VIDEO: Tchaikovsky’s tormented soul

Oliver Condy looks at how Tchaikovsky’s anguished personality, when channelled into music, resulted in an impassioned output full of sublime melodies.


Tormented, turbulent, sometimes triumphant and always beautiful – Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s music is often regarded as more typically Russian than any other composer. He not only lived during the political upheavals of 19th-century St Petersburg and Moscow, but endured emotional rejection, mental anguish and the kind of critical maulings that would have most composers putting their pens down for good. But all that seemed to do his music no harm at all.

In fact, because of it, there’s an emotional honesty to Tchaikovsky’s work, whether it be the bombastic, defiant opening to his First Piano Concerto, or the tragic, lonely cries of his final Symphony, the Sixth. And at the heart of each of his masterworks lies his greatest secret weapon – melody. His ballets alone, including Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, contain a lifetime of memorable tunes. Not for nothing are they still, today, the most performed ballets in the world.

Tchaikovsky was supported financially for most of his life by a wealthy widow and patron of the arts, Nadezhda von Meck, who insisted they never actually meet. But even then, her distant friendship was perhaps his only stability, as his life was strewn with the wreckages of relationships as Tchaikovsky struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality.

Despite much of his music expressing a sense of victory over adversity, such as the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, he was never reconciled to his sexual identity. Tchaikovsky committed suicide in 1893 just nine days after the premiere of his Pathétique Symphony, his most melancholic, introspective work to date. He was, however, extremely proud of it: ‘I give you my word of honour,’ he wrote on its completion, ‘that never in my life have I been so contented, so proud, so happy in the knowledge that I have written a good piece.’

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Further Reading

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