Russian composers and Russian music are eagerly studied by those who would keep abreast of the time. This music is so saturated with strong, vigorous life that it is inspiring to listen to. Its rugged strength, its fascinating rhythms, bring a new message. It is different from the music of other countries and at once attracts by its unusual melodies and its richness of harmony.
Among the numerous composers of modern Russia, the name of Peter Ilyitch Tschaikowsky stands out most prominently. This distinctive composer was born on April 28, 1840, in Votinsk, where his father, who was a mining engineer, had been appointed inspector of the mines at Kamsko-Votinsk. The position of manager of such important mines carried with it much luxury, a fine house, plenty of servants and an ample salary. Thus the future young musician’s home life was not one of poverty and privation, as has been the lot of so many gifted ones, who became creators in the beautiful art of music.
Peter Ilyitch was less than five years old when a new governess came into the family, to teach his elder brother Nicholas and his cousin Lydia. As a little boy he was apt to be untidy, with buttons missing and rumpled hair. But his nature was so affectionate and sympathetic that he charmed every one with his pretty, loving ways. This natural gift he always retained. The governess was a very superior person and her influence over her young charges was healthful and beneficial. The child Peter was most industrious at his lessons; but for recreation often preferred playing the piano, reading, or writing poetry, to playing with other children.
When Peter was eight, the family moved to St. Petersburg, and the two younger boys were sent to boarding school. The parting from his home but especially from his motherthough he saw her once a weeknearly broke his heart. Such a school was no place for a sensitive, high-strung boy like Peter, who needed the most tender fostering care. The work of the school was very heavy, the hours long. The boys often sat over their books till far into the night. Be-sides the school work, Peter had music lessons of the pianist Philipov, and made rapid progress. At this time music in general excited the boy abnormally; a hand organ in the street would enchant him, an orchestra strangely agitated him. He seemed to live at a high strung, nervous tension, and had frequent ailments, which kept him out of school.
In 1849 the father secured another appointment, this time at Alapaiev, a little town, where, though there was not so much luxury, the family tried to revive the home life of Votinsk.
No one at Alapaiev seemed to take any interest in the boy Peter’s music. He was really making great progress, for he had learned much in the lessons he had taken in St. Petersburg. He studied many pieces by himself, and often improvised at the piano. His parents did nothing to further his musical education; this may have been because they were afraid of a return of the nervous disorders that the quiet of the present home surroundings had seemed to cure.
From the fact that the father had held government appointments, his sons were eligible for education at the School of Jurisprudence. Peter was accordingly entered there as a scholar, and completed his course at the age of nineteen. In those nine years the child Peter developed into maturity. During this period he suffered the loss of his mother, a handsome and very estimable woman, whom he adored with passionate devotion, and from whom he could never bear to be separated.
While attending the Law School, music had to be left in the background. His family and companions only considered it as a pastime at best, and without serious significance; he therefore kept his aspirations to himself. The old boyish discontent and irritability, which were the result of his former nervous condition, had now given place to his natural frankness of character and charm of manner, which attracted all who came in contact with him.
In 1859, when Peter had finished his studies at the School of Jurisprudence, he received an appointment in the Ministry of Justice, as, clerk of the first class. This would have meant much to some young men, but did not greatly impress Peter, as he did not seem to take his work very seriously. During the three years in which he held the post, he followed the fashion of the day, attended the opera and theater, meanwhile receiving many. impressions which molded his character and tastes. The opera “Don Giovanni,” Mozart’s masterpiece, made a deep impression upon him, also the acting of Adelaide Ristori and the singing of Lagrona.
The new Conservatoire of Music was founded at St. Petersburg in 1862, with Anton Rubin-stein as director, and Tschaikowsky lost no time in entering as a pupil, studying composition and kindred subjects with Professor Zaremba. His progress was so rapid in the several branches he took uppiano, organ and flutethat Rubin-stein advised him to make music his profession, and throw his law studies to the winds. Thanks to Rubinstein, he secured some pupils and also engagements as accompanist. Meanwhile he worked industriously at composition, and one of his pieces was a Concert Overture in F, scored for small orchestra. In 1865 he took his diploma as a musician and also secured a silver medal for a cantata. One year after this the Moscow Conservatoire was founded, with Nicholas Rubin-stein at its head. The position of Professor of Composition and Musical History was offered to Tschaikowsky, then only twenty-six. It was a flattering offer for so young a man, when many older heads would have liked to secure such an honor. He moved to Moscow, and retained his position in the Conservatoire for at least twelve years, in the meantime making many friends for himself and, his art, as his fame as a composer grew. One of these friends was the publisher Jurgenson, who was to play rather an important part in the composer’s life, through accepting and putting forth his compositions.
During those first years in Moscow, Tschaikowsky made his home with Nicholas Rubinstein. His life was of the simplest, his fare always so. Later on when money was more abundant, and he had his own house in the country, he lived with just the same simplicity. One would think that all this care and thought for expense would have taught him the value of money. Not at all. He never could seem to learn its value, never cared for it, and never could keep it. He liked to toss his small change among groups of street boys, and it is said he once spent his last roubles in sending a cablegram to von Bülow in America, to thank him for his admirable performance of his first Piano Concerto. Often his friends protested against this prodigality, but it was no use to pro-test, and at last they gave up in despair.
Soon after he began his professorship in Moscow, he composed a Concert Overture in C minor. To his surprise and disappointment, Rubinstein disapproved of the work in every way. This was a shock, after the lack of encouragement in St. Petersburg. But he recovered his poise, though he made up his mind to try his next work in St. Petersburg instead of Moscow. He called the new piece a Symphonic Poem, “Winter Day-dreams,” but it is now known as the First Symphony, Op.’ I3. About the end of 1866, he started out with it, only to be again rebuffed and cast down. The two men whose good opinion he most desired, Anton Rubinstein and Professor Zaremba, could find nothing good in his latest work, and the young composer returned to Moscow to console himself with renewed efforts in composition. Two years later the “Winter Daydreams” Symphony was produced in Moscow with great success, and its author was much encouraged by this appreciation. He was, like most composers, very sensitive to criticism and had a perfect dread of controversy. Efforts to engage him in arguments of this sort only made him withdraw into himself.
Tschaikowsky, held the operas of Mozart before him as his ideal. He cared little for Wagner, considering his music dramas to be built on false principles. Thus his first opera, “Voivoda,” composed in 1866, evidently had his ideal, Mozart, clearly in mind. It is a some-what curious fact that Tschaikowsky, who was almost revolutionary in other forms of music, should go back to the eighteenth century for his ideal of opera. Soon after it was completed “Voivoda” was accepted to be produced at the Moscow Grand Theater. The libretto was written by Ostrowsky, one of the celebrated dramatists of the day. The first performance took place on January 18, 1869. We are told it had several performances and considerable popular success. But the composer was dissatisfied with its failure to win a great artistic success, and burnt the score. He did the same with his next work, an orchestral fantaisie, entitled “Fatum.” Again he did the same with the score of a complete opera, “Undine,” finished in 1870, and refused at the St. Petersburg Opera, where he had offered it.
“The Snow Queen,” a fairy play with music, was the young Russian’s next adventure; it was mounted and produced with great care, yet it failed to make a favorable impression. But these disappointments did not dampen the composer’s ardor for work. Now it was in the realm of chamber music. Up to this time he had not seemed to care greatly for this branch of his art, for he had always felt the lack of tone coloring and variety in the strings. The first attempt at a String Quartet resulted in the one in D major, Op. 11. To-day, fifty years after, we enjoy the rich coloring, the characteristic rhythms of this music; the Andante indeed makes special appeal. A bit of history about this same Andante shows how the composer prized national themes and folk tunes, and strove to secure them. It is said that morning after morning he was awakened by the singing of a laborer, working on the house below his window. The song had a haunting lilt, and Tschaikowsky wrote it down. The melody afterwards became that touching air which fills the Andante of the First String Quartet. Another String Quartet, in F major, was written in 1814, and at once acclaimed by all who heard it, with the single exception of Anton Rubinstein.
Tschaikowsky wrote six Symphonies in all. The Second, in C minor was composed in 1873; in this he used themes in the first and last movements, which were gathered in Little Russia. The work was produced with great success in Moscow in 1873. The next orchestral composition was a Symphonic Poem, called “The Tempest,” with a regular program, prepared by Stassow. It was brought out in Paris at the same time it was heard in Moscow. Both at home and in France it made a deep impression. The next work was the splendid piano Concerto in B flat minor, Op. 23, the first of three works of this kind. At a trial performance of it, his friend and former master, Nicholas Rubinstein, to whom it was dedicated, and who had promised to play the piano part, began to criticize it unmercifully and ended by saying it was quite unplayable, and unsuited to the piano.
No one could blame the composer for being offended and hurt. He at once erased the name of Nicholas Rubinstein from the title page and dedicated the work to Hans von Billow, who not long after performed it with tremendous success in America, where he was on tour. When we think of all the pianists who have won acclaim in this temperamental, inspiring work, from Carreno to Percy Grainger, to mention two who have aroused special enthusiasm by their thrilling performance of it, we can but wonder that his own countrymen, were so short sighted at the time it was composed. Later on Nicholas Rubinstein gave a superb performance of the Concerto in Moscow, thus making some tardy amends for his unkindness.
Tschaikowsky was now thirty-five. Most of his time was given to the Conservatoire, where he often worked nine hours a day. Besides, he had written a book on harmony, and was contributing articles on music to two journals. In composition he had produced large works, including up to this time, two Symphonies, two Operas, the Concerto, two String Quartets and numerous smaller pieces. To accomplish such an amount of work, he must have possessed immense energy and devotion to his ideals.
One of the operas just mentioned was entitled “Vakoula the Smith.” It bears the date of 1874, and was first offered in competition with others. The result was that it not only was considered much the best work of them all but it won both the first and second prizes. “Vakoula” was splendidly mounted and performed in St. Petersburg, at the Marinsky Theater at least seventeen times. Ten years later, in January 1887, it appeared again. The composer meanwhile had re-written a good part of it and now called it “Two Little Shoes.” This time Tschaikowsky was invited to conduct his own work. The invitation filled him with alarm, for he felt he had no gift in that direction, as he had tried a couple of times in the early years of his career and had utterly failed. However, he now, through the cordial sympathy of friends, decided to make the attempt. Contrary to his own fears, he obtained a successful performance of the opera.
It proved an epoch-making occasion. For this first success as conductor led him to undertake a three months’ tour through western Europe in 1888. On his return to St. Peters-burg he conducted a program of his own compositions for the Philharmonic Society, which was also successful, in spite of the intense nervousness which he always suffered. As a result of his concert he received offers to conduct concerts in Hamburg, Dresden, Leipsic, Vienna, Copenhagen and London, many of which he accepted.
To go back a bit in our composer’s life story, to an affair of the heart which he experienced in 1868. He became engaged to the well-known singer Desiree Artôt ; the affair never went further, for what reason is not known. He was not yet thirty, impressionable and intense. Later on, in the year 1877, at the age of thirty-seven, he became a married man. How this happened was doubtless told in his diaries, which were written with great regularity : but unfortunately he destroyed them all a few years before his death. The few facts that have been gleaned from his intimate friend, M. Kashkin, are that he was engaged to the lady in the spring of this year, and married her a month or so afterward. It was evidently a hasty affair and subsequently brought untold suffering to the composer. When the professors of his Conservatoire re-assembled in the autumn, Tschaikowsky appeared among them a married man, but looking the picture of despair. A few weeks later he fled from Moscow, and when next heard of was lying dangerously ill in St. Petersburg. One thing was evident, the ill-considered marriage came very near ruining his life. The doctors ordered rest and change of scene, and his brother Modeste Ilyitch took him to Switzerland and afterward to Italy. The peaceful life and change of scene did much to restore his shattered nerves. Just at this time a wealthy widow lady, Madame von Meek, a great admirer of Tschaikowsky’s music, learning of his sad condition, settled on him a generous yearly allowance for life. He was now independent and could give his time to composition.
The following year he returned to Moscow and seemed quite his natural self. A fever of energy for work took possession of him. He began a new opera, “Eugen Onégin,” and completed his Fourth Symphony, in F minor. The score of the opera was finished in February, 1878, and sent at once to Moscow, where the first performance was given in March 1879. In the beginning the opera had only a moderate success, but gradually grew in favor till, after five years, it was performed in St. Petersburg and had an excellent reception. It is considered Tschaikowsky’s most successful opera, sharing with GIinka’s “Life of the Tsar” the popularity of Russian opera. In 1881 he was invited to compose an orchestral work for the consecration of the Temple of Christ in Moscow. The “Solemn Overture 1812,” Op. 49, was the outcome of this. Later in the year he completed the Second Piano Concerto. The Piano Trio in A minor, “To the memory of a great artist,” Op. 50, refers to his friend and former master, Nicholas Rubinstein, who passed away in Paris, in 1881.
Tschaikowsky’s opera, “Mazeppa,” was his next important work. In the same year the Second Orchestral Suite, Op. 53, and the Third, Op. 55, followed. Two Symphonic Poems, “Manfred” and “Hamlet” came next. The latter of these was written at the composer’s country house, whose purchase had been made possible by the generosity of his benefactress, and to which he retired at the age of forty-five, to lead a peaceful country life. He had purchased the old manor house of Frovolo, on the outskirts of the town of Klin, near Moscow. Here his two beautiful ballets and two greatest Symphonies, the Fifth and Sixth, were written. The Fifth Symphony was composed in 1888 and published the next year. On its first hearing it made little impression and was scarcely heard again till Nikisch, with unerring judgment, rescued it from neglect, then the world discovered it to be one of the composer’s greatest works.
Tschaikowsky’s two last operas, the “Pique Dame” (Queen of Spades), Op. 68, and “King Rene’s Daughter” are not considered in any way distinctive, although the former was performed in New York, at the Metropolitan. The Third Piano Concerto, Op. 75, occupied the master during his last days at Frovolo , it was left unfinished by him and was completed by the composer Taneiev. The wonderful Sixth Symphony, Op. 74, is a superb example of Tschaikowsky’s genius. It was composed in 1893, and the title “Pathetic” was given it by the composer after its first performance, in St. Petersburg, shortly before his death, as the reception of it by the public did not meet his anticipations. In this work the passion and despair which fill so many of the master’s finest compositions, rise to the highest tragic significance. The last movement, with its prophetic intimation of his coming death, is heart-breaking. One cannot listen to its poignant phrases without deep emotion. The score is dated August 81, 1893. On October twelfth, Tschaikowsky passed away in St, Petersburg, a victim of cholera.
A couple of years before he passed away,
Tschiakowsky came to America. In May, 1891, he conducted four concerts connected with the formal opening of Carnegie Hall, New York. We well remember his interesting personality, as he stood before the orchestra, conducting many of his own works, with Adele Aus der Ohe playing his famous Concerto in B flat minor.
The music of this representative Russian composer has made rapid headway in the world’s appreciation, during the last few years. Once heard it will always be remembered. For we can never forget the deeply human and touching message which is brought to us through the music of Peter Ilyitch Tschaikowsky.