Personalities | Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | High Romantic | Opera

1840–93, Russian

Tchaikovsky was an intensely emotional, painfully sensitive man, much given to depression and morbid states of mind. He almost went mad with grief when his mother died of cholera in 1854, when he was 14. To compound his melancholy mindset, Tchaikovsky was tortured by his homosexuality, and saw marriage as a possible solution.

In 1877 he married one of his pupils, but the strain was so great that to escape it – and his wife – he tried to kill himself. Perhaps these personal tragedies in part explain the broad, arching melodies and his tendency towards the agonized self-expression found in his music.

His Childhood Epiphany

From the start his aim was to write opera, but Tchaikovsky did not envisage making his living that way. Instead, he became a minor civil servant at the Ministry of Justice. Fortunately, he was in St Petersburg at exactly the right time – 1862 – for the founding of the city’s Music Conservatory by Anton Rubinstein (1829–94). Tchaikovsky enrolled at once, and made such progress that in 1865, he was asked to teach harmony at the new conservatory in Moscow.

Struggle for Success

Success as a composer was elusive at first and it was some time before Tchaikovsky established himself in the opera world. He had planned his first, one-act work Hyperbole when he was 14, but the libretto went missing and the opera was never written. Other early compositions included a setting of a scene from Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (1863–64) and his first complete opera, Voyevoda (‘Dream on the Volga’, 1867–68). Tchaikovsky, however, was dissatisfied with Voyevoda and after its first performance at the Bolshoi in 1869 he abandoned it, although he retained some of the best music for future use. Tchaikovsky’s next opera, Undina, (1869) fared little better: the composer destroyed it after the imperial theatres in St Petersburg rejected it. However, his own individual style of dramatic music began to emerge with The Oprichnik (‘The Life Guardsman, 1874), and in Vakula the Smith (1876) his lyrical love music and lively dances were impressive.

National Folklore and Flavour

In these, as in all his works, Tchaikovsky was a distinctively Russian composer, with great feeling for Russian folk tunes and for recreating the town and country life of Russia in his music, much of it touched by the oriental harmonies typical of a homeland spanning both Europe and Asia. The Russian flavour of Tchaikovsky’s music certainly showed in his great masterpiece Eugene Onegin (1879), a tale of frustrated love that he himself described as a series of ‘lyrical scenes’.

A Russian Looking West

Even so, Tchaikovsky was better known as a westerner among Russian composers and was regarded as an outsider by his more nationalistic contemporaries. Their case against him seemed made with his choice of non-Russian subjects for all but one of his later operas, the exception being Mazeppa (1884). The Maid of Orleans (1881) was the story the fifteenth-century French national heroine, Joan...

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