Tchaikovsky and Chopin
Although Chopin hated the Russians, or, more precisely, the moskali ('Muscovite') soldiers who invaded his homeland in 1831 to crush the Polish uprising, this did not prevent his music from becoming very popular in Russia from the 1830s onwards. Tchaikovsky, too, as a boy may well have heard his mother play some pieces by Chopin, even though, according to family reminiscences collected by Modest Tchaikovsky after the composer's death, Aleksandra Andreyevna would usually just play children's dances on the family piano . Little Pyotr's fascination with this instrument was very strong, and his governess Fanny Dürbach would later recount an incident which took place between 1844 and 1848 when the Tchaikovsky family was still living in Votkinsk, and which shows that as a boy Tchaikovsky was certainly familiar with some of Chopin's music:
A Polish officer called Maszewski would now and then visit the family at Votkinsk. He was a splendid amateur pianist and distinguished himself by his skill in playing Chopin's mazurkas. For our little musician these visits were a real feast-day. In anticipation of one of these visits, Petia prepared two mazurkas all by himself and played them so well afterwards that Maszewski showered him with kisses. 'I never saw Pierre as happy and proud as on that day,' said Fanny .
His piano lessons with Mariya Palchikova (daughter of the composer Mark Palchikov) while still in Votkinsk, and later with Rudolph Kündinger (1832–1913) in Saint Petersburg, equipped the young Tchaikovsky with sufficient skill to play most of the fashionable salon pieces of the time, and these would probably have included a few works by Chopin.
Given that Tchaikovsky in later years never professed great enthusiasm for Chopin's music, and that many memoirists actually spoke of his 'aversion' to Chopin, it is worth citing an interesting observation made by the German musicologist Iwan Knorr (1853–1916), who lived and taught music in Kharkov for some years and would write one of the first biographies of Tchaikovsky: (Berlin, 1900). Knorr, who had known the composer personally, emphasized in his book that Tchaikovsky was drawn to the genre of orchestral music very early on, since he could not express himself fully on the piano . This may partly explain why Tchaikovsky did not show much interest in Chopin's music, but since Schumann, another great master of the piano, fascinated him all his life (and not just in his orchestral works), there must have been more profound reasons at work, too. Herman Laroche hinted at these when he noted how Chopin belonged to those composers towards whom Tchaikovsky always felt a certain antipathy: "Of course he could not deny Chopin's talent, and it seems that some works by Chopin, such as the Barcarolle, the Fantasy in F minor, and some Nocturnes, appealed to him to some extent, but this by no means altered the fact that he disliked the whole atmosphere which emanated from Chopin and his method of composition" .
Nikolay Kashkin, referring to the second half of the 1860s, observed how Tchaikovsky "did not particularly like Chopin, as he found in him a certain sickliness of expression, as well as an excess of subjective sensibility. The ardent and manly impulses of Schumann's music and his dreamy sentimentality attracted him more. Subsequently, N. G. Rubinstein's interpretation of Chopin would cause him to revise his opinion considerably, although it must be said that earlier, too, he had found some marks of genius in Chopin, especially in his Études and Preludes" . This change in Tchaikovsky's general opinion of the Polish composer, although not so drastic as to turn him into a Chopin enthusiast, seems to be reflected in his music review articles. For example, in an article of 1871 he criticized the talented young pianist Anna Yesipova for choosing to play Chopin's "wearingly long, empty, and clichéd" First Piano Concerto, whereas four years later he wrote enthusiastically of Nikolay Rubinstein's "song-like phrasing and gracefulness" in his account of Chopin's "elegant" Second Piano Concerto (see TH 310). On 11/23 February 1886, Tchaikovsky attended an all-Chopin recital given in Moscow by Nikolay's elder brother Anton Rubinstein, and he seems to have been greatly impressed .
Still, Tchaikovsky said very little about Chopin in his articles — his letters are more instructive in this respect, and relevant extracts are quoted below. Perhaps this reticence in his articles had to do with the fact that, as Tchaikovsky saw it, critics were not supposed to use their column space to air personal idiosyncrasies. Moreover, the fact that Karl Klindworth, one of his friends and colleagues at the Moscow Conservatory, was responsible for a highly acclaimed edition of Chopin's complete works (published by Jurgenson between 1873 and 1876), may also have induced Tchaikovsky to keep his reservations about Chopin to himself.
It is significant that both Laroche and Kashkin spoke of Tchaikovsky's aversion to the 'sickly' and 'subjective' mood supposedly expressed by Chopin's music. Tchaikovsky himself referred to this in a letter of 1880 to Nadezhda von Meck, where he contrasted the balsamic effect of Mozart's music with the beguiling "poison" contained in the works of Beethoven and all later composers, in particular Chopin, who had given such potent expression to "the Byronic spirit of despair and disillusionment" (see below). This suggests that in the melancholy and even smouldering fury of many of Chopin's works , Tchaikovsky may well have recognized something of his own temperament. Laroche pointed to this affinity between the two composers in his review of The Sleeping Beauty (1890), when he said that the "cheerful" music of this ballet showed Tchaikovsky in a light that was new for most listeners, who were accustomed to hearing his melodic gift express itself in "serious" works, such as symphonies, operas, string quartets, and songs:
Being elegiac by nature and tending to melancholy, in these 'serious' musical genres (as they are officially termed) Tchaikovsky has expressed a quite different kind of seriousness: a seriousness of reflection, a frequent sadness and yearning, very often an oppressive sense of spiritual pain, and this, so to speak, minor key part of his personality, which is akin to Chopin, is the one that has been grasped and appreciated most readily .
Tchaikovsky himself admitted in a letter of 1878 to Sergey Taneyev, that "in spite of myself" his music had been influenced by Chopin, as well as by several of the composers who came after Beethoven and who had forfeited that "healthy soundness of spirit" which Tchaikovsky, as he explained in his letters to Nadezhda von Meck, always found in Mozart.
Foreigners, however, who came to Tchaikovsky's music (and Chopin's) from the outside, so to speak, were able to appreciate its more lively qualities rather than just picking out the melancholic strains. Thus, the American music critic Henry Fink (1854–1926), whom Tchaikovsky met in New York, published an enthusiastic review of the Carnegie Hall concert on 7 May 1891 [N.S.] at which the composer himself had conducted his Third Suite, and in this article we find a more positive juxtaposition of Tchaikovsky and Chopin:
Tchaikovsky's music in a word, is original, unique, and full of local colour, the counterpart of the fresh literary spirit which pervades the works of Turgenev and Tolstoy. As Chopin turned the Polish streams of melody into the main current of European music, and Liszt the Hungarian, so Tchaikovsky and Rubinstein have enriched it with the Russian tributaries!" .
No. 15 of Tchaikovsky's Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72 for piano solo (1893), was conceived as a mazurka in the style of Chopin and is appropriately entitled Un poco di Chopin.
General Reflections on Chopin
In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles
- TH 277 — dividing composers into two groups, depending on whether it was sheer inventiveness or richness of imagination that predominated in their creative spirit, Tchaikovsky puts Chopin into the former group, together with Schubert and Dargomyzhsky, and points out that, although they could come up with many beautiful melodic ideas, they lacked the imagination to develop these ideas fully.
In Tchaikovsky's Letters
- Letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878 (see the entry on Verdi for the context of this letter):
My music, in spite of myself, is suffused with Schumannism, Wagnerism, Chopinism, Glinkaism, Berliozism, and all the other 'isms' of our time…
- Letter 805 to Nadezhda von Meck, 1/13 April 1878, in which Tchaikovsky emphasizes that a composer's style was not always reflected in his musical sympathies:
With regard to Mozart I wanted to tell you the following. You say that my cult of Mozart is in contradiction to my musical nature, but perhaps it is precisely because as a child of my time I am broken in spirit and morally unsound, that I so like to look for reassurance and consolation in Mozart's music, which for the most part expresses the joys of life as experienced by a healthy and sound nature that has not been corroded by reflection. Indeed, it does seem to me that in the soul of an artist his creative faculty is quite independent of his sympathies for this or that master. For example, one can love Beethoven, but still be closer to Mendelssohn by nature.
What greater contradiction can there be than that between Berlioz the composer, that is an extreme manifestation of ultra-Romanticism in music, and Berlioz the critic, who made Gluck into his idol and rated him higher than all other opera composers?! Perhaps this is also a case of that mutual attraction between diametrical opposites as a result of which, for example, a tall and strong man tends to fall in love with slight and frail women, and vice versa. Did you know that Chopin did not like Beethoven, and that there were some works of his which he could not listen to without feeling disgust? I was told this by someone who knew Chopin personally
Anyway, what I want to say is that the absence of an affinity in temperament between two artistic individualities does not always exclude a mutual sympathy.
By the way, speaking of Chopin. You asked where you could get hold of his biography. As far as I know, there is only one book about him — the one written by Liszt. It is in French. At Jurgenson's shop you will also find a collection of articles by [Nikolay] Khristianovich, one of which deals with Chopin and had a tremendous success in its time when it was published by the Russian Messenger. If I remember correctly, this article is written very well" .
I forgot to thank you for sending me Liszt's book on Chopin. I had read it before, and I must say I don't like it. It is full of empty phrases and waffle, as well as insults against the Russians.
- Letter 1541 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 July 1880, in which Tchaikovsky outlines the main ideas of an article he wished he were able to write on the significance of Bizet's Carmen in an age of decadence, when composers were striving for "novel" and "spicy" effects:
But I wouldn't be up to writing a whole article: I mean, it would require me to demonstrate that not only the new Russian school, but also Wagner and Liszt are essentially chasing after what is pretty and savoury, and that the last Mohicans of the Golden Age of music were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, and Glinka, in whom one can already detect, though, a transition from the sublime and beautiful to the savoury (as for Dargomyzhsky, he's just savoury through and through).
- Letter 1578 to Nadezhda von Meck, 1/13–6/18 September 1880, in which Tchaikovsky discusses mainly what Mozart meant to him:
How grateful I am to the circumstances of my life and musical career, as I am obliged to them for the fact that Mozart has not lost one bit of his ingenuous, enchanting charm for me. You cannot imagine, my dear friend, what wondrous emotions I experience when I become absorbed in his music! It has nothing in common with those painful delights which Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, and indeed all music after Beethoven causes. The latter startles and fascinates, but it does not caress or lull one as Mozart's music does. I ascribe my capability to be delighted by Mozart to the fact that until the age of 17 I did not really know any music, and that it was only as a result of a performance of Don Giovanni that I realised what music is and fell in love with it. Other people of my generation, who from their childhood years were already steeped in the spirit of contemporary music, became acquainted with Mozart only after they were accustomed, say, to Chopin, in whom the Byronic spirit of despair and disillusionment is reflected so strongly. Fortunately for me, Fate allowed me to grow up in a family that was not very musical, and thanks to that in my childhood I was not tainted by that poison which music after Beethoven is suffused with. Likewise, when I was an adolescent Fate directed me to Mozart and through him opened up to me hitherto unknown horizons of infinite musical beauty. And these youthful impressions will never fade away now. Do you know that when I play and study Mozart's works, I feel younger and brighter in spirit, almost as if I were a youth!
On Specific Works by Chopin
In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles
- Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op.11 (1830) — TH 261
- Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op.21 (1830) — TH 310
Notes and References
- See (1997), p. 40.
- See (1997), p. 43.
- Extracts from Iwan Knorr's biography of the composer are given in Thomas Kohlhase (ed.), (2006), p. 228.
- Herman Laroche, in (1898). Cited here from Ernst Kuhn (ed.), (2000), xxix.
- Nikolay Kashkin, [1894–1895] (1954), p. 15.
- See also Letter 2888 to Nadezhda von Meck, 14/26 February 1886, although Tchaikovsky does not say anything specific about Chopin's music in this letter.
- Casper Höweler, Der Musikführer (Munich]], 1952), for example, described the mood of Chopin's Scherzos, especially No. 1, as "Dostoyevsky in music", in the sense that they convey the self-inflicted torments of a passionate heart.
- Herman Laroche's article on The Sleeping Beauty is included in (2006), p. 135–136. A smaller excerpt is also quoted in (1940), p. 486–487, but there this first reference to Tchaikovsky's affinity with Chopin seems to have been omitted.
- Henry Fink's article is included in (2006), p. 153.
- Nikolay Filippovich Khristianovich (1828–1890) was a talented amateur musician and composer of romances; he also wrote articles about Chopin, Schumann, and Schubert. Some of his songs are settings of poems by Afanasy Fet, a poet whom Tchaikovsky greatly admired for the musicality of his verse.