When life gave him lemons, he wrote music.
I grew up with Tchaikovsky. As a young girl taking ballet lessons, my earliest dreams were of those onstage, dancing to the twirly tunes of The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty in frilly tutus. But given his immense popularity and genius, you don’t have to be a ballerina to know Tchaikovsky. The 1812 Overture is one of the most famous classical music pieces in the West, his Romeo and Juliet overture is ingrained in anyone who has avidly played the Sims, and his theme for Swan Lake is so overplayed it might as well be a meme.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and grew up in a Russian small town. His musical education started from the age of five, after he insisted on joining his older brother’s piano lessons. His instructor quickly took a liking to him, noting his musical talent as well as an extraordinarily sensitive personality.
“He was as brittle as porcelain and a trifle could wound him deeply…The least criticism of reproof of a kind that would pass lightly over other children would upset him alarmingly.” — Fanny Dürbach, Tchaikovsky’s piano instructor
Tchaikovsky would grow up to be a student of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and soon, a composer who would forever leave a mark in the repertoire of the Romantic era in which a period of music grew out of the rigid structural rules of the Classical era. Romantic music was characterized by its emphasis on freedom of emotional expression, thus composers and musicians were encouraged to play as their hearts directed them: breaking out of tempo and changing keys to follow a narrative purpose. This trend suited Tchaikovsky well — he wrote from his emotions with a sharpness which was rare among his musical peers. This sensitivity, although causing a great deal of trouble throughout his personal life, was likely the key to his musical success.
Theme from Swan Lake
Two things in particular were the torment of Tchaikovsky: his abilities as a composer and his homosexuality, which was very much considered a taboo during the 1850s in Europe. For Tchaikovsky, writing music was a form of expression, a tool with which he would explore his inner scenery when words weren’t enough. Indeed, in a world which made him fear explicit references to his homosexuality even in his personal letters — instead writing “XXX” when talking about it — music was the only available means of expression within Tchaikovsky’s reach.
Tchaikovsky was greatly influenced by the masters of music at the time and those who came before him, including the one and only Beethoven, whose 5th symphony, the one with the famous fate motif, inspired Tchaikovsky to create his last three symphonies also around the theme of fate. For all the criticism that he would receive for not conforming to structural expectations in his symphonies, all three were remarkable in its lyricism, indeed, how the instruments seemed to sing like the very representations of the human soul.
As one fascinating example, listen to the French Horn solo at 15:37, poignant yet courageous in its piercing voice —
Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony by conductor Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic.
From his retellings of Shakespeare and Dante to his massively successful ballet scores, Tchaikovsky was a storyteller at heart. The arc of a story is also quite apparent in each of his three last symphonies: his 4th and 5th symphonies follow a triumphant darkness-to-light plot line, while his 6th and last symphony ties the ends in a darkness-to-light-to-darkness circle, extinguishing the artist’s last flame.
In the fourth symphony, the solemn opening evokes the Christian Day of Judgment, wherein his sins would be weighed. Tchaikovsky feared and mourned his sexuality — in the Christian context in which he grew up, homosexuality was a sin which condemned one to hell. The Day of Judgment theme starts off with the horns and expands onto striking trumpets, numbing the listener with terror and into submission. The music progresses and meanders, until the same theme reemerges in the last movement at 41:55. This time, it appears at the end of a procession of different instruments spiraling the music forward and endlessly downward: fate – according to Tchaikovsky – is an abyss. The music, though, returns to a forceful whirlwind in the major key and concludes cleanly. Tchaikovsky desperately hopes for closure, for some meaning in the madness he is being put through.
Tchaikovsky’s 4th Symphony by conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
Now, onto the 6th Symphony, which he himself conducted at the premier in St. Petersburg, nine days before his death. Contrasted to the encouraging finish to the 4th symphony, the last movement of this piece is ominously quiet. Here, Tchaikovsky has likely accepted his fate and now struggles to come to terms with it, rather than fight to alter its certain agony. While Tchaikovsky’s death is commonly attributed to have been from cholera, this seems too ironic and unsatisfying a death for this widely-hailed genius. Many rather suspect it to have been suicide, in which Tchaikovsky was crushed under an unloving Russian state that eagerly commissioned his works yet condemned his sexuality. If he truly ended his own life, it may just as well have been right after the premier of this fateful piece. In the deepness of tragedy there also lies a cathartic layer.
Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony by conductor Lionel Bringuier with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony.
Tchaikovsky’s music is loved dearly among orchestra players, for all its opportunities to participate shamelessly in moments of loud triumphs and striking despair. His symphonies are quite literally a “blowfest,” in which not only the wind players roar with their full lungs, but the strings cry and the timpani drums brew their storms, summoning their most intimate passions to the surface of sound.