1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tschaïkovsky, Peter Ilich

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19470331911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 27 — Tschaïkovsky, Peter Ilich

TSCHAÏKOVSKY, PETER ILICH (1840–1893), Russian composer, born at Votkinsk, in the province of Vyatka, on the 7th of May 1840, was the son of a mining engineer, who shortly after the boy’s birth removed to St Petersburg to assume the duties of director of the Technological Institute there. While studying in the school of jurisprudence, and later, while holding office in the ministry of justice, Tschaïkovsky picked up a smattering of musical knowledge sufficient to qualify him as an adept amateur performer. But the seriousness of his musical aspiration led him to enter the newly founded Conservatorium of St Petersburg under Zaremba, and he was induced by Anton Rubinstein, its principal, to take up music as a profession. He therefore resigned his post in the ministry of justice. On quitting the Conservatorium he was awarded a silver medal for his thesis, a cantata on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” In 1866 Tschaïkovsky became practically the first chief of the recently founded Moscow Conservatorium, since Serov, whom he succeeded, never took up his appointment. In Moscow Tschaïkovsky met Ostrovskiy, who wrote for him his first operatic libretto, The Vojevoda. After the Russian Musical Society had rejected a concert overture written at Rubinstein’s suggestion, Tschaïkovsky in 1866 was much occupied on his Winter Day Dreams, a symphonic poem, which proved a failure in St Petersburg but a success at Moscow. In 1867 he made an unsuccessful début as conductor. Failure still dogged his steps, for in January 1869 his Vojevoda disappeared off the boards after ten performances, and subsequently Tschaïkovsky destroyed the score. The Romeo and Juliet overture has been much altered since its production by the Russian Musical Society in 1870, in which year the composer once more attempted unsuccessfully an operatic production, St Petersburg rejecting his Undine. In 1871 Tschaïkovsky was busy on his cantata for the opening of the exhibition in celebration of the bicentenary of Peter the Great, his opera The Oprischnik, and a textbook of harmony, which latter was adopted by the Moscow Conservatorium authorities. At Moscow in 1873 his incidental music to the Snow Queen failed, but some success came next year with the beautiful quartet in F. During these years Tschaïkovsky was musical critic for two journals, the Sovremennaya Lietopis and the Russky Vestnik. On the death of Serov he competed for the best setting of Polovsky’s Wakula the Smith, and won the first two prizes. Yet on its production at St Petersburg in November 1876 this work gained only a succès d’estime. Since then it has been much revised, and is now known as The Little Shoes. Meanwhile the Second Symphony and the Tempest fantasia had been heard, and the pianoforte concerto in B flat minor completed. This was first played by von Biilow in Boston, Massachusetts, some time later, and was entirely revised and republished in 1889. At last something like success came to Tschaïkovsky with the production of The Oprischnik, in which he had incorporated much of the best of The Vojevoda. The Third—or Polish—Symphony, four sets of songs, the E-flat quartet (dedicated to the memory of Lamb), the ballet “The Swan Lake,” and the “Francesca da Rimini” fantasia, all belong to the period of the late ’seventies—the last being made up of operatic fragments. Tschaïkovsky in 1877 first began to work on the opera of Eugen Onegin. With the production of this work at the Moscow Conservatorium in March 1879 real success first came to him. The story, by Pushkin, was a familiar one, and the music of Tschaïkovsky was not so extravagant in its demands as had been the music of his earlier operas.

Meanwhile the more personal side of the composer’s career had been given a romantic touch by his acquaintance with his lifelong benefactress, Mme von Meek, and his deplorable fiasco of a marriage. In 1876 he had aroused the interest of Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meek (1831–1894), the wife (left a widow in 1876) of a wealthy railway engineer and contractor. She had a large fortune and she began by helping the composer financially in the shape of commissions for work, but in 1877 this took the more substantial shape of an annual allowance of £600. The romance of their association consisted in the fact that they never met, though they corresponded with one another continually. In 1890 Mme von Meek (who died two months after the composer, of progressive nervous decline), imagining herself—apparently a pure delusion—to be ruined, discontinued the allowance; and though Tschaïkovsky was then no longer really in need of it, he failed to appreciate the pathological reason underlying Mme von Meck’s condition of mind, and was deeply hurt. The wound remained unhealed, and the correspondence broken, though on his death-bed her name was on his lips. Her connexion with his life was one of its dominating features. His marriage was only a brief and misguided incident. Tschaïkovsky married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova on the 6th of July 1877, but the marriage rapidly developed into a catastrophe, through no fault of hers but simply through his own abnormality of temperament; and it resulted in separation in October. He had become taciturn to moroseness, and finally quitted Moscow and his friends for St Petersburg. There he fell ill, and an attempt to commit suicide by standing chin-high in the river in a frost (whereby he hoped to catch his death from exposure) was only frustrated by his brother’s tender care.

With his brother, Tschaïkovsky went to Clarens to recuperate. He remained abroad for many months, moving restlessly from one place to another.' In 1878 he accepted (but later resigned) the post of director of the Russian musical department at the Paris Exhibition, completed his Fourth Symphony and the Italian Capriccio, and worked hard at his “1812” overture, more songs, the second pianoforte concerto, and his “Liturgy of St Chrysostom,” an interesting contribution to the music of the Eastern Church. The work was confiscated for some time by the intendant of the imperial chapel, on the ground that it had not received the imprimatur of his predecessor Bortniansky in due accordance with a ukaz of Alexander I. Bortniansky was dead, but his successor was obstinate. Finally the work was saved from destruction by an official order. Tschaïkovsky returned only for a short time to Moscow. Thence he went to Paris. In 1879 he wrote his Maid of Orleans (produced in 1880) and his first suite for orchestra. In 1881 died Nicholas Rubinstein—to whose memory Tschaïkovsky dedicated the trio in A minor. During the next five years Tschaïkovsky travelled, and worked at Manfred and Hamlet, the operas Mazeppa and Charodaika, the Mozartian suite and the fine Fifth Symphony. During a great part of the time he lived in retirement at Klin, where his generosity to the poor made him beloved. His operas The Queen of Spades and the one-act Iolanthe were feeble by comparison with his earlier works; more effective, however, were the ballets Sleeping Beauty and Casse-noisette. In 1893 Tschaïkovsky sketched his Sixth Symphony, now known as the Pathetic, a work that has done more for his fame in foreign lands than all the rest of his works. This was the year in which the composer conducted a work of his own at Cambridge on the occasion of his receiving the honorary degree of Doctor of Music. In the same year, on the 6th of November, he died from an attack of cholera at St Petersburg.

Tschaïkovsky’s work is unequal. In dramatic compositions he lacked point precisely as Anton Rubinstein lacked point. But in the invention of broad, sweeping melody Tschaïkovsky was far ahead of his compatriot. Among his songs and smaller pianoforte works, as in his symphonies and quartets, are passages of exquisite beauty. The best of Tschaïkovsky’s work is more distinctly Russian than that of most of his compatriots; it is not German music in disguise, as is so much of the music by Rubinstein and Glazounow, and it is not incoherently ferocious, like so much of the music by Balakirev.

See Mrs Rosa Newmarch’s Tchaikovsky (1900) supplemented in 1906 by her condensed English edition of the Life and Letters, which appeared in Russian in 1901 in three volumes, edited by Modeste Tschaïkovsky, the composer’s brother.