Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
Pyotr (Pyotr) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on 25 April/7 May 1840 at Votkinsk, in Vyatka Province, situated in the Ural mountains 600 miles east of Moscow. He was the second son of Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a mining engineer and manager of the Kamsko-Votkinsk iron works, and Aleksandra Andreyevna Tchaikovsky (née Assier).
On his father's side, Tchaikovsky's origins may be traced to the Ukrainian village of Nikolayevka in the Poltava region. His great-grandfather was an 18th-century Ukrainian Cossack named Fyodor (Fyodor) Chayka. Later the family name was changed to Chaykovsky, which is usually transliterated in English as Tchaikovsky. At first Chayka's son Pyotr studied in a seminary in Kiev, but he later received medical training in Saint Petersburg. From 1770 to 1777 he served as a physician's assistant in the army. Eventually, he found himself in the Ural region and there, in 1776, married Anastasia Posokhova. In 1785 he was included (as a member of the landless gentry) in the register of nobility instituted by Catherine the Great. He resigned from his medical service and ended his life as city governor of Glazov in Vyatka Province. Pyotr Chaykovsky had nine children, one of whom was the composer’s father Ilya (1795–1880). After graduating from the College of Mines in Saint Petersburg with a silver medal, he held several teaching and administrative posts, some of the latter in the northeast of Russia.
In 1837 Ilya became a factory manager in Votkinsk. This city was famous for its ironworks, which had been founded in 1758, and by 1820 it could boast the first hearth furnace in all Russia. As manager of the ironworks, Ilya Tchaikovsky enjoyed a broad authority within the Yekaterinburg region—from governing local factories to repealing the decisions of local courts. Ten years earlier, in 1827, he had married Maria Kaiser, who died in 1830, leaving him with a daughter, Zinayda .
Tchaikovsky's mother Aleksandra (1812–1854) was the younger daughter of Michael Heinrich Maximilian Acier (1778–1835), who was born in Meissen, near Dresden, to a German mother Maria Christina Eleonora Wittig and French father (and renowned sculptor) Michel Victor Acier. At the age of 17 Michael Heinrich was brought from Saxony to Russia by artillery general Pyotr Mellisino to teach German and French at the Military school in Saint Petersburg. In 1800, by an oath of allegiance, Michael Heinrich officially became a subject of the Imperial Crown and adopted the Russian name Andrey Mikhaylovich Assier. Owing to his social connections and excellent knowledge of almost every European language, he came to occupy a distinguished position within the bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg, where he served in the Customs Department. Andrey Assier received government honours and was twice married. From his first marriage to Yekaterina Popova in 1800 he had four children, including Aleksandra, the composer's mother. After the divorce of her parents and the death of her mother in 1816, Aleksandra was placed in the so-called Patriotic Institute—a government-sponsored school for orphaned girls from noble families—where she received a fine education. In 1833 she met Ilya Tchaikovsky and married him.
Apart from his stepsister Zinayda (1829–1878) and elder brother Nikolay (1838–1911), after Pyotr’s birth in 1840 the Tchaikovskys would have a daughter, Aleksandra (1841–1891), and three more sons: Ippolit (1843–1927), and the fraternal twins Anatoly (1850–1915) and Modest (1850–1916). Tchaikovsky was never close to Zinayda, nor was he particularly intimate with his older brother Nikolay, who followed in the steps of their father as mining engineer, or to a younger brother Ippolit, who became a naval officer. But he dearly loved his sister Aleksandra (or Sasha) and his youngest brothers, the twins Modest and Anatoly, who always enjoyed his particular affection. Later in life Anatoly achieved a prominent career in law, rising by the end of his life to the rank of privy councillor and senator, while Modest became a playwright and educator, as well as the biographer of his famous brother Pyotr.
Tchaikovsky was a very impressionable child, due in part to the highly emotional atmosphere within his family and to the characters of his parents. These factors could not but influence the specific “familial-erotic” dimension of his developing personality—a dimension later to play a prominent role in his relations both with his younger brothers and with his nephews.
Tchaikovsky's earliest musical impressions came from the family's orchestrina, with its excerpts from Mozart, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. In September 1844, he made his first documented attempt at composition—"Our Mama in Petersburg"—a song written together with Aleksandra (who was then only three). Pyotr became deeply attached to his French governess, Fanny Dürbach, and he also developed a friendship with the son of a neighbour, Venedikt Alekseyev. At the end of 1845 he began taking piano lessons with one Mariya Palchikova and became familiar with the mazurkas of Chopin.
In 1848 Ilya Tchaikovsky resigned his post and the family moved first to Moscow, and later, in anticipation of a new appointment, to Saint Petersburg. In Petersburg, Pyotr and Nikolay were placed in the private Schmelling School, where Pyotr resumed piano lessons. But his father's appointment in the capital did not materialize, and in May 1849 the family had to return to the Urals where Ilya Tchaikovsky was appointed manager of an ironworks in another city, Alapayevsk, some 300 miles to the east of Votkinsk. This did not prevent the composer's mother from returning with him to the capital the following autumn so that he could enrol in the preparatory class of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. On this occasion Pyotr saw Mikhail Glinka's A Life for the Tsar (Жизнь за Царя) at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, which made a lasting impression on him.
During the next couple of years Tchaikovsky's parents moved back and forth between the Urals and Saint Petersburg, finally settling in the capital in 1852. By this time Pyotr had successfully passed his entrance exam for the School of Jurisprudence, where he participated in the school choir under the direction of distinguished Russian choirmaster Gavryl Lomakin. Tchaikovsky later remembered: “My voice was a splendid soprano, and for several years in succession I took the first line in the trio, which on these occasions was sung by the three boys at the altar at the beginning and end of [the Liturgy]" .
Tchaikovsky’s mother's sudden death from cholera on 13/25 June 1854 was a traumatic event for Pyotr, then a young adolescent. Earlier that year the Tchaikovsky family chose to live together with the family of Ilya's brother Pyotr (1789–1871), a retired general, in a large apartment on Vasilyevsky Island, an arrangement that lasted for three years. After Ilya's eldest daughter Zinayda married Yevgeny Olkhovsky and left the capital to live in the Urals, Aleksandra, now fifteen years old and newly-graduated from school, ended up in charge of the household and of the twins.
Tchaikovsky spent nine years (1850–1859) as a boarding student at the School of Jurisprudence. During this time Tchaikovsky also made his first attempts at composition, among which were an opera Hyperbola (lost), a waltz for piano, and his first published work, the song Mezza notte. His stay in that institution must have enhanced Tchaikovsky's innate homosexual sensibilities. The School of Jurisprudence, like any boarding school, was never distinguished by high morals of any sort—a fact well recognised to its contemporaries: for instance, the school could boast an obscene homosexual song composed by its students, and it also produced a number of prominent homosexuals. Of his schoolmates, two loomed large in his life of that period: Aleksey Apukhtin (1841–1893), a future poet of renown, and Sergey Kireyev (1845–1888?), arguably the most passionate of all Tchaikovsky's attachments . As regards Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Kireyev, Modest Tchaikovsky called it in his still unpublished “Autobiography” as one of the “strongest, most durable and purest amorous infatuations” of Tchaikovsky’s life. "It possessed all charms, all sufferings, all depth and force of love, most luminous and sublime”, and that without Tchaikovsky’s passion for Kireyev, "the music of Romeo and Juliet, of The Tempest, and of Francesca da Rimini is not entirely comprehensible . I believe that Tchaikovsky dedicated to Kireyev one of his first songs, My Genius, My Angel, My Friend", written in 1858 . Outside the school he forged a close friendship with his cousin Anna Tchaikovsky (later Merkling), the daughter of his uncle Pyotr.
In the autumn of 1858 Tchaikovsky's father was appointed to the coveted directorship of the Technological Institute in Saint Petersburg, and his family moved to the director's large apartments. At the end of 1860 Tchaikovsky's sister Aleksandra moved away from the family after marrying Lev Davydov, a well-to-do landowner, and the couple settled on his family estate at Kamenka, near Kiev. A few years later Ilya Tchaikovsky married for a third time, taking as his wife Yelizaveta (or Lizaveta) Lipport, who had already been taking care of his household for several years. With the death of his mother, Tchaikovsky became mother figure for his twin brothers—Anatoly and Modest. Both boys followed in his footsteps to the School of Jurisprudence, and Modest was alarmingly similar in character to his elder brother—he too became a homosexual.
A month after his graduation on 13/25 May 1859, Tchaikovsky began working as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice. Although he remained there for four years, he quickly found the job ill-suited to his talents. At the same time, he entered the capitals social and cultural milieu as a young man-about-town, spending much of his energies in the pursuit of pleasure, engaging in affairs and amorous adventures with members of his set, until the threat of homosexual scandal, according to the autobiographical account of his brother Modest, sobered him up .
The conflict between his desire for pleasure (and sexual pleasure in particular) and his creative aspirations sowed the seed of a phobia for human contact, and especially of large crowds, which became so characteristic of the mature Tchaikovsky. This conflict could only result in a profound ambivalence with respect to the erotic dimension of his personality.
In the summer of 1861, Tchaikovsky travelled abroad for the first time as secretary and interpreter for a family friend, Vasily Pisarev, and in the course of this trip he visited Berlin, Hamburg, Antwerp, Brussels, London and Paris.
In the autumn Tchaikovsky’s life took an unexpected turn: he started to attend Nikolay Zaremba's class in harmony offered by the Russian Musical Society, which had recently been founded by the Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna and Anton Rubinstein, with the purpose of promoting professional music education in Russia. When the Saint Petersburg Conservatory was opened on 8/20 September 1862, Tchaikovsky was among its first students. Herman Laroche, the future music critic and composer, also enrolled in the conservatory that same year, and the two soon became friends. There Tchaikovsky studied harmony and form with Nikolay Zaremba, and orchestration and composition with Anton Rubinstein.
Having decided to devote his life to music, Tchaikovsky resigned from the Ministry of Justice on 11/23 April 1863. This decision coincided with the onset of financial hardships for his father Ilya, who by this time had retired from the directorship of the Technological Institute. In order to support himself, Tchaikovsky began giving private lessons in piano and music theory to students recommended to him by Anton Rubinstein. Tchaikovsky spent almost three years of his life at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In addition to his studies of harmony, strict counterpoint, composition and instrumentation (and despite having been excused from the compulsory piano class), he also decided to study the flute and organ.
The leading spirits of the conservatory from its beginnings were Nikolay Zaremba and Anton Rubinstein. Despite Tchaikovsky’s enthusiasm for learning, he considered Zaremba just an average instructor, whose dislike of Mozart and Glinka greatly disappointed him, and whose admiration for Beethoven and Mendelssohn the future composer found unbearable.
There is no doubt that from the start the main attraction of the newly-founded conservatory for Tchaikovsky was its director Anton Rubinstein, who seems to have had the power to stimulate his student's innate abilities, so that Tchaikovsky soon threw off the last traces of dilettantism in pursuit of his goal to become a good composer.
Tchaikovsky never worked so hard as in those years: he faithfully fulfilled his technical assignments, instrumental studies, and tried to master the art of conducting. Always in the company of his new friend Herman Laroche, a fellow student who would become the first critic to champion Tchaikovsky’s music, the two friends attended concerts and operas. Together they made many important connections in Saint Petersburg's music circles, including Aleksandr Serov, an ideological opponent of Rubinstein, but the composer of the opera Judith (Юдифь), which Tchaikovsky admired.
Tchaikovsky spent the summer of 1863 at Aleksey Apukhtin's estate in Pavlodar. The next summer he stayed at the home of his society friend Prince Aleksey Golitsyn at Trostinets, near Kharkov. Here he composed an overture to Aleksandr Ostrovsky's play The Storm (Гроза) (which was later the source of Leos Janacek's opera Katya Kabanova). Tchaikovsky also sketched out a program for a descriptive concert overture. Upon completing the score, Tchaikovsky first sent it to Herman Laroche with instructions to pass it on to Anton Rubinstein. For Tchaikovsky the idea of taking the overture to Rubinstein was still uncomfortable: his adoration for his eminent teacher was fraught with fear. This served him well, for it was the hapless Laroche who received the full force of Rubinstein's anger. Here he found not the expected classical exercise, but a remarkably powerful work: a mature attempt at dramatic program music (after the programmatic overtures of Henri Litolff), which not only incorporated a Russian folk song, but was scored for an orchestra that included some instruments "forbidden" to mere students, such as the harp, English Horn and tuba .
Tchaikovsky was not discouraged by this, which was to be the first of many such incidents with Rubinstein. Theirs was always an uneasy relationship. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1865, Tchaikovsky found himself fulfilling a promise to Rubinstein to make a translation for conservatory students of the much-needed textbook Traité général d'instrumentation, written in 1863 by the eminent Belgian theorist François Auguste Gevaert. This task did not spoil Tchaikovsky's happy vacation spent with his younger brothers Anatoly and Modest on the Davydov family estate at Kamenka, and Rubinstein proved to be quite pleased with the completed translation, which was published by Jurgenson in 1866 as Handbook for Instrumentation (TH 331).
While at Kamenka, Tchaikovsky paid close attention to Ukrainian folk songs, gathering material for use in his future compositions. Soon after his return to Saint Petersburg he was extremely pleased to learn that his Characteristic Dances (Характерные танцы) for orchestra, written earlier that year, had been conducted in August by Johann Strauss the younger at a concert in Pavlovsk Park. This was the first public performance of any of Tchaikovsky's works .
On 27 November/9 December 1865, Tchaikovsky made his debut as a conductor, directing the Conservatory orchestra in a performance of his Overture in F major. Two weeks earlier his String Quartet in B♭ major was played by a quartet of his fellow students, including the violist Vasily Bessel.
The Conservatory's graduation concert on 29 December 1865/10 January 1866 included a performance of Tchaikovsky's ambitious cantata Ode to Joy, on the text of Schiller's ode An die Freude (upon which Beethoven set the Finale of his Ninth Symphony). This was not Tchaikovsky’s choice, but Anton Rubinstein’s. According to Tchaikovsky’s first biographer, his brother Modest, the young composer was too afraid to attend the public examination, much to Rubinstein's annoyance. But the examination commission’s records, preserved in the archives of the conservatory, insist that "all students were present" . Still, Rubinstein threatened to withhold Tchaikovsky's diploma and refused to countenance public performance of the cantata unless it were revised.
A number of musical celebrities who were present at the concert, among them Serov and Cui, also disliked it. However, the final verdict on Tchaikovsky was very favourable and two days later he was graduated from the Conservatory. But it appears that Tchaikovsky's diploma was withheld by Anton Rubinstein after all: the extant copy is dated 30 March/11 April 1870. His grades were reported as: theory and instrumentation—excellent; organ—good; piano—very good; conducting—satisfactory. To Tchaikovsky’s surprise, he also received the silver medal which (since the gold medal was not awarded at that time) happened to be the highest award offered to students.
This page was last updated on 17 February 2013