Dinner Topics for Friday
Wise men still follow Him.
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
Tchaikovsky’s birthday is actually in May, but his music is such a lovely part of the holidays that we are honoring him this month.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [ Pyotr Ilyich Chaykovsky; ] 7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893),[a 2] anglicised as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States. One of these appearances was at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.
Although musically precocious, 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. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Five, with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky’s 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 from 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, and this resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia of the country’s national identity.
While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it sufficiently representative of native musical values and were suspicious that Europeans accepted it for its Western elements. In apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music more substantive than base exoticism, and thus transcending stereotypes of Russian classical music. Tchaikovsky’s music was dismissed as “lacking in elevated thought,” according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and its formal workings were derided as deficient for not following Western principles stringently.
According to Wiley, Tchaikovsky was a pioneer in several ways. “Thanks in large part to Nadezhda von Meck”, Wiley writes, “he became the first full-time professional Russian composer”. This, Wiley adds, allowed him the time and freedom to consolidate the Western compositional practices he had learned at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory with Russian folk song and other native musical elements to fulfill his own expressive goals and forge an original, deeply personal style. He made an impact not only in absolute works such as the symphony but also in program music and, as Wiley phrases it, “transformed Liszt’s and Berlioz’s achievements … into matters of Shakespearean elevation and psychological import.” Wiley and Holden both note that Tchaikovsky did all this without a native school of composition upon which to fall back. They point out that only Glinka had preceded him in combining Russian and Western practices and his teachers in Saint Petersburg had been thoroughly Germanic in their musical outlook. He was, they write, for all intents and purposes alone in his artistic quest.
Maes and Taruskin write that Tchaikovsky believed that his professionalism in combining skill and high standards in his musical works separated him from his contemporaries in The Five. Maes adds that, like them, he wanted to produce music that reflected Russian national character but which did so to the highest European standards of quality. Tchaikovsky, according to Maes, came along at a time when the nation itself was deeply divided as to what that character truly was. Like his country, Maes writes, it took him time to discover how to express his Russianness in a way that was true to himself and what he had learned. Because of his professionalism, Maes says, he worked hard at this goal and succeeded. The composer’s friend, music critic Hermann Laroche, wrote of The Sleeping Beauty that the score contained “an element deeper and more general than color, in the internal structure of the music, above all in the foundation of the element of melody. This basic element is undoubtedly Russian.”
Tchaikovsky also encouraged himself to reach beyond Russia with his music, according to Maes and Taruskin. His exposure to Western music, they write, encouraged him to think it belonged not just to Russia but to the world at large. Volkov adds that this mindset made him think seriously about Russia’s place in European musical culture—the first Russian composer to do so. It steeled him to became the first Russian composer to personally acquaint foreign audiences with his own works, Warrack writes, as well as those of other Russian composers. In his biography of Tchaikovsky, Anthony Holden recalls the dearth of Russian classical music before Tchaikovsky’s birth, then places the composer’s achievements into historical perspective: “Twenty years after Tchaikovsky’s death, in 1913, Igor Stravinsky‘s The Rite of Spring erupted onto the musical scene, signalling Russia’s arrival into 20th century music. Between these two very different worlds Tchaikovsky’s music became the sole bridge.