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May 7: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840)

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

It was on this date, May 7, 1840, that composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Пётр Ильич Чайковский) was born in Votkinsk, Russia. He got some early legal training and worked for a time as a civil servant, but after discovering his talent for music he never looked back. Though he composed sacred as well as secular music, and his disastrous, and short-lived, marriage (18 July 1877) was performed by a priest, Tchaikovsky was a secret Rationalist. A composer in the Romantic style, Tchaikovsky wrote many works that are popular even today, including his Little Russian Symphony (#2, 1872) (“Little Russia” was a nickname for Ukraine), the First Piano Concerto (1875) (which actually starts with horns!), the Marche Slave (1876), the Violin Concerto (1878), Romeo and Juliet (1870, revised 1880), the 1812 Overture (1880) (a favorite piece for Americans celebrating Independence Day), the Capriccio Italien (1880), the Serenade for Strings (1880), the ballets Swan Lake (1876), Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892) and six symphonies.

In a letter to his brother Modest (29 July 1892), he wrote that he had been reading Gustave Flaubert and remarked, “I think there is no more sympathetic personality in all the work of literature (than Flaubert). A hero and martyr to his art. And so wise! I have found some astonishing answers to my questionings as to God and religion in his book.” It is significant that Flaubert was an Atheist. Above all, it would seem that Tchaikovsky believed in music. As he wrote in 1877,*

“…I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven's gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.”

Tchaikovsky took ill from cholera shortly after conducting his 1893 Symphony No. 6 in B minor Pathétique (28 October). A priest was summoned to administer sacraments as he lay dying but, as the composer was unconscious the whole time, and as his brother Modest observed, “it was obvious my brother did not hear a single word.” Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky died on 6 November 1893. For his state funeral, eight thousand mourners squeezed into St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral, and the route to the cemetery was lined with masses of people. He was interred near the graves of fellow composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky.

* Letter to his mentor and friend, Nadezhda von Meck, 23 November (7 December) 1877 in Modest Ilʹich Chaĭkovskiĭ [sic], The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, 1906.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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