Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the most loved of Russian composers. His music is famous for its strong emotion, and his technical skill and strict work habits helped guarantee its lasting appeal.
Born on May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk in the Vyatka district of Russia, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the son of a successful engineer. Peter and his brothers and sister received a sound education from their French governess. His parents sometimes took him to concerts, and after one such evening he complained that he could not fall asleep because of the music stuck in his head. He was devoted to his mother, and at age four he and his sister composed a song for her. Her death when he was fourteen was a huge blow to him.
Tchaikovsky attended law school in St. Petersburg, Russia, and, while studying law and government, he took music lessons, including some composing, from Gabriel Lomakin. Tchaikovsky graduated at the age of nineteen and took a job as a bureau clerk. He worked hard, but he hated the job; by this time he was totally absorbed by music. He soon met the Rubinstein brothers, Anton (1829–1894) and Nikolai (1835–1881), both of whom were composers. Anton was a pianist second only to Franz Liszt (1811–1886) in technical brilliance and fame. In 1862 Anton opened Russia's first conservatory (a school that focuses on teaching the fine arts), under the sponsorship of the Imperial Russian Music Society (IRMS), in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky was its first composition student.
Tchaikovsky's early works were well made but not memorable. Anton Rubinstein was demanding and critical, and when Tchaikovsky graduated two years later he was still somewhat frightened by Anton's harshness. In 1866 Nikolai Rubinstein invited Tchaikovsky to Moscow, Russia, to live with him and serve as professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, which he had just established. Tchaikovsky's father was now in financial (money-related) trouble, and the composer had to support himself on his meager earnings from the conservatory. The musical poems Fatum and Romeo and Juliet that he wrote in 1869 were the first works to show the style he became famous for. Romeo and Juliet was redone with Mily Balakirev's (1837–1910) help in 1870 and again in 1879.
During the 1870s and later, there was considerable communication between Tchaikovsky and the Rubinsteins on the one hand and the members of the "Mighty Five" Russian composers—Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin (1834–1887), Modest Mussorgsky (1839–1881), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908), and César Cui—on the other. It was widely reported that the two groups did not get along, but this was not true. Tchaikovsky worked as an all-around musician in the early 1870s, and, as was expected of a representative of the IRMS, he taught, composed, wrote critical essays, and conducted (although he was not a great conductor). In 1875 he composed what is perhaps his most universally known and loved work, the Piano Concerto No. 1. Anton Rubinstein mocked the piece, although he himself often performed it years later as a concert pianist. Also popular was Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake (1876). It is the most successful ballet ever written if measured in terms of broad audience appeal.
A disastrous marriage
In 1877 Tchaikovsky married the twenty-eight-year-old Antonina Miliukova, his student at the conservatory. It has been suggested that she reminded him of Tatiana, a character in his opera Eugene Onegin. His unfortunate wife, who became mentally ill and died in 1917, not only suffered rejection by her husband but also the vicious criticism of his brother Modeste Tchaikovsky. Modeste, like Peter, was a misogynist (one who hates women). Modeste attacked Antonina in a biography he wrote about Peter. This was an attempt to shield Peter and mask his weaknesses. Later biographers repeated and even exaggerated Modeste's claim that Antonina was cheap and high-strung.
Tchaikovsky never stuck around to find out what she was like. Within a few weeks he had fled Moscow alone for an extended stay abroad. He made arrangements through his relatives to never see his wife again. In his correspondence of this period—indeed through a large part of his career—he was often morbid (gloomy) about his wife, money, his friends, even his music and himself. He often spoke of suicide. This, too, has been reported widely by Tchaikovsky's many biographers. Even during his life critics treated him unkindly because of his open, emotional music. But he never sought to change his style, though he was dissatisfied at one time or another with most of his works. He also never stopped composing.
Arrangement with Madame von Meck
Tchaikovsky became involved in another important relationship at about the same time as his marriage. Through third parties an unusual but helpful arrangement with the immensely wealthy Nadezhda von Meck was made. She was attracted by his music and the possibility of supporting his creative work, and he was interested in her money and what it could provide him. For thirteen years she supported him at a base rate of six thousand rubles a year, plus whatever "bonuses" he could manage to get out of her. He was free to quit the conservatory, and he began a series of travels and stays abroad.
Von Meck and Tchaikovsky purposely never met, except for one or two accidental encounters. In their correspondence Tchaikovsky discusses his music thoughtfully; in letters to his family he complains about her cheapness. He dedicated his Fourth Symphony (1877) to her. Tchaikovsky finished Eugene Onegin in 1879. It is his only opera generally performed outside the Soviet Union. Other works of this period are the Violin Concerto (1881), the Fifth Symphony (1888), and the ballet Sleeping Beauty (1889).
Tchaikovsky's fame and his activity now extended to all of Europe and America. To rest from his public appearances he chose a country retreat in Klin near Moscow. From this he became known as the "Hermit of Klin," although he was never a hermit. In 1890 he finished the opera Queen of Spades, based on a story by the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837). Tchaikovsky was happy when, despite the criticism of "experts," the opera was well received. In late 1890 Von Meck cut him off. He had reached the point where he no longer depended on her money, but he was still upset by her rejection. Even his brother Modeste expressed surprise at his anger. Tchaikovsky had an immensely successful tour in the United States in 1891.
The Sixth Symphony was first heard in October 1893, with the composer conducting. This work, named at Modeste's suggestion Pathétique, was poorly received—very likely because of Tchaikovsky's conducting. Tchaikovsky never knew of its eventual astonishing success, for he contracted cholera (a disease of the small intestine) and died, still complaining about Von Meck, on November 6, 1893.
For More Information
Cencetti, Greta. Tchaikovsky. Columbus, OH: Peter Bedrick Books, 2002.
Holden, Anthony. Tchaikovsky: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995.
Rubinstein, Anton (Grigorievich)
Rubinstein, Anton (Grigorievich)
Rubinstein, Anton (Grigorievich) , renowned Russian pianist, conductor, composer, and pedagogue, brother of Nikolai (Grigorievich) Rubinstein; b. Vykhvatinetz, Podolia, Nov. 28, 1829; d. Peterhof, near St. Petersburg, Nov. 20, 1894. He was of a family of Jewish merchants who became baptized in Berdichev in July 1831. His mother gave him his first lessons in piano; the family moved to Moscow, where his father opened a small pencil factory. A well-known Moscow piano teacher, Alexandre Villoing, was entrusted with Rubinstein’s musical education, and was in fact his only piano teacher. In 1839 Villoing took him to Paris, where Rubinstein played before Chopin and Liszt. He remained there until 1841, then made a concert tour in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, England, Norway, and Sweden, returning to Russia in 1843. Since Anton’s brother Nikolai evinced a talent for composition, the brothers were taken in 1844 to Berlin, where, on Meyerbeer’s recommendation, Anton studied composition with Dehn. He subsequently made a tour through Hungary with the flutist Heindl. He returned to Russia in 1848 and settled in St. Petersburg. There he enjoyed the enlightened patronage of the Grand Duchess Helen, and wrote 3 Russian operas: Dmitri Donskoy (1852), The Siberian Hunters (1853), and Thomas the Fool (1853). In 1854, with the assistance of the Grand Duchess, Rubinstein undertook another tour in western Europe. He found publishers in Berlin, and gave concerts of his own works in London and Paris, exciting admiration as both composer and pianist; on his return in 1858, he was appointed court pianist and conductor of the court concerts. He assumed the direction of the Russian Musical Soc. in 1859, and in 1862 founded the Imperial Cons. in St. Petersburg, remaining its director until 1867. For 20 years thereafter he held no official position; from 1867 until 1870 he gave concerts in Europe, winning fame as a pianist second only to Liszt. During the season of 1872–73, he made a triumphant American tour, playing in 215 concerts, for which he was paid lavishly; appeared as a soloist and jointly with the violinist Wieniawski. He produced a sensation by playing without the score, a novel procedure at the time. Returning to Europe, he elaborated a cycle of historical concerts, in programs ranging from Bach to Chopin; he usually devoted the last concert of a cycle to Russian composers. In 1887 he resumed the directorship of the St. Petersburg Cons., resigning again in 1891, when he went to Dresden. He returned to Russia the year of his death.
In 1890 he established the Rubinstein Prize, an international competition open to young men between 20 and 26 years of age. Two prizes of 5, 000 francs each were offered, 1 for composition, the other for piano. Quinquennial competitions were held in St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, and Paris.
Rubinstein’s role in Russian musical culture was of the greatest importance. He introduced European methods into education, and established high standards of artistic performance. He was the first Russian musician who was equally prominent as composer and interpreter. According to contemporary reports, his playing possessed extraordinary power (his octave passages were famous) and insight, revealed particularly in his performance of Beethoven’s sonatas. His renown as a composer was scarcely less. His Ocean Symphony was one of the most frequently performed orch. works in Europe and America; his piano concertos were part of the standard repertoire; his pieces for Piano Solo, Melody in F, Romance, and Kamennoi Ostrow, became perennial favorites. After his death, his orch. works all but vanished from concert programs, as did his operas, with the exception of The Demon, which is still perf. in Russia. His Piano Concerto No. 4, in D minor, is occasionally heard.
DRAMATIC: Opera: Dmitri Donskoy (1849–50; St. Petersburg, April 30, 1852); The Siberian Hunters (1852; Weimar, 1854); Stenka Razin (1852; unfinished); Hadji-Abrek (1852–53; 1st perf. as Revenge, St. Petersburg, 1858); Thomas the Fool (St. Petersburg, May 23, 1853); Das verlorene Paradies (1856; Düsseldorf, 1875); Die Kinder der Heide (1860; Vienna, Feb. 23, 1861); Feramors (1862; Dresden, Feb. 24, 1863); Der Thurm zu Babel (1869; Königsberg, 1870); The Demon (1871; St. Petersburg, Jan. 25, 1875); Die Makkabäer (1874; Berlin, April 17, 1875); Nero (1875–76; Hamburg, Nov. 1, 1879); The Merchant Kalashnikov (1877–79; St. Petersburg, March 5, 1880); Sulamith (1882–83; Hamburg, Nov. 8, 1883); Unter Räubern (Hamburg, Nov. 8, 1883); Der Papagei (Hamburg, Nov. 11, 1884); The Careworn One (1888; St. Petersburg, Dec. 3, 1889); Moses (1885–91; Prague, 1892); Christus (1887–93; Bremen, 1895). ballet: The Vine (1882). ORCH.: 7 piano concertos: 2 unnumbered (1847; 1849, rev. as the Octet in D major, 1856), No. 1, op.25 (1850), No. 2, op.35 (1851), No. 3, op.45 (1853–54), No. 4, op.70 (1864), and No. 5, op.94 (1874); 6 syms.: No. 1, op.40 (1850), No. 2, op.42, Ocean (1st version, 1851; 2nd version, 1863; 3rd version, 1880), No. 3, op.56 (1854–55; originally designated as Sym. No. 4), No. 4, op.95, Dramatic (1874), No. 5, op.107 (1880), and No. 6, op.111 (1886); Concert Overture, op.60 (1853); Triumphal Overture, op.43 (1855); Violin Concerto, op.46 (1857); Faust, symphonic picture, op.68 (1864); 2 cello concertos: No. 1, op.65 (1864) and No. 2, op.96 (1874); Ivan the Terrible, symphonic picture, op.79 (1869); Fantasia for Piano and Orch., op.84 (1869); Romance and Caprice for Violin and Orch., op.86 (1870); Russia (1882); Fantasia eroica, op.110 (1884); Concertstiick for Piano and Orch., op.113 (1889); Antony and Cleopatra, overture, op.116 (1890); Suite, op.119 (1894); Overture (1894). CHAMBER: OCtet, op.9 (1849; originally the Piano Concerto, 1849); 3 violin sonatas: No. 1, op.13 (1856), No. 2, op.19 (1853), and No. 3, op.98 (1876); 5 piano trios: No. 1, op.15 (1851), No. 2, op.15 (1851), and 3 unnumbered: op.52 (1857), op.85 (1870), and op.108 (1883); 10 string quartets (1852–80); 2 cello sonatas: No. 1, op.18 (1852) and No. 2, op.39 (1857); Viola Sonata, op.49 (1855); Quintet for Winds and Piano, op.55 (1855; rev. 1860); String Quintet, op.59 (1859); Piano Quartet, op.66 (1864); String Sextet, op.97 (1876); Piano Quintet, op.99 (1876); also many piano pieces. VOCAL: Choral works; numerous songs.
Memoirs (St. Petersburg, 1889; Eng. tr. as Autobiography of Anton Rubinstein, Boston, 1890); Music and Its Representatives (Moscow, 1891; Eng. tr., N.Y, 1892; also publ. as A Conversation on Music); Leitfaden zum richtigen Gebrauch des Pianoforte-Pedals (Leipzig, 1896; French tr., Brussels, 1899); Gedankenkorb, Litterarischer Nachlass (Stuttgart, 1896); Die Meister des Klaviers (Berlin, 1899).
A. McArthur, A. R.(London, 1889); E. Zabel, A. R. (Leipzig, 1892); L. Martinov, Episodes de la vie de R. (Brussels, 1895); A. Soubies, A. R.(Paris, 1895); E. Wessel, Some Explanations, Hints and Remarks of A. R. from His Lessons in the St. Petersburg Cons. (St. Petersburg, 1901; Ger. tr., Leipzig, 1904); N. Findeisen, A. R. (Moscow, 1907); La Mara, A. R., Musikalische Studienkopfe (vol. 3, 7th ed., Leipzig, 1909; separately, Leipzig, 1911); N. Bernstein, A. R. (Leipzig, 1911); A. Hervey, A. R. (London, 1913); K. Preiss, A. R.s pianistische Bedeutung (Leipzig, 1914); I. Glebov, A. R. in His Musical Activities and Opinions of His Contemporaries (Moscow, 1929); C. Bowen, “Free Artist”: The Story of A. and Nicholas R. (N.Y., 1939; fictionalized account, but accurate; with a complete list of works and a detailed bibliography, compiled by O. Albrecht); L. Barenboym, A.G. R., vol. I (Moscow, 1957); L. Sitsky, A. R.: An Annotated Catalog of Piano Works and Biography (Westport, Conn., 1998).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire