Monday, May 07, 2018

Born Today In 1840, Classical Composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born today, May 7, in 1840. He was a Russian composer of the romantic period, some of whose works are among the most popular music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, bolstered by his appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. He was honored in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension.

Tchaikovsky wrote many works that are still popular, including Romeo and Juliet, the 1812 Overture, his three ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) and Marche Slav. These, along with his First Piano Concerto and his Violin Concerto, the last three of his six numbered symphonies and his operas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, are among his most familiar works. Almost as popular are the Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, the Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings.

Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. 

He forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style—a task that did not prove easy. Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother for boarding school followed by his mother's early death, the death of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck who was his patron even though they never actually met each other. 

Iosif Kotek (left), was a Russian violinist and composer who assisted Tchaikovsky  in the writing of the solo part in his Violin Concerto in D. He was also probably his lover.

His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. Tchaikovsky's sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether cholera was indeed the cause of death, and whether his death was accidental or self-inflicted.

While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it was sufficiently representative of native musical values and expressed suspicion that Europeans accepted the music for its Western elements. 

Discussion of Tchaikovsky's personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer of his time. It has also at times caused considerable confusion, from Soviet efforts to expunge all references to same-sex attraction and portray him as a heterosexual, to efforts at armchair analysis by Western biographers. 

Biographers have generally agreed that Tchaikovsky was homosexual. He sought the company of other men in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them." His first love was reportedly Sergey Kireyev, a younger fellow student at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. According to Modest Tchaikovsky, this was Pyotr Ilyich's "strongest, longest and purest love." 

The degree to which the composer might have felt comfortable with his sexual nature has, however, remained open to debate. It is still unknown whether Tchaikovsky, according to musicologist and biographer David Brown, "felt tainted within himself, defiled by something from which he finally realized he could never escape" or whether, according to Alexander Poznansky, he experienced "no unbearable guilt" over his sexual nature and "eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage."

Relevant portions of his brother's autobiography, where he tells of the composer's sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it. Such censorship has persisted in the current Russian government, resulting in many officials, including the current culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, to outright deny his homosexuality.

Tchaikovsky lived as a bachelor for most of his life. In 1868 he met Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt. They became infatuated with each other and were engaged to be married but due to Artôt's refusal to give up the stage or settle in Russia, the relationship ended. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved. 

In 1877, at the age of 37, he wed a former student, Antonina Miliukova. The marriage was a disaster. Mismatched psychologically and sexually, the couple lived together for only two and a half months before Tchaikovsky left, overwrought emotionally and suffering from an acute writer's block. Tchaikovsky's family remained supportive of him during this crisis and throughout his life. He was also aided by Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate, who had begun contact with him not long before the marriage. As well as an important friend and emotional support, she became his patroness for the next 13 years, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition. Tchaikovsky's marital debacle may have forced him to face the full truth about his sexuality; he never blamed Antonina for the failure of their marriage.

In October 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. On November 6, 1893, Tchaikovsky died there, at age 53.

1 comment:

Raybeard said...

He certainly knew how to pen a 'tune' - they just poured out of him, probably like no other composer before or since.
I read recently that Russians schools have been forbidden to refer to his sexuality, or at least compelled to deny all suggestion that he was gay, as well as they being requiring to state that he suffered from depression which led him to suicide, something which may or may not be true, although suicide is now questionable, as you state. For the sake of his own memory which is more than worthy of having pride in it, how can the Russian authorities, in this 'enlightened' age, continue to peddle the lies?