How Tchaikovsky Composed

By Ellen von Tidebohl

Peter Tchaikovsky, the great Russian composer, sometimes entered in his diary his inspirations and his ideas. Many of these books he burnt himself, but several of them were saved and give rich material for the study of the character and life of this illustrious man. There is a page from Tchaikovsky’s diary taken from his biography, edited by his brother, Modest Tchaikovsky.

Musical Dieties

“September 12th, 1886: There is no doubt it will be interesting after my death to know my opinions, taste and dislikes in music. The more so, as I have seldom spoken on this subject to my relations and in society. I will begin with Beethoven, whom every one praises and worships like a God!! I put the question: ‘What is Beethoven to me?’ I bow before the greatness of his works – nevertheless I don’t love him.”

“My feelings towards him recalls to me my childhood’s feeling towards the God of Saboath. It was a feeling of wonder and awe. He had created heaven and earth – yet although I creep over this earth, there is no love in me for him. Christ, on the contrary, awakens love. Though he is a God, he has suffered as we do. We can pity him; we love in him the ideal of mankind. Consequently, if Beethoven occupies in my heart the place of God of Sabaoth, Mozart is the Christ in music for me. Mozart has the clear brightness of an angel; his music is full of unattainable heavenly beauty.”

“Mozart is the highest pinnacle of beauty to which music may attain. Who else can stir us to tears, as does Mozart? Who can raise us to ecstasy in the conviction that we are nearer our ideal? Beethoven also can move me, but through the sense of fear and torment.”

In the letters of Tchaikovsky to Mme. Von Meck we find many interesting thoughts upon music. Mme. Von Meck was his friend and patroness, with whom he never communicated otherwise than by letters. Nevertheless, she was the woman who influenced him most – inspiring him to compose, comforting him and giving him confidence and courage for the hard struggle of like as well as providing him with funds.

The Miracle of Inspiration

There is a litter to Mme. Von Meck in which Tchaikovsky gives his ideas upon the composer’s art.

Claran, March 5th, 1878

“It is especially agreeable to me to speak to you about the way I compose. Till now I have never spoken to anybody about this mysterious manifestation of the inner life, because there have been few persons who have asked me for an explanation of it, and also because those who have asked have not gained my confidence sufficiently for me to answer them properly.”

“It is exceedingly pleasant for me to speak to you about the details of my composing, for in you I have found a soul, which answers with especial ease to the call of my music. Nobody (except perhaps my brother) has comforted me so much as you have with your sympathy. Oh! If you could only know how precious this sympathy is to me and how little I am spoiled by it. Don’t believe those who would persuade you that musical composition is a cool, reasonable work! Music which comes up from the depths of a soul in the agitation of inspiration is the only kind which is able to move, stir and deeply affect. There is no doubt that the highest musical geniuses have sometimes worked without inspiration. Inspiration is a guest, who comes not always at one’s first call. Nevertheless, work has to be done continually, and the truly honest composer ought not to site with clasped hands, pretending not to be in the humor to work. It is easy to fall into apathy and laziness, if you want for inspiration without trying to work it up yourself. He must persevere, take patience and believe, and the inspiration will come inevitably to him who has been able to conquer his apathy. This has happened to me, not later than today.

The Importance of Industry

“I wrote you some days ago, that although I worked every day, I was not inspired. If I had given way to this unwillingness to work I would surely not have done anything. But faith and patience never leave me, and this morning I was seized by an unexpected burst of inspiration, about which I have spoken above, the result of which I know beforehand will have the power of going straight to the heart and creating deep impressions. I hope you will not suspect me of self-praise, if I tell you that it seldom happens that I am out of humor for work. I ascribe this to patience and my having the habit of never giving in to laziness.”

“I have learned to control myself. I am happy that I am not following in the steps of my Russian brothers, who suffering from disillusion and lacking perseverance prefer to rest, and abandon their work at the first difficulty. This is the reason why they write so little and in the style of dilettanti, although they are highly gifted.”

“You asked me how I set about the work of instrumentation. I never compose in an abstracted manner, that is to say, that my musical ideas come to me in their own proper form. In this way I invent the musical idea at the same time as its instrumentation. Consequently, when writing the Scherzo of my Fourth Symphony, I produced it just as you heard it afterwards. It cannot be imagined otherwise that ‘pizzicato.” If played with the bow, it would lose all charm. It would be a soul without a body; the music would lose all its attraction.”

The Russian Element

“As for the Russian element in my compositions, I will tell you that it has often happened, when composing I have chosen the melody of a folk-song which pleased me. Sometimes it comes to me of itself – for instance in the Finale of our Symphony (the Fourth) – it came of itself and quite unexpectedly.”

“The Russian element in my music, its relationship to the folk-song, melody, harmony, have their origin in my childhood which I passed in the depths of Russia. I was deeply impressed with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristic folk-songs. I passionately loved the Russian element in all its manifestations. In one word, I am Russian in the whole meaning of the word.”

An Early Morning Serenade

Tchaikovsky has left us an interesting account of his tour through Europe in 1888, and gives an amusing anecdote of his stay in Leipzig:

“To complete my impressions and experiences of Leipzig, I will relate one interesting episode which tends to prove that politics do not influence music, and that Mars and Apollo, being gods, are not jealous of each other. Since Bismarck made his celebrated inflammatory speech in February, all Germany has been enveloped in a flame of fierce Russophobism. However, early one morning I was awakened by a noise and bustle in the corridor of my hotel, which was soon followed by a knock on the door. Somewhat alarmed, I jumped out of bed, opened the door, and learned from the waiter who was knocking that an aubade was about to begin under my window, and that politeness demanded that I should appear there, in spite of the unusual severity of the frost. The waiter then handed me a program, elegantly designed, consisting of eight numbers of very varied music. At this moment the strains of our National Anthem resounded from below.”

“As soon as I was dressed I opened the window and beheld in the small courtyard of the hotel, stationed immediately under my windows, a full military band, in the midst of which stood the bandmaster in a uniform as resplendent as that of a field marshal. All eyes were turned toward me. I bowed and remained standing bareheaded in the bitter frost of this early February morning. It was the band of one of the regiments then stationed in Leipzig; and excellent one, too, and they played their program very well, which was the more surprising, because the cold was enough to paralyse the fingers of the poor musicians, who endured the cruel winter frost for over an hour. The conductor, Herr Jahrow, did me the honor of being particularly fond of my music, and thanks to this, a body of Germans, in full uniform, had been compelled to flatter my ears that morning. After the serenade was finished, the conductor came up to see me, gave me a cordial greeting, and then hastened away to his military duties. Needless to say, I was very much touched by this expression of sentiment. I do not know if the other visitors in the hotel were equally gratified at being roused from their beds at such an early hour by the strains of trumpets and trombones; but at least their curiosity must have been aroused. From all the windows people in various stages of costume looked out the see what was going on.”

Rubinstein in America

Though both Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein visited America, Tchaikovsky’s visit was so short that he had little time to form any definite impressions. He gave but six concerts – four in New York, one in Philadelphia and one in Baltimore. Rubinstein, however, paid quite an extensive visit, and gives the following account of it in the autobiographic work previously quoted. It must be remembered that Rubinstein was one of the first great pianists to visit the country, and musical conditions in America were very raw.

“In 1872 the late violinist, Henri Wieniawski, and I accepted a manager’s proposal to make a tour in the United States. Only two Russian artists had ever visited America – Prince Galitzin and Slavianski-Agrenev. The contract with the American manager was concluded in Vienna through the agency of the attorney Jacques. I was to receive two hundred thousand francs, half of which sum was deposited by the manager in the bank then and there. According to the terms of the contract, he had no right to take me to the Southern States, the whole route being clearly defined by this legal document. For a time I was under the entire control of the manager. May Heaven preserve us from such slavery! Under these conditions there is no chance for art – one grows into an automaton simply, performing mechanical work; no dignity remains to the artist, he is lost…”

“During the time I remained in America we traveled through the United States as far as New Orleans, and I appeared before an audience two hundred and fifteen times. It often happened that we gave two or three concerts in as many different cities in the same day. The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfaction, that when several years later I was asked to repeat my American tour, with half a million guaranteed to me, I refused point blank. It may be interesting to note that the contract was fulfilled to the letter.”

“Wieniawski, a man of extremely nervous temperament, who, owing to ill health, quite often failed to meet his appointments in St. Petersburg – both at the Grand Theater and at the Conservatory – never missed one concert in America. However ill he might be, he always contrived to find strength enough to appear on the platform with his fairy-like violin. The secret of his punctuality lay in the fact that by the terms of the contract he must forfeit one thousand francs for every non-appearance. The proceeds of my tour in America laid the foundation of my prosperity. On my return I hastened to invest in real estate. I purchased a country residence in Peterhof, and in 1865 I married.”