Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky must be regarded as the most popular of all Russian composers, his music offering certain obvious, superficial attractions in its melodies and in the richness of its orchestral colouring. There is more to Tchaikovsky than this, and it would be a mistake to neglect his achievement because of what sometimes seems to be an excess of popular attention.
Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in 1840, the second son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky had his early education, in music as in everything else, at home, under the care of his mother and of a beloved governess. From the age of ten he was a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, completing his course there in 1859 to take employment in the Ministry of Justice. During these years he developed his abilities as a musician and it must have seemed probable that he would, like his contemporaries Mussorgsky, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, keep music as a secondary occupation, while following another career.
For Tchaikovsky matters turned out differently. The foundation of the new Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg under Anton Rubinstein enabled him to study there as a full-time student from 1863. In 1865 he moved to Moscow as a member of the staff of the new Conservatory established by Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay. He continued there for some ten years, before financial assistance from a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, enabled him to leave the Conservatory and devote himself entirely to composition. The same period in his life brought an unfortunate marriage to a self-proclaimed admirer of his work, a woman who showed early signs of mental instability and could only add further to Tchaikovsky's own problems of character and inclination. His homosexuality was a torment to him, while his morbid sensitivity and diffidence, coupled with physical revulsion for the woman he had married, led to a severe nervous break-down.
Separation from his wife, which was immediate, still left practical and personal problems to be solved. Tchaikovsky's relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, however, provided not only the money that at first was necessary for his career, but also the understanding and support of a woman who, so far from making physical demands of him, never even met him face to face. This curiously remote liaison only came to an end in 1890, when, on the false plea of bankruptcy, Nadezhda von Meck discontinued an allowance that was no longer of importance, and a correspondence on which he had come to depend.
The story of Tchaikovsky's death in St. Petersburg in 1893 is now generally known. It seems that a member of the nobility had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his son. To avoid open scandal a court of honour of Tchaikovsky's old school-fellows met and condemned him to death, forcing him to take his own life. His death was announced as the result of cholera, and this official version of the event was, until relatively recently, generally accepted.
Tchaikovsky's last symphony, called, at the prompting of his brother Modest, the Pathetique, rather than simply "Programme Symphony", as the composer had originally intended, was first performed in St. Petersburg under Tchaikovsky's direction on 16th October (28th October on the Western calendar), 1893. The programme of the work, which had been sketched earlier in the year and orchestrated during the summer, was autobiographical. He had jotted down a rough plan in 1892. The whole essence of the plan of the symphony is Life. First movement- all impulsive, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short. (Finale – Death - result of collapse). Second movement love; third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short). In a letter to his nephew Bob Davidov he had suggested that the programme of the symphony was to be a secret, but subjective to the core. This it remained, although the details of the original scheme were to be modified.
The first movement opens with a slow introduction, in which the bassoon, over divided double basses, prefigures the first theme of the following Allegro. Here there is conflict for life, leading to the tenderness of the second subject, a love theme. This in turn fades into a whispered bassoon fragment, marked, with characteristic exaggeration, pppppp, in a symphony that is later to reach the other dynamic extreme of ffff. Compressed in its use of traditional symphonic form, the movement interrupts the surge of life with the presence of death and with overt references to elements of the Russian Orthodox Requiem.
The second movement is in unconventional 5/4 time, something that Hanslick, in his hostile review of the first performance in Vienna in 1895, found loathsome. The melody, however, must seem a particularly fine example of Tchaikovsky's powers of invention, a gift allowed such apt expression in his ballet scores. The middle section of the movement admits the intrusion of an ominous element of mortality, with its descending scale of death.
There follows a scherzo, its first subject leading to a march in which triumph is tinged with irony. In the succeeding final movement there is a stark confrontation with death, as the music, entrusted as at the beginning to the darker toned lower instruments of the orchestra, fades to nothing.
Tchaikovsky conducted his sixth and final symphony in St. Petersburg nine days before his death. The symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini was written in 1876 and given its first performance in Moscow early the following year. The composer had been seeking a further subject for an opera and a libretto had been made available to him on the subject of the forbidden love of Paolo and Francesca, as recounted by Dante in Canto V of the Inferno. Perhaps the opening words of the poem might have seemed apt enough for his own situation. Now in the middle of life's road, he too found himself in a comparably dark wood, while the despair of Paolo and Francesca, condemned to perpetual suffering, fitted all too well his own mood. Nessun maggior dolore/Che ricordarsi del tempo felice/Nella miseria were words of significance for him, even if he did misquote them in a letter to his brother Modest, written from Vichy, where he was taking the waters and suffering agonies of depression.