The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which young Marie Stahlbaum's favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. In 1892, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov turned the story into the ballet The Nutcracker, which became one of Tchaikovsky's most famous compositions, and one of the most popular ballets in the world.
The story begins on Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Marie, twelve years old, and her brother Fritz, eight, sit outside the parlor speculating about what kind of present their godfather Drosselmeyer, who is a clockmaker and inventor, has made for them. They are at last allowed into the parlor, where they receive many splendid gifts, including Drosselmeyer's, which turns out to be a clockwork castle with mechanical people moving about inside it. However, as the mechanical people can only do the same thing over and over without variation, the children quickly tire of it. At this point, Marie notices the Nutcracker doll, and asks whom he belongs to. Her father tells her that he belongs to all of them, but that since she is so fond of him she will be his special caretaker. Marie, her sister Louise, and her brother Fritz pass the Nutcracker among them, cracking nuts, until Fritz tries to crack a nut that is too big and hard, and the Nutcracker's jaw breaks. Marie, upset, takes the Nutcracker away and bandages him with a ribbon from her dress.
When it is time for bed, the children put their Christmas gifts away in the special cupboard where they keep their toys. Fritz and Louise go up to bed, but Marie begs to be allowed to stay with Nutcracker a while longer, and she is allowed to do so. She puts Nutcracker to bed and tells him that Drosselmeyer will fix his jaw as good as new. At this, the Nutcracker's face seems momentarily to come alive, and Marie is frightened, but she then decides it was only her imagination.
The grandfather clock begins to chime, and Marie believes she sees Drosselmeyer sitting on top of it, preventing it from striking. Mice begin to come out from beneath the floor boards, including the seven-headed Mouse King. Marie, startled, slips and puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The dolls in the cupboard come alive and begin to move, Nutcracker taking command and leading them into battle after putting Marie's ribbon on as a token. The battle at first goes to the dolls, but they are eventually overwhelmed by the mice. Marie, seeing Nutcracker about to be taken prisoner, takes off her shoe and throws it at the Mouse King, then faints.
Marie wakes the next morning with her arm bandaged and tries to tell her parents about the battle between the mice and the dolls, but they do not believe her, thinking that she has had a fever dream caused by the wound she sustained from the broken glass. Drosselmeyer soon arrives with the Nutcracker, whose jaw has been fixed, and tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat and the Queen of the Mice, which explains how Nutcrackers came to be and why they look the way they do.
The Queen of the Mice tricked Pirlipat's mother into allowing her and her children to gobble up the lard that was supposed to go into the sausage that the King was to eat at dinner that evening. The King, enraged at the Mouse Queen for spoiling his supper and upsetting his wife, had his court inventor, whose name happens to be Drosselmeyer, create traps for the Mouse Queen and her children.
The Mouse Queen, angered at the death of her children, swore that she would take revenge on the King's daughter, Pirlipat. Pirlipat's mother surrounded her with cats which were supposed to be kept awake by being constantly stroked, however inevitably the nurses who stroked the cats fell asleep and the Mouse Queen magically turned the infant Pirlipat ugly, giving her a huge head, a wide grinning mouth and a cottony beard, like a nutcracker. The King blamed Drosselmeyer and gave him four weeks to find a cure. At the end of four weeks, Drosselmeyer had no cure but went to his friend, the court astrologer.
They read Pirlipat's horoscope and told the King that the only way to cure her was to have her eat the nut Crackatook, which must be cracked and handed to her by a man who had never been shaved nor worn boots since birth, and who must, without opening his eyes hand her the kernel and take seven steps backwards without stumbling. The King sent Drosselmeyer and the astrologer out to look for the nut and the young man, charging them on pain of death not to return until they had found them.
The two men journeyed for many years without finding either the nut or the man, until finally they returned home and found the nut in a small shop. The man who had never been shaved and never worn boots turned out to be Drosselmeyer's own nephew. The King, once the nut had been found, promised his daughter's hand to whoever could crack the nut. Many men broke their teeth on the nut before Drosselmeyer's nephew finally appeared. He cracked the nut easily and handed it to the princess, who swallowed it and immediately became beautiful again, but Drosselmeyer's nephew, on his seventh backward step, trod on the Queen of the Mice and stumbled, and the curse fell on him, giving him a large head, wide grinning mouth and cottony beard; in short, making him a Nutcracker. The ungrateful Princess, seeing how ugly Drosselmeyer's nephew had become, refused to marry him and banished him from the castle.
Marie, while she recuperates from her wound, hears the King of the Mice whispering to her in the middle of the night, threatening to bite Nutcracker to pieces unless she gives him her sweets and her dolls. For Nutcracker's sake, Marie sacrifices her things, but the Mouse king wants more and more and finally Nutcracker tells Marie that if she will just get him a sword, he will finish the Mouse King. Marie asks Fritz for a sword for Nutcracker, and he gives her the sword of one of his toy hussars. The next night, Nutcracker comes into Marie's room bearing the Mouse King's seven crowns, and takes her away with him to the doll kingdom, where Marie sees many wonderful things. She eventually falls asleep in the Nutcracker's palace and is brought back home. She tries to tell her mother what happened, but again she is not believed, even when she shows her parents the seven crowns, and she is forbidden to speak of her "dreams" anymore.
As Marie sits in front of the toy cabinet one day, looking at Nutcracker and thinking about all the wondrous things that happened, she can't keep silent anymore and swears to the Nutcracker that if he were ever really real she would never behave as Princess Pirlipat behaved, and she would love him whatever he looked like. At this, there is a bang and she falls off the chair. Her mother comes in to tell her that godfather Drosselmeyer has arrived with his young nephew. Drosselmeyer's nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
In 1892, Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker.
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of the Nutcracker Ballet was composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Born in the Ural mountains of Russia, he dedicated his life to music.
1850 to 1859, he attended the school of Jurisprudence and studied piano. In 1861, he attended classes with the Russian Music Society. In 1862, he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
Beginning in 1866, Tchaikovsky taught at the Moscow Conservatory while composing many of his concertos and symphonies.
In 1892, Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolay Kuznetsov, 1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russian: Пётр Ильич Чайковский (help·info), tr. Pëtr Il'ič Čajkovskij, IPA [ˈpʲɵtr ɪlʲˈjitɕ tɕɪjˈkofskʲɪj]; 7 May 1840 [O.S. 25 April] – 6 November 1893 [O.S. 25 October]), often called Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (pronounced /ˈpiːtər ˈɪlɨtʃ tʃaɪˈkɒvski/) in English, was a Russian composer of the Romantic era. He wrote some of the most popular concert and theatrical music in the current classical repertoire, including the ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the 1812 Overture, his First Piano Concerto, seven symphonies, and the opera Eugene Onegin.
Tchaikovsky was born into a middle-class family. His education prepared him for a career as a civil servant, despite the musical precocity he had demonstrated. Against the wishes of his family he chose to pursue a musical career, and in 1862 entered the St Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1865. This formal, Western-oriented training set him apart, musically, from the contemporary nationalistic movement embodied by the group of young Russian composers known as "The Five", with whom Tchaikovsky sustained a mixed professional relationship throughout his career.
As his style developed, Tchaikovsky wrote music across a range of genres, including symphony, opera, ballet, instrumental, chamber and song. Although he enjoyed many popular successes, he was never emotionally secure, and his life was punctuated by personal crises and periods of depression. Contributory factors were his suppressed homosexuality and fear of exposure, his disastrous marriage, and the sudden collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. Amid private turmoil Tchaikovsky's public reputation grew; he was honored by the Tsar, awarded a lifetime pension and lauded in the concert halls of the world. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera, but some attribute it to suicide.
Although enduringly popular with concert audiences across the world, Tchaikovsky has at times been judged harshly by critics, musicians and composers. However, his reputation as a significant composer is now generally regarded as secure.In the early and mid-20th century, Western critics dismissed his music as vulgar and lacking in elevated thought, but this disdain has largely dissipated.
Childhood and family
The Tchaikovsky family in 1848. Left to right: Pyotr, Alexandra Andreyevna (mother), Alexandra (sister), Ippolit, Ilya Petrovich (father).
In 1840, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia, formerly the Imperial Russian province of Vyatka.
His father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, was a government mining engineer of Ukrainian nationality who worked as a factory manager in several Russsian cities. His grandfather was Pyotr Fyodorovich Chaika (who later changed his surname to Tchaikovsky), Chaika (ukr. Чайка, means seagull) is a traditional Ukrainian surname. Pyotr Chaika was born in 1745 in Nikolaevka, near Poltava, Ukraine. In 1785 he was added to the registry of the nobility. Pyotr Chaika was the second child of Fyodor Chaika (ca. 1695–1767), who studied in a seminary in Kiev before later receiving medical training in Saint Petersburg, and his wife Anna (1717–?).
The composer's mother, Alexandra Andreyevna née d'Assier, was of partial French ancestry and was the second of Ilya's three wives.
Pyotr was the second eldest of the six children of his father's second marriage. He had four brothers (Nikolai, Ippolit, and twins Anatoly and Modest, the latter being a dramatist, librettist, and translator), and a sister Alexandra. He also had a half-sister Zinaida from his father's first marriage.
In 1843 Tchaikovsky's parents hired a French governess, Fanny Dürbach. Her love and affection for her charge is said to have provided a counter to Alexandra, who is described by one biographer as a cold, unhappy, distant parent not given to displays of physical affection. However, other writers claim that Alexandra doted on her son.
Tchaikovsky began piano lessons at the age of five. A precocious pupil, he could read music as adeptly as his teacher within three years. However, his parents' passion for his musical talent soon cooled. In 1850, the family decided to send Tchaikovsky to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg. This establishment mainly served the lesser nobility or gentry, and would prepare him for a career as a civil servant. As the minimum age for acceptance was 12, Tchaikovsky was required to spend two years boarding at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence's preparatory school, 800 miles (1,300 km) from his family. Once those two years had passed, Tchaikovsky transferred to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to begin a seven-year course of studies.
Modern view of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence
On June 25, 1854 Tchaikovsky suffered the shock of his mother Alexandra's death from cholera. He was so affected that he felt unable to inform Fanny Dürbach until a further two years had passed. However, within a month of his mother's death he was making his first serious efforts at composition, a waltz in her memory. Several writers have claimed that the loss of his mother was formative to Tchaikovsky's sexual development, along with his experience of the allegedly widespread homosexual practices among students at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence.Whatever the truth of this, some friendships with fellow students, such as those with Aleksey Apukhtin and Vladimir Gerard, were intense enough to last the rest of his life. Music was not considered a high priority at the School, but Tchaikovsky regularly attended the theater and the opera with other students. He was fond of works by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Mozart. Piano manufacturer Franz Becker made occasional visits to the School as a token music teacher. This was the only formal music instruction Tchaikovsky received there. From 1855 Ilya Tchaikovsky funded private lessons with Rudolph Kündinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg. Ilya also questioned Kündinger about a musical career for his son. Kündinger replied that nothing suggested a potential composer or even a fine performer. Tchaikovsky was told to finish his course and then try for a post in the Ministry of Justice.
Tchaikovsky in his teens photo Coming Soon
Tchaikovsky graduated on May 25, 1859 with the rank of titular counsellor, a low rung on the civil service ladder. On June 15, he was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later he became a junior assistant and two months after that, a senior assistant. Tchaikovsky remained there for the rest of his three-year civil service career.
In 1861, he attended classes in music theory organized by the Russian Musical Society (RMS) and taught by Nikolai Zaremba. A year later he followed Zaremba to the new St Petersburg Conservatory. Tchaikovsky would not give up his Ministry post "until I am quite certain that I am destined to be a musician rather than a civil servant." From 1862 to 1865 he studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Zaremba, while Anton Rubinstein, director and founder of the Conservatory, taught him instrumentation and composition. In 1863 he abandoned his civil service career and studied music full-time, graduating in December 1865. Rubinstein was impressed by Tchaikovsky's musical talent, but this did not stop either him or Zaremba from later clashes with the young composer over his First Symphony, written after his graduation, when he submitted it to them for their perusal. The symphony was given its first complete performance in Moscow in February 1868, where it was well received.
Relationship with The Five
See also: Tchaikovsky and the Five
Rubinstein's western musical orientation brought him the opposition of the nationalistic group of musicians known as "The Five". As Rubinstein's best-known pupil, Tchaikovsky was treated as a natural target for attack by the group, especially as fodder for César Cui's criticism.This attitude changed slightly when Rubinstein left the St. Petersburg musical scene in 1867. In 1869 Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with composer Mily Balakirev, leader of The Five. The result was Tchaikovsky's first recognised masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, a work which The Five wholeheartedly embraced. He remained friendly but never intimate with most of The Five, ambivalent about their music as their goals and aesthetics did not match his. He took pains to ensure his musical independence from them as well as from the conservative faction at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. To that end, he accepted a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory offered to him by Nikolai Rubinstein.
Main theme of the First Piano Concerto, as played on the piano
Tchaikovsky combined his professorial duties with music criticism while continuing to compose. Some of his best-known works from this period include the First Piano Concerto, the Variations on a Rococo Theme for violoncello and orchestra, the Little Russian Symphony and the ballet Swan Lake. The First Piano Concerto suffered an initial rejection by its intended dedicatee, Nikolai Rubinstein, as recounted three years later by the composer. The work was subsequently offered to pianist Hans von Bülow, whose playing had impressed Tchaikovsky during an appearance in Moscow in March 1874. Bülow premiered the work in Boston in October 1875; Rubinstein eventually championed the work himself.
The writer Alexander Poznansky showed through his research that Tchaikovsky had homosexual tendencies and that some of the composer's closest relationships were with males. Tchaikovsky's valet Aleksei Sofronov is thought to have been one of his romantic interests, and the composer's nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Davydov, was one of the great loves of his life. Tchaikovsky's love for his nephew dates back to 1884, when the boy was thirteen years old. In the posthumously published novel Maurice, written 1913-14, E. M. Forster also wrote of Tchaikovsky's love for his nephew.
More controversial is how comfortable Tchaikovsky might have been with his sexual nature. After reading all Tchaikovsky's letters (including unpublished ones), Poznansky concludes that the composer "eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage." Relevant portions of his brother Modest's autobiography, where he tells of his brother's sexual orientation, have also been published. Some letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors, where Tchaikovsky openly speaks out about his homosexuality, have been published in Russian, as well as by Poznansky in English translation. However, biographer Anthony Holden claims British musicologist and scholar Henry Zajaczkowski's research "along psychoanalytical lines" points instead to "a severe unconscious inhibition by the composer of his sexual feelings":
One consequence of it may be sexual overindulgence as a kind of false solution: the individual thereby persuades himself that he does accept his sexual impulses. Complementing this and, also, as a psychological defense mechanism, would be precisely the idolization by Tchaikovsky of many of the young men of his circle [the self-styled "Fourth Suite"], to which Poznansky himself draws attention. If the composer's response to possible sexual objects was either to use and discard them or to idolize them, it shows that he was unable to form an integrated, secure relationship with another man. That, surely, was [Tchaikovsky's] tragedy.
Musicologist and historian Roland John Wiley suggests a third alternative, based on Tchaikovsky's letters. He suggests that while Tchaikovsky experienced "no unbearable guilt" over his homosexuality, he remained aware of the negative consequences of that knowledge becoming public, especially of the ramifications for his family. His decision to enter into a heterosexual union and try to lead a double life was prompted by several factors—the possibility of exposure, the willingness to please his father, his own desire for a permanent home and his love of children and family. While Tchaikovsky may have been romantically active, the evidence for "sexual argot and passionate encounter" is limited. He sought out the company of homosexuals in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them." Wiley adds, "Amateurish criticism to the contrary, there is no warrant to assume, this period [of his short-lived marriage] excepted, that Tchaikovsky's sexuality ever deeply impaired his inspiration, or made his music idiosyncratically confessional or incapable of philosophical utterance."
Turmoil in life and music
See also: Désirée Artôt and Antonina Miliukova
In 1868, Tchaikovsky met the Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, then on a tour of Russia. They became infatuated, and were engaged to be married. He dedicated his Romance in F minor for piano, Op. 5, to her. However, on September 15, 1869, without any communication with Tchaikovsky, Artôt married a member of her company, the Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos. The general view has been that Tchaikovsky got over the affair fairly quickly. It has, however, been postulated that he coded her name into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor and the tone-poem Fatum. They met on a handful of later occasions, and in October 1888 he wrote Six French Songs, Op. 65, for her, in response to her request for a single song. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved.
In April 1877 Tchaikovsky's favorite pupil, Vladimir Shilovsky, had married suddenly. Shilovsky's wedding may in turn have spurred Tchaikovsky to consider such a step himself. He declared his intention to marry in a letter to his brother. There followed Tchaikovsky's ill-starred marriage to one of his former composition students, Antonina Miliukova. The brief time with his wife drove him to an emotional crisis, which was followed by a stay in Clarens, Switzerland, for rest and recovery. They remained legally married but never lived together again nor had any children, though she later gave birth to three children by another man.
Tchaikovsky's marital débâcle may have forced him to face the full truth concerning his sexuality. He apparently never again considered matrimony as a camouflage or escape, nor considered himself capable of loving women in the same manner as men. He wrote to his brother Anatoly from Florence, Italy on February 19, 1878,
Thanks to the regularity of my life, to the sometimes tedious but always inviolable calm, and above all, thanks to time which heals all wounds, I have completely recovered from my insanity. There's no doubt that for some months on end I was a bit insane, and only now, when I'm completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanova, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on—that man wasn't I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.
A few days later, in another letter to Anatoly, he added that there was "nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature."
It has been commonly held that the strain of the marriage and Tchaikovsky's emotional state immediately preceding it may have actually enhanced Tchaikovsky's creativity. To some extent, this may have been the case. While the Fourth Symphony was begun some months before Tchaikovsky married Antonina, both the symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin, arguably two of his finest compositions, are held up as proof of this enhanced creativity. He finished both these works in the six months between his engagement and the completion of the rest cure following his marriage breakdown. While in Clarens he also composed his Violin Concerto, with the technical assistance of one of his former students, violinist Yosif Kotek. Kotek later helped establish contact between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate, who became the composer's patron and confidante.
Like the First Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto was rejected initially by its intended dedicatee, in this case the noted virtuoso and pedagogue Leopold Auer. It was premiered by another soloist (Adolph Brodsky), and while the work would eventually enjoy public success, the audience hissed at its premiere in Vienna, and it was denigrated by music critic Eduard Hanslick:
The Russian composer Tchaikovsky is surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, and lacking all discrimination and taste ... the same can be said for his new, long, and ambitious Violin Concerto. For a while it proceeds soberly, musically, and not mindlessly, but soon vulgarity gains the upper hand and dominates until the end of the first movement. The violin is no longer played: it is tugged about, torn, beaten black and blue ... The Adagio is well on the way to reconciling us and winning us over when, all too soon, it breaks off to make way for a finale that transports us to the brutal and wretched jollity of a Russian church festival. We see a host of gross and savage faces, hear crude curses, and smell the booze. In the course of a discussion of obscener illustrations, Friedrich Vischer once maintained that there were pictures whose stink one could see. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.
Auer belatedly accepted the concerto, and eventually played it to great public success. In future years he taught the work to his pupils, including Jascha Heifetz and Nathan Milstein. Auer later said that Hanslick's comment that "the last movement was redolent of vodka [...] did credit neither to his good judgment nor to his reputation as a critic."
Hans von Bülow became a fervent champion of Tchaikovsky's music.
The intensity of personal emotion now flowing through Tchaikovsky's works was entirely new to Russian music It prompted some Russian commentators to place his name alongside that of novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky.Like Dostoyevsky's characters, they felt the musical hero in Tchaikovsky's music persisted in exploring the meaning of life while trapped in a fatal love-death-faith triangle. The critic Osoovski wrote of Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky: "With a hidden passion they both stop at moments of horror, total spiritual collapse, and finding acute sweetness in the cold trepidation of the heart before the abyss, they both force the reader to experience those feelings, too."
Tchaikovsky's fame among concert audiences began to expand outside Russia, and continued to grow within it. Hans von Bülow had become a fervent champion of the composer's work after hearing some of it in a Moscow concert during Lent of 1874. In a German newspaper later that year, he praised the First String Quartet, Romeo and Juliet and other works, and he would later take up many other Tchaikovsky works both as pianist and conductor. In France, Camille Benoit began introducing Tchaikovsky's music to readers of the Revue et gazette musicale de Paris. The music also received significant exposure during the 1878 International Exhibition in Paris. While Tchaikovsky's reputation as a composer grew, a corresponding increase in performances of his works did not occur until he began conducting them himself, starting in the mid-1880s. Nevertheless, by 1880, all of the operas Tchaikovsky had completed up that point had been staged, and his orchestral works had been given performances that had been sympathetically received.
Nadezhda von Meck
Photo Coming Soon
Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patroness and confidante from 1877 to 1890
Nadezhda von Meck was the wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon and an influential patron of the arts. Having already heard some of Tchaikovsky's work, she was encouraged by Kotek to commission some chamber pieces from him. Her support became an important element in Tchaikovsky's life; she eventually paid him an annual subsidy of 6,000 rubles, which made it possible for him to resign from the Moscow Conservatory in October 1878 and concentrate on composition. With von Meck's patronage came a relationship that, at her insistence, was mainly epistolary – she stipulated they were never to meet face to face. They exchanged well over 1,000 letters between 1877 and 1890. In these letters Tchaikovsky was more open about much of his life and his creative processes than he had been to any other person.
As well as being a dedicated supporter of Tchaikovsky's musical works, von Meck became a vital enabler in his day-to-day existence. As he explained to her,
There is something so special about our relationship that it often stops me in my tracks with amazement. I have told you more than once, I believe, that you have come to seem to me the hand of Fate itself, watching over me and protecting me. The very fact that I do not know you personally, while feeling so close to you, accords you in my eyes the special status of an unseen but benevolent presence, like a benign Providence.
In 1884 Tchaikovsky and von Meck became related by marriage when one of her sons, Nikolay, married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova. However, in 1890 von Meck suddenly ended the relationship. She was suffering from health problems that made writing difficult; there were family pressures, and also financial difficulties arising from the mismanagement of her estate by her son Vladimir. The break with Tchaikovsky was announced in a letter delivered by a trusted servant, rather than by the usual postal service. It contained a request that he not forget her, and was accompanied by a year's subsidy in advance. She claimed bankruptcy, which, if not literally true, was evidently a real threat at the time.
Tchaikovsky may have been aware for nearly a year of his patroness's financial difficulties. This did not stop him from continuing to take his allowance for granted (with regular protestations of his eternal gratitude), nor did he offer to return the advance he had received with the farewell letter. Despite his growing celebrity throughout Europe, von Meck's allowance still made up a third of the composer's income. While he may have no longer needed her money as much as in the past, the loss of her friendship and encouragement was devastating; he remained bewildered and resentful about her abrupt disappearance for the remaining three years of his life.
Years of wandering
Emperor Alexander III, who remained a devotee of Tchaikovsky's music, conferred an award and a lifelong pension to the composer.
Tchaikovsky returned to Moscow Conservatory in the autumn of 1879, having been away from Russia for a year after the disintegration of his marriage. However, he quickly resigned, settling in Kamenka yet traveling incessantly. During these years, assured of a regular income from von Meck, he wandered around Europe and rural Russia, never staying long in any one place and living mainly alone, avoiding social contact whenever possible. This may have been due in part to troubles with Antonina, who would alternately agree to, then refuse, divorce, at one point exacerbating matters by moving into an apartment directly above her husband's. Tchaikovsky listed Antonina's accusations to him in detail to Modest: "I am a deceiver who married her in order to hide my true nature ... I insulted her every day, her sufferings at my hands were great ... she is appalled by my shameful vice, etc., etc." It is possible that he lived the rest of his life in dread of Antonina's power to expose publicly his sexual leanings. These factors may explain why, except for the piano trio which he wrote upon the death of Nikolai Rubinstein, his best work from this period is found in genres which did not depend heavily on personal expression.
While Tchaikovsky's reputation grew rapidly outside Russia, it was, as Alexandre Benois wrote in his memoirs, "considered obligatory [in progressive musical circles in Russia] to treat Tchaikovsky as a renegade, a master overly dependent on the West." In 1880 this assessment changed, practically overnight. During commemoration ceremonies for the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, Fyodor Dostoyevsky charged that the poet had given a prophetic call to Russia for "universal unity" with the West. An unprecedented acclaim for Dostoyevsky's message spread throughout Russia, and disdain for Tchaikovsky's music dissipated. He even drew a cult following among the young intelligentsia of St. Petersburg, including Benois, Léon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev.
Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow in 1903
In 1880 the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, commissioned by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon in 1812, was nearing completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II would be at hand in 1881; and the 1882 Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition was in the planning stage. Nikolai Rubinstein suggested a grand commemorative piece for use in related festivities. Tchaikovsky began the project in October 1880, finishing it within six weeks. He wrote to von Meck that the resulting work, the 1812 Overture, would be "very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits in it." He also warned conductor Eduard Nápravník that "I shan't be at all surprised and offended if you find that it is in a style unsuitable for symphony concerts." Nevertheless, this work has become for many, as Tchaikovsky authority Professor David Brown phrased it, "the piece by Tchaikovsky they know best."
On March 23, 1881, Nikolai Rubinstein died in Paris. Tchaikovsky was holidaying in Rome, and he went immediately to attend the funeral in Paris for his greatly respected mentor, but arrived too late (although he was part of a group of people who saw Rubinstein's coffin off on a train back to Russia). In December, he started work on his Piano Trio in A minor, "dedicated to the memory of a great artist." The trio was first performed privately at the Moscow Conservatory, where Rubinstein had been director, on the first anniversary of his death by three of its staff—pianist Sergei Taneyev, violinist Jan Hřímalý and cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen. The piece became extremely popular during the composer's lifetime and, in an ironic twist of fate, would become Tchaikovsky's own elegy when played at memorial concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg in November 1893.
Return to Russia
During 1884 Tchaikovsky began to shed his unsociability and restlessness. In March of that year Tsar Alexander III conferred upon him the Order of St. Vladimir (fourth class), which carried with it hereditary nobility. The tsar's decoration was a visible seal of official approval, that helped Tchaikovsky's social rehabilitation.This rehabilitation may have been cemented in the composer's mind with the extreme success of his Third Orchestral Suite at its January 1885 premiere in St. Petersburg, under Hans von Bülow's direction. Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadezhda von Meck: "I have never seen such a triumph. I saw the whole audience was moved, and grateful to me. These moments are the finest adornments of an artist's life. Thanks to these it is worth living and laboring." The press was likewise unanimously favorable.
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Tchaikovsky's last home, in Klin, now the Tchaikovsky Museum
In 1885, Tchaikovsky resettled in Russia. The Tsar asked personally for a new production of Eugene Onegin to be staged in St. Petersburg. The opera had previously been seen only in Moscow, produced by a student ensemble from the Conservatory. Though critical reception to the St. Petersburg production of Onegin was negative, the opera drew full houses every night; 15 years later the composer's brother Modest identified this as the moment Tchaikovsky became known and appreciated by the masses, achieving the greatest degree of popularity ever accorded to a Russian composer. News of the opera's success spread, and the work was produced by opera houses throughout Russia and abroad.
A feature of the St. Petersburg production of Onegin was that Alexander III requested that the opera be staged not at the Mariyinsky Theater but at the Bolshoi Kamennïy Theater. This served notice that Tchaikovsky's music was replacing Italian opera as the official imperial art. In addition, thanks to Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Director of the Imperial Theaters and a patron of the composer, Tchaikovsky was awarded a lifetime pension of 3,000 rubles per year from the Tsar. This essentially made him the premier court composer, in practice if not in actual title.
January 1887 marked Tchaikovsky's debut as a guest conductor, substituting at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow on short notice for the first three performances of his opera Cherevichki. Conducting was something the composer had wanted to conquer for at least a decade, as he saw that success outside Russia depended to some extent on his conducting his own works. Within a year of the Cherevichki performances, Tchaikovsky was in considerable demand throughout Europe and Russia, which helped him overcome a life-long stage fright and boosted his self-assurance. He wrote to von Meck, "Would you now recognize in this Russian musician traveling across Europe that man who, only a few years ago, had absconded from life in society and lived in seclusion abroad or in the country!!!" In 1888 he conducted the premiere of his Fifth Symphony in St. Petersburg, repeating the work a week later with the premiere of his tone poem Hamlet. While both works were received with extreme enthusiasm by audiences, critics proved hostile, with César Cui calling the symphony "routine" and "meretricious." Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky continued to conduct the symphony in Russia and Europe. Conducting brought him to America in 1891, where he led the New York Music Society's orchestra in his Marche Slave at the inaugural concert of New York's Carnegie Hall. In 1893, the University of Cambridge in Britain awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary Doctor of Music degree.
Death of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky's tomb at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery
Tchaikovsky died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893, nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, near the graves of fellow-composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev and Modest Mussorgsky. Because of the Pathétique's formal innovation and the overwhelming emotional content of its outer movements, the work was received by the public with silent incomprehension at its first performance. The second performance, led by Nápravník, took place 20 days later at a memorial concert and was much more favorably received.The Pathétique has since become one of Tchaikovsky's best known works.
Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier.However, some, including English musicologist and Tchaikovsky authority David Brown and biographer Anthony Holden, have described his death as a suicide. Allegedly, a sentence of suicide was imposed in a "court of honor" by Tchaikovsky's fellow alumni of the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Jurisprudence, as a censure of the composer's homosexual activity. This account was first reported publicly by Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova in 1979 when she emigrated to the West, and later corroborated by others. Wiley writes in the New Grove (2001), "The polemics over [Tchaikovsky's] death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ..."
Original cast of Tchaikovsky's ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, Saint Petersburg, 1890
Tchaikovsky wrote many works which are popular with the classical music public, including his Romeo and Juliet, the 1812 Overture, his three ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) and Marche Slave. These, along with two of his four concertos, three of his six numbered symphonies and, of his 10 operas, The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, are probably among his most familiar works. Almost as popular are the Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, the Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings. His three string quartets and piano trio all contain beautiful passages, while recitalists still perform some of his 106 songs. Tchaikovsky also wrote over a hundred piano works, covering the entire span of his creative life. Brown has asserted that "while some of these can be challenging technically, they are mostly charming, unpretentious compositions intended for amateur pianists."He adds, however, that "there is more attractive and resourceful music in some of these pieces than one might be inclined to expect."
Tchaikovsky's formal conservatory training allowed him to write works with Western oriented attitudes and techniques. His music showcases a wide range and breadth of technique, from a poised "Classical" form simulating 18th century Rococo elegance, to a style more characteristic of Russian nationalists, or (according to Brown) a musical idiom expressly to channel his own overwrought emotions.Despite his reputation as a "weeping machine," self-expression was not a central principle for Tchaikovsky. In a letter to von Meck dated December 5, 1878, he explained there were two kinds of inspiration for a symphonic composer, a subjective and an objective one, and that program music could and should exist, just as it was impossible to demand that literature make do without the epic element and limit itself to lyricism alone. Correspondingly, the large scale orchestral works Tchaikovsky composed can be divided into two categories—symphonies in one category, and other works such as symphonic poems in the other. According to musicologist Francis Maes, program music such as Francesca da Rimini or the Manfred Symphony was as much a part of the composer's artistic credo as the expression of his "lyric ego."Maes also identifies a group of compositions which fall outside the dichotomy of program music versus "lyrical ego," where he hearkens toward pre-Romantic aesthetics. Works in this group include the four orchestral suites, Capriccio Italien, the Violin Concerto and the Serenade for Strings.
Reception and reputation
Although Tchaikovsky's music has always been popular with audiences, it has at times been judged harshly by musicians and composers. However, his reputation as a significant composer is now generally regarded as secure. His music has won a significant following among concert audiences that is second only to the music of Beethoven, thanks in large part to what Harold C. Schonberg terms "a sweet, inexhaustible, supersensuous fund of melody ... touched with neuroticism, as emotional as a scream from a window on a dark night." According to Wiley, this combination of supercharged melody and surcharged emotion polarized listeners, with popular appeal of Tchaikovsky's music counterbalanced by critical disdain of it as vulgar and lacking in elevated thought or philosophy. More recently, Tchaikovsky's music has received a professional reevaluation, with musicians reacting more favorably to its tunefulness and craftsmanship.
Tchaikovsky believed that his professionalism in combining skill and high standards in his musical works separated him from his contemporaries in The Five. He shared several of their ideals, including an emphasis on national character in music. His aim, however, was to link those ideals to a standard high enough to satisfy Western European criteria. His professionalism also fueled his desire to reach a broad public, not just nationally but internationally, which he would eventually do.
He may also have been influenced by the almost "eighteenth-century" patronage prevalent in Russia at the time, which was still strongly influenced by its aristocracy. In this style of patronage, the patron and the artist often met on equal terms. Dedications of works to patrons were not gestures of humble gratitude but expressions of artistic partnership. The dedication of the Fourth Symphony to von Meck is known to be a seal on their friendship. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich bore creative fruit in the Six Songs, Op. 63, for which the grand duke wrote the words. Tchaikovsky found no aesthetic conflict in playing to the tastes of his audiences, though it was never established that he satisfied any other tastes but his own. The patriotic themes and stylization of 18th-century melodies in his works lined up with the values of the Russian aristocracy.
According to Brown in the New Grove (1980), Tchaikovsky's melodies ranged "from Western style to folksong stylizations and occasionally folksongs themselves." His use of repetitions within these melodies generally reflect the sequential style of Western practices, which he sometimes extended at immense length, building "into an emotional experience of almost unbearable intensity." He experimented occasionally with unusual meters, although more usually, as in his dance tunes, he employed a firm, essentially regular meter that "sometimes becomes the main expressive agent in some movements due to its vigorous use."Tchaikovsky also practiced a wide range of harmony, from the Western harmonic and textural practices of his first two string quartets to the use of the whole tone scale in the center of the finale of the Second Symphony; the latter was a practice more typically used by The Five. Since Tchaikovsky wrote most of his music for the orchestra, his musical textures became increasingly conditioned by the orchestral colors he employed, especially after the Second Orchestral Suite. Brown maintains that while the composer was grounded in Western orchestral practices, he "preferred bright and sharply differentiated orchestral coloring in the tradition established by Glinka." He tends to exploit primarily the treble instruments for their "fleet delicacy," though he balances this tendency with "a matching exploration of the darker, even gloomy sounds of the bass instruments."
Wiley cites Tchaikovsky as "the first composer of a new Russian type, fully professional, who firmly assimilated traditions of Western European symphonic mastery; in a deeply original, personal and national style he unified the symphonic thought of Beethoven and Schumann with the works of Glinka, and transformed Liszt's and Berlioz's achievements in depictive-programmatic music into matters of Shakespearean elevation and psychological import."
Holden maintains that Tchaikovsky was the first legitimate professional Russian composer, stating that only traditions of folksong and music for the Russian Orthodox Church existed before Tchaikovsky's birth. Holden continues, "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."
Russian musicologist Solomon Volkov maintains that Tchaikovsky was perhaps the first Russian composer to think seriously about his country's place in European musical culture.As the composer wrote to von Meck from Paris,
How pleasant it is to be convinced firsthand of the success of our literature in France. Every book étalage displays translations of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky ... The newspapers are constantly printing rapturous articles about one or another of these writers. Perhaps such a time will come for Russian music as well!
Tchaikovsky became the first Russian composer to personally acquaint foreign audiences with his own works, as well as those of other Russian composers. He also formed close business and personal ties with many of the leading musicians of Europe and the United States. For Russians, Volkov asserts, this was all something new and unusual.
Finally, the impact of Tchaikovsky's own works, especially in ballet, cannot be underestimated; his mastery of danseuse (melodies which match physical movements perfectly), along with vivid orchestration, effective themes and continuity of thought were unprecedented in the genre, setting new standards for the role of music in classical ballet. Noel Goodwin characterized Swan Lake as "one of [ballet's] enduring masterworks" and The Sleeping Beauty as "the supreme example of 19th century classical ballet," while Wiley called the latter work "powerful, diverse and rhythmically complex."
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