The tragedy of greatness
I am gripped by the soul stirring music of Tchaikovsky. His compositions are an ocean in torment, a storm possessed, the howl of the tortured, and the lament for the dead.
When we listen to this gifted master, heavens half open up for us. Our body becomes transfixed, and rhythm takes control. We experience rare moments, less ordinary, like flashes of perfection.
The emotion that overwhelms us, is it propelled by the purity of beauty? Or beneath the silken melody, what seizes us is actually the sentiment of its creator. With nimble footsteps it permeates into our sub-conscience. We make a connection with the composer. We hear not just his symphony, but understand what he is actually trying to communicate.
From within his repertoire, the master bursts to speak of his pathos and the anguish of his restless spirit. His angst brings tears to our eyes, his suffering clutches our gut. And that is a masterpiece! When the musician calls out from beyond the grave; from realms we are yet to make acquaintance with, not a word is exchanged, but his creations talk.
It is said, ache makes an artist. Of all the maestros inspired by misery, Tchaikovsky was undoubtedly among the most traumatized.
That is precisely the point. It is the reason why his magnum opus is so powerful. It relates the tale of a mortal trapped in societal laws, unable to break free from its iron-cast customs, powerless to get in touch with his real essence.
From a very young age Pyotr Il’itsch Tchaikovsky (1840-93) could hear “music in his head”. Sounds that would not leave him, as he walked, talked or played. He knew no peace.
He would shut his ears tightly with his hands to silence the never ending tunes that played in his head. But they emanated from within him, there could be no escaping. So, though he gained education to become a civil servant, he enrolled himself into a conservatory to study music against the wishes of his family.
Youth found him in a strange confusion. He was unable to understand his own desires. He was known to have had gay relationships with friends like Aleksey Apukhtin and Vladimir Gerard, but greatly feared being exposed. Pressure from the society, still not in terms with homosexuality, forced him into trying out marriage. Believing that he was in love with one of his former students Antonina Miliukova, he tied the knot, realizing immediately the awful folly.
Tchaikovsky took to drinking heavily. He struggled with himself as he could not have a sexual relationship with his wife. Her suffering and insistence to lead a normal married life nearly drove him insane. It was at this point that another woman named Nadezhda von Meck stepped in.
A rich and resourceful widow, she seemed to understand the Russian composer. He was an extraordinary person and it would be a flaw to expect ordinary ties. She began to share with him a platonic relationship. She lent Tchaikovsky her estate in a wooded land, away from the bustle of the city and away from his wife. It only helped that the woman had a well endowed purse and was munificent enough to support him financially.
All the while they never met each other even once, but exchanged over a thousand letters in which she professed her love for Pyotr and encouraged the genius in him. Tchaikovsky was finally in relative calm. Not being pressed into a physical relationship, but having the comfort of emotional security suited him. Her presence invigorated him into writing music, which he would mail to her.
At the estate, while Tchaikovsky continued to create classics, he also kept up his drinking habit, wondering if he had finally found in life what he wanted.
Suddenly, one of his gay partners returned to meet him. Tchaikovsky tried to put on the charade of still being a married man, and tried to disentangle himself from the past. It distressed the Russian that he was running away from the world and its complexities, and that he was living in denial.
Then from the blue, there came another shock. Like a squall which slowly silences, like life which quietly slips away, for no apparent reason Nadezhda von Meck abruptly exited from his life after a 13-year association.
One day on returning to his borrowed mansion, he found a padlock. Nadezhda had sent a letter claiming that her failing health and financial difficulties were behind her decision to end their relationship, but the reasons are open to speculation. She added that she had put the property up for sale and all communication between them was to cease. This was a sad end to the only stable factor in his life.
Tchaikovsky felt like he was now caught in a strong unrelenting whirlpool. He had hardly had sufficient time to delve into his life and make sense of all the clutter, when he was left without his only pillar. This left him bitter till the very end of his life.
It took a lot of persuasion and encouragement from long term friends for him to take hold of himself again and start conducting.
Meanwhile, the story of his wife was another misfortune unfolding. Unable to come to terms with being neglected by her talented husband, she took in man after man trying to find the love of Tchaikovsky in each. She would also see-saw between accepting and rejecting giving divorce to her husband.
While Tchaikovsky returned to the main stage and soon reached the zenith as a composer and conductor, his abandoned wife was slowly reduced to insanity and shifted to a mental asylum.
Lauded, loved and hailed, the maestro was still looking for elusive happiness.
His wife’s fate saddened him profoundly. He muttered to himself about how he had really cared for her, but it was beyond his power to lead a married life. He had to be left alone. Solitude was his only refuge.
The shadows of his past that had haunted him all his life, now chased him like phantoms. He tried to look back and unravel, for his own understanding, whether he had actually ever loved a woman. Finally, he acknowledged that perhaps the “only woman he ever loved” was Belgian soprano Désirée Artot, whom he was engaged to, but who had deserted him to marry someone else. And the other was his mother.
Tchaikovsky’s mother had died of cholera. He remembered the terrible times how he had administered the excruciating and painful hot water treatment on her, but how she had succumbed to the disease nevertheless.
Amidst a medley of such dark thoughts, Tchaikovsky created some of his greatest works in the form of Symphonies 4 and 5.
While the musician kept sending money for his wife’s maintenance, her condition kept deteriorating. She would chant to herself that “he loves me” over and over again. She would play games introducing herself as “Madame Tchaikovsky”, the wife of the most famous conductor.
Then suddenly violent frenzy would overcome her and she would run from wall from wall slamming and injuring herself; yelling “he hated me, he hated me”. It took many men to control her irrepressible rage and she had to be chained to her asylum bed.
Tchaikovsky was fully aware that he had been unable to give happiness to those who were associated with him. His thoughts turned into murky tempests, and crazed by deep sorrow he wrote the Pathetique symphony, a real jewel, which was to be played as his own requiem. Immediately after, it is believed that he tried to commit suicide by drinking contaminated water. He survived only to suffer even more. Plagued by the insidious disease, he too had to be tied to his bed, his inflammations oozing with blood.
Like his mother he was subjected to the frightful hot water treatment, and like his mother he too could not be cured and died.
From his childhood till his death bed, Tchaikovsky’s life journeyed from perplexity, to shame, to depression, to agony, and finally guilt and intolerable horror.
From the twang of each note of grief, emerged a tenor par excellence. His mortified life created a tour de force, which has been cherished with unequalled reverence.
It thus comes to bear about how a masterpiece is created from the womb of affliction. About how the fountain head of much beauty and perfection finds its source in tribulation.
If this is indeed true, that is both the price of greatness, and its tragedy.
May 7 is the 170th birth anniversary of Tchaikovsky.
Listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s greatest creations: Eugene Onegin, Solenneile “1812”, op 49, Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture, Serenade for Strings in C major, op 48, The Sleeping Beauty, Ballet Suite, op 66a, Swan lake, Ballet Suite, op 20.