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When love eludes a genius

Swan Lake and Nutcracker are charming ballets that give away nothing about the personal disasters in the life of its composer, the legendary Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky in 1866, when he was a teacher in Moscow

Who would have thought that the creator of such popular ballets as Swan Lake and Nutcracker would have suffered from melancholia? Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's (1840-1893) life may sound like a series of failures on the personal front, but he is the most popular Russian composer of all time. He is also the most famous composer in the Romantic tradition, which was marked by an expressive, individualistic and emotional style.

Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840. In 1850, his family settled in St Petersburg. As a child, he was hypersensitive and fragile which later took the form of melancholia. Tchaikovsky trained for the civil service and later began work as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. But he devoted more time to his music studies and soon gave up his job to study at the newly established St Petersburg Conservatory, founded by the composer Anton Rubenstein. He graduated in 1865 and got a post as professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. He developed as a composer during this period and his Symphony No 1 was performed in 1868. He composed an opera, piano pieces, songs and a tone poem.

Tchaikovsky suffered from severe depression made worse by his homosexual bent, which he was afraid would be exposed and would ruin him. He fell in love with an opera singer who rejected him. He was involved with a few other women, one of who was in love with him, but she was a highly unstable person. Although Tchaikovsky did not love her, he proposed to her to silence rumours of his homosexuality. In 1877, they were married, but soon, Tchaikovsky was so distressed that he tried to commit suicide before fleeing from her to travel around in Europe. He never saw her again and she died after he did in an asylum.

Another relationship was with a wealthy widow, Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, a music patron. She commissioned him to compose and also granted him an annuity so that he could be free to compose. For 13 years they exchanged intimate letters, were in love with each other, but never met since that was the condition of the lady's friendship.

This relationship inspired him to compose some of his best works - Symphonies 4 and 5, the opera Eugene Onegin, Capriccio Italien, Sleeping Beauty, 1812 Overture, the Violin Concerto and the famous Piano Concerto No 1 which premiered in Boston in 1875. Nikolay Rubenstein, a famous pianist, heard this concerto and was appalled by it. He called it unplayable, worthless, lacking in skill. Tchaikovsky refused to alter a single note. This piano concerto would go on to form one of the principal compositions and one of the hardest to play, in the entire repertoire for piano.

He was now internationally well known and traveled to Europe. He consciously moved away from Russian nationalism closer to German Romanticism, but his compositions were still Russian in nature.

In 1890, he got a letter from Mme von Meck, informing him that the subsidy was at an end due to financial constraints. Tchaikovsky was now in a comfortable financial position and hoped that their friendship would continue, but his letters were unanswered. He later discovered that she had tired of their relationship and was under no financial constraints at all.

His depression was aggravated by her rejection. He visited the United States as a conductor in 1891. Back home, his depression grew intense and it was then that he composed the famous ballet Nutcracker and his best Symphony (No 6) -- Pathétique. A few days after the premiere he fell sick with cholera after drinking unboiled water, this, during a cholera epidemic. His illness led to rumours that he was trying to commit suicide. He died in St Petersburg in 1892, still thinking of Mme von Meck.

Sonya Wadhwani

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Quick links

A Tchaikovsky fan site 

Hear Tchaikovsky's music at Listen.com 

 

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