(Sentiment + Intellect) x Pathos² = Tchaikovsky?
Observations on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
“Until recently it was normal for us to call Tchaikovsky a sentimental intellectual whose music had no relevance for our generation.” That was written by Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first “People’s Commissar of Enlightenment” of the young Soviet Republic, in 1925. “His ‘hysterical pessimism’ and ‘petit bourgeois melancholy’ were condemned as completely incompatible with the aims of the Revolution,” according to the musicologist Alexander Poznansky. Nevertheless, at that time these reservations only applied to Tchaikovsky the musician, not the man; in September 2013 Spiegel Online reported that the Russian film fund would only give its support to a film biography of Tchaikovsky “in the amount of 30 million roubles (approximately 670,000 euros) ... if details about the artist’s private life were omitted”, meaning the composer’s homosexuality.
Composition as an Act of Sublimation?
Early symptoms of depressive tendencies, which were to become progressively worse throughout his life, were already apparent in 1868, during his work on the First Symphony. But Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, which he had to conceal due to social conventions, was largely responsible for these “mental tempests and nervous disorders”, as his biographer Herbert Weinstock noted in 1943. No less significant, however, was the constant self-doubt against which Tchaikovsky had to struggle with every new work. Hypochondria and misanthropy balanced each other out; Tchaikovsky’s biography and the origins of his works read like the parallel psychological profile of a constant fluctuation between the creative urge and the despondency of someone who is up one minute and down the next. Viewed from the perspective of depth psychology, we are dealing with a classic case of sublimation, as Sigmund Freud described it in 1908 in his essay Cultural Sexual Morality and Modern Nervousness. The origins of the Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, in particular, illustrate how inseparably linked Tchaikovsky’s life and work were.
“To my best friend”: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, op. 36
In July 1877 the composer had attempted to escape from his homosexuality into a “respectable”, in other words, heterosexual relationship, but his utterly rash and hasty marriage to a student proved to be a disaster. Tchaikovsky separated from his wife after only a few weeks and entered a phase of deep depression. A short time later he began work on the F minor Symphony, “in which my memories of the passionateness and misery of my feelings and experiences found their echo”. The “content” of the work is explained even more clearly in a letter from the composer to his friend and patroness Nadezhda von Meck, to whom he had dedicated the symphony, coded for outsiders: à mon meilleur ami (“to my best friend”). Between “the fateful force that prevents our striving for happiness from succeeding” – the fanfare theme in the Andante sostenuto introduction of the first movement, which is heard again in the Finale as a cyclical formal element – and the recognition that one must “get out among the people; if you cannot find reasons for happiness in yourself, look at others”, Tchaikovsky develops a detailed psychological profile in almost bar-by-bar analogy with the music.
The Fourth reflects another dilemma Tchaikovsky found himself in, beyond psychology: his role in Russian music between Westernization and national autonomy. The mere fact of his closeness to the Moscow circle of the brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein caused the St Petersburg colleagues of “The Five”, known in Russia as “The Mighty Handful”, who represented the nationalist school of Russian music, to regard Tchaikovsky as Sápadnik, as a “Westerner”, who continued the great tradition of the role models Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the core genres of instrumental music, while paying tribute to Wagnerism in his operas. But how is this consistent with the fact that the string pizzicatos in the third movement of the Fourth Symphony unmistakably imitate the sound of a balalaika and the main theme of the Finale quotes the ancient folk song “Vo pole berëza stojala” (In the field a little birch tree stood)? “To the people!” the composer wrote in his programme. “See what a good time they have, surrendering themselves completely to joyous feelings.” The bourgeois artist who goes “to the people” is embarrassingly reminiscent of Faust’s Easter walk: “Hark! Sounds of village joy arise; / Here is the people’s paradise, / Contented, great and small shout joyfully: / Here I am Man, here dare it to be!” It is no wonder that the early Soviet reception regarded Tchaikovsky as a “class element completely alien to the proletarian consciousness” (Alexander Poznansky).
The Fruit of “Pure Enjoyment”: Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35
After the complete mental breakdown which Tchaikovsky suffered following the failure of his marriage (and which culminated in an unsuccessful suicide attempt), the composer left Russia in October 1877 and fled first to Switzerland, then to Italy. In Clarens, on Lake Geneva, he had a visit from a former student in March 1878, the 22-year-old violinist Iosif Kotek, to whom he felt passionately attracted, as we learn from a letter: “He tenderly ridiculed my expressions of affection and kept repeating that my love ... is selfish and impure, while his love is selfless and pure. We spoke of the piece he ordered me to write for his Lenten concert. He repeated over and over that he would get angry if I didn’t write this piece” – the Valse-Scherzo op. 34 for violin and orchestra, which Tchaikovsky in fact composed for Kotek and dedicated to him. Thus, it is not surprising that he felt intense jealousy when he learned that Kotek was obviously also having an affair with a woman. “My love for a person known to you has ignited with new and unheard-of strength! The reason for this is jealousy. He has tied himself to [the singer] Eibozhenka, and they *** [here the original contains a word eliminated by the editors of the letter and described as ‘obscene’] five and six times a day,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest in May 1877.
Now Kotek had come to Clarens, and one must assume that Tchaikovsky’s passion was aroused again – and was reflected in the Violin Concerto, which he composed between 13 March and 11 April 1878. “In such a phase of spiritual life composition completely loses the character of work; it is pure enjoyment,” he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 22 March. Up one minute – down the next! When Kotek hesitated to play the solo part at the planned premiere in St Petersburg, the relationship between the two quickly cooled. Tchaikovsky and Kotek saw each other for the last time in November 1884 in Davos, where the violinist sought a cure for his lung disease in a sanatorium – to no avail: Iosif Kotek died on 4 January 1885, at the age of only 29.
In his letters Tchaikovsky frequently spoke of his fear of people, his mistrust, his “shyness which has become a mania” and his despair at “not showing myself as I am”. The fact that “out of an inner, insurmountable compulsion” he confided everything to his music which he had to deny in his life is a tragedy to which Romantic music owes some of its greatest works.