Russians in the Wilderness, Part VII: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Russia’s Gift to the World

One of the memories that tourists to St. Petersburg or Moscow typically cherish is of young Russian musicians playing classical music or Russian folk music in underground passageways or entrances to Metro stations. It is a bittersweet memory; though the music is often outstanding, the plight of these gifted musicians, forced to play music for casual bystanders, reveals the difficulties of their career choice. While taking pleasure in their performances, one cannot help but feel sorrow, too, for these students of Russian music academies.

Russia has a rich musical tradition, one that achieved world renown in the 19th century. Many Americans might be surprised to learn that one of the most popular musical works played for the Fourth of July – The 1812 Overture – was written by a Russian; this same Russian gave us one of our most cherished Christmas traditions: The Nutcracker ballet. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of Russia’s greatest cultural gifts to the world.

A Brief Biography

Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in the town of Votkinsk, the second eldest in a family of five brothers and one sister. His father and grandfather were civil servants in the Tsarist government, and young Pyotr was trained to follow in their footsteps. After working as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice, Pyotr decided to abandon his civil service career in his early twenties and pour his life into the world of music – a profession without standing in Russia at the time.

Pyotr was one of the first students at the newly created St. Petersburg Conservatory, which was established by Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, who also founded the Russian Music Society. At the age of 26, Tchaikovsky became one of the first professors at their Moscow Conservatory and was, in fact, Russia’s first professional composer. All previous Russian composers had made their living off of other professions. To survive financially, Tchaikovsky taught at the Conservatory, wrote music critiques and drafted textbooks.

Tchaikovsky’s Legacy

By the end of his life, Tchaikovsky’s musical achievements were remarkable: he composed six symphonies, more than 20 major orchestral works, 10 concertos and pieces for solo instruments and orchestra, nine operas, three ballets and more than a dozen pieces of chamber music. In addition, he wrote many other songs and scores for special events – all of this in 30 years, while traveling extensively, teaching and writing. He was one of the few composers who wrote music in virtually every genre.

By the mid-1880s, Tchaikovsky enjoyed unprecedented public prestige for a Russian musician. He was awarded the Vladimir Cross by Tsar Alexander III and became his country’s uncrowned composer laureate. He was also recognized as a world celebrity and was the first Russian composer to travel to America. At Carnegie Hall, he was proclaimed, along with Brahms and Saint-Saens, one of the three greatest living musicians of his time. When he died, his state funeral and burial in the capital was a public event, the streets of St. Petersburg filling in a mass outpouring of adoration and respect.

Commentary

For Russians, Tchaikovsky is a sacred cultural figure. His monument stands in front of the Moscow Conservatory and his name has been given to one of the world’s greatest musical competitions. In recent years, there has been debate among academics about aspects of Tchaikovsky’s personal life, especially about the events surrounding his untimely death in 1893, but this dispute adds nothing to our appreciation of his magnificent compositions.

As Mikhail Pletnev, the founder of the Russian National Orchestra, noted in his release of a recording of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, “It is music that has a truly universal appeal; music which is above all addressed to individuals at all times, a music that will always find listeners.”

Tchaikovsky represents a major aspect of the richness of Russia’s cultural heritage, a heritage that is now being forgotten in the mad scramble for material wealth by the few Russians who are newly rich and by the vast majority, those scrambling to survive the economic trials of recent decades. One of Russia’s greatest assets is its human capital – its highly educated population and the distinguished universities and artistic and musical academies that trained them. Failure to invest in these institutions – and in the Russian students attending them – will be a blot on the record of the Russian governments in the post-Communist era.