Peter, Pessimism and his Pathetique

Who was he? Who was this giant of classical music? Generations after his death on November the 6th 124 years ago in 1893, his masterworks live on and may be heard around the globe by adoring audiences. And his name is attached to a world-famous competition that attracts scores of those aspiring to greatness on the concert stage.

I speak of none other than Peter Ilitch Tchaikovsky, born in Votkinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840.

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. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884, by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension.

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was intended for law and attended the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg; thereafter he worked for three years as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice.  In 1861 he began to study music with Nicholas Zaremba, and in 1862 entered the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory. Now certain of his direction, he resigned his Ministry post to concentrate on music.

After completing his studies at the Conservatory in 1865, Tchaikovsky became professor of harmony of the Moscow Conservatory, which Nicolai Rubinstein had just founded. While holding that post he completed his first symphony, successfully introduced at Moscow in 1868. The next year he completed an early version of his first masterwork, the orchestral fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, introduced at Moscow in 1870

Tchaikovsky’s formal Western-oriented training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style—a task that did not prove easy. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music; this seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or for forming a composite style, and it caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky’s self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great. This resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia about the country’s national identity—an ambiguity mirrored in Tchaikovsky’s career.

On 28 October 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later on November the 6th, Tchaikovsky died there, aged only 53. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, near the graves of fellow-composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, and Modest Mussorgsky; later, Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev were also buried nearby.

While Tchaikovsky’s death has traditionally been attributed to cholera from drinking unboiled water at a local restaurant, as one story accounts, many writers have theorized that his death was a suicide. Opinion has been summarized as follows: “The polemics over [Tchaikovsky’s] death have reached an impasse … Rumors attached to the famous die hard … As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out …..”

I was introduced to Tchaikovsky’s music – both orchestral and solo piano works – at an early age in New Delhi, India. I still have his Selected Compositions for the Piano purchased in December 1962 from A. Godin & Co., which sold Pianos, Gramophones & Radios in the capital and the Himalayan hill station Simla. My favorites at the time were Troika (November) from “The Seasons” – played here by Richter on YouTube –  followed by Chant sans Paroles, Op. 2, No. 3, Romance, Op. 5 and Reverie du Soir. During that time, my mother presented me for my birthday with Tchaikovsky’s famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, which I must confess I never mastered for performance on the concert stage. Here on YouTube is Martha Argerich at the piano with Charles Dutoit, conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1975.

References: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia of Concert Music by David Ewen; Schirmer’s Library of Tchaikovsky Select Piano Works: Foreword by Philip Hale.

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Copyright © 2017 Azim Lewis Mayadas

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