884-85); Hymn in honor of Saints Cyril and Methodius for Chorus (Moscow, April 18, 1885); Legenda for Chorus, op. 54/5 (1889); etc. Other: About 100 songs, among them such favorites as Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt (after Goethe) and Berceuse.


COLLECTED WORKS, SOURCE MATERIAL: An exhaustive ed. of his compositions was publ. in Moscow and Leningrad (1940-71). His diaries for the years 1873-91 were publ. in Moscow and Petrograd (1923; Eng. tr., 1945). He wrote a treatise which was publ. in an Eng. tr. as Guide to the Practical Study of Harmony (Leipzig, 1900). A complete ed. of his literary works and correspondence commenced publ. in Moscow in 1953. The New Edition of the Complete Works began publ. in Moscow and Mainz in 1993. BIOGRAPHICAL, ANALYTICAL, AND CRITICAL: H. Laroche, Na pamyat o P.I. T.(In Memory of PL T.; St. Petersburg, 1894); idem, Pamyati T.(Memories of T.; St. Petersburg, 1894); V. Baskin, P.I. T.(St. Petersburg, 1895); R. New-march, T: His Life and Works (London, 1900); M. Tchaikovsky, Zhizn P.I. T.(The Life of P.I. T.; 3 vols., Moscow, 1900-2; abr. Eng. tr. by R. Newmarch as The Life and Letters of P.I. T., London, 1906); E. Evans, T. (London, 1906; 2nd ed., rev, 1935); I. Glebov, P.I. T.: evo zhizn i tvorchestvo (P.I. T.: Life and Works; Petrograd, 1922); idem, Instrumentalnoye tvorchestvo T.(The Instrumental Works of T.; Petrograd, 1922); idem, T.; opit kharakteristiki (T: An Attempt at a Characterization; Petrograd, 1923); E. Blom, T.: Orchestral Works (London, 1927); N. Findeisen, Kamernaya muzika T.(T.’s Chamber Music; Moscow, 1930); G. Abraham, ed., T.: A Symposium (London, 1945); H. Weinstock, T. (N.Y., 1946); D. Shostakovich et al., Russian Symphony: Thoughts About T.(N.Y., 1947); B. Yarustovsky, Opernaya dramaturgiya T.(T.’s Operatic Dramatury; Moscow and Leningrad, 1947); E. Orlova, Romansi T.(T.’s Songs; Moscow and Leningrad, 1948); A. Nikolayev, Fortepiaovye naslediye T.(T.’s Piano Legacy; Moscow and Leningrad, 1949; 2nd ed., 1958); D. Zhitmorsky, Baleti P. T.(P. T.’s Ballets; Moscow and Leningrad, 1950; 2nd ed., 1958); A. Nikolayev, Fortepiannoye proizvedeniya P.I. T.(P.I. T.’s Piano Works; Moscow, 1957); V. Protopopov and N. Tumanina, Oper-noye tvorchestvo T.(T.’s Operas; Moscow, 1957); N. Nikolayeva, Simfonii P.I. T.(P.I. T.’s Symphonies; Moscow, 1958); L. Raaben, Skripichniye i violonchel niye proizvedeniya P.I. T.(P.I. T.’s Violin and Cello Works; Moscow, 1958); A. Alshvang, P.I. T.(Moscow, 1959); A. Dolzhansky, Simfonicheskaya muzika T.(T.’s Symphonic Music; Moscow, 1961; 2nd ed., 1965); G. Krauklis, Skripichniye proizvedeniya P.I. T.(P.I. T.’s Violin Works; Moscow, 1961); N. Tumanina, T.(Moscow, 1962-68); A. Alshvang, Pi. T. (Moscow, 1967); J. Warrack, T.: Symphonies and Concertos (London, 1969); E. Garden, I. (London, 1973; 2nd ed., rev., 1984); J. Warrack, T.(London, 1973); V. Volkoff, T.(Boston and London, 1974); D. Brown, T.: A Biographical and Critical Study: Vol. I: The Early Years (1840-1874) (London, 1978), Vol. II: The Crisis Years (1874-1878) (London, 1982), and Vol. Ill: The Years of Wandering (1878-1885) (London, 1986); J. Warrack, T. Ballet Music (London, 1979); W. Strutte, T.(Sydney, 1983); R. Wiley, T.’s Ballets (Oxford, 1985); E. Yoffe, T. in America: The Composer’s Visit to Celebrate the Opening of Carnegie Hall in New York City (N.Y., 1986); H. Zajaczkowski, T.’s Musical Style (Ann Arbor, 1987); N. John, ed., T.: Eugene Onegin (London, 1988); A. Kendall, T.: A Biography (London, 1988); A. Orlova, T. Day by Day: A Biography in Documents (ed. by M. Brown and tr. by F. Jonas; Ann Arbor, 1988); idem, T.: A Self- Portrait (Oxford, 1990); A. Poznansky, T.; The Quest for the Inner Man (N.Y., 1991); J. Brenner, T., ou, La nuit d’octobre: 1840-1893 (Monaco, 1993); C. Casini and M. Delogu, T.: La vita tutte le composizioni (Milan, 1993); E. Garden and N. Gotteri, eds., and G. von Meek, tr., “To my Best Friend:” Correspondence Between T. and Nadezha von Meek, 1876-1878 (Oxford, 1993); A. Lischke, P.I. T.(Paris, 1993); A. Poznansky, T.’s Last Days: A Documentary Study (Oxford, 1996); N. Berberova, T.(St. Petersburg, 1997); L. Kearney, ed., T. and His World (Princeton, 1998); L. Sidelnikov, T.(Rostov-na- Donu, 1998).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire