Beauty from a Troubled Spirit
An old adage from the stage says, “Comedy comes from pain.” The same may be said for music. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky was a beacon of enchanting melody and inspirational orchestration during the nineteenth century. Six masterly symphonies, soaring piano and violin concertos, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake ballets, and it wouldn’t be Christmas without the Nutcracker Ballet.
No music is more triumphant than the cannon-blast finale of the Overture of 1812. Our hearts rejoice to the swelling love theme of the Overture to Romeo and Juliet, and we feel the climactic, thundering, timpani-roll finale?
But the young composer’s life was punctuated by disappointment and tragedy. He lost his mother to cholera when he was an impressionable 14 years of age. He developed many neuroses as well as clinical depression in his lifetime.
He dedicated his renowned 1st Piano Concerto to his colleague at the Moscow Conservatory, Nicholas Rubenstein, who publically dismissed the work. Tchaikovsky was devastated. He became isolated and withdrawn.
Perhaps to quell rumors in a country that had a death penalty for homosexuality, Tchaikovsky married a female admirer. But the marriage was a disaster. Soon afterward, he suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide.
Tchaikovsky’s last work was the Sixth Symphony, which most musicians agree should have ended with the powerful third movement. It is believed that the slow, depressing fourth movement was an intentional admission of his sadness and disappointment with life.
As the final notes were drawn during its premier, the 53-year-old conductor simply lowered his head and stood motionless. There was no applause, just sniffles of emotion in the audience. A few days later, in spite of stern pleas from his dinner guests at a restaurant, Tchaikovsky ordered and drank unboiled water during a cholera outbreak. Within five days the end came to one of the most gifted and beloved composers in history.