Peter Tchaikovsky

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  • Topic: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck, Saint Petersburg Conservatory
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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The Life of Peter Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, also spelled Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was born in Votkinsk, in the city of Vyatka, Russia, May 7, 1840. Second in a family of five sons and one daughter, to whom he was extremely devoted. Once in his early teens when he was in school at St. Petersburg and his mother started to drive to another city, he had to be held back while she got into the carriage, and the moment he was free ran and tried to hold the wheels.

There is an anecdote of Tchaikovsky's earliest years that gives us a clue to the paradox of his personality. Passionately kissing the map of Russia and then, one regrets to state, spitting on the other countries, he was reminded by his nurse that she herself was French. "Yes," he said, accepting her criticism with perfect sweetness and affectionate docility, "I covered France with my hand." The child is father of the man; here we have already Tchaikovsky's strange two-sidedness: on one hand his intense emotionality in all personal matters, his headstrong impetuosity, leaping first and looking afterwards; on the other his candor and modesty, his intelligent acceptance of criticism, even his carefulness and good workmanship-he had covered France with his hand"! If he had only been able to reconcile that lifelong feud between his over-personal heart and his magnanimous mind, he would have been saved endless suffering. But he was not: in his music his self-criticism, as on of his best biographers, Edwin Evans, has remarked, "came after and not during composition"-he destroyed score after score. And in daily life he never learned to apply the advice of a wit tot he victim of a temperament like his: "less remorse and more reform."

As a youth he reluctantly studied law, as much bore by it as Schumann had been, and even became a petty clerk in the Ministry of Justice. But in his early twenties he rebelled, and against his family's wishes had the courage to throw himself into the study of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was a ready improviser, playing well for dancing and had a naturally rich sense of harmony, but was so little schooled as to be astonished when a cousin told him it was possible to modulate form any key to another. He went frequently to the Italian operas which at that time almost monopolized the Russian stage, and laid the foundation of his lifelong love for Mozart; but he had no acquaintance with Schumann, and at 21 did not even know how many symphonies Beethoven had composed. He was an ardent worker nevertheless, and once when Anton Rubinstein, his teacher of composition, asked for variations, he sat up all night and brought in two hundred. Is not that already the very picture of a facility almost fatal?--a facility which in even so fine a work as the Trio transforms an unoffending Russian folk tune into a waltz, a mazurka, and even a fugue, like a conjurer drawing rabbits out of the hat!

Early in 1866 he removed permanently to Moscow, with which all his later musical fortunes are associated, accepting a teaching post in the new conservatory just established by Rubinstein's brother Nicholas. His early attempts at composition, largely because of that same fatal facility, had displeased himself as well as his friends; on one of them, with that same impersonal candour always flashing out from him, he had scribbled the words: "dreadful muck." Yet now he had the courage to attempt his first symphony, "Winter Dreams." Musically it is not of great importance, any more than are indeed the second and third, one strongly "folk and the other rather featureless, in spite of a beautiful slow movement. But the First Symphony is interesting biographically for two reasons. Over it, to begin with , its composer worked his too-delicate nerves into a state of almost pathological strain that was to recur at intervals all his life. he suffers from insomnia, a sensation of hammering in the head, and even hallucinations; and so painful...
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