Lesson Tutor: Classical Composer Biography: Peter Tchaikovsky

Classical Composer : Peter Tchaikovsky
by Betty Fry

The famous Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky, was born at Votkinsk on 7thMay, 1840.  As a child he was attracted to music and revealed an above average musical ability. His parents however did not recognize his musical talents and had no intention of preparing him for a career in music.

 He was sent to the School of Jurisprudence to study law, and at nineteen went into the Ministry of Justice as a clerk. Nevertheless he did continue his piano lessons, dabbled a little in composition, and joined a choral class. But as soon as the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862, he enrolled as a student. 

He did so well at his studies that when he finished his course in 1865, he was offered the position of Professor of Composition at the Conservatorium in Moscow, which he held for twelve years. The pay was poor, but Tchaikovsky loved his job immensely. Between 1869 and 1874 he wrote operas, concertos, and symphonic poems, and it was while he was working on his opera ‘Eugene Onegin’ that he began to receive passionate love letters from a young pupil at the Moscow Conservatory named Antonina Milyukova.  At first he ignored them, but when she threatened to commit suicide, he agreed to meet her, intending to reject her advances.  Just before their meeting he had started work on Eugene Onegin and fallen in love with the character of Tatyana who is spurned by Onegin after she had sent him a letter.  The story disturbed him, and may have led him to reconsider his decision about seeing Antonina. Before he knew it she had persuaded him to marry her, and the marriage took place on 18thJuly, 1877.
 For a man of Tchaikovsky’s extreme sensitivity, and the fact that he was struggling with homosexuality, the union was disastrous. Pretending he was taking a cure he made his escape, and unable to stand the strain made an attempt at suicide. His brother Anatoly arranged a separation from Antonina who ended up in an asylum where she eventually died.

 But he did complete Eugine Onegin in 1878, the story of which so closely mirrors his own short lived marriage. It was first performed in 1879 and is possibly the most successful of all his operatic works. To this day it remains his most performed opera throughout the world.

 And again it was a letter from an unknown woman that once more transformed Tchaikovsky’s life. The letter was from the mysterious Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy aristocratic heiress who was to support the composer financially for thirteen years.

 Although he never met his generous benefactress, Tchaikovsky wrote to her throughout his travels, pouring out his soul in a way he could do with no one else. 

 Her exit from his life was as mysterious as her arrival. Claiming she had gone bankrupt – which was proved untrue – she cut off all support, leaving Tchaikovsky bitter and disillusioned. My own thought is that she might have somehow discovered what in those days would have been regarded as his dark secret.

 In 1978 the Russian scholar Alexandra Orlova made public an account of Tchaikovsky’s death that had been given her by Aleksandr Voitov of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, a man old enough to have been a witness.

 In this version, Tchaikovsky took arsenic on the instructions of a so-called ‘court of honour’ composed of former classmates from the school of jurisprudence. One of their number, a senior official in the imperial service, had intercepted a letter to the Tzar in which a member of the aristocracy charged that Tchaikovsky had had a homosexual liaison with his nephew.

 Tchaikovsky (the theory goes) took the “honorable’ way out, and his death was recorded on 6th November 1983. True or not, the story makes some sense in light of what is known about this great man.

 There are two works of Peter Tchaikovsky that vie for first place in my affections. One is the famous 1812 Festival Overture, Opus 49. Many who would not claim to be fond of classical music would nevertheless be familiar with this most famous of overtures which recalls Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his defeat in 1812.

 Especially written for the silver jubilee of Tzar Alexander II it was first performed in Moscow on 20th August 1882 as part of the celebrations. The music sums up the spirit of that momentous year from the Russian point of view, with quotations from various national tunes adding to the patriotic mood, and is a stirring reminder of that event..

 The lower strings begin quietly with the melody of a hymn ‘God preserve thy people’. Then a loud drum stroke shatters this peaceful prelude. The music gathers pace and snatches of the French revolutionary ‘La Marseillaise’, herald Napoleon’s invading armies. A lyrical passage suggesting the resolute spirit of the Russian people contrasts with the sounds of battle. Descending phrases, becoming gradually weightier, lead to the final celebration of victory, with a rendition of the Russian anthem ‘God Save the Tsar’, a salute of canon, and the joyful clamor of the Moscow Kremlin bells.

 Knowing the story behind this music moved me to tears at its triumphant end.

 Performances of the 1812 at times use real guns, bells and fireworks. In one recording replicas of cannon from the American War of Independence added their thunder.

 The other work of this prolific genius dear to my heart is the beautiful ballet Swan Lake. 

In sharp contrast of style to the mighty 1812 Overture, ‘Swan Lake’  is acclaimed as one of the great ballets, and was Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at writing for this art form. As he said, “I accept the work partly because I need the money, but also because I have long had the wish to try my hand at this kind of work”.

 Swans have long held a place in the folklore of many cultures. Greek, Celtic, Hindu and Nordic mythology all contain tales in which humans are turned into swans, or the birds take on human form.

He first began to think about the subject while staying with his sister Alexandra Davydova in 1871. Entertainment for children was being devised and for which he provided the music. But although these particular compositions did not survive in their original form, it is thought some of the melodies may have been used for ‘Swan Lake’ which he completed some five years later.

In the introduction to Act II of the ballet the curtain rises to reveal a moonlit lake. The oboe plays the mournful strains signifying the theme of the ‘Flight of the Swans’ and a flock of swan maidens soon appear. 

 Their leader, wearing a crown, is Princess Odette. Along with her companions, she has been turned into a swan by the evil magician von Rotbart, but is able to take on human form at midnight. Tonight, she encounters Prince Siegfried who falls in love with her.

 I cannot now see swans without hearing the lovely music that accompanied this scene.

 Tchaikovsky’s use of glorious ripe melodies and luscious harmonies creates a sense of yearning and romantic enchantment that has justly made this the most popular of all ballets.

He was highly critical of his own work and destroyed many manuscripts. Nevertheless there survive ten operas, three major ballet suites and much other incidental music, seven symphonies, a large amount of church, choral, and chamber music, together with countless songs and piano pieces. All evidence not only of creative genius, but of a prodigious creative energy as well.

So anyone coming fresh to Tchaikovsky’s music is on the brink of a musical experience enough to last a lifetime. For although it is sometimes fashionable to sneer at his shameless emotionalism – a composer ‘with his heart too much on his sleeve’ as one jaundiced critic put it – the fact is that in his music he expresses, as few other composers have been able to do, the joy and the pain, the beauty and the tragedy, the ecstasy and the anguish of the human condition.

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