Personalities | Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Late Romantic | Classical

(Pi’-otr Il’-yech Chi’-kôf-ska) 1840–93
Russian composer

Few composers from the second half of the nineteenth century have achieved as great a popularity as Tchaikovsky. For many listeners, the secret lies in his special gift for broad, arching melodies and his tendency towards agonized self-expression, rooted in a series of crises in his personal life, which fall easy prey to lurid dramatization.

In Russia he is acknowledged for so much more, above all for his innovations in the spheres of the symphony, opera and ballet music, which he raised to a whole new level.

The subjective, Romantic vein in his music is frequently undercut by a return to classical models, above all his beloved Mozart. Far from being merely a ‘Westernized’ composer at loggerheads with nationalist Russian musicians, as he is often portrayed, Tchaikovsky, through his association with many of those figures, above all their leader Balakirev, produced many works robustly Russian in spirit, especially in his early years. He then composed a series of autobiographical masterpieces leading up to the time of his disastrous marriage in 1877. Although his sense of fate in hot pursuit never left him, the range of his music broadened with his many travels abroad. His sudden death in 1893 remains an enigmatic tragedy, the abrupt end of a composer at the height of his creative powers.

The Musical Civil Servant

Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, some 600 miles east of Moscow, where his kindly and modestly cultured father was manager of the local ironworks. Four years into his studies at the St Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, when he was 14, his mother, whom he admitted worshipping ‘with a sort of morbidly passionate love’, died from cholera, the same disease that was supposedly to carry the composer himself away nearly 40 years later. Although Tchaikovsky dutifully followed his father’s wishes and went on to become a lowly clerk in the Ministry of Justice in 1859, his heart already belonged to music and he was lucky to have the encouragement of leading figures in the recently founded Russian Musical Society. In 1862 he was among the first students admitted to the brand-new St Petersburg Conservatory, and after his graduation three-and-a-half years later, he became a teacher of musical theory at its sister establishment in Moscow. At the age of 22, he had achieved what he promised his sister Sasha, to give up his clerical drudgery only when he was ‘finally sure that I am an artist and not a civil servant’.

Russian Musical Life

The musical climate of the Russia in which Tchaikovsky grew up hardly nurtured new talent; only a determined genius could forge ahead alone. There were no music colleges or conservatories when the first great Russian composer, Glinka, came to maturity. Although he did briefly undertake a systematic course of study in Germany, and despite the perfect scoring which graces nearly every page of his opera Ruslan i Lyudmila (‘Ruslan and Ludmilla’, 1842), Glinka was constantly to face...

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