“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” – Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky is, to my mind, the composer of some of the most memorable moments in all of music. He was a natural genius when it came to writing beautiful melodies, with that rare gift of being able to write music that’s both grand and intimate at the same time. He was also one of history’s great orchestrators, with a keen sense of how to harness the full power of the orchestra to achieve maximum dramatic effect. It’s no surprise then that Tchaikovsky penned some of the most beloved orchestral themes in the repertoire, from his famous Romeo & Juliet and 1812 Overture to his ballet suites, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. His music is timeless, and never seems to lose its magic no matter how many times you hear it.
Romeo & Juliet Overture, played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Valery Gergiev. One of the most famous and beautiful love themes ever written can be heard from 7:48 in this recording, later picked up by the strings at 14:10. Perhaps Tchaikovsky’s greatest gift of all was his ability to write stunning sweeping melodies for the strings, which he did in an idiomatic style reminiscent of Chopin’s affinity for the piano.
Beneath the joyful and exuberant tone of much of Tchaikovsky’s music however, lay a troubled soul whose life was plagued by depression and battles with adversity. He made a name for himself as a composer during a time when subsisting as a musician in Russia was no easy task; indeed Russian classical music, having been set on its path in the early 19th century by the works of Glinka, was still a relatively recent phenomenon whose identity had yet to take a definite shape. After initially training for a career as a civil servant, Tchaikovsky went on to study music at the St Petersburg Conservatory, where he received an education largely premised on Western practices. This left him with a musical identity crisis of sorts, as his music bore the mark of the Western influence of his formal education, putting him at odds with many of the nationalistic composers of his day and causing early reception to his music to be mixed. To the Russians, his music was not Russian enough; to the West, it was too Russian, derided for not adhering strictly enough to Western practices. A man of delicate sensibility, Tchaikovsky suffered from a lifelong sensitivity to criticism that caused him to struggle with his self-confidence. Whatever his detractors had to say about him though, there can be no doubt that Tchaikovsky succeeded in finding his voice; his music is original, personal, and unmistakably Russian.
Tchaikovsky suffered a number of personal crises which affected him deeply. The death of his mother, for example, stayed with him for the rest of his life: over 25 years later, he confided to a wealthy patroness that “Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday.” Perhaps the struggle that affected Tchaikovsky most poignantly however was the constant scrutiny over his sexuality, which followed from his reputation for forming close relationships with men and the fact that he spent virtually his entire life as a bachelor (he married once briefly, and the marriage lasted just six weeks). We now know that Tchaikovsky was almost certainly gay from portions of his brother Modest’s autobiography, as well as letters from Tchaikovsky himself, previously suppressed by Soviet censors. One can only imagine how this must have weighed on him, given the severe repercussions that may have awaited him and even his family if his secret were uncovered (imprisonment or exile for example). There are conflicting schools of thought on how Tchaikovsky felt about his own sexuality, with one musicologist claiming that he “felt tainted within himself, defiled by something from which he finally realized he could never escape,” while others claim he didn’t suffer from any feelings of guilt. Regardless, one thing I have always personally felt when listening to Tchaikovsky’s music is that there exists a certain repressed longing throughout, an internal conflict between its boundless exuberance and the tinge of melancholy which is never too far removed. To me, it is the music of a man in pain. Tchaikovsky himself once remarked “To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing.”
Perhaps the most sinister aspect of the speculation surrounding Tchaikovsky’s sexuality are the circumstances surrounding his death. It has long been rumoured that Tchaikovsky’s death, usually attributed to cholera from drinking contaminated water a few days prior, was in fact suicide stemming from fears that his homosexuality had been discovered. He died a mere nine days after conducting the premier of his Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, which ends fittingly (and, if the conspiracy theories are to be believed, perhaps knowingly) with the dynamic marking morendo or “dying away”. It’s painful to even contemplate the possibility that such genius could have been lost to us in the name of discrimination. Here is the 4th and final movement of this haunting composition, one of the last things Tchaikovsky ever wrote, conducted by Herbert von Karajan:
To this day, Tchaikovsky remains perhaps the most enduringly popular of all the Russian composers, and his music continues to delight adults and children alike around the world. How many of you have fond memories of listening to a performance of The Nutcracker around Christmas time as a kid? There are too many gems from Tchaikovsky to pick from, but here is a selection of some of my favourites:
Valse Sentimentale, Op. 51, No. 6
Waltz from Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66, played by the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nejc Bečan
Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71, played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bramwell Tovey
Russian Dance from The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa
Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy from The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71, performed by Nina Kaptsova
Main theme from Swan Lake, Op. 20, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yuri Simonov
Waltz from Swan Lake, Op. 20, played by the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Djansug Kakhidze