Have you ever felt an urge to bemoan the fact that no one seems to care about music from before they were born? That no one can be bothered to reach back just a little further in time to the originators? Ever been frustrated by someone’s reluctance to share your love of an unusual musical style? Ever despaired at the thought that future generations might never appreciate any of the music you like? If so, then you already know a little about my world of pain, in which I strive to justify and explain the centuries of astonishing creative output known collectively as classical music, focusing on one composer at a time. This month, instead of trying to succinctly overturn all your preconceptions about this music, I’m going to let comedic genius, towering intellect and all-round good egg Stephen Fry do it for me, in much more eloquent terms than I could ever manage:
Ask most people to make a list of the composers they can think of, and chances are this month’s artist will be in there somewhere, mainly because it’s so memorable – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the most popular and yet one of least understood composers who ever lived.
For easier listening, I’ve also condensed all the music in this article into one handy playlist, which you can find here on YouTube.
#3: Tch-Tch-Tch Tchanges
“It’s time to take all of the lives / Of the people who cannot see / The somnolent genius of
Tarkovsky Tchaikovsky” – of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, who definitely wasn’t talking about the similarly-named and equally brilliant film director.
“Little by little my prejudices against classical music began to fade away … It came as a sheer revelation to me. It is impossible for me to describe the enthusiasm, the ecstasy, the intoxication which I was seized by.” – Tchaikovsky, 1889 – showing us that the divide between classical and popular music is really nothing new.
A lot had happened in music between Beethoven’s death in 1827 and Tchaikovsky’s graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1865. Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Chopin had all lived, worked and died. Mendelssohn had also done a great deal to revive the fortunes of Bach, whose music had long been neglected, sparking a renewed interest in baroque compositional methods, especially fugue and counterpoint. Added to this was the fact that Romanticism, which had seemed unified and unbending in its commitment to personal expression, had split into two rival camps in Germany, with Brahms and Robert Schumann’s widow Clara on one side and Liszt and Wagner on the other, each claiming to be the rightful heirs to Beethoven’s legacy. While things never quite descended into violence, their arguments had become extremely heated. The dispute between them concerned the merits of “absolute” versus “programmatic” music – in other words: should music seek to evoke things outside of itself, or should it remain abstract, concerned only with its own form? There was also the question of tradition – should it be rejected in favour of progressive ideas about harmony and tonality, or should it be embraced more than ever, now that knowledge of the past had improved? Beethoven of course, had done all of these things, sometimes simultaneously, but as with all pointless musical arguments (now as much as then), no one was going to let anything as stupid as factual accuracy get in the way of their aesthetic chauvinism. Meanwhile, in opera, yet another schism was developing, this time between people (Italian people to be specific) who actually enjoyed listening to good tunes, and, er… everyone else, who had clearly gone out of their minds as part of the general cultural insanity of the time, prompted by widespread syphilis, the ready availability of mind-altering substances, and reading too many books.
But that was Germany – and the Germans took music a little bit too seriously for their own good. In Russia, however, the situation was very different, as before the 19th century, little home-grown music was produced, except for the Orthodox Church. Musical ideologies had grown up there according to principles which were largely divorced from debates elsewhere in Europe. In fact, Europe itself was the problem for Russian composers – should they try and keep up with developments there, or instead forge their own national style? Russia’s aloofness from the rest of Europe was an age-old problem – the classicised, refined city of St. Petersburg looks as though it could just as easily have been built in Denmark – but Moscow, from the Kremlin to the onion domes of its cathedral, was Russian to the core. And so it was with music. The St. Petersburg Conservatory where Tchaikovsky began his musical career, after a brief, unhappy stint in the civil service, looked westward for inspiration – to Austrian, French and German music. Under the leadership of the influential brothers Nikolai and Anton Rubinstein, both brilliant performers and minor composers in their own right, the conservatory maintained a conservative, but thorough system of teaching, based on the careful study of the old masters. But in Moscow, a new group of young, largely self-taught composers known as “The Five” (no prizes for guessing why) or sometimes by the rather more grandiose name “The Mighty Handful” was forming. From a modern perspective, the most important members of the group were Modest “Mouse” Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin. They were more selective in their influences, regarding Mozart, Haydn and Bach as hopelessly out of date, drawing instead on Beethoven, but perhaps more significantly, on Russia’s first native composer of note, Mikhail Glinka, and the brand of Romantic nationalism that he represented. For The Five, it was the Russian-ness of the music which counted, not its ability to impress the rest of Europe.
Where exactly did Tchaikovsky fit into this musical landscape? The short answer is that he didn’t. To illustrate this point, I turn once more to Stephen Fry:
“There is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature” – Tchaikovsky, writing to his brother.
Tchaikovsky, like Oscar Wilde, was gay. This is a fact which still surprises some people, even those who are familiar with his music. For others, sadly, and shockingly, it is a fact which tarnishes his reputation and his music. Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895, not long after Tchaikovsky’s death, was a watershed moment in the history of sexuality, after which attitudes turned firmly against any relationship which was deemed “unnatural.” Although Tchaikovsky had a lifelong fear of his sexuality being exposed, and even went as far as going through with a catastrophic sham marriage to conceal it, attitudes in Russia were relatively tolerant, as several members of the imperial family were gay, and the structure of Russian society at the time allowed upper-class men to take their pick of the unquestioningly subservient serfs for whatever sexual cravings they needed to satisfy. But after Tchaikovsky’s death, many critics and musicologists gradually began to view his music purely in terms of his sexuality, basing their analyses on stereotypes, and producing offensive, distorted reviews. Tchaikovsky’s music was subjected to a barrage of criticisms, often no more than thinly veiled attacks on the man himself. Even today his music is sometimes accused of being overly sentimental or vulgar, but this is a grievous error. Tchaikovsky was one of the most profound and gifted composers of his, or any, generation, and his massive and continuing popularity is not due to a lack of integrity, but precisely the opposite – a lifelong resolve to carve out a uniquely personal, and highly emotional style, while never losing the ability to entertain and delight. Love permeates much of Tchaikovsky’s work, but whether the object of that love is male or female is entirely irrelevant, and focusing on that issue misses the point altogether. As with Beethoven, while it is tempting to read biographical information into the work, this can be a mistake, as it distracts from the universal appeal of the music, and it also ignores the fact that art is often just as much an escape from life as an expression of it. Regardless of all this, and whatever his posthumous reputation, Tchaikovsky opened the door for countless future Russian composers, as well as encouraging his colleagues across Europe to create their own national musical idioms.
Quite apart from Tchaikovsky’s sexuality, there is the more important question of his musical style and influences. Tchaikovsky was clearly influenced by his teachers at the Conservatory, but was nonetheless extremely opinionated and independently-minded when it came to the composers he admired. He was largely indifferent to most of Wagner’s work (with a couple of exceptions) and yet used some of his techniques. Then again, he also disliked the music of Brahms, and indeed most other German composers, preferring the lighter, less severe style of French composers like Bizet and Delibes. His admiration for Mozart knew no bounds, as he had been obsessed with Don Giovanni since childhood – he even referred to Mozart as a “musical Christ,” simultaneously human and divine. Yet he cared little for Haydn, and while he admired Beethoven, Tchaikovsky was generally too intimidated or upset by his symphonies to really imitate him. He was also either unable or unwilling to work with the strictures of Western European sonata form, preferring instead to take an innovative, meandering approach to structure, which mirrored his own frequent wandering throughout Europe. He kept his distance from The Five, and yet shared their love of Glinka and of Russian folk music, and collaborated with their leader Balakirev on some musical projects. Tchaikovsky looked primarily for warmth and feeling in music, rather than adhering dogmatically to any particular school, and his youthful obsession with Italian opera, particularly Rossini and Bellini, left him with an enduring ability to produce ravishingly beautiful melodies. His music almost always possesses an incredibly high degree of drama and emotional intensity, which never slavishly mimics the “heroic” quality of Beethoven. His style runs the gamut from saccharine sweetness to bleak and poignant grandeur, from rococo ornament to patriotic simplicity. Although his life was, like so many other composers, cut relatively short (in his case by cholera – anyone who tells you it was suicide is lying), his dedication to hard work rather than just lying around waiting for inspiration meant that he produced a huge amount of orchestral music. Tchaikovsky’s instrumentation is always interesting – his assignment of large roles to almost every part of the orchestra gives his music an almost unrivalled balance and variety.
Tchaikovsky’s compositions weren’t always hugely well-received in his own lifetime, especially at the start of his career, and were often greeted with hostility outside Russia, where their eastern flavour was all the more apparent. For much of his life, the highly sensitive and intensely self-critical Tchaikovsky had to make do with a mixed reception and begrudging approval for his work. The German critic Eduard Hanslick infamously described the violin concerto as “stinking music,” and even Tchaikovsky’s good friend Nikolai Rubinstein became notorious for having rubbished the first piano concerto and demanding it be rewritten, something which Tchaikovsky characteristically refused to do. The Five were also highly critical of pretty much everything Tchaikovsky produced that they weren’t involved with. Today, this reluctance to embrace such melodically rich, accessible and explosively brilliant works seems puzzling at best, but Tchaikovsky’s exuberant writing took time to be accepted. Towards the end of his life, Tchaikovsky began touring and conducting his music extensively, making it as far as the opening concert of Carnegie Hall in New York, and even to Baltimore. It was this touring, as well as official approval from Tsar Alexander III, which caused an explosion in his popularity, to the point where he became a victim of his own success. He was a man who was unafraid of making huge and anguished musical statements, who never shied away from doing something vaguely ludicrous if it achieved the right effect, and who succeeded in capturing the extremes of total love and utter despair through music in a manner that was entirely his own.