In the year 1840, when in family of Alexandra and Ilya Tchaikovsky their third child – Pyotr – was born, was marked in Russian music culture by the following feature: 11-years-old boy, wonder child -pianist Anton Rubinstein, started his triumphal tour of Europe. His name would be tied with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s fate with a nonsimple knot.
A lucky childbirth, which gave a genius, occurred far from Moscow, in the backwoods, in Votkinsk, a small town in Vyatskaya Governorate, where was situated the ironworks, managed by the composer’s father. Ilya Tchaikovsky had calm and noble temper, in their house there was a pleasant atmosphere of love and comfort. As the youngest son Petr was surrounded with comfort and care, his mother’s love and love of his elder brothers and sisters, tender care of governess Fanny Dürbach. Pyotr had already in his early years started showing emotional delicacy and outstanding musicality. Their family piano was a centre of his soul’s attraction, his “dear friend”, whom enthusiastic would kiss before going to sleep. With the same intense feeling he was also kissing the world map, when was able to read his homeland name – Russia.
I had luck to visit that place, where Tchaikovsky was born, and to visit a single-storey house with mezzanine, where his early years had passed. This house, surrounded with park, is situated on the lake shore, farther there are fairy-tale forest and bends of two rivers. Dense coniferous verdure, this marvelous land’s sounds and scents were intoxicating. So much noble charm was there in the inside fittings of the house: armchairs and tables, light golden Dutch oven dampers, sofas and blinds, cups and saucers…Blissful wilderness. Genius cradle…
As soon as the boy got the basic home-school education and mastered piano playing, he was ready to follow his vocation way – everyone noted his outstanding musicality. But his parents’ plans appeared to be rather prosaic – they wanted their adorable son to become a lawyer and were preparing him for a career of a civil servant. When the boy was 10, the family left their blessed native land and set out for the shining darkness of cold St. Petersburg in order to give children proper education. Obediently submitting to parents’ choice, youthful Tchaikovsky gave up his hopes and entered the School of Jurisprudence. He was quit and complaisant boy, well-liked by the people around him.
But his great soul and great mission had already started to announce their presence. Not without reason his mother was stroked with the note in his diary: “What for He created me, this Almighty God…”.
The first terrible ordeal for sensitive heart was a sudden death of his loved mother, who was a victim of cholera epidemic which overtook Petersburg in 1854. The disease was nearly to take his father’s life. The dreadful loss made the boy adult. At that time childish dreams about music started to gain features of new meaning. There are some evidences remained of his strange declarations to the schoolmates: @I will be a great musician”.
Soon the career of lawyer, for which Pyotr Tchaikovsky was preparing, was doubted. Home piano improvisations became his passion, peak of ardour was reached in 1859, when Pyotr, who graduated from School, started serving in the Department of Ministry of Justice.
Tchaikovsky became a titular counselor. It seemed that everything is finished. But evening Petersburg was breathing music, the young music lover was reveling in Italian performances, missing not a single opera, not a single concert, he breathed inside music universe of Europe of that time: Mozart, Wagner, Meyerbeer, Adam, Liszt… In this ravishing intoxication Anton Rubinstein also often came into his view, inspiring Pyotr and his brother Modest with some sort of sacred horror because of his demonic image and violent energy of piano playing.
That was how they met.
Captured by the cult of piano playing, Tchaikovsky was reproducing from memory on his piano nearly whole “Don Juan” of Mozart, “Moses” of Rossini, “The Freeshooter” of Weber. He was playing compositions of Bach with self-forgetful inspiration, which stayed non-understandable by his family folk, who were valuing glitter in music rather than profoundness.
In the chaos of these passions Tchaikovsky had once composed his own things – romances “who is going…”, “Midnight”, “My genius, my angel, my friend”, thinking little of them, performing these composing trials only in private.
This situation of 20-years-old Tchaikovsky’s dual personality on civil servant and music lover was suddenly solved in the most unexpected way: he attended classes of Russian music society which were organized in the capital by the same energetic man of a great ambition, pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein, who was an idol in Petersburg of that time. The music was in fashion, classes became popular. Pyotr Tchaikovsky studied harmony and counterpoint with Polish mentor Nikolas Zaremba.
As soon as he finished his work in the department, he would rush to the St. Michael’s castle, where the classes were held in the evenings, and study elements of counterpoint, being in raptures.
“You won’t believe, but in 3-4 years you are possibly to hear my operas and to sing my arias”, - he wrote to his sister Sasha.
It was going well at first, until Anton Rubinstein himself visited the conservatoire school and asked Zaremba to show him students’ compositions on harmony and counterpoint. It was a sphere of his interests, there dwelled his gloomy jealousy: he wanted to ensure that there are no equal musicians. Zaremba mentioned Tchaikovsky: talented, but lazy…Rubinstein asked for the student’s music.
Today the name of Rubinstein has a very modest place in the history of music. Yes, he was a brilliant pianist, virtuosic performer, music figure. But his self-written operas didn’t pass the time test, except maybe the only diamond – opera “Demon”, which adorns the golden fund of Russian music. But at that time Rubinstein was an idol, an empress’ favourite…
So what did he say to the student Tchaikovsky when he first met him, holding in his hands Tchaikovsky’s sheet music? “I do not conceal, your talent is obvious, but I’m asking you for a personal favour, I’m asking you to cease classes’ attendance”. While saying it, the director, smiling, but firmly referred to the student’s laziness.
The first fiddle in this escapade apparently was played by “envy of rationalist Salieri to the light-hearted Mozart”. Looking at raw sketches of a 20-years-old youth, Rubinstein with his devilish intuition felt a threat to his authority over public. It’s no joke, he was chucking the most talented student out at the first meeting!
The Tchaikovsky’s fate was hanged by a thread. And this terrible words “I’m asking you to cease classes’ attendance” were said to him by the great composer, who won the Europe with his concerts! He felt unmistakably perceptiveness and suggestibility of the young man.
“Under my faint-heartedness, - Tchaikovsky wrote later, - my ability to lose heart from the very trifling push, my aspiration for putting an end to my life, whom would I be, if I didn’t give myself up to God’s will”.
In a word, the young man was confused and promised to think it over.
It was that very moment when the God’s will become apparent: under an empress’s support Music Society was transformed to the Conservatoire.
Rubinstein was too busy with novelties and forgot about Tchaikovsky, who found himself as one of those students, who were taken by Zaremba in his new class.
The director’s will was keep hanging as a sword of Damocles, however, great mission was calling for Tchaikovsky, so he made his choice. In the May of 1863 he left his service in Department (what was met with chiefs’ amazement and father’s horror), practically depriving himself of bread and butter, and devoted his own self to music.
Rubinstein wasn’t ready for such a turnaround of events and had to take student’s decision into consideration. Soon Tchaikovsky had a chance to receive evidence that his obsession isn’t vain: his composition for the topic “Character dances” was chosen from the pile of others by Strauss himself, who was giving a Russian music concert in Pavlovsk, near Petersburg.
Declaring his faultfinding as the one aroused solely by the student’s giftedness, Rubinstein kept plotting against Tchaikovsky and in fact wrecked his triumphal graduation, who didn’t came to the final concert because of the nervous strain and also didn’t take director’s corrections to the cantata “To the joy” into account.
Rubinstein was furious. Tchaikovsky, graduated from the School with a silver medal, hardly get a diploma. Zaremba was begging director almost on his knees to forgive the talented graduate.
Gordian knot of intense relations was cut by the Rubinstein’s younger brother Nicolas, who organized a similar Conservatoire in Moscow and came to St. Petersburg to recruit teachers. He immediately offered Tchaikovsky a position of professor.
“My dear son, - upset father wrote to young music professor, - my dear fellow, I’ll tell you the truth, you should know, my heart grieves about you. Is it what you merit, is it what you wanted to achieve? Oh, your lucid mind…Glinka died in poverty. Drop out, start a civil service again…”
If only his son had obeyed, there would have been no Tchaikovsky music on Earth…But miracle saved him. God obviously didn’t forget about the boy, who was kissing piano keys in drawing room…
The fame burst out in 1879, when Nicolas Rubinstein, with the help of students of Conservatoire, carried out a first performance of Tchaikovsky opera “Eugene Onegin”, which created a furore. Soon it was staged in Bolshoi Theatre.
After the offer to become a professor of Moscow Conservatoire, the fortune sent to young Tchaikovsky another one piece of luck: concerns for his welfare for the long 14 years undertook Baroness Nadezhda von Meck, widow of a millionaire, Maecenas and a great admirer of Tchaikovsky. She set a solid upkeep for those days – 6000 roubles per year. Through the whole life they didn’t manage to meet, but they corresponded actively, and their letters became invaluable illustration of creative life and personality of composer.
Leaving the Moscow Conservatoire, Tchaikovsky devoted the whole of himself to the composing. To give him the once-over to everything composed by him during his 53 years is impossible! Even the short list amazes: Tchaikovsky had composed more than 80 musical things, among them are 10 operas and 3 ballets, which today are known to all top world stages - “Swan lake”, “Sleeping Beauty”, “”…And every composition is a miracle, masterpiece. And his divine concerts, 7 symphonies, 4 suites, programme symphonic music, more than 100 romances! This entire placer of music jewelry is an inestimable contribution to a world music culture.
The name of Tchaikovsky is included in the list of Russian geniuses together with composers Mussorgsky and Glinka, writers Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bunin, Bulgakov, artists Repin, Vrubel, Levitan, Serov...this list can be continued. Without Tchaikovsky the world’s music Olympus is impossible to imagine.
Exceptional beauty of his music, lyrical excitement, ability to convey either state of love or step of death are amazing, as well as ability to reproduce Hoffmann’s fairytale about a Nutcracker with a magic sounds, to create brilliant canvas of operas “Eugene Onegin”, “Queen of Spades”, to compose unfading symphonies and piano concerts of a magic ascendancy. And all this compositions Tchaikovsky filled with Russian melos, so sad and desperately tragic.
“I am passionately fond of Russian, Russian language, Russian mentality, Russian beauty” – wrote the composer. All this love is heard in beautiful symphonies, in his piano cycle “The seasons”, masterpiece among masterpieces.
Tchaikovsky’s main aesthetic principles were formed in 60-70s of 19th century, in period of high enthusiasm in social and artistic thought, of flourishing of Russian literature, art and music. Under the whole tragedy of perception of the world, the most essential feature of Tchaikovsky’s music is a harmonious and optimistic sense of life. His aesthetic principle was a formula “beauty is life”. Veracious expression of person’s emotional experience is a quintessence of his music.
In his works Tchaikovsky expresses life of Russian society, shows scenes of Russian nature. The music in its intonation is very close to Russian folk songs. The composer himself wrote: “I adore Russian component in its every display with passion, in a one word, I am Russian, in every sense of this word”.
His last years Tchaikovsky spend in Klin, nearby Moscow, but death caught him in Petersburg, unexpectedly. On the 23 of October in 1893 cholera took life of the great composer, as it had already done with his mother’s life. Cholera was in a raw water glass, which he drank in the heat of the moment, not minding any warnings. The whole Russia mourned over the loss of genius.
Many constellations in the Russian culture outer space are laid out for world’s eyes, and genius of Pyotr Tchaikovsky is one of the brightest.
Anatoliy Korolev, a writer, a member of Russian PEN Club.