• Українська
  • Русский
  • English
Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a Ukrainian by creative spirit

Tracing the great composer’s lineage
14 April, 2009 - 00:00

Ukraine has given the world culture a lot of great figures who enriched other peoples’ cultures with their talent. Although Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) is considered an outstanding Russian composer, he used to create his great music under a genetic influence of his Cossack roots. He knew and loved Ukrainian folklore very much for its melodiousness and profound lyricism, which he used in his multi-genre musical oeuvres.

Until recently, a great number of publications on Tchaikovsky mentioned very briefly, if at all, his Ukrainian origin. Researchers would usually say that he used to travel to Ukraine (Kamianka, Brailiv, Trostianets, and Nyzy), where he not only worked but also relaxed and relished nature, which inspired him to create musical masterpieces. This is partly so. But we should not forget that the excessively ideologized communist era tended to extol everything that the great Russian people had created. Naturally, Tchaikovsky first of all enriched Russian musical culture. But this raises a question: How would his talent have developed if he had had no Ukrainian roots?

Let us get down to some concrete facts in the composer’s life story that the Central State Archive of the Udmurt Republic (Russian Federation) has helped to unearth — especially about Tchaikovsky’s grandfather and father who served in the Russian boondocks. Incidentally, the composer himself sometimes took an ironic attitude to the history of his lineage. He once wrote in a letter: “I do not know exactly who my paternal forefathers were. All I know is that my grandfather was a doctor and lived in Vyatka gubernia, so my genealogical tree is lost in the depths of darkness.”

The composer’s paternal grandfather Pyotr Fyodorovich Chaikovsky was born in 1745 in the village of Mykolayivka, Poltava gubernia, into the family of the Cossack Fedir Chaika. Parents sent him to study at the Kyiv Academy, from where he transferred, in 1769, to Saint Petersburg’s land forces military hospital for advanced studies. On completing the course as an assistant doctor, he was sent to serve in the regular army. He took part in the 1768–74 Russo-Turkish war and was soon promoted to the rank of doctor. In 1777 his regiment was relocated to Perm, where he eventually retired. Pyotr Fyodorovich served for a few years in Kungur as a local civilian doctor. In early 1782 he was transferred to Vyatka, a gubernia center, to assume the same office in the rank of staff doctor.

It is quite likely that when the Cossack Fedir Chaika’s son studied in Saint Petersburg, he had already renamed himself Chaikovsky — a frequent practice among Ukrainians at the time who wanted to integrate into the imperial environment. It will be recalled that the sons of the Chernihiv Cossack Rozum became influential nobles Razumovsky at the court of Tsarina Elisabeth. In the northern capital Pyotr Fyodorovich Chaikovsky must have quickly forgotten about his Ukrainian roots. Yet the latter sprouted powerfully in the brilliant creative work of his grandson Pyotr.

In 1785 Catherine II decreed that the Charter to the Nobility be drawn up. As there were too few “old” nobles in the Vyatka region, civil servants could also be placed on the charter. Under Peter I’s Table of Ranks, bearers of grade eight-to-one titles were eligible for nobility. As a result, 127 people, including Pyotr Fyodorovich Chaikovsky, were recorded in the Vyatka Charter for the Nobility.

In the same year Staff Doctor Chaikovsky “filled a doctor’s vacancy in the town of Slobodskoi.” He soon quit medicine to become a gentry-representative assessor at the Vyatka Higher Zemstvo Court. In January 1796 he was appointed to an even higher — mayor’s — office. It is here that the son Ilya, the great composer’s father, was born into the Chaikovsky family.

But Pyotr Fyodorovich was not destined to serve very long in Slobodskoi. After less than a year he was appointed mayor of the district center Glazov in the same Vyatka gubernia.

A record on the Chaikovskys was made in the Book of Confessions at Glazov’s Resurrection Church in 1797. It showed that Pyotr was married to Anastasia, a daughter of Sub-Lieutenant Stepan Posokhov, who had been killed defending Kungur from Yemelian Pugachev’s attacking insurgents. The Chaikovskys moved to Glazov as a large family, including seven children. The eighth child, daughter Olympiada, was born in this town in 1801. The archival documents show that the mayor’s family was not rich. The Chaikovskys owned a wooden house and four servants.

Pyotr Fyodorovich Chaikovsky died in 1818 and was buried in Glazov.

The last of the mayor’s sons, Ilya Chaikovsky (1795–1880), the composer’s father, did a two-year course at a Vyatka school and was sent, aged 13, to an Izhevsk-based mill, where he began to master the profession of a mining engineer. Initially, he worked as a copier under personal guidance of A. F. Deriabin, the manager of the Kama factories.

Ilya came back to his native Vyatka region more than twenty years later, after becoming a major mining specialist. In January 1837 he was appointed mining manager of the Kama-Votkinsk mill.

Contemporaries remembered Ilya as possessing utmost sensitivity and a mild disposition. The composer’s brother Modest wrote about him: “Kindness or, to be more exact, all-embracing love was one of the key traits of his character. In his young, mature, and old years he displayed the same trust in and love for people.” In early 1848 Ilya resigned, due to illness, as mining manager of the Kama-Votkinsk mill in the rank of major-general.

In 1849 the future composer’s father was appointed managing director of the Alapayevsk and Nizhny-Neviansk mining and steelmaking works, and the family moved to Alapayevsk.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on April 25, 1840, in the Kama-Votkinsk mill colony, Vyatka gubernia (now Votkinsk, Russia). His mother Aleksandra, n e Assier (1813–54), was the daughter of an ethnic Frenchman. Pyotr was the second child in the family.

In contrast to father, mother was a stricter person and was trying to instill diligence, discipline, and responsibility for one’s action in her children. The large house of the Chaikovskys was always full of music. At the age of five the little Pyotr was already playing the piano and composing his first musical works. His mother was also doing her utmost to encourage him to take up music. She was a good singer and played classical musical pieces.

The music researcher Halyna Poberezhna has studied the interrelation of contrasting trends in the composer’s formative years, as a result of the features he inherited from his parents. In their family, mother was the bearer of a stern, courageous, and well-organized nature, while father was of a mild, tender and feminine disposition. The fusion of these qualities produced a wonderful result: a harmonious merger of rational and emotional trends had a brilliant effect on the character of the composer who was distinguished for great persistency in achieving his goals, industriousness and, at the same time, modesty and subtle sensitivity. This formed a contradictory and dynamic nature of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s personality, which seemed to be balancing between two diametrically opposed elements that were extremely important for the formation of his artistic style.

Researchers also regard the ethno-geographical, particularly Ukrainian, element as one of the objective, integrative, and well-pronounced factors that shaped the style of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. He showed, not at all accidentally, a sensitive and emotional inclination towards the Ukrainian intellectual and natural environment. Suffice it to recall Tchaikovsky’s friendly relations with Mykola Lysenko and his active involvement in the production of the opera Taras Bulba, as well as his concerts in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa, when the composer was in contact with local musicians and performers. During his frequent sojourns in Ukraine, Tchaikovsky closely familiarized himself with its musical culture.

In other words, the composer actively interacted with the Ukrainian environment, which encouraged him to implement his genetic proclivity to perceiving Ukrainian musical culture. This, no doubt, had an exhilarating effect on his artistic individuality.

Researchers also note that the Ukrainian factor also influenced such a specific stylistic quality of Tchaikovsky as the nature of his lyricism. This becomes evident if you compare the Russian and the Ukrainian lyricism: a synthesis of the lyrical and epic elements in the former versus openness, spontaneity, and tender sincerity of lyrical expression at its purest in the latter.

Poberezhna also focuses on the primary sources of the composer’s musical stylistics—above all, the principle of culmination, which is typical of the Ukrainian song and Tchaikovsky’s melodic manner. It is in the Moscow period of his creative life, a period of close contacts with Ukrainian everyday life, that the composer formed a characteristic stylistic feature: an intensive and tense upsurge of the melody to culmination, a grandiose conquest of melodic peaks, and a gradual scattering of energy in what can be called “melodic soaring.”

Although the theme of Romeo and Juliet as well as the lyricism and grandiloquence of the First Piano Concerto do not carry any clear-cut reflection of Ukrainian motives, their inherent expressive emphasis shows a Ukrainian streak. Ukrainian song contain a typical element: a melodic upsurge that at a certain stage crystallizes into an octave culmination—an emotional upsurge of sorts. Passages of this kind are found in many of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic works and ballets.

From the age of 24 onwards, Tchaikovsky almost annually spent several months in Ukraine, where he composed over 30 oeuvres, including the operas Vakula the Smith (Cherevichki) and Mazepa, the romantic song “A Cherry Orchard by the House”, and the duet “In a Vegetable Garden near the Ford” based on Taras Shevchenko’s poem. In general, he used numerous Ukrainian songs in his works. Could this have been caused by anything other than ancestral genetic memory and Ukrainian roots?

Enraptured by picturesque Podillia, Tchaikovsky wrote: “The trips to Brailiv have remained in my memory as a serene reminder of the most poetic days in my life.” Still in good condition is the local von Meck family palace, which now houses the composer’s museum.

In general, Podillia was of special importance in Tchaikovsky’s journeys to Ukraine. What drew the composer here was a lasting friendship with Nadia Filaretivna, the widow of the railway tycoon Karl von Meck. (In 1868 he acquired a large estate in Brailiv, which had belonged to the family of the Potockis, a family of magnates, for almost 200 years. Their epistolary relationship began in December 1876, when Tchaikovsky received a letter from this ardent enthusiast of his oeuvre. This amazing correspondence lasted for 13 years.

Referring to Kamianka, Cherkasy region, Tchaikovsky wrote: “I found the peace of mind [here] that I had unsuccessfully sought in Moscow and Petersburg.” More than 28 years in the life of Tchaikovsky were associated with the town on the Tiasmyn. Here he composed Swan Lake, The Maid of Orleans, The Sleeping Beauty, Eugene Onegin, to mention but a few works he created in Kamianka.

Tchaikovsky visited Slobozhanshchyna on numerous occasions. He was especially fond of Mykola Kondratiev’s manor in the village of Nyzy, near Sumy. This is where he worked on the operas Vakula the Smith and The Oprichnik, the Second and Third Symphonies, several piano pieces, and romances. The young composer got acquainted with this wonderful region in July 1871. And in Trostianets he composed the overture to Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s tragedy The Storm, his first symphonic oeuvre.

As we can see, an enormous share of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s immortal musical legacy comes from Ukraine, the place of his family roots. The land of his forefathers called upon him to show, by God’s decree, in his great musical oeuvres the beauty, grandeur, and creative power of the Ukrainian spirit and the heroic and dramatic history of a great nation from which he had entered the immense world of high art.

Heorhii Shybanov bears the title of Honored Art Worker of Ukraine.

By Heorhii SHYBANOV, special to The Day