Finished the repot. Only two weeks, six days and eighteen hours late! Now, all I have to do is come up with some cash or spend a few hours under the professor's desk, and he'll accept it!
The Life and Music of Pyoter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The compositions of Pyoter Ilyich Tchaikovsky have been entertaining audiences for better than a century now. Ideas and melodies came to him in abundance, and his technical ability was without equal. He was a rapid and prolific composer. His longest symphony, “Manfred”, was written in just four months (Nice, 63,64). Even audiences unfamiliar with classical music can hum along with his “1812 Overture” or the love theme from “Romeo and Juliet”. Small children easily recognize the "Sleeping Beauty Waltz' incorporated by Disney into their animated film. Every Christmas for generations, children have heard and (usually) enjoyed the melodies of "The Nutcracker Suite”. Oddly enough, Tchaikovsky's work has been maligned by some for very fact of its wide acceptance (Herman; Vroon 89).
The fact that his music is widely known and appreciated has, paradoxically, given the musically snobbish cause to sneer at his accomplishments. To many, however, the fact that his appeal has such scope is proof positive of his genius.
Tchaikovsky was at one time a very controversial figure, and was not always held in such high regard. Tchaikovsky frequently received reviews which were diametrically opposed in their stated opinions. This is exemplified by two reviews of the same piece of music. The first review, by George Bernard Shaw, on a London performance given on June 1, 1893, compared Tchaikovsky’s music to the best poetry of the age, that of Lord Byron, "...he is, as ever, le Byron de nos jours" (The Byron of our day). Shaw went on to say, “The most notable merit of the symphony is its freedom from the frightful effeminacy of most modern works of the romantic school” (Taruskin 26). Another review of the same piece of music said, "...there is no trace of development in the symphonic sense, but merely a succession of repetitions and a sequence of climatic runs that often become hysterical' (Taruskin 26). One might ask how the same music could elicit such diametrically opposed reactions. How could one reviewer comment on its manliness and the other make insinuations of exactly the opposite? The second review could easily have been more of a comment on Tchaikovsky’s personal life than his music. (This shows nothing so clearly as the fact that art critics’ propensity for allowing personal bias to impact their critiques is not a new thing under the sun.)
Tchaikovsky was openly homosexual. This unfortunately produced a knee-jerk reaction of hostility towards his person and his music for much of his career. Critics of his own time and even into the early twentieth century tended to discount the significance of his music due to their individual prejudices regarding his sexuality. Fortunately, this attitude has largely been forsaken in more recent years. It is a testimony to Tchaikovsky’s genius, however, that his music was of such quality that it overcame these prejudices in his own age to become some of the most revered in history. In June of 1893, (The piece referred to above was performed on June 1st of the same year) Tchaikovsky was awarded an honorary doctorate alongside Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saens and Grieg, which indicates rather clearly that his status was considered on par with the musical greats of his time (Taruskin 26). The second evaluation was from a textbook by Paul Henry Lang entitled, Music in Western Civilization (1941). This textbook, according to Taruskin, played a defining role in musical values for English-speaking peoples (Taruskin 26). This text took care to inform its readers that "Tchaikovsky does not belong in the company of the great of music' (Taruskin 26).
Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation became known mainly due to the spectacular and public failure of his marriage. It was an ill-conceived attempt to conform to nineteenth century society and please his father. His wife was a student from the conservatory, and the marriage was a total disaster. Tchaikovsky attempted suicide and a very messy separation followed shortly thereafter. Musorgsky, Balakirev and several of his contemporaries were of similar proclivities. They, however, were more fortunate in that the details of their personal lives did not become public knowledge (Taruskin 29). It was at this low point in this life that an eccentric benefactress, Madame von Meck, came to his rescue. Madame von Meck, a ridiculously wealthy widow, financed Tchaikovsky so thoroughly that he was able to resign his post at the conservatory and focus entirely on composing. Socially, this period was a period of efflorescence, a renaissance of aristocratic culture. It was in large part animated, as Taruskin points out, by what in modern terms would be deemed a "gay sensibility' (Taruskin 29). As such, it can be argued that Tchaikovsky stands as an example of what is possible through gay cultural sensitivity. Perhaps, he could stand as a model to that community as well.
Unencumbered by the responsibilities of a family or the necessity of keeping a “day job”, Tchaikovsky developed a technical ability that has been equaled by only a very few composers since (Taruskin 28). The manner in which he wrote the opera "Queen of Spades” graphically demonstrates the extent of his technical ability. Tchaikovsky wrote his publisher in early February of 1890 that he intended to write an opera for the upcoming season, just five months away. By March 15, he had completed the vocal score and by mid-June the orchestration was complete (Taruskin 28). Four months and twenty days after Tchaikovsky completed the first sketches the work went to the theater and to the publisher.
"The Queen of Spades”, his last full-length opera, written in 1890, (Nice, pp 66-67) has become one of a mere half-dozen or so Russian operas to breach the language barrier to become part of the world repertory. Along with his ballet, "The Sleeping Beauty,' considered by many to be the greatest of all nineteenth-century ballets, this opera exerted a tremendous influence on Alexandre Benois and other prime figures in Russian aestheticism in the 1890s.
Significantly, Tchaikovsky was the first Russian musician/composer to achieve enduring fame in the western world (Machlis 106). It is arguable that no Russian musician before Tchaikovsky had brought so much attention to the artistic talents specifically in their country. Stravinsky was quoted as praising Tchaikovsky by declaring that, "He was the most Russian of us all” (Machlis 108). Just five months after receiving his honorary doctorate, Tchaikovsky died of cholera, a disease that had become associated as a disease of the underclass. Most likely, he became ill during a visit to his brother in St. Petersburg, a city that was built on bogs where contagions flourished (Taruskin 28).
All of Russia went into mourning. When he heard the news, Tolstoy wept (Taruskin 28). Tchaikovsky was given a state funeral and buried in the capital by order of the Tsar (Taruskin 28). It was an event that filled the streets of St. Petersburg, and, to the amazement of the reporters, the turnout dwarfed the ones for both Dostoyevsky and Turgenev (Taruskin 29). Tchaikovsky’s presence had dominated the musical world in Russia to such an extent that it had literally paralyzed Rimsky-Korsakov. While sadden by the news of Tchaikovsky’s death, this brought a deliverance for Rimsky-Korsakov from a prolonged creative block (Taruskin 28).
Tchaikovsky’s place in history rests on a number of factors. As a sort of de facto artistic ambassador of Russia, his music had a nationalistic quality that enhanced the reputation of Russian music worldwide. Tchaikovsky’s melodies are memorable, and on this rests much of his appeal. His technical genius was considered by many to be in the same league as Mozart (whom he idolized). Taken individually, his contributions to ballet and opera are each enough to secure his place in history (Abraham 72). Tchaikovsky’s gift for melody, although profound, and arguably unsurpassed, is just the cherry on the sundae compared to his other areas of musical genius.
Clearly, Tchaikovsky can be considered one of the most significant figures of the romantic period. His gift for melody, technical proficiency, and the broad and lasting influence of his work in both opera and ballet secure for him a place in musical history as one of the most influential composers of all time. Additionally, his sexuality has been acknowledged as a prime motivational factor in his music and thus perhaps qualifies him as a role model for the gay community as well.
music: Corvus Corax (ger) - BASILEUS