Grace Notes is a TLS Online series which celebrates pioneering composers and musicians, and assesses the enduring impact of their work
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a delicate boy, a “child of glass”, whose caregiver once found him weeping in bed, because the music in his mind would not grant him peace. It reverberated throughout his fifty-three years of life, and he often (unjustifiably) felt inadequate in service to his gift. It demanded expression.
Despite his talent, however, Tchaikovsky seemed at first destined for a modest, even tedious life. He attended the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg before enrolling in the newly established St Petersburg Conservatoire. After graduating in 1865, at the age of twenty-five, he accepted a full-time position teaching counterpoint and orchestration at the conservatoire in Moscow, an institution that now bears his name. His rise to fame began slowly in the 1870s thanks to the patronage of a reclusive, recently widowed heiress with a deep love of music: Nadezhda von Meck. Her support bolstered him financially as well as creatively, such that he began to write in the more prestigious genres of the symphony, opera and ballet. Eventually he outgrew the need for her support, becoming comfortably ensconced in the court as a successful and respected imperial composer. Late in life, as the musicologist Richard Taruskin has extensively argued, Tchaikovsky anticipated the aesthetic preoccupations of the Silver Age. The younger generation of progressive artists, known as Symbolists, explored the unconscious in search of meaning beyond the sensory realm. Their aesthetics were often convoluted, but Tchaikovsky strove to make his music accessible, infectious and pliant. Although eventually revered as an icon of Russianness, he saw himself as a cosmopolitan composer – he did borrow from folk songs, but they were not always Russian.