The life of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) exhibits as close a link as you will find anywhere between an artist's inner world and the outward products of that artist's creative activity. As a man, Tchaikovsky was defined by and indivisible from his music, which became an outlet for all the shifting moods of his turbulent soul. As Professor Robert Greenberg says, "If Tchaikovsky felt it, it found a way into his music."
As an artist—and it is worth recalling that he was the first full-time, formally trained, professional composer in Russian history—Tchaikovsky walked a fine and difficult line between his Romantic penchant for expression and the demands of Classical structure.
This delicate balancing act—between heart and head, emotion and reason, release and control, Russian expressive content and German technique—is a key to his music that you find amply illustrated by Professor Greenberg's musical selections and commentary.
A Suitable Profession
"To know Tchaikovsky's music, we must be familiar with the details of his life because his music, as his Sixth Symphony so abundantly demonstrates, is so often an intimate confession, a mirror of a personal life tormented by doubt and sexual anxiety," states Professor Greenberg.
Tchaikovsky was an unusually sensitive child, with an abnormal dependency on his mother and an obsessive love of music.
As a child of a 19th-century upper-class Russian family, however, Tchaikovsky's musical talent was not particularly encouraged. His parents had him educated for the more "suitable" profession of the civil service at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg.
It was at school that Tchaikovsky discovered his homosexuality. It was also while still a schoolboy that Tchaikovsky lost his mother to cholera. Her death was a shattering experience for the 14-year-old Tchaikovsky and it found poignant expression in his later music.
After Tchaikovsky graduated from the School of Jurisprudence, he was employed as a government clerk—but not for long. His obsession with music eventually won out, and he entered the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory.
He graduated in 1866 at the age of 26 and joined the teaching faculty at the likewise newly established Moscow Conservatory.
In 1868, his First Symphony was premiered; it already possessed the hallmark of Tchaikovsky's musical style: formal Classical construction coupled with Romantic expression.
Growing Success Plagued with Self-Doubt
For the rest of his career, Tchaikovsky would successfully tread a fine line between Russian emotional excess and Germanic intellectual control. He was the only composer in Russia at that time who could combine the best of Western European technique with his own Russian heritage.
Despite his growing musical success, Tchaikovsky remained prey to self-doubt about his compositional abilities, to bouts of severe depression, and to anxiety that his homosexuality would be publicly exposed.
His sense of alienation seems to have turned him inward to a world of self-expression that he might not otherwise have discovered had he felt less isolated.
Among the great works of the 1870s were the iconoclastic First Piano Concerto and the music for the ballet Swan Lake, which revolutionized the art and substance of ballet.
Another masterwork was the opera Eugene Onegin of 1877. That year also marked the start of Tchaikovsky's brief but disastrous marriage and his unique relationship with his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.
A Long-Distance Musical Relationship
Nadezhda's devotion to Tchaikovsky and his music resulted in one of the strangest relationships in music history.
She supported Tchaikovsky with the agreement that they would never meet, but only exchange letters. Her generosity enabled Tchaikovsky to leave his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory in 1878 and concentrate on his compositional career.
By the early 1880s, he had become an international celebrity. He conquered his fear of conducting and toured Europe promoting his own music.
In 1890, however, he was devastated by the loss of his friendship with Nadezhda von Meck, who withdrew her financial support because of family problems. She also ceased to write letters to Tchaikovsky. He became embittered and began to age visibly.
Nevertheless, in 1891, he undertook a highly successful conducting tour of the United States and, a year later, received an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.
Tchaikovsky's last years were filled with composing, traveling, performances of his music, and new friends, including mutual admirer Anton Chekhov.
In late August 1893 Tchaikovsky completed his Sixth Symphony, which reveals a composer at the height of his power. Two months later, he lay dying of self-inflicted arsenic poisoning. His homosexual affair with a young nobleman had been discovered, and it was in danger of becoming a public scandal.
A group of former classmates of the School of Jurisprudence, calling themselves a "court of honor," had decided that Tchaikovsky was jeopardizing the reputation of their alma mater. They forced him to commit suicide.
The public was told that he had died of cholera, a disease common at the time.
"A Genius of Emotion"
As was the case with Beethoven, the serious personal and psychological problems that plagued Tchaikovsky also profoundly enriched his music, opening up a font of expression that an equally talented but less troubled man might never have tapped.
From the suffering of the man, then, came the triumph of the artist—a triumph without which we we would not have Swan Lake, the Serenade for Strings, or the Pathétique Symphony.
Is this a sad irony, a thrilling testament to the transforming power of art, or perhaps both?
Discover Overlooked Musical Gems
Professor Greenberg points out that the essence of Tchaikovsky as a man and great artist is heard best in compositions that are often overlooked because of the tremendous popularity of his more famous orchestral works and ballet scores.
After taking this course, then, you will be among the relative few who know the true significance of such marvelous but underappreciated chamber pieces as the String Quartet no. 3 in E-flat Minor, op. 30.
In smaller, rarely heard works like this, Tchaikovsky reveals himself, his world, and his experience with deeply moving intensity.
Blending Passion and Technique
"Tchaikovsky's music remains an enduring monument to a man who was not only a great composer but also a highly popular composer," says Professor Greenberg.
"He possessed the unique ability in his day to blend the fire and passion of Russian nationalism with Germanic compositional technique. He infused his music with a rare intensity of expression and a rich harmonic and melodic beauty that guarantee his place among the greatest contributors to the repertoire."
Works you'll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:
Symphony no. 1 in G Minor, op. 13 (Winter Daydreams
Six Songs, op. 6, no. 6 (None but the Lonely Heart
String Quartet no. 1 in D, op. 11 (1871)
Symphony no. 2 in C Minor, op. 17 (Little Russian
Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat Minor, op. 23 (1874)
String Quartet no. 3 in E-flat Minor, op. 30 (1876) Swan Lake
, op. 20 (1877) Eugene Onegin
Symphony no. 4 in F Minor, op. 36 (1877) Serenade for Strings
in C Major, op. 48 (1880)
Symphony no. 6 in B Minor, op. 74 (Pathétique