A look at a massively influential composer, 125 years after his passing
The Santa Clara
May 3, 2018
Speaking the language of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky goes beyond Russian. Tchaikovsky drew from a rich emotional vernacular that very few other artists had previously accessed, and very few have since. To speak Tchaikovsky’s language is to feel the cannon blasts from the “1812 Overture” jolt your seat; it is to stare in awe at how grace and tragedy, beauty and ugliness, can co-exist as seamlessly as they do in the closing movement of “Swan Lake.” This year marks 125 years since his death, and we are still trying to decipher the musical language of Tchaikovsky.
In his private letters, Tchaikovsky disparaged the idea of having programs at symphonies: “How can one put into words the intangible sensations which one experiences when writing an instrumental work without a specific subject?” Translating into written word the most masterful achievements of Tchaikovsky, which he considered the “unburdening of the soul in music,” is to lose something invaluable from the work.
It is in this gray area between language, subconscious and art that the groundbreaking compositions of Tchaikovsky dwell. Naturally, the music is complex and sturdy enough to withstand rational, careful analysis—his works are the mulled-over product of a perfectionist—but the real reward of Tchaikovsky comes from listening with an empathetic heart.
Tchaikovsky, in writings to his friends, referred to life as “an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with fleeting dreams and visions of happiness.” Despite his admiration in musical circles, Tchaikovsky’s personal life was rife with turmoil. In 1877, he embarked on a short-lived, disastrous marriage to a former student that ended with Tchaikovsky finding himself alone and emotionally destroyed. What’s more, he also started suffering from writer’s block—his music and vision of happiness, his one escape, gone.
Almost immediately after his failed marriage, he left Russia to amble abroad, purposefully in solitude, and focus exclusively on composition. He was able to do so with the help of his new patroness Nadezhda von Meck, who also served as a close confidante and the “best friend” to whom his Fourth Symphony is dedicated.
Today, with new revelations from his private writings, we now know that Tchaikovsky was homosexual. Homophobia, perhaps by way of Russian social understandings as well as internalization, served as another trauma throughout Tchaikovsky’s life. In a letter to von Meck, Tchaikovsky explained that the main theme of his Fourth was “Fate,” with a capital “F”—“that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal.” After a lifetime of painful suppression, it is hardly surprising that Tchaikovsky saw this perverse “Fate” as emblematic of the human condition.
In order to translate this existential conviction in symphonic form, Tchaikovsky could no longer be constrained to the traditional orchestral structures which his peers revered as infallible. His Western contemporaries found bliss in elegant and deliberate forms, and his fellow Russians established a new culture of nationalistic pride by drawing from folk music—Tchaikovsky, however, was compelled by a higher yet more ineffable cause, one that was impossible to wrangle into strict symphonic boundaries. If they were trying to create discrete works of art, Tchaikovsky wanted to reveal intimate excerpts of a man.
Because of this, the Fourth has a thrilling, unpredictable quality. Massive swells of melodrama arrive in gorgeous movements; gentle strings melt into ominous horn, the theme of Fate caustically interpolated throughout the free-flowing sections like a sword swinging overhead.
At the same time, this demonstrative air has the keen ability to engender incredible intimacy between the piece and the audience. Tchaikovsky was too Russian for the Western critics and too Western for the Russians. How he earned his time-tested respect, then, was by crafting romantic, melodic work that proved to be as accessible as it was beautiful.
Still, the themes depicted within are unquestionably melancholic; enchanted at times, yes, but ultimately ingrained with some sense that the grace was temporal, even feeble, nonetheless. Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the Sixth, is darker still—one critic has called it a “symphony as suicide note.” Indeed, Tchaikovsky died nine days after its first performance; the cause of death was said to be cholera, but some historians believe he took his own life.
The music of Tchaikovsky endures today because of this bareness. Through his impressive oeuvre of symphonies, ballets and operas, Tchaikovsky found a way to translate his vulnerability into vivid movements of dance. To understand the language of this work, is simply to listen. To listen is to understand the way in which music can nearly be tactile. Therein lies the jaw-dropping beauty of Tchaikovsky.
Contact Peter Schutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.