Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
The Russian romantic tradition reached its peak with Tchaikovsky. He combined natural genius with a polished compositional technique that Mussorgsky and Borodin lacked. His fame as the composer of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The 1812 Overture, and Eugene Onegin, among other works, extended well beyond Russia’s borders during his lifetime; yet there is a wide range of critical opinion regarding his songs, due mainly to an approach to poetry that some critics characterized as tyrannical.
Tchaikovsky was the son of a mining engineer. He spent much of his childhood in small industrial towns far from Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He was educated at home and could read French and German by the age of six. In 1852, Tchaikovsky entered the Saint Petersburg School of Jurisprudence. He was exposed to the lively musical life of the capital and continued the piano and singing lessons which he had begun at home. He entered the newly established St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1861, where he studied piano with Anton Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky progressed quickly, and grew to be a composer of great technical facility by the time he graduated. He joined the staff of the newly established Moscow Conservatory in 1866 at the invitation of Anton Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai, also a renowned pianist.
In 1877, Tchaikovsky secretly married Antonina Milyukova, an emotionally disturbed student of his who aggressively pursued him, despite the fact that he had revealed his homosexuality to her in as clear a fashion as the Russian culture of the time allowed. Three weeks after the wedding, the composer suffered a nervous breakdown, an experience that affected him for the rest of his life. Although he never divorced her, Tchaikovsky left his wife and began a period of constant travel. He spent much time in Western Europe, particularly in Italy, where he completed the Fourth Symphony and his first successful opera, Eugene Onegin.
Tchaikovsky’s wandering lasted until 1885, when he rented a house near the town of Klin about sixty miles from Moscow. Even though he never settled there for an extended period of time, Klin became his place of rest between frequent journeys abroad and within Russia. Tchaikovsky had become famous by the mid-1880s. His music was now performed throughout Europe and the United States. In 1884, his achievements were recognized by the Russian royal family when Tsar Alexander III awarded him the Order of Saint Vladimir. Tchaikovsky composed some of his best-known works during the last four years of his life. He composed quickly and prolifically while continuing his travels in Italy, France and the United States. The Queen of Spades, considered by some to be his greatest opera, was written in forty-three days, and the Symphony Pathetique in just twenty-four.
Tchaikovsky’s death is a matter of great controversy. Ten days after conducting the premiere of the Symphony Pathetique, (which, coincidentally, quotes a Russian Orthodox funeral hymn), Tchaikovsky died of cholera contracted when he drank a bottle of unboiled water in a restaurant, although he knew there was a cholera epidemic raging at the time. The theory that he had committed suicide, perhaps because a homosexual affair was about to be exposed, has been in circulation ever since his death. The truth of the circumstances surrounding his demise will probably never be known.
Tchaikovsky wrote romances throughout his career. They include one of his earliest compositions, the romance Мой ангел, мой гений, мой друг (1858?), as well as some of his last, the Six Romances, Opus 73 (1893). Tchaikovsky has been criticized for altering texts, and for frequent use of repetition. César Cui wrote that Tchaikovsky viewed poetry as a “necessary evil” that only hindered the process of composition. It is interesting to note that Tchaikovsky generally avoided the work of great Russian poets such as Pushkin and Lermontov, preferring the lyrics of lesser-known writers, such as Rathaus, Surikov, Rastopchina, even the Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov. Nevertheless, despite their flaws, Tchaikovsky’s melodious romances are still performed throughout the world.