Truth Tellers: Tchaikovsky and His Reaching Toward Sublimity

By Raymond Beegle
Raymond Beegle
Raymond Beegle
Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and The New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of the State University of New York–Stony Brook, the Music Academy of the West, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of the Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.
August 19, 2021 Updated: August 19, 2021

A young student, having just met the elder Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, made a remark suggesting that composers wrote initially by inspiration. Tchaikovsky, he recalled, “made an impatient gesture with his hand and said with annoyance: ‘Ah, young man, don’t be trite! You can’t await inspiration,’ according to musicology professor David Brown in “Tchaikovsky Remembered.”

“What is needed is work, work, and work. Inspiration is born only of work, and during work. Every morning I sit down to work. If from this nothing comes today, I’ll sit down tomorrow at the very same work. Thus, I write for one day, for two, for ten days, not despairing if nothing comes, for on the eleventh day, you will see, something will come.”

Inspiration is one of the great mysteries. The word derives from both Greek and Latin, and means literally the breathing in of either air or spirit. Certainly, Tchaikovsky was not talking about air when he was talking about inspiration. It was the entrance of the spirit—sometimes called God’s Spirit, sometimes called the Holy Spirit—into his mind and his heart. It usually came, as Tchaikovsky told the student, after much labor, but it sometimes appeared unbidden, an uninvited guest, driving him to the point of madness just as it drove Handel when he wrote the “Messiah,” and Beethoven when he wrote “Missa Solemnis.”

It first approached Tchaikovsky when he was very young. Brown writes that Tchaikovsky’s governess, Fanny Dürbach, recalled discovering him in the nursery one night, his eyes glistening. “When asked what was the matter, he replied: ‘O, the music!’ But there was no music to be heard at that moment. ‘Get rid of it for me! It’s here, here,’ said the boy, weeping and pointing to his head. ‘It won’t give me any peace!’”

It never gave Tchaikovsky any peace, but his struggles with it produced a wealth of inspired music, music of the spirit. It is infectious. It is an assurance far greater than reason can provide: That what is beautiful, what is good, what is truthful are the final realities, the rock for us to stand on.  It is the message of the ages told by prophets and poets, painters and composers, of every time and every culture.

A few of his pieces seem to me especially inspired. Oddly enough, they are not among the most celebrated compositions, but they have filled this listener with wonder and sustained him in difficult times for more than half a century. Setting academics aside, I share them with the reader adding a few personal observations.

Epoch Times Photo
Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 1893, by Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov. Tretyakov Gallery. (PD-US)

Russian Laborers

When Tchaikovsky was 31, he heard a peasant singing at his work. He sang a plaintive folksong, born of the soil, reflecting the ancient brooding soul of the Russian people.

It can be heard in the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s first string quartet. A violin plays the melancholy phrases, simply harmonized and modestly developed. It is the song of Russia’s common laborers, whose spiritual depth, kindness, and piety the composer knew well. It tells us what the psalmist tells us: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”

At a concert of his music, Tchaikovsky, who was sitting next to the venerable Leo Tolstoy, saw that Russia’s greatest writer wept during this passage. “It was the highest honor of my life,” he wrote in his diary. And what a marvel it must have been for the composer to see the power of his music realized in the tears of the man he most admired.

Others were moved as well. The Moscow Gazette wrote that “after the music had ended the listeners sat silent, afraid to disturb its spell.”

Looking for Peace

When Tchaikovsky was 38, he suffered much inner turmoil because of a failed marriage, difficulties in business, and difficulties of conscience. He abdicated Moscow for the country, its beauty and its simple ways.

Onegin_and_Tatyana-illustration
An illustration by Samokish-Sudakovskaya from the 1908 edition of Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin.” Tchaikovsky’s opera based on the novel reveals a desire to return to a life close to nature. (PD-US)

The opening scene in his opera “Eugene Onegin,” written at this troubled time, seems to have been born of a desire to describe a happy, peaceful way of living, close to the healing influences of nature and the kindness of simple people. Harvesting has come to an end at a small estate, and following tradition, peasants bring a decorated sheaf of wheat to their mistress. A feast has been prepared for them, and they sing their harvest songs, radiant with sheer joy over the abundant fruits of their labor.

At Midlife

When Tchaikovsky was 40 years old, religion had begun to play a more profound, more significant role in his thoughts. He was deeply moved by Massenet’s oratorio “Marie-Magdeleine.”

“I was so impressed by the way Massenet knew how to express the eternal purity of Christ, that I shed floods of tears. Wonderful tears! Hail the Frenchman who knew how to make them flow,” he wrote to his younger brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a dramatist. “Under its influence I have composed a song to the words of Alexei Tolstoy. The tune is inspired by Massenet.”

Jules Massenet
Tchaikovsky was inspired by Jules Massenet’s oratorio “Marie-Magdeleine.” The photo is from “Musical Memories” by Camille Saint-Saëns, published in 1919. (PD-US)

Tchaikovsky’s “tune,” the entire work, is indeed inspired. “I Bless You Forest” shows rapture entering the heart of a humble pilgrim. Forest, valleys, rivers, the great blue heavens—all God’s own handiwork—galvanizes his spirit and his love for humankind. “Oh, if only I could hold, you, brothers, friends, enemies, all of nature, in my embrace!”

Just as Tchaikovsky was inspired by Massenet, the great baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky was inspired by Tchaikovsky.
When the composer was 41, he wrote to Modest about an awakening love of Russian liturgical music. “I was deeply impressed, indeed shaken by the beauty of the service which cannot be compared with anything else.”

He wrote to his friend and patron, Nadezhda von Meck, as translated by Galina von Meck in “To My Best Friend”: “I dearly love the vesper service. To stand in the half-darkness searching for an answer to the eternal questions … to be roused from reveries when the choir begins to sing—oh! I love it all tremendously.”

The opening movement of his Vesper Service, Op. 52 begins with Psalm 104: “Bless the Lord, oh my soul.” Tchaikovsky, in his setting of the text, uses the traditional Greek chant known to him from childhood, removing, however, its Byzantine austerity by gently smoothing the melodic contours, and harmonizing it in a warm, characteristically Russian manner. “It is in accord with the style of Russian church architecture and icon painting,” he wrote, again, to Modest.

The result is sublime. When the psalm has ended, the choir sings “Glory to the Father to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” Surely, it is the same spirit that entered Tchaikovsky as a child and gave him no peace. It is passed on to us; it is impossible to describe, or explain, or prove. We each must find it for ourselves.

Raymond Beegle
Raymond Beegle
Raymond Beegle has performed as a collaborative pianist in the major concert halls of the United States, Europe, and South America; has written for The Opera Quarterly, Classical Voice, Fanfare Magazine, Classic Record Collector (UK), and The New York Observer. Beegle has served on the faculty of the State University of New York–Stony Brook, the Music Academy of the West, and the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. He has taught in the chamber music division of the Manhattan School of Music for the past 28 years.