Tchaikovsky Research
Jump to: navigation, search

Tchaikovsky's Autobiography (Автобиография) (TH 317 ; ČW 589) was written in 1889 for the German publication Nord und Süd, in which it was first published in an edited German translation in July 1890 [N.S.].

This autobiographical essay, which was commissioned by the German musician and music critic Otto Neitzel a few months after he met Tchaikovsky in Cologne in February 1889, was translated from the original French into German (possibly by Neitzel himself) and incorporated into Neitzel's article 'Die russische Musik und ihr berufenster Vertreter' [Russian music and its most outstanding representative], which was published the following year in the July 1890 issue of the periodical Nord und Süd.

It begins with a discussion of Russian folk-song, the Orthodox church chants, and the emergence of opera and instrumental music in Russia. The main section of the article is devoted to Tchaikovsky and opens with a general appraisal of his music, as well as a list of those works which Neitzel considered to be his most important (for more details see the entry on Otto Neitzel). Then he explains why he had asked Tchaikovsky for information about his life and musical development, and how the composer, despite finding such a request rather daunting, had nevertheless finally sent an autobiographical sketch whose German translation Neitzel includes in full as the centrepiece of his article. (These introductory remarks are quoted in the notes below) [1]. Tchaikovsky's text is presented below in English and in German.


Written around 11/23 June 1889. Mentioned in the composer’s diary for 11/23 June 1889: "After dinner and a small stroll, was writing the autobiography (!!!) for Neitzel" [2]

English translation

Copyright notice
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist [3]
See our Terms of Use

Like all musicians, I too showed a marked inclination and aptitude for music from my most tender childhood years. I was five years old when a lady who was a music teacher (she died a year ago) introduced me to the rudiments of my art [4]. Soon I was playing the piano sufficiently well to be able to master all kinds of fashionable pieces, such as Kalkbrenner's [5] Le Fou, which I consider to be the most brilliant of all such masterpieces. My precociousness, which also manifested itself in musical improvisations, did not fail to astonish the limited family circle in the remote corner of the Ural region of Vyatka Province, where I spent my childhood years. This went on like that until I was ten, without my natural aptitudes for music receiving any particular attention from my parents, who had destined me for the career of a government official [6]. Around this time I was taken to Petersburg and enrolled at the School of Jurisprudence. This state institution, which had been vested with a special privilege, was supposed to offer young noblemen a scholarly education, and it had a reputation for guaranteeing a brilliant career for its graduates. During the nine years that I spent at the School my contact with music was limited enough. There was a music library, a piano room, even a piano teacher [7]. The latter, however, passed by without any attention for a pupil who would only have needed a little bit of encouragement to move forward, and so there was no question of my making any progress there. And even though I returned home to my parents in the holidays, there was just no musical atmosphere there which could have benefited my musical development. After all, it had never occurred to the School or to my family to see anything in me other than a future civil servant—a chinovnik! [8]

I was seventeen years old when I made the acquaintance of an Italian singing master called Piccioli [9]. He was the first person to take an interest in my musical gifts. The influence which he acquired over me was tremendous: even to this day I have not yet fully outgrown his sphere of influence. Piccioli was an inveterate enemy of German music, which he regarded as "clumsy, empty, and pedantic", whilst he professed an exaggerated fondness for Italian music. Consequently I became an enthusiastic admirer of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and, simple-minded as I was, I imagined that Mozart and Beethoven were ideal for sending one to sleep, and that there was nothing emptier than an opera by Mozart or a symphony by Beethoven. Now, in that regard, I have certainly undergone a considerable transformation, and yet, even though my predilection for Italian music has calmed down rather, and, most importantly, lost much of its former exclusivity and become more judicious, to this day I still feel a certain satisfaction when I hear the richly ornamented arias, cavatinas, and duets of Rossini with all their roulades, and there are some melodies of Bellini which I can never hear without my eyes filling with tears [10].

I was 17 years old when my father engaged an excellent piano teacher for me—Rudolf Kündinger [11]. Born in Nuremberg, Kündinger had settled in Petersburg and was an excellent pianist and musician. Every Sunday I would have a lesson with him, and I made swift progress in my piano playing. He was the first person to take me to concerts whose programmes consisted of classical compositions [12]. Little by little my prejudices against classical music began to fade away. Finally, one happy day, very much without intending to, I chanced to hear Mozart's Don Giovanni. It came as a sheer revelation to me. It is impossible for me to describe the enthusiasm, the ecstasy, the intoxication which I was seized by. For several weeks I did nothing but play the opera through from the piano-vocal score. Indeed, even as I fell asleep I could not part with this divine music, which pursued me long into my happy dreams. As I said earlier, my love for Italian music still continues today, albeit with a much diminished intensity; I would compare this love to a cherished youthful memory. With Mozart, on the other hand, it is something quite different. Among the great masters, Mozart is the one to whom I feel most attracted; it has been so ever since that day and it will always be like that [13].

All this notwithstanding, when I graduated from the School of Jurisprudence, my musical education presented a pretty poor sight—I was nothing more nor less than a rather one-sided dilettante of the sort one comes across every day. Very often I would feel the impulse to compose something, but a certain sense of self-respect would always restrain me from doing so. I wanted either to be a complete musician, who has at his disposal all the resources of his art, or just remain a dilettante, limited and ignorant, such as one can find by the dozen everywhere. All the same, I was sometimes seized by the presentiment that one day yet I would throw myself entirely into the arms of music. But of course when I spoke to my friends about this, they just laughed at me and said that I was being foolish.

So I left the School of Jurisprudence and for three years I held the office of an under-secretary at the Ministry of Justice [14]. I went out a lot, danced, took part in amateur theatricals—in short, I did all kinds of things, but my musical activities consisted of nothing other than playing through my beloved Don Giovanni over and over again, or rehearsing some shallow salon piece. From time to time, however, I would set about studying a Beethoven symphony. How strange! This music would cause me to feel sad each time and made me an unhappy person for weeks. From then on I was filled with a burning desire to write a symphony—a desire which would erupt afresh each time that I came into contact with Beethoven's music. However, I would then feel all too keenly my ignorance, my complete inability to deal with the technique of composition, and this feeling brought me close to despair. I lapsed more and more into melancholy, felt profoundly dissatisfied with my fate. My job as a civil servant bored me. I was disappointed and terribly downcast.

In the year 1861, I made the acquaintance of a young lieutenant from the Hussars of the Imperial Guard, who was a great admirer of genuine music, and who had even attended for a while the musical-theoretical courses which Zaremba had then set up for dilettantes. This officer, with whom I soon became close friends, was not a little astonished when one day I started to improvise on the piano on a theme that he had set me [15]. The better he got to know me, the more his initial astonishment changed to an inward conviction that I was a musician from tip to toe, and that, above everything else, I had to apply myself to music in serious and regular study [16]. He took me to Zaremba, who agreed to have me as a student and did not fail to give me encouragement on many occasions. He also advised me to resign from my job and devote myself wholly and exclusively to the study of music. This was in 1861. The following year Anton Rubinstein founded the Conservatory. Zaremba joined the staff of the latter as a teacher of theory and advised me to become a student at the Conservatory, which I duly did. I was then 22 years old; as I have already mentioned, I could play the piano quite well, I passionately loved Mozart, or rather Don Giovanni, still admired Italian music (albeit to a far lesser degree now), and was familiar to a certain extent with Beethoven's symphonies—in other words, I was pretty much a crass ignoramus in music. I was still carrying on with my job at the Ministry, whilst also attending the Conservatory. Soon, however, the combination of two such exhausting activities became impossible for me, and I had to make a choice. Thanks to the angelic kindness of my father, who after all had already made so many sacrifices to make a good civil servant out of me, I was given the possibility to devote myself to music definitively and exclusively [17]. Thus I studied harmony, counterpoint, and fugue with Zaremba, who was a skilful and enthusiastic teacher and had the gift of making his lectures very vivid and clear. In instrumentation and free composition I was taught partly by Anton Rubinstein, and I can only praise his thoroughly practical method of teaching these branches of music. I felt profound veneration for him, and indeed it is quite difficult to escape the magical force of attraction which this artist of genius and noble and generous man exerts on everyone who has the good fortune of coming close to him [18]. With all his energy, he encouraged me in my vocation, although this certainly did not prevent him from taking me to task every so often for my sympathy for the new tendencies and for my attempts to follow in the footsteps of Berlioz and Wagner [19].

I had barely left the Conservatory when Nikolay Rubinstein invited me to take on the post of composition teacher in the Moscow Conservatory, which he had recently set up [20]. His offer could not have come at a more appropriate moment. My father had lost his entire fortune some time ago, and, since he had had to retire from government service because of his advanced years, he was forced to spend the rest of his days in the house of my older sister in Siberia [21]. As a result I had to look to my own resources, but these were so meagre that when I arrived in Moscow I was destitute even of the most essential things. Nikolay Rubinstein's first act of providence was to put me into a decent set of clothes, and then to find me some accommodation. This excellent man, to whom I was soon attached by the most cordial ties of friendship, came up with remedies for every one of my needs. I held my teaching post at the Conservatory for ten years [22]. I made every effort to attend conscientiously to my duties, but teaching is just not my vocation and I think that I must have been quite a mediocre teacher. It is also with a slight horror that I look back now on my classes at the Conservatory. How these exhausted me! How miserable and wretched I felt when giving them!! However, I was still young then, and my six hours of teaching every day did not prevent me from devoting myself diligently to compositional work. I led a very secluded life, did not go out anywhere, and used all the spare time that I had left after the Conservatory for composing. The first of my orchestral works to be performed under Nikolay Rubinstein was an (unpublished) Concert Overture in F major. Incidentally, it was of inestimable benefit to me that everything I wrote for orchestra was performed under N. Rubinstein at the concerts of the Imperial Musical Society [23]. Only in this way have I been able to master the art of instrumentation to a considerable extent. A composer who never or only rarely has the chance to hear his compositions deserves to be pitied.

And so I divided ten years of my life between the fulfilment of my teaching obligations, which I so disliked, and my beloved composing, which occupied me in all my spare time [24]. But eventually even this clear division began to blur. My Moscow friends all and sundry imbibed spirituous liquors freely, and since I myself was being seized by an ever more pronounced inclination for the fruits of the vine, I soon took part more often than I should have in the drinking-bouts which until then I had been careful to avoid. My stressful work, together with these Bacchic diversions, did not fail to have a most baneful effect on my nervous system: in 1877, I fell ill and was forced temporarily to withdraw from my post at the Conservatory [25]. Although I did resume my teaching the following year, this only served to confirm that by then my aversion to the harmony and instrumentation courses had become insurmountable, leading me to resign my post for good [26]. Since then I have lived variously in southern Russia [27], in Italy, and also in the countryside not far from Moscow, and composing has been my sole occupation.

Until the age of 46 I had regarded myself as completely incapable of conducting an orchestra; my aversion to the conductor's rostrum was so pronounced that I could not think about the latter without shuddering inwardly. On two occasions in the past I had attempted to wield the conductor's baton on a concert podium, and each time I had covered myself with shame [28]. Three years ago, when preparations were underway for the production of my opera The Enchantress at the theatre, Altani, the music director of the Moscow Imperial Opera, was taken ill; and, since it did not seem likely that he would recover from his illness until after a few months had passed, the thought struck me that I should make one last attempt to overcome my excessive shyness and conduct the rehearsals and the performance myself [29]. I suggested this to the theatre management, and my proposal was gladly accepted. Although Altani was well again by the time my opera was due to be performed, I nevertheless carried on directing the rehearsals, and, thanks to his encouragement and guidance, this time I did emerge victorious from the enterprise I had so feared. Since then I have wielded the baton very frequently both in Russia and abroad.

German text

Wie alle Musiker, so legte auch ich seit meiner zartesten Kindheit eine ausgesprochene Neigung und Geschicklichkeit für die Musik an den Tag. Ich zählte fünf Jahre, als ich durch eine Musiklehrerin, die seit einem Jahre todt ist, in die Anfangsgründe meiner Kunst eingeführt wurde. Bald spielte ich gut genug Clavier, um alle möglichen Modestücke bewältigen zu können, so Kalkbrenners Le Fou, das ich als das blendendste aller Meisterwerke betrachte. Meine Frühreife, die sich außerdem in musikalischen Improvisationen kund gab, ermangelte nicht, den beschränkten Familienkreis im letzten Winkel [Votkinsk] der Provinz am Ural im Gouvernement Wiatka, innerhalb dessen ich meine Kindheitszeit verlebte, in Erstaunen zu setzen. Das dauerte, ohne daß indessen meine natürlichen Fähigkeiten für die Musik den Gegenstand besonderer Aufmerksamkeit meiner Eltern gebildet hätte, die mich für die Laufbahn eines Regierungsbeamten bestimmten, bis zum Alter von zehn Jahren. Um diese Zeit führte man mich nach Petersburg und brachte mich in der Rechtsschule unter. Diese mit besonderem Vorrechte ausgestattete Staatsanstalt hatte jungen Adligen eine wissenschaftliche Ausbildung zu bieten; sie genoß den Ruf, ihren Abiturienten eine glänzende Laufbahn zu gewährleisten. Während der neun Jahre, die ich auf dieser Schule verlebte, war meine Beschäftigung mit der Musik geringfügig genug. Eine musikalische Bibliothek, ein Clavierzimmer waren vorhanden, sogar ein Clavierlehrer. Dieser jedoch ging achtlos an einem Schüler vorüber, der nur einiger Anregung bedurft hätte, um vorwärts zu kommen; und so konnte von Fortschritten keine Rede sein. Auch wenn ich während der Ferien in das elterliche Haus zurückkehrte, fehlte es durchaus an einer für meine musikalische Entwicklung ersprießlichen musikalischen Lebensluft: dachten doch weder die Schule noch die Familie daran, in mir je etwas Anderes zu erblicken, als den zukünftigen Beamten: Tschinownik!

Ich war siebzehn Jahre alt, als ich die Bekanntschaft eines italienischen Gesanglehrers Piccioli machte. Er war der erste, der sich für meine musikalische Anlage interessirte. Der Einfluß, den er über mich gewann, war ein ungeheurer: noch jetzt bin ich seinem Machtbereich nicht vollständig entwachsen. Piccioli war ein eingefleischter Gegner der deutschen Musik, welche er "ungeschickt, inhaltsleer und pedantisch" fand, während er für die italienische Musik eine übertriebene Vorliebe bekundete. Ich wurde in Folge dessen ein begeisterter Verehrer von Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti und hielt in meiner Herzenseinfalt dafür, daß Mozart und Beethoven vortreffliche Dienste leisten könnten, um Jemand in Schlaf zu bringen, und daß es kein gehaltloseres Zeug gäbe, als eine Oper von Mozart oder eine Symphonie von Beethoven. Nun, was das anbetrifft, so habe ich allerdings eine hübsche Wandlung durchgemacht; und doch, wenn meine Vorliebe für die italienische Musik sich auch merklich gelegt und vor allem an Ausschließlichkeit eingebüßt hat und eine verständigere geworden ist: bis zum heutigen Tage spüre ich ein gewisses Wohlbehagen, wenn die reichverzierten Arien, Cavatinen, Duette eines Rossini mit ihren Rouladen ertönen, und gewisse Melodien Bellinis kann ich nie hören, ohne daß mir die Thränen in die Augen kommen.

Ich war 17 Jahre alt, als mir mein Vater in der Person Rudolf Kündingers einen vortrefflichen Clavierlehrer verschaffte. Kündinger, aus Nürnberg gebürtig, hatte sich in Petersburg niedergelassen und war ein ausgezeichneter Pianist und Musiker. Alle Sonntage nahm ich Stunde bei ihm und machte schnelle Fortschritte im Clavierspiel. Er war der Erste, der mich in Concerte mitnahm, deren Programme classische Compositionen enthielten. Nach und nach begannen meine Vorurtheile gegen die classische Musik zu schwinden. Endlich kam ich eines schönen Tages dazu, den Don Juan von Mozart zu hören, sehr gegen meine Absicht. Es war die reine Offenbarung für mich. Unmöglich kann ich diese Begeisterung, dies Entzücken, dies Berauschtsein schildern, das mich ergriff. Mehrere Wochen hindurch that ich nichts Anderes, als daß ich diese Oper nach dem Clavierauszug durchspielte; ja selbst beim Einschlafen konnte ich mich nicht von dieser göttlichen Musik trennen, die mich bis in beglückte Träume hinein verfolgte. Wie ich schon sagte, dauert meine Liebe zur italienischen Musik auch heute noch, wenn auch in sehr abgeschwächtem Maße, fort; ich möchte diese Liebe mit einer theuren Jugenderinnerung vergleichen. Das ist nun freilich mit Mozart eine ganz andere Sache. Er ist unter den großen Meistern derjenige, zu dem ich mich am meisten hingezogen fühle; das ist seither so geblieben und wird stets so bleiben.

Bei alledem sah es bei meinem Austritt aus der Rechtsschule mit meiner musikalischen Ausbildung dürftig genug aus; ich war nichts mehr und nichts weniger als ein ziemlich einseitiger Dilettant alltäglichen Schlages. Sehrt oft spürte ich Anwandlungen, etwas zu componiren; aber ein gewisses Selbstgefühl hielt mich immer davon ab. Ich wollte entweder ein ganzer Musiker sein, der über alle Hülfsmittel seiner Kunst nach Belieben gebietet, oder aber ein Dilettant bleiben, beschränkt, unwissend, wie deren überall Dutzende anzutreffen sind. Indessen überkam es mich doch zuweilen wie eine Ahnung, daß ich mich dereinst noch ganz der Musik in die Arme werfen würde. Wenn ich freilich zu meinen Freunden hiervon sprach, lachten sie mich aus und meinten, ich wäre närrisch.

So verließ ich denn die Rechtsschule und bekleidete drei Jahre hindurch das Amt eines Untersecretairs im Ministerium der Justiz. Ich ging viel aus, tanzte, betheiligte mich an Liebhabertheatern—kurz, ich trieb alles Mögliche, ohne daß meine musikalische Beschäftigung in etwas Anderem bestanden hätte, als immer wieder den geliebten Don Juan durchzuspielen oder auch irgend ein seichtes Salonstück einzulernen. Doch machte ich mich von Zeit zu Zeit daran, eine Beethovensche Symphonie zu studiren. Seltsam! Diese Musik stimmte mich traurig und machte mich jedesmal wochenlang zu einem unglücklichen Menschen. Seit jener Zeit erfüllte mich ein rasendes Verlangen, eine Symphonie zu schreiben, welches nach jeder Berührung mit Beethovenscher Musik von Neuem losbrach—aber dann fühlte ich nur zu sehr meine Unwissenheit, meine gänzliche Ohnmacht in der Handhabung der Compositionstechnik, und dieses Gefühl brachte mich der Verzweiflung nahe. Ich verfiel nach und nach in Trübsinn, fühlte eine tiefe Unzufriedenheit mit meinem Geschick, meine Beamtenstellung langweilte mich, ich war enttäuscht, kreuzunglücklich.

Im Jahre 1861 machte ich die Bekanntschaft eines jungen Lieutenants von den Gardehusaren, eines großen Verehrers gediegener Musik, der sogar eine Zeit lang an den musikalisch-theoretischen Lehrgängen, welche damals Zaremba für Dilettanten eingerichtet hatte, theilgenommen hatte. Dieser Offizier, mit dem mich bald eine herzliche Freundschaft verband, war nicht wenig erstaunt, als ich eines Tages anfing, über ein von ihm gestelltes Thema auf dem Clavier zu improvisiren. Je näher er mich kennen lernte, desto mehr schlug sein anfängliches Staunen in eine innere Ueberzeugung um, daß ich Musiker vom Scheitel bis zur Sohle sei, und daß ich vor allen Dingen die Musik zum Gegenstande eines ernsten und regelmäßigen Studiums machen müßte. Er brachte mich zu Zaremba der mich als Schüler annahm und es nicht an wiederholten Aufmunterungen fehlen ließ, mir auch den Rath gab, meinen Dienst zu quittiren und mich vollständig und ausschließlich dem musikalischen Studium zu widmen. Das war 1861. Im folgenden Jahr gründete Anton Rubinstein das Conservatorium. Zaremba trat daselbst als Lehrere der Theorie ein und rieth mir, Schüler des Conservatoriums zu werden, was ich auch that. Ich war damals 22 Jahr[e] alt; wie ich schon sagte, spielte ich ziemlich gut Clavier, liebte leidenschaftlich Mozart oder vielmehr den Don Juan, bewunderte immer noch, obschon in abgeschwächtem Grade, die italienische Musik und war mit Beethovens Symphonieen [sic] bereits eingermaßen vertraut; ich war mit andern Worten in der Musik ein ziemlich crasser Ignorant. Noch immer führte ich mein Amt im Ministerium weiter fort, indem ich nebenbei das Conservatorium besuchte. Doch bald wurde die Vereinigung zweier so aufreibenden Thätigkeiten für mich ein Ding der Unmöglichkeit, und ich war vor eine Wahl gestellt. Dank der engelreichen Güte meines Vaters, der doch schon so viel Opfer gebracht hatte, um aus mir einen tüchtigen Beamten zu machen, erlangte ich die Möglichkeit, mich endgültig und ausschließlich der Musik zu widmen. Ich studirte somit die Harmonie, den Contrapunct, die Fuge bei Zaremba, der ein geschickter, begeisterungsvoller Lehrer war und die Gabe großer Anschaulichkeit seines mündlichen Vortrags besaß. In der Instrumentation und der freien Composition wurde mir Anton Rubinsteins Unterweisung zu Theil, und ich kann seine durch und durch praktische Art, diese Kunstzweige zu lehren, nur rühmend erheben. Ich hegte eine tiefe Verehrung für ihn; und in der That ist es schwierig genug, sich der magischen Anziehung zu entziehen, die dieser geniale Künstler und dieser edle und großmüthige Mann auf alle ausübt, welche das Glück haben, ihm näherzutreten. Er ermunterte mich mit seiner ganzen Energie zu meinem Beruf, was ihn freilich nicht hinderte, mir dann und wann für meine Zuneigung zur neuen Richtung und für meine Versuche, in die Fußstapfen Berlioz' und Wagners zu treten, gründlich die Leviten zu lesen.

Kaum hatte ich [Ende 1865] das Conservatorium verlassen, als mich Nicolaus Rubinstein einlud, an dem soeben von ihm in Moskau gegründeten Conservatorium die Stelle des Compositionslehrers zu übernehmen. Seine Aufforderung konnte nicht gelegener kommen. Mein Vater hatte seit einiger Zeit sein ganzes Vermögen verloren, und da er wegen seines hohen Alters aus dem Staatsdienst ausscheiden mußte, so sah er sich genöthigt, den Rest seiner Tage bei meiner ältesten Schwester in Sibirien zu verleben. Die Folge davon war, daß ich auf meine eigenen Hülfsquellen angewiesen war, die jedoch so spärlich rieselten, daß ich in Moskau von dem Allernöthigsten entblößt anlangte. Nicolaus Rubinsteins erste Fürsorge bestand darin, mich in ordentliche Kleider zu ste[c]ken, dann mir eine Wohnung zu besorgen. Für alle Bedürfnisse traf dieser ausgezeichnete Mensch, mit dem mich bald die innigsten Freundschaftsbande verknüpften, Abhülfe. Zehn Jahre hindurch bekleidete ich mein Lehramt am Conservatorium. Ich gab mir alle Mühe, gewissenhaft meinen Dienst zu versehen; doch der Unterricht ist nun einmal nicht mein Beruf und ich glaube, daß ich ein ziemlich mittelmäßiger Lehrer war. Auch denke ich mit einem gelinden Entsetzen an meine Conservatoriumsklassen zurück. Wie mich das ermüdete! Wie elend, wie unglücklich ich mich dabei fühlte!! Doch ich war noch jung, und meine täglichen sechs Unterrichtsstunden hielten mich nicht ab, mich fleißig der Composition hinzugeben. Ich lebte sehr zurückgezogen, ging nirgends hin und widmete alle freie Zeit, die mir das Conservatorium ließ, der Composition. Das erste meiner Orchesterwerke, welches unter Nicolaus Rubinstein zur Aufführung gelangte, war eine (nicht gedruckte) Concertouvertüre in F-du. Übrigens war es für mich von ganz unschätzbaren Vortheil, daß Alles was ich für Orchester schrieb, unter N. Rubinstein in den Konzerten der K. Musikgesellschaft [30] gespielt wurde. Nur auf diese Weise habe ich mir die Kunst der Instrumentation in ziemlichem Maaße zu eigen gemacht. Ein Componist, der nie oder selten dazu kommt, seine Compositionen zu hören, ist nicht wenig zu beklagen.

So theilte ich zehn Jahre meines Lebens zwischen der Erfüllung meiner Lehrerpflichten, die mir zuwider waren, und zwischen der geliebten Composition, die alle meine übrige Zeit ausfüllte. Endlich gerieth auch diese klare Abgrenzung in's Schwanken. Meine Moskauer Freunde sprachen sammt und sonders gern den geistigen Getränken zu, und da mich selber eine immer ausgeprägtere Zuneigung zu den Früchten des Rebstockes erfaßte, so nahm ich bald mehr als Recht war an den bisher von mir gemiedenen Zechgelagen Theil. Meine angestrengte Thätigkeit im Verein mit solchen bacchischen Zerstreuungen verfehlte nicht, auf mein Nervensystem den unheilvollsten Einfluß auszuüben: 1877 wurde ich krank und vorläufig genöthigt, mein Amt am Conservatorium niederzulegen. Zwar begann ich den Unterricht im Jahre darauf von Neuem, aber nur um festzustellen, daß inzwischen meine Abneigung gegen die Harmonie- und Instrumentationscurse unüberwindlich geworden war und um endgültig meine Stellung aufzugeben. Seit jener Zeit habe ich mich bald in Südrußland, bald in Italien, wohl auch auf dem Lande unweit Moskau aufgehalten, und nichts anderes getrieben als die Composition.

Bis zum Alter von 46 Jahren hielt ich mich für vollkommen unfähig, ein Orchester zu dirigieren; meine Scheu vor dem Dirigentenpult war eine so ausgeprägte, daß ich daran nicht ohne Angst und Zittern denken konnte. Zwei Mal hatte ich es vorher versucht, auf der Estrade den Dirigentenstab zu schwingen, beide Male hatte ich mich mit Schande bedeckt. Vor drei Jahren wurde gerade in der Zeit der Vorbereitung meiner Oper "Die Zauberin" der Kapellmeister der Moskauer Kaiserlichen Oper Altani krank; und da seine Krankheit nicht vor dem Ablauf einiger Monate heilbar schien, so kam mir der Gedanke, noch einen letzten Versuch zu wagen, um meine übermäßige Schüchternheit zu besiegen und die Proben und die Aufführung selber zu leiten. Ich machte diesen Vorschlag der Theaterleitung, die ihn mit Freuden aufnahm, und obschon Altani gegen den Zeitpunkt der Aufführung meiner Oper wieder gesund wurde, so leitete ich doch die Proben weiter, und, dank der Ermuthigung und Leitung des nämlichen Altani, ging ich diesmal als Sieger aus dem gefürchteten Unternehmen hervor. Seit dieser Zeit habe ich sehr häufig in Rußland, wie auswärts, den Tactstock in der Hand gehabt [31].


In 1961 the autograph manuscript of Tchaikovsky's "Autobiography" (originally written in French) was auctioned in Munich and purchased by a private collector; its present whereabouts are unknown.

Notes and References

  1. Neitzel's introductory remarks to Tchaikovsky's "Autobiography" are as follows: "The wish of the present writer to obtain some authentic information about the composer's life and musical development prompted him to address such a request to Tchaikovsky, which the latter, during a conversation, promised to fulfil. It took some time, though, before this promise was kept. Finally, after the request was made again, instead of the expected brief pencil jottings, a quite extensive manuscript was received, from the conclusion of which it is clear how much anguish it cost the composer to write these autobiographical notes: 'N. asked me one day to write down for him some information about my life, and I promised him that I would do this. But the difficulties I encountered when I wanted to set about this task were insurmountable. For how difficult it is to write about oneself! One would like to present oneself in a positive light, thereby failing to bear in mind how this means doing injustice to others, and that one might perhaps be trying to belittle all those who have treated one with animosity in the past, or who did not encourage one's talent when it needed guidance.' However, the more the present writer read through the pages sent by Tchaikovsky, the more he was convinced that the composer's misgivings were groundless. On the contrary, the mode of thinking that shines forth in this manuscript is distinguished by such modesty and amiability that it would be unjust to attempt the least modification to these notes (except to translate them from the original French). So we shall let them speak for themselves" — translated by Luis Sundkvist. The text of the "Autobiography" follows as presented above.
  2. Diary entry for 11/23 June 1889, in: Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 243.
  3. An English translation of Tchaikovsky's "Autobiography" by Dorothee Heisenberg and Greg Hager is included in: Alexander Poznansky and Brett Langston, The Tchaikovsky Handbook (Bloomington, 2002), vol. 1, pp. 523–528; and it is in fact in this Handbook that Tchaikovsky's autobiographical essay was first made available to English readers (as earlier biographers and scholars of Tchaikovsky had been unaware of its existence). The translation presented here (again from the German text, as the French original has still not come to light) has been prepared specially for this website. Unless otherwise stated all the accompanying notes are by Alexander Poznansky and reprinted from The Tchaikovsky Handbook.
  4. In his autobiographical letter of 14/26 January 1886 to the French music publisher Félix Mackar, Tchaikovsky wrote about the same events slightly differently: "My inclination for music became apparent at the age of four. My mother noticed that listening to music gave me very great pleasure and asked a music teacher, Mariya Markovna [Pal'chikova] to give me lessons in the basics of music" (Letter 2854).
  5. Friedrich Wilhelm Kalkbrenner (1785–1849), a famous German pianist and composer, author of numerous pieces for the piano. His work is unfamiliar in the concert hall, but his music still regularly appears in piano anthologies, and is commonly used to teach piano pupils in the first few years of their studies.
  6. Writing to his benefactress Nadezhda von Meck on 7/19 March 1878, Tchaikovsky admitted that "it was quite remarkable, that I, an innate musician, useless in every respect except music, was born into a family which had no feelings for music" (Letter 780). This neglect of the future composer's interest in music on the part of his family was a fact which Tchaikovsky's first biographer, his brother Modest, attempted to conceal.
  7. During Tchaikovsky's years at the School of Jurisprudence, Karl Yakovlevich Karrel', and from September 1853, Frants Davidovich Bekker, were the resident music teachers.
  8. Russian «чиновник» = state official, civil servant.
  9. Luigi Piccioli (1812–1868), a singer and voice teacher in Saint Petersburg.
  10. During his visit to America in 1891, Tchaikovsky spoke to a reporter from the New York Herald about Piccioli's influence: "I was seventeen years of age, when I made the acquaintance of my singing master, Piccioli, and his influence over me was enormous. Up to this day I hear the melodies of Bellini with tears in my eyes" (New York Herald, 27 April 1891). "Casta diva" from Bellini's opera Norma was one of his favourite arias.
  11. Rudolf Kündinger (1832–1913), a pianist and piano teacher, who lived in Russia from the 1850s. From 1879 he became a professor at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. In his recollections of the lessons he gave to the future composer, he admitted that at that time he failed to recognize in Tchaikovsky any special musical talent: "His abilities were striking: a remarkably keen ear, a good memory, and an excellent hand, but this was not enough to cause me to foresee in him even a splendid performer, much less a composer… The only thing that somewhat caught my attention was his improvising – in this, one did indeed get a faint sense of something rather out of the ordinary. In addition, I was sometimes struck by his flair for harmony".
  12. Tchaikovsky's aforementioned letter of 14/26 January 1886 to Félix Mackar acknowledges that "I am indebted to this outstanding artist for the fact that I came to realize that music was my true vocation; it was he who brought me to the classics and opened up new musical horizons for me" (Letter 2854).
  13. Writing to Nadezhda von Meck on 16/28 March 1878, Tchaikovsky expressed his feelings about Mozart's opera: "The music of Don Giovanni was the first music to have a really shattering effect on me. It took me into that world of artistic beauty where only the great geniuses dwell. It is to Mozart that I am indebted for the fact that I have dedicated my life to music. He was the first to stir my musical powers and it was he who caused me to love music more than anything in the world" (Letter 790). Fifteen years later, in his interview with a reporter from the newspaper Odessa News (Одесские новости) in January 1893, Tchaikovsky touched on this subject again: "I was sixteen when I first heard Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was a revelation to me. I am not capable of describing the overwhelming power of the impression that I experienced. It is because of this fact, perhaps, that of all great composers, it is Mozart for whom I feel the most tender love. It seems to me that the artistic ecstasies experienced in the years of one's youth leave an imprint for the rest of one's life, and maintain a great significance in our comparative evaluation of the works of art, even in our old age. I believe it is owing to a similar accident that out of all existing operas I love most, after Don Giovanni, A Life for the Tsar (and not his Ruslan and Lyudmila) and Serov's Judith. This latter opera was first produced in May 1863, one magic spring evening. In fact, the enjoyment I receive from the music of Judith in me always manifests itself with some intangible spring-like sense of warmth, light and regeneration" (Odessa News, 27 October 1893).
  14. Tchaikovsky was employed as the senior assistant to the Head of the Department.
  15. As is evident from the text, this friendship played an important part in Tchaikovsky's life, and his recognition of his vocation. Nikolay Kashkin, a friend and colleague of Tchaikovsky's at the Moscow Conservatory, recalled in his memoirs a similar story told to him by the composer, concerning his acquaintance with "a young cavalry-grenadier officer… who loved music and studied it industriously. The young men met often in high society and, to a certain degree, competed in regard to their musical talents". Like Tchaikovsky himself, Kashkin does not provide the name of the officer in question, but reports that he was "a relative, a cousin" of the composer; this is contradicted by the composer's own account, according to which their acquaintance began only in 1861. Vasily Bessel recalled that at the music courses, Tchaikovsky's "only interlocutor was his acquaintance who enrolled in the courses contemporaneously, an officer Mosolov". On the other hand, Modest Tchaikovsky mentions in his autobiography a hussar guard Pyotr Platonovich Meshchersky, who also shared his brother's company at that time. Meshchersky's name appears in Tchaikovsky's correspondence of the same period, where he is described as "a sympathetic, warm person" (Letter 54). Usually this is understood as a reference to Prince Vladimir Petrovich Meshchersky, Tchaikovsky's schoolmate at the School of Jurisprudence, and the future editor of the conservative newspaper The Citizen (Гражданин). It seems, however, more likely that this relates to the hussar officer Meshchersky, whom Tchaikovsky could have met through Aleksey Apukhtin, who was known to enjoy the company of young officers. As for Bessel, he could have easily confused Mosolov and Meshchersky, even though we do not know with certainty whether the latter attended the same music courses.
  16. The influence of this relationship would seem to be further described by an episode which Tchaikovsky related to Kashkin: "Once I met with *** somewhere and we began to talk about music. Among other things, he said that he could modulate from one key to another without using more than three chords. This excited my curiosity, and to my astonishment I found that he improvised whatever modulations I suggested, even from quite extraneous keys. I thought of myself as musically more talented than ***, but at the same time I could not even imagine doing the same thing. When I asked him where he learnt it, I found out about the existence of the courses on musical theory created by the [Russian] Musical Society, where one could learn all such tricks".
  17. In his letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 7/19 March 1878, Tchaikovsky also wrote about his father's reaction to his change of career: "I cannot help being touched by my recollection of how my father reacted to my escape from the Ministry of Justice to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory… Although my father regretted that I had not fulfilled the hopes that he held for my career in the service, and although it could not but grieve him to see that I was willing to endure poverty to become a musician, he never so much as by a single word made me feel that he was displeased. He enquired after my plans and projects only with sympathetic concern and gave me every encouragement. I owe him so very, very much. What would have become of me if it had been my fate to have a tyrant for a father, like so many musicians…?" (Letter 780).
  18. Writing to the German critic Eugen Zabel in 1892, Tchaikovsky recalled that he "heard the name of Anton Rubinstein for the first time in 1858. I was then eighteen and had just moved into the top class of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence; my musical activities were far from serious… One day Kündinger turned up for the lesson in a distraught condition and paid no attention to my scales and exercises. I asked this great artist and nicest of men what was the matter, and he told me that the day before he had heard the pianist Rubinstein, who had just returned from abroad; this genius had made such a profound impression on him that he could not bring himself back to normal, so that everything else in regard to pianistic virtuosity seemed to him miserable, and he found it just as insufferable to listen to my scales as it was to play himself. I knew how noble and sincere a man Kündinger was; I had a high opinion of his judgement and knowledge, and in consequence my imagination and my curiosity were aroused to the highest degree. During this, my final year at the School, I had the opportunity to hear Rubinstein, and not only to listen to him but also to see how he played and conducted. I emphasize this first visual impression because I am firmly convinced that Rubinstein's reputation rests not only on his incomparable talent, but also on the irresistible attraction of his personality; it does not suffice just to hear him – for a proper impression he must be seen as well. Like everybody else I was carried away by him". Regarding Rubinstein's role as his professor in the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky wrote in the same letter that "I adored him not only as a great pianist and a great composer but also as a man of rare nobility; sincere, honest, magnanimous, and alien to any baseness or vulgarity, with a clear, straightforward mind and infinite kindness – in short, a man superior to all other mortals. As a teacher, he was incomparable. He got down to business without bombast or lengthy perorations, but always with a very serious attitude toward the matters at hand" (Letter 4696). In later years, Tchaikovsky's enthusiasm for Rubinstein was to cool perceptibly, for both personal and professional reasons. He began to resent Rubinstein's despotism, his intolerance of the opinions of others, and his highly conservative musical outlook" (Letter 4696).
  19. See also Herman Laroche's account of Rubinstein's reaction to Tchaikovsky's overture The Storm (1864) — note by Thomas Kohlhase.
  20. Tchaikovsky graduated from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory at the end of December 1865 and had already moved to Moscow by January 1866.
  21. Here Tchaikovsky exaggerates the true situation: his father Ilya Tchaikovsky only went for a short time to the Urals (not Siberia) to stay with his elder daughter from his first marriage, Zinayda.
  22. In fact Tchaikovsky taught at the Conservatory almost thirteen years: from January 1866 till October 1878 — note by Thomas Kohlhase.
  23. "The Imperial Musical Society is an association of wealthy music-lovers under the patronage of a member of the imperial family (so far it has been Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, the uncle of the Tsar) in consultation with an eminent composer, whose task is to raise musical appreciation by means of concert performances and conservatories, as well as to provide for the training of musically talented individuals. The concerts comprise orchestral and chamber music. The Society receives a considerable state grant for the conservatories. The Musical Society is divided into various branches which are completely independent of one another, the most important being the Saint Petersburg and Moscow branches. Recently a quite dense network of smaller branches has developed." — note by Otto Neitzel in the 1890 article.
  24. Tchaikovsky does not mention here his work as a music critic in Moscow between 1868 and 1876 — note by Thomas Kohlhase.
  25. The psychological crisis suffered by Tchaikovsky in September of 1877 was well-known within the musical circles of the two capitals. Its true cause was the composer's ill-matched marriage to the former conservatory student Antonina Milyukova. Despite his expectations, Tchaikovsky proved incapable of suppressing his sexual habits and ending his affairs with young men, while his wife did not show any understanding of his situation. As a result, he developed an insurmountable detestation for his spouse, and eventually escaped abroad (a matter which his inner circle represented to the public as the consequence of a nervous illness). Despite a certain life-long propensity for drinking, and very rare occasions when its indulgence amounted to abuse, Tchaikovsky could hardly be considered as an alcoholic. Evidently, he cites alcoholism as an explanation for his nervous illness and his departure from the Conservatory, merely for the purpose of avoiding the need to detail the convolutions of his unhappy marriage. This version of events makes it plausible that the following year Tchaikovsky could also tell his friend and colleague Nikolay Kashkin an untrue story of his marriage, despite its considerable embellishments. After recent archival discoveries revealed more about Tchaikovsky's brothers' attempts to cover up stories of the composer's escape from his wife, it is not unreasonable to suspect that Tchaikovsky may have indulged in a manipulation of the facts in order to present himself in the best possible light to posterity.
  26. Tchaikovsky could afford to resign his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory as a result of Nadezhda von Meck's continuous financial assistance.
  27. Tchaikovsky is referring to his frequent stays in Kamenka, in the Ukraine, with the family of his sister Aleksandra Davydovanote by Thomas Kohlhase.
  28. In fact Tchaikovsky had appeared as a conductor on three earlier occasions: for the very first time on 27 November/9 December 1865 in Saint Petersburg, where he directed his Overture in F major; on 19 February/2 March 1866 at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow, conducting the Dances of the Chambermaids from his opera The Voyevoda; and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 13/25 February 1877, where he conducted his Slavonic March.
  29. Tchaikovsky began conducting at the first rehearsal of his opera Cherevichki (not The Enchantress) on 4/16 December 1886. His first public appearance as a conductor for ten years took place on 19/31 January 1887 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. He also conducted performances of Cherevichki there on 23 January/4 February and 27 January/8 February. As for The Enchantress, Tchaikovsky conducted this opera at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg later that year: on 20 October/1 November, 23 October/4 November, 30 October/11 November, and 2/14 November 1887 (supplemented by Thomas Kohlhase).
  30. "Die Kais. russische Musikgesellschaft ist eine Vereinigung reicher Musikfreunde unter dem Patronat eines Mitglieds der Kaiserlichen Familie, (bis jetzt des Großfürsten Konstantin Nicolajewitsch, des Oheims des Czaren) mit Hinzuziehung eines bedeutenden Tonkünstlers, welche es sich zur Aufgabe stellt, durch Concertaufführungen und durch Conservatorien für Hebung des musikalischen Geschmacks und für die Heranbildung musikalischer Talente zu sorgen. Die Concerte sind Orchester- und Kammermusikconcerte. Für die Conservatorien erhält die Gesellschaft einen beträchtlichen Staatszuschuß. Die Musikgesellschaft zerfällt in verschiedene, von einander vollkommene unabhängige Abtheilungen, deren bedeutendste die Petersburger und die Moskauer Abtheilung bilden. Neuerdings hat sich ein ziemlich verzweigtes Netz kleiner Abtheilungen gebildet" — Anmerkung von Otto Neitzel.
  31. The text of the German translation of Tchaikovsky's "Autobiography" as published in Otto Neitzel's 1890 article has been reprinted in An Tschaikowsky scheiden sich die Geister. Textzeugnisse der Čajkovskij-Rezeption, 1866-2004 (2006), pp. 11–17. The explanatory notes given there are based mainly on Alexander Poznansky's in The Tchaikovsky Handbook, which have been used to accompany the English translation above, and so they are not included again for the German text.