Tchaikovsky and the Five

Tchaikovsky and the Five

As Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky studied with Nikolai Zaremba at the Western-oriented St. Petersburg Conservatory, critic Vladimir Stasov and composer Mily Balakirev espoused a nationalistic, less Western-oriented and more locally ideomatic school of Russian music. Stasov and Balakirev recruited what would be known as The Mighty Handful (better known in English as "The Five") in St. Petersburg. Balakirev considered academicism to be not a help but a threat to musical imagination. Along with Stasov, he attacked its founder and director, Anton Rubinstein, and the Conservatory relentlessly in print as well as verbally at every opportunity. [Maes, 39.]

Since Tchaikovsky became Rubinstein's best known student, he was initially considered by association as a natural target for attack, especially as fodder for Cesar Cui's criticism. [Holden, 52.] This attitude changed slightly when Rubinstein exited the St. Petersburg musical scene in 1867. Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with Balakirev. The result was Tchaikovsky's first masterpiece, the fantasy-overture "Romeo and Juliet". When Tchaikovsky wrote a positive review of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Fantasy on Serbian Themes, he was welcomed into the circle despite concerns about his academic background. [Maes, 44.]

He remained friendly but never intimate with most of the Five, ambivalent about their music; their goals and aesthetics did not match his. [Maes, 49.] He took pains to insure his musical independence from them as well as from the conservative faction at the Conservatory—a course of action faciltated by his accepting the professorship at the Moscow Conservatory offered to him by Nikolai Rubinstein. [Holden, 64.] When Rimsky-Korsakov was offered a professorship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory after Zaremba had left, it was Tchaikovsky to whom he turned for advice and guidance. [Maes, 48.] Later, Tchaikovsky enjoyed closer relations with Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov and, at least on the surface, the elder Rimsky-Korsakov. [Rimsky-Korsakov, 308.]

Before Tchaikovsky

Difference in Russianness

Tchaikovsky and The Five were all thoroughly Russian in their sentiments. [Figis, xxx.] At the same time, they were also Europeans, with Russian and European cultures intwined and mutually dependent in a number of ways, and however much they may have tried, it was impossible for Russians such as these to supress either part of their identity. Complicating this matter for European Russians was the two very different modes of behavior they were expected to display. At court, in the theater and in the salons and ballrooms of St. Petersburg, they were expected to act like and have the same manners and attitudes as Europeans. In private, they could allow their native Russian habits to prevail. [Figis, xxxii.] This schism helped feed a myth, believed by members of the Russian aristocracy and upper classes, that these classes had "lost" their Russianness in their struggle to act and become more European. "Europe" essentially became not only a place but also a region of the mind inhabited through education, language (French became preferred), religion and general attitude. [Figis, 55.] Dispelling this notion and defining what being Russian actually meant would become a struggle in its own right. The part over which Tchaikovsky, Stasov and the Five struggled was how to actually define Russianness in classical music and how it should actually sound. [Figes, xxx.]

A clue to answer they sought lies in their divergent attitudes to Mikhail Glinka's two operas. The Five gravitated toward "Ruslan and Lyudmila", Glinka's more radical opera musically, with attitudes and techniques veering sharply away from Western practice. (For more on these alternatives, please see .) Tchaikovsky was more attracted to "A Life for the Tsar", novel in that it was the first Russian opera in the Russian repertoire in which the hero dies at the end, making it the first tragic opera written in Russia, and also the first Russian opera entirely sung, with no spoken recitative whatever. [Maes, 22.] Written before "Ruslan", "A Life" differed in being more rooted in Western musical techniques. Even so, its subject and basic musical material remained overtly Russian.

Igor Stravinsky commented on exactly this difference in viewpoint between Tchaikovsky and The Five in the article he wrote about his own opera "Mavra":

The triple dedication [to the memory of Pushkin, Glinka and Tchaikovsky] will be easily understood by those who are conscious of the difference between the ideology of the group of Five (Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui) and the ideology represented by Tchaikovsky, whose inspiration—like that of the Five—was Pushkin and Glinka. But whereas the esthetic of the Five was directed to the cultivation of the national ethnographic element that they found [in Glinka] —which is not very different from that of films about the Old Russia of the Tsars and the Boyars—Tchaikovsky, like Dargomizhsky and others less well known, continued the tradition established by Glinka, the tradition of which, even though it employs popular Russian melos, does not fear to present it in a Europeanized aspect. [Stravinsky, Igor, as printed in "Excelsior", Paris, September 11, 1935. Quoted in Stravinsky, Vera and Craft, Robert, "Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 232-233.]


By 1855, with the end of Nicholas I's reign as tsar, it appeared at least that the musical dichotomy of Russian versus foreign might change. Nicholas's successor Alexander II, was determined to support national talent. In 1858 Anton Rubinstein, a famous pianist who had lived, performed and composed in Europe, returned to Russia. The experience of German muaial life had influenced not only his development as a composer but also shaped his views on the place of music in society. In Germany, music was treated as great art and an exhaltation of the humsn spirit, enjoying a prestige unthinkable in Russia. He also came to realize the essentiality of serious professional musical traiing and to believe that higher musical education was a prerequisite for building a musical culture. [Maes, 34.]

When Rubinstein had returned to Russia in 1841, what he saw was a musical desert. This was after he had visited conservatories in Paris, Berlin and Leipzig. Musical life had flourished everywhere in those places. Composers were held in high regard, musicians devoted wholeheartedly to their art. [Maes, 34-35.] With a similar ideal in mind for Russia, he had conceived an idea for a conservatory in Russia years before his 1858 return and had finally aroused the interest of influential people to help him. Rubinstein's first step was to found the Russian Musical Society in 1859. Its objectives were for "The development of musical education and the taste for music in Russia and the encouragement of native talent." A few weeks after the Society's premiere concert. Rubinstein started organizing music classes. Interest in these classes grew until Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory. [Maes, 35.]

t. Petersburg firestorm

Rubinstein had barely founded the Conservatory when a sharp difference of opinion broke out between musical progressives and conservatives—or, to label these groups more accurately, radicals and traditionalists. [Brown, David, "Balakirev, Tchaikovsky and Nationalism," 132.] Rubinstein was in the latter camp, suspicious or histile to new trends in music, wishing instead to preserve in their own works the best in the Weestern traditions of the recent past. The radicals, eager to further explore musical territories to form their own styles and techniques, broke into two factions. One, under composer Mili Balakirev and critic Vladimir Stasov, was inspired by the works of Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. The other, led by critic Alexander Serov, chose Richard Wagner as its mentor. Each of these three factions championed a different aesthetic ideal, along with a distinct concept of the essence and function and music. At stake was a conflict of progressive and conservative musical ideals—more specifically, the distinction between abstract and program music, as well as between a music-oriented and a realistic oprera aesthetic. Fueling the issue further was a suggestion by German music historial August Wilhelm Ambros that the Austro-German musical hegemony was rapidly ending and that it was time for Russia and America to take up its responsibility. This view was received warmly and encouragingly in Russia. [Maes, 49.]

One thing that should be stressed, given the negative connotation of the term "conservative," is that Rubinstein could not be accused of any lack of artistic integrity. He fought for change and progress in musical life in Russia. Only his musical tastes were conservative—from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven to the early Romantics up to Chopin. Liszt and Wagner were not included. Neither did he welcome many ideas then new about music, including national music. For Rubinstein, national music existed only in folk song and folk dance. Theree was no place for national music in larger works, especially not in opera. [Maes, 52-53.]

Serov perceived Rubinstein as a threat because he could potentially monopolize musical life in St. Petersburg. [Maes, 40.] Balakirev attacked Rubinstein on two fronts—for his conservative musical tastes (from Beethoven to the early Romantics and Chopin, no further), and for his advocacy of professional training, which Balakirev distrusted passionately. Neither Modest Mussorgsky nor the rest of Balakirev's followers, were afraid to speak bluntly. The campaign became petty, ugly and Anti-Semitic. (Rubinstein was a converted Jew, while Balakirev was a rabid anti-Semite). [Maes, 39.] . Meanwhile, as Balakirev and Rubinstein attacked one another, Serov attacked both of them. Especially after Balakirev savaged Serov's opera "Judith", he became a target. [Maes, 40-41.]

At first the opposition to Rubinstein from the Balakirev camp was voiced by Stasov. However, when César Cui became a critic on the influential newspaper "Sankt-Petersburgskiye vedomosti" in 1864, they gained a voice with influence. Cui was more outspoken than Stasov. He was also more temperate with Serov. Cui gave his unwavering support to Balakirev and his followers. His reviews focused mainly on the themes of progressive versus conservative music and of creative freedom versus academicism. He did ot proclaim nationalistic slogans as freely as Stasov had done, possibly for good reason. as the son of a Lithuanian mother and a French soldier who stayed behind when Napoleon had left Russia, Cui may have known xenophobic prejudice firsthand. [Maes, 41.]

Rubinstein's public reaction to the attacks was simply not to react. His classes and concerts were well attended, so he felt no reply was actually necessary. He even forbade his students to take sides. Before long, Serov and Balakirev were fighting over the importance of Glinka in Russian music and Rubinstein could go—at least for the moment—in peace. [Maes, 42.] He matriculated his first class of graduates from the Conservatory. Among them was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

With the Five

Just because Rubinstein did not join combat did not mean Cui did not stop attacking. Tchaikovsky soon found he was almost as as much a target as his former teacher. Writing on a performance of Tchaikovsky's graduation cantata, Cui lambasted the composer as "utterly feeble.... If he had any talent at all ... it would surely at some point in the piece have broken free of the chains imposed by the Conservatory." [Holden, 45] The review's effect on the sensitive composer was devastating.


Initial correspondence

It can be easy to imagine Tchaikovsky's reaction when he heard in 1867 that Rubinstein had resigned his conductorship of the RMS orchestra. (Earlier that year, he had handed over the directorship of the Conservatory to Zaremba.) Rubinstein's replacement at the RMS was Balakirev. Tchaikovsky had already promised his "Characteristic Dances" (then called "Dances of the Hay Maidens") from his opera "The Voyevoda" to the society. Submitting the manuscript (and perhaps mindful of Cui's review of the cantata), Tchaikovsky included a note to Balakirev concluding with the request for a word of encouragement should the "Dances" not be performed. "I should find it pleasant in the highest degree to receive such a thing from you."

Ironically, at this point "The Five" as a unit was dispersing, with Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov wishing to remove themselves from under what they now saw as Balakirev's stifling influence and go their individual directions as composers.Maes, 44.] Balakirev might have sensed a potential new disciple in Tchaikovsky.Maes, 44.] Therefore, while he preferred to give his opinions in person and at length to press his points home, he replied with a deft touch of flattery:

Regarding the word "encouragement", this, as far as you are concerned, I consider not only inappropriate but also dishonest. Encouragements are only for the little children of art, but from your score I see you are, both in orchestration and technique, a fully fledged artist to whom only "strict criticism" and not encouragement is to be applied. When we meet in person I shall be very pleased to give you my opinion.... It will be far better when we're [both] in Moscow to play through the piece at the piano nd examine it bar by bar. Let us not substitute criticism for lively argument!" [Brown, "Tchaikovsky: The Early Years", 128; Holden, 63] .

These letters set the tone for Tchaikovsky's relationship with Balakirev over the next two years. In 1869 Tchaikovsky was a 28-year-old professor at the Moscow Conservatory. Having written his first symphony and an opera, he next composed a symphonic poem entitled "Fatum". Initially pleased with the piece when Nikolai Rubinstein conducted it in Moscow, Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Balakirev and sent it to him to conduct in St. Petersburg. "Fatum" received only a lukewarm reception. Balakirev wrote a detailed letter to Tchaikovsky explaining the defects, but also giving some encouragement:

I am writing to you with complete frankness, being fully convinced that you won't go back on your intention of dedicating "Fatum" to me. Your dedication is precious to me as a sign of your sympathy towards me—and I feel a great weakness for you.

M. Balakirev—who sincerely loves you. [Quoted in Brown, "Tchaikovsky: Man and Music", 46.]

Tchaikovsky was too self-critical not to see the truth behind Balakirev's comments. He accepted Balakirev's criticism, and the two continued to correspond. Tchaikovsky would later destroy the score of "Fatum". (The score would be reconstructed posthumously by using the orchestral parts.)Brown, "Man and Music", 46.]

Balakirev's entrance into his creative life was extremely well-timed, even if his initial impact was negatively beneficial.Brown, "Tchaikovsky, "Man and Music", 46.] Tchaikovsky had benefited technically from Rubinstein's teaching. Rubinstein, however, quickly lost patience with those who did not follow his own conservative standards; this, in the case of his continued criticism of Tchaikovsky's First Symphony, had essentially alienated the younger composer. [Holden, 59.] The time Tchaikovsky had spent in Moscow had allowed him to develop freely. He was ready for someone to give his creative gifts a rigorous test—in other words, someone who would demand results both first-rate in compositional quality and fully individual in character. Balakirev was just the man for this job.

Writing "Romeo"

As Tchaikovsky would soon find out, dealing with Balakirev—well-known for being strong-willed to the point of despotism—carried its share of frustration. The relationship between the two men was always strained. While he remained suspicious of anyone with a formal conservatory training, Balakirev clearly recognized Tchaikovsky’s great talents; had he had his own way with him, Balakirev might have tried to recruit him into The Five. [Brown, "New Grove Russian Masters", 157-158.] Tchaikovsky liked and admired Balakirev. However, as he told his brother Anatoly, "I never feel quite at home with him. I particularly don't like the narrowness of his musical views and the sharpness of his tone."

Nevertheless, Balakirev was the only man who ever persuaded Tchaikovsky to rewrite a work several times. [Brown, "'New Grove Russian Masters, 158.] Just as he had done with members of The Five, he used his extraordinary catalytic power to force out the best out of Tchaikovsky to help him produce what would become his first masterpiece, the fantasy-overture "Romeo and Juliet". Basing the work on Balakirev's "King Lear", a tragic overture in sonata form after the example of Beethoven's overtures, was Balakirev's suggestion. [Maes, 64, 73.] Reducing the plot of "Romeo" to one central conflict, combining it with the binary structure of sonata form, was Tchaikovsky's idea. However, executing that plot in the music we know today came only after two radical revisions. [Maes, 73-74.]

The first version of "Romeo" contained basically an opening fugato and a confrontation of the two themes—exactly what a academically trained composer might be expected to produce. Balakirev discarded many of the early drafts Tchaikovsky sent him—the opening, for instance, sounded more like a Haydn quartet than the Liszt chorale he had suggested initially—and the piece was constantly in the mail between Moscow and St. Petersburg, going to Tchaikovsky or Balakirev.

Learning from failure

After incorporating only some of Balakirev's suggestions, Tchaikovsky allowed the first version to be premered by Nikolai Rubinstein on March 16. 1870. It was a disaster. Rubinstein's followers were more interested in showing their support for him after his winning an important lawsuit the previous day than in the music he was conducting. [Weinstock, 69.] Stung by this rejection, Tchaikovsky took Balakirev's strictures to heart. In the ensuing work, he forced himself to reach beyond his musical training, rewriting much of the music into the form we know it today. This included the unacademic but dramatically brilliant choice of leaving the love theme out of the development section, saving its confrontation with the first theme (the conflict of the Capulets and Montagues) for the second half of the recapitulation. In the exposition, the love theme remains shielded from the violence of the first theme. In the recapitulation the first theme strongly influences the love theme and ultimately destroys it. By following this pattern, Tchaikovsky shifts the true musical conflict from the development section to the recapitulation, where it climaxes in dramatic catastrophe. [Maes, 74.]

Thanks to Balakirev as well as his own hard work, "Romeo" would bring Tchaikovsky his first national and international acclaim and become a work the "kuchka" lauded unconditionally. On hearing the love theme from "Romeo", Stasov told the group, "There were five of you: now there are six." [Brown, David, "Mussorgsky:His Life and Works" (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 193; Brown, David, "Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music" (New York: Pegasus Books, 2007), 49.] Such was the enthusiasm of the "kuchka" for "Romeo" that at their gatherings Balakirev was always asked to play it through at the piano. He did this so many times that he learned to perform it from memory. [Brown, Tchaikovsky: Man and Music", 49.]

Some critics have wondered what would have happened if Tchaikovsky had joined Balakirev in 1862 instread of attending the Conservatory. They suggest that he might have developed much more quickly as a independent composer, offering as proof that Tchaikovsky did not write his first wholly distinct work until Balakirev goaded and inspired him to write "Romeo". How well Tchaikovsky might have developed in the long run is another matter. He owed much of his musical ability, including his skill at orchestration, to the thorough grounding in counterpoint, harmony and musical theory he received at the Conservatory. Without that grounding, Tchaikovsky might not have been able to write what would become his greatest works. [Hanson and Hanson, 66]


Not too long after finishing their work on "Romeo", Balakirev and Tchaikovsky would both become involved in a doubly-ironic twist of fate. In 1871, Nikolai Zaremba resigned from the directorskip of the St. Petersburg Conseravtory. His more progressive-minded successor, Mikhaíl Azanchevsky, wanted new blood to freshen up teaching in the Conservatory. He offered Rimsky-Korsakov a professorship in Practical Composition and Instrumentation (orchestration), as well as leadership of the Orchestra Class. [Rimsky-Korsakov, 115-116.] Balakirev, who had formerly opposed academicism with tremendous vigor, [Maes, 39.] encouraged him to assume the post, thinking it might be useful having one of his own in the midst of the enemy camp. [Maes, 169-170.]

Nevertheless, Rimsky-Korsakov was painfully aware of his technical shortcomings, writing later, "I was a dilettante and knew nothing,..." [Rimsky-Korsakov, 117.] Moreover, he had come to a creative dead-end upon completing "The Maid of Pskov" and realized that developing a solid musical technique was the only way he could continue composing. [Rimsky-Korsakov, 117-118.] He turned to Tchaikovsky for advice and guidance. [Maes, 48.] When Rimsky underwent a change in attitude on music education and began his own intensive studies privately, his fellow nationalists accused him of throwing away his Russian heritage to compose fugues and sonatas.Schonberg, Harold C., "Lives of the Great Composers", 363.] Tchaikovsky continued to support him morally. He told Rimsky that he fully applauded what he was doing and admired both his artistic modesty and his strength of character.Rimsky-Korsakov, 157 ft. 30.]

Before Rimsky went to the Conservatory, in March 1868, Tchaikovsky wrote a review of Rimsky's "Fantasia on Serbian Themes". In context, Tchaikovsky discusses the only other Rimsky-Korsakov piece he had heard so far, the First Symphony, mentioning "its charming orchestration ... its structural novelty, and most of all by the freshness of its purely Russian harmonic turns ... immediately [showing] Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov to be a remarkable symphonic talent." [Brown, "Tchaikovsky: The Early Years", 129-130] Tchaikovsky's notice, worded in precisely a way to find favour within the Balakirev circle, did exactly that. He met the rest of the Five on a visit to Balakirev's house in St. Petersburg the following month. The meeting went well. Rimsky-Korsakov later wrote,

As a product of the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was viewed rather negligently if not haughtily by our circle, and, owing to his being away from St. Petersburg, personal acquaintanceship was impossible.... He proved to be a pleasing and sympathetic man to talk with, one who knew how to be simple of manner and always speak with evident sincerity and heartiness. The evening of our first meeting he played for us, at Balakirev's request, the first movement of his Symphony in G minor; it proved quite to our liking; and our former opinion of him changed and gave way to a more sympathetic one, although Tchaikovsky's Conservatory training still constituted a considerable barier between him and us. [Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai, "Letoppis Moyey Muzykalnoy Zhizni" (St. Petersburg, 1909), published in English as "My Musical Life" (New York: Knopf, 1925, 3rd ed. 1942), 75.]

Rimsky adds that "during the following years, when visiting St. Petersburg, he usually came to Balakirev's, and we saw him." [Rimsky-Korsakov, 75.] Nevertheless, having his home in Moscow may have benefited Tchaikovsky in maintaining his musical independence from "The Five"—especially in light of Rimsky-Korsakov's comment about the "considerable barrier" of Tchaikovsky's Conservatory training. Tchaikovsky was ready for the nourishment of new attitudes and styles so he could continue growing as a composer, and his brother Modest writes that he was impressed by the "force and vitality" in some of "The Five's" work. [Tchaikovsky, Modest, abr. and trans. Newmarch, Rosa, "The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky" (1906). As quoted in Holden, 64] However, he was too balanced an individual to totally reject the best in the music and values that Zaremba and Rubinstein had cherished. To Modest, Tchaikovsky's relations with the St. Petersburg group resembled "those between two friendly neighboring states ... cautiously prepared to meet on common ground, but jealously guarding their separate interests." [Tchaikovsky, Modest, "Life & Letters". As quoted in Holden, 64]

Furore over the "Little Russian"

One of those meetings proved an unqualified triumph for Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky played the finale of his "Little Russian" Symphony at a gathering at Rimsky's house in St. Petersburg on January 7, 1873, before the official premiere of the entire work. To Modest, he wrote, " [T] he whole company almost tore me to pieces with rapture—and Madame Rimskaya-Korsakova begged me in tears to let her arrange it for piano duet" [Brown, David, "Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, 1840-1874" (New York, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), 255] . Rimskaya-Korsakova was a noted pianist, composer and arranger in her own right, transcribing works by other members of the "kuchka" as well as those of her husband and Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet". [Brown, Malcolm Hamrick, ed. Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel, "The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers" (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 391.]

Not all the members of the "kuchka" were present. Balakirev was not; though he had visited briefly the previous evening, he had grown increasingly hermetic at this point of his life. Mussorgsky was probably not there, either, but there was no love lost between he and Tchaikovsky. [Brown, 281-282] . Alexander Borodin was there and may have approved of the work himself. [Brown, 283] . Also present was Vladimir Stasov, the critic who had helped Balakirev found the "kuchka" and been one of its major mouthpieces. Impressed by what he heard, Stasov asked Tchaikovsky what he would consider writing next. Stasov would soon influence the composer in writing the symphonic poem "The Tempest". [Brown, 283] He proved as generous with his advice as Balakirev; however, while Balakirev had been flexible regarding plot and exacting on musical matters, Stasov proved quite the oposite. Tchaikovsky wanted to dispense with the tempest and center the plot around the heroine, Miranda—a move that would have played on the composer's musical strengths much as the romance in "Romeo" had done. Stasov's reply: "Of course" there must be a tempest. Without it the overture wouldn't be an overture, and the whole programme would be quite different." [Holden, 90-91.] He saved his comments on the music for after the first rehearsal:

What an incomparable work! The storm itself is of course trite and unoriginal, Prospero very ordinary, and near the end there is a very banal cadence straight out of some awful Italian opera finale—but these are minor quibbles. All the rest is wonder piled on wonder!... What langour, what passion!... The orchestratino is superb ... Rimsky-Korsakov and I both send you our heartiest, our very heartiest congratulations, and warmly shake you by the hand. [Stasov, quoted in Holden, 91.]

As for the piece that had initially captured Stassov's attention, what endeared the "Little Russian" to the "kuchka" was not simply that Tchaikovsky had used Ukrainian folk songs as melodic material. It was how, especially in the outer movements, he allowed the unique characteristics of Russian folk song to dictate symphonic form. This was a goals toward which the "kucha" strived, both collectively and individually. Tchaikovsky, with his Conservatory grounding, could sustain such development longer and more cohesively than his colleagues in the "kuchka". (Though the comparison may seem unfair, some have pointd out that, because of their similar time-frames, the finale of the "Little Russian" shows what Mussorgsky could have done with "The Great Gate of Kiev" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" had be possessed a academic training comparable to Tchaikovsky's.)

However, Tchaikovsky found that writing in this vein could have its pitfalls. Using similar intervals and phrases to the folk songs with the repetitiveness typical of Russian folk music could easily create a static effect rather than the ideal of movement and organic growth typical of Western compositinos. With Russian folk song the melody can become a set of variations on itself, proceeding by modulation rather than by development and contrast. The result could be a hindrance to symphonic treatment. (This did not stop his student Sergei Taneyev from wishing a few years later that Tchaikovsky had written something similar for the finale of his Fourth Symphony.) In 1872, Tchaikovsky did not see this lack of structural advancement as a problem since in all his most important symphonic movements to date his practice had been to close the first subject exactly where it had begun. By the time he revised the symphony eight years later, he would see things very differently. [Brown, "Tchaikovsky: "The Early Years", 265.]

To Mme. von Meck

The Five was among the myriad of subjects Tchaikovsky discussed with his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck. By January 1878, when he wrote to von Meck about its members, he had drifted far from their musical world and ideals. In addition, The Five's finest days had long passed. Balakirev had withdrawn completely from the musical scene. Musorgsky was sinking ever deeper into alcoholism. Borodin's creative activities increasingly took a back seat to his official duties as a professor of chemistry.

Only Rimsky-Korsakov actively pursued a full-time musical career—and he was under increasing fire from his fellow nationalists for much the same reason as Tchaikovsky had been. Like Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov had found that, for his own artistic growth to conntinue unabated, he had to study and master Western classical forms and techniques. Borodin called it "apostasy," adding, "Many are grieved at present by the fact that Korsakov has turned back, has thrown himself into a study of musical antiquity. I do not bemoan it. It is understandable...." [Letter to L.I. Karmalina, June 13, 1876. As quoted in Rimsky-Korsakov, 154-155, footnote 24.] Mussorgsky was harsher: " [T] he mighty "Koocha" had degenerated into soulless traitors." [Letter to Vladimir Stasov, October 9, 1875. As quoted in Rimsky-Korsakov, 154-155, footnote 24.]

Tchaikovsky's analysis of each of The Five is unsparing. While at least some of his observations may seem distorted and prejudiced, he also mentions are details which ring clear and true. His diagnosis of Rimsky-Korsakov's creative crisis is very accurate. He also calls Mussorgsky the most gifted musically of The Five, though Tchaikovsky could not appreciate the forms Mussorgsky's originality took. Nonetheless, he badly underestimates Borodin's technique and gives Balakirev far less than his full due — all the more telling considering Balakirev's help in conceiving and shaping "Romeo and Juliet".

Tchaikovsky wrote to von Meck that all of the "kuchka" were talented but also "infected to the core" with conceit and "a purely dilettantish confidence in their superiority." After going into some detail about Rimsky's epiphany and turnaround regarding musical training, and his efforts to remedy this situation for himself, Tchaikovsky discusses the rest of The Five:

"Cui" is a talented dilettante. His music has no originality, but is clever and graceful ...

"Borodin" is a fifty-year-old [actually forty-four] professor of Chemistry at the Medical Academy. Again he has talent, even a strong one, but it has perished through neglect, because of a blind" fate "which led him to a chair of chemistry instead of into the living profession of music. Thus he has less taste than" Cui, "and his technique is so weak that he cannot write a single line [of music] without outside help.

"Mussorgsky" you very rightly call a hopeless case. In talent he is perhaps superior to all the preceding, but his nature is narrow-minded, devoid of any urge towards self-perfection, blindly believing in the ridiculous theories of his circle and in his own genius. In addition, he has a certain base side to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness.... He flaunts ... his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius. Yet he has flashes of talent which are, moreover, not devoid of originality.>

The most important personality of this circle is "Balakirev". But he has fallen silent after doing very little. He possesses an enormous talent which has perished because of certain fateful circumstances which have turned him into a "religious fanatic", whereas formerly he had long vaunted his utter disbelief. Now he is constantly in church, fasts, bows to relics, and does nothing else. Despite his colossal endowment he has done much harm. For instance, he destroyed Korsakov, having assured him that training was harmful. He is the general inventor of this all the theories of this strange group which unites within itself so many undeveloped, undirected, and prematurely blighted forces. [Tchaikovsky, Pyotr, "Perepiska s N.F. von Meck" [Correspondence with Nadzehda von Meck] , 3 vols. (Moscow and Lenningrad, 1934-1936), Vol.1, 135-137. As quoted in Brown, "Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years", 228-230.]

Balakirev returns

Once Tchaikovsky finished his final revision of "Romeo" in 1880, he felt it a courtesy to send a copy of the score to Balakirev. Balakirev, however, had dropped out of the music scene in the early 1870s and Tchaikovsky had lost touch with him. He asked the publisher Bessel to forward a copy to balakirev. A year later a letter arrived from Balakirev, thanking him profusely for the score. In the same letter, Balakirev suggested another project—"the programme for another symphony which you would handle wonderfully well." He presented the detailed plan for a symphony based on Byron's "Manfred". Originally drafted by Stassov for Hector Berlioz as a sequel to his "Harold en Italie". Berlioz' had claimed old age and ill health when the program was suggested to him during his final visit to Russia in 1868. Since then, it had been in Balakirev's care. [Holden, 248-49.]

Tchauikovsky also passed on the project at first, claiming the subject left him cold. This did not stop Balakirev from persisting. "You must, of course, "make an effort"," Balakirev exhorted, "take a more self-critical approach, don't hurry things." His importunity finally changed Tchaikovsky's mind—after two years. [Holden, 249.] So did Tchaikovsky's re-reading "Manfred" for himself while tending to his friend Iosef Kotek in Davos, Switzerland, nestled in the same Alps in which the poem was set. Once he returned home, Tchaikovsky revised the draft Balakirev had made from Stasov's programme and began sketching the first movement. [Holden, 249-50.]

The "Manfred" Symphony would cost Tchaikovsky more time, effort and soul-searching than anything else he would write, even the "Pathetique". It also became the longest, most complex work he had written up to that point, and though it owes an obvious debt to Berlioz due to its program, Tchaikovsky was still able to make the theme of "Manfred" his own. [Holden, 250-51.] Near the end of seven months of intensive effort, in late September 1885, he wrote Balakirev, "Never in my life, believe me, have I labored so long and hard, and felt so drained by my efforts. The Symphony is written in four moveements, as per your program, although—forgive me—as much as I wanted to, I have not been able to keep all the keys and modulations you suggested ... It is of course dedicated to you." [Letter to balakirev, September 25, 1885.]

The completion of "Manfred" did not prove to be a happy ending in one respect. Reluctant to continue tolerating Balakirev's interference, he severed all contact, writing him off to his publisher Jurgenson as a "madman." They exchanged only a few formal, not overly friendly letters late in Tchaikovsky's life. [Holden, 251.]

The Belyayev circle

In November 1887, Tchaikovsky arrived in St. Petersburg in time to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts, one of which happened to include the first complete performance of his First Symphony and another the premiere of the revised version of Rimsky-Korsakov's Third Symphony.Brown, "The Final Years", 91.] Before this visit he had spent much time keeping in touch with Rimsky-Korsakov and those around him, [Brown, "The Final Years", 90.] a group calld the Belayev Circle after their patron, timber merchant and amateur musician Mitrofan Belyayev; and during this visit he spent much time in their company.

Much had happened in the nine years since his letter to Nadezhda von Meck. Mussorgsky, who had been the most mutually antipathetic of The Five, was dead. Cui, for all his negative reviews of Tchaikovsky's music, was seen by the composer as merely a critical irritant. Tchaikovsky would write the following to von Meck in January 1889, after being once again well-represented in Belayev's concerts:

I have always tried to place myself "outside" all parties and to show in every way possible that I love and respect every honorable and gifted public figure in music, whatever his tendency.... And so I was very glad to use the opportunity to show publically that, though Mr Cui, an individual deeply hateful to me, belongs to the school which is called the 'new Russian' or 'the mighty handful,' this in no way hinders me from respecting and loving such representatives of this school such as Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lyadov, Glazunov, or from considering myself flattered to appear on the concert platform beside them. [Quoted in Brown, "The Final Years", 91-2.]

This was an acknowledgment of wholehearted readiness to be heard with such skilled and accomplished creators as those in the Belayev Circle. At least as importantly, it was delivered in a tone that showed an implicit confidence that there were no comparisions between Tchaikovsky's music and theirs from which to fear. [Brown, "The Final Years", 92.]

There had also been a turnaround in values and attitudes among the nationalists. Rimsky had espoused the need for academic training in music since his own conversion and was shaping the minds of an entire generation of young composers. This was a total about-face from the philosophy espoused by Balakirev years earlier. Compared to the "revolutionary" composers in Balakirev's circle, Rimsky found those in the Belayev Circle to be "progressive ... attaching as it did great importance to technical perfection, but ... also broke new paths, though more securely, even if less speedily...." [Rimsky-Korsakov, 286-287.]


Tchaikovsky was impressed not only with Rimsky's achievements but also those of Rimsky's student Alexander Glazunov, whose works he was also able to hear during his 1887 visit, and he promised to secure performances of their works in Moscow concerts.Brown, "The Final Years", 91.] Tchaikovsky had begun showing a keen interest in Glazunov shortly after the premiere of the teenage composer's First Symphony, about which he had been told by Sergei Taneyev, and about whom he had corresponded with Balakirev beginning in 1882. [Lobanova, 4]

According to Vladimir Stasov, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky met in person in October 1884 at a gathering hosted by Balakirev. Tchaikovsky was in St. Petersburg because his opera "Eugene Onegin" was being performed at the Mariinsky Theater. Glazunov recalled the encounter as follows:

Although, by the mid-eighties, Balakirev's circle no longer had the perfect unity and special position that it had done earlier, we still did not regard Tchaikovsky as "one of us." In our circle, only a few of his works—such as "Romeo and Juliet", "The Tempest", "Francesca da Rimini" and the finale of the Second Symphony—were admired. His other creations were either unknown or aloien to us. Balakirev himself had a high regard for Tchaikovsky's talent and for his later compositional mastery, which he often held up as an example to us, although he also criticized what he saw as weaknesses in Tchaikovsky's work. There were times when Balakirev, with almost paternal care, forced Tchaikovsky to choose material for his compositions that he, Balakirev, judged to be suitable for Tchaikovsky's nature. This happened with the "Romeo and Juliet" overture and, later, with the "Manfred Symphony".

We—that is, especially the younger members of Balakirev's circle—looked forward to our forthcoming encounter with Tchaikovsky—who, as I have already mentioned, was not "one of us"—with an almost inexplicable fascination. At the appointed hour we had all gathered at Balakirev's, and were excitedly awaiting Tchaikovsky's arrival. As he did not belong in our camp, we discussed the attitude that we should adapt towards him: one of extreme reticence seemed to be best. Tchaikovsky's appearance immediately put a stop to the constrained atmosphere among those present, especially the younger ones. His personality combined simplicity with dignity and, with this well-groomes, purely European manners, he made the best possibly impression on most of those present. We all began to breathe more easily. With his conversation Pyotr Ilyich brought a breath of fresh air into our rather dusty atmosplhere, and he spoke quite naturally about matters which, out of respect for the authority of Balakirev amd other members of the circle, we normally kept quiet. [...] On that first evening of our aquaintanceship Pyotr Ilyich had mentioned that he had been looking at my "First String Quartet", which had just been published, and a passage in its third movement had impressed him so much that he had copied some bars from them into his notebook. [As quoted in Lobanova, 5.]

A close friendship developed, which would last until Tchaikovsky's death, with Tchaikovsky championing Glazunov;'s works in Moscow. Glazunov studied Tchaikovsky's works and "found much that was new ... that was instructive for us as young musicians. It struck me that Tchaikovsky, who was above all a lyrical and melodic omposer, had introduced operatic elements into his symphonies. I admoired the thematic material of his works less than the inspired unfolding of his thoughts, his temperament and the constructural perfection." [Quoted in Lobanova, 6.] They met for the last time four days before Tchaikovsky's death.


Tchaikovsky met another Rimsky pupil, Anatol Lyadov, during his 1887 visit. He had previously not been impressed with Lyadov's talent. Nearly seven years earlier the publisher Besel asked his opinion about an Arabesque for solo piano that Lyadov had written. Lyadov had met with Mussorgsky's approval; in 1873, Mussorgsky had described to Lyadov to Stasov as "a new, unmistakable, original and "Russian" young talent." [Spencer, "New Grove", 11:383.] Tchaikovsky was not of the same opinion: "It is impossible to envisage any thing more vapid in content than this composer's music. He has many interesting chords and harmonic sequences, but not a single idea, even of the tiniest sort." [Tchaikovsky, Pyotr, "Polnoye sobraniye sochinery: literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska" [Complete Edition: literary works and correspondence] (Moscow, 1953-1981), vol. 9, 36. As quoted in Brown, "Tchaikovsky: The Final Years," 91.]

Even before meeting Lyadov personally, though, Tchaikovsky may have been softening his stance. He decided to present the young composer a copy of the score of his "Manfred" Symphony, and once he had actually met this indolent, fastidious, very private yet very engaging man, his attitude toward Lyadov took a sharp turn for the better. The younger composer became known as "dear Lyadov." [Brown, "Tchaikovsky: The Final Years", 91.]

New confidence

Two concerts Tchaikovsky conducted in St. Petersburg in December 1889, where his music shared the programs with compositions by the "new Russian School," proved a major watershed. Tchaikovsky recognized that while he had maintained good personal relations with some members of the Balakirev circle, and perhaps some respect, he had never been recognized as one of them. Now with his joint participation in these concerts, he realized he was no longer excluded. His music now possessed the ability to sit comfortably and confidently alongside any number of their compositions, in no way suffering in the ears of any audience.

With this new-found confidence came increased contact between Tchaikovsky and the Belayev circle. Rimsky-Korsakov writes, "In the winter of spring of 1891 [he means 1890 [Rimsky-Korsakov, 309, footnote.] ] Tchaikovsky came to St. Petersburg on quite a long visit, and from then dated his closer intimacy with Byelayev's circle, particularly with Glazunov, Lyadov, and me. In the years following, Tchaikovsky's visits became quite frequent." [Rimsky-Korsakov, 308.]

Mixed feelings

Glazunov and Lyadov were friendly with Tchaikovsky and charmed by him.Poznansky, 564.] Rimsky found the situation more complex. Memories persisted of the old friction between Tchaikovsky and The Five. Rimsky also observed, not without some annoyance, how Tchaikovsky became increasingly popular among Rimsky's followers.Poznansky, 564.] The personal jealousy Rimsky-Korsakov felt as a result was compounded by a professional one. As he writes in his memoirs,

At this time there begins to be noticeable a considerable cooling off and even somewhat inimical attitude toward the memory of the "mighty "koochka" of Balakirev's period. On the contrary a worship of Tchaikovsky and a tendency toward eclecticism grow even stronger. Nor could one help noticing the predilection (that sprang up then in our circle) for Italian-French music of the time of wig and farthingale, music introduced by Tchaikovsky in his "Pikovaya Dama (Queen of Spades)" and "Yolanta". By this time quite and accretion of new elements and young blood had accumulated in Byelayev's circle. New times, new birds, new songs. [Rimsky-Korsakov, 309.]

Rimsky-Korsakov mentions Tchaikovsky's triumph over The Five with a seeming generosity—"seeming" because, while he remained genial in public, he had developed a jealous resentment of Tchaikovsky's greater fame. [Holden, 316.] Even so, when Tchaikovsky attended Rimsky's nameday party in May 1893, along with Belayev, Glavunov and Lyadov, Rimsky asked Tchaikovsky personally if he would conduct four St. Petersburg RMS concerts the following season. After some hesitation, Tchaikovsky agreed. At the first of these appearances, on October 28, 1893, he conducted the premiére of his Sixth Symphony, along with his First Piano Concerto with Adele aus der Ohe as soloist.

Tchaikovsky did not live to conduct the other three concerts. He died on November 6, 1893. Rimsky stood in for him at the second of these events—an all-Tchaikovsky concert in memory of the composer—on December 12, 1893. The program included the Fourth Symphony, "Francesca da Rimini", "Marche slave" plus some solo piano works played by Felix Blumenfeld.



* Brown, David, "Musorgsky: His Life and Music" (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
* Brown, David, "Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, 1840-1874" (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978).
* Brown, David, "Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years, 1874-1878", (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983).
* Brown, David, "Tchaikovsky: The Final Years, 1885-1893" (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).
* Brown, Malcolm Hamrick, ed. Julie Anne Sadie and Rhian Samuel, "The Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers" (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995),
* Hanson, Lawrence and Hanson, Elisabeth, "Tchaikovsky: The Man Behind the Music" (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company)
* Holden, Anthony, "Tchaikovsky: A Biography" (New York: Random House, 1995).
* Labanova, Marina, Notes for BIS CD 1358, "Glazunov: Ballade; Symphony No. 3"; BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.
* Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans, "A History of Russian Music: From "Kamarinskaya "to" Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002). ISBN 0-520-21815-9.
* Poznansky, Alexander "Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man" (New York: Schirmer Books, 1991)
* Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai, "Letoppis Moyey Muzykalnoy Zhizni" (St. Petersburg, 1909), published in English as "My Musical Life" (New York: Knopf, 1925, 3rd ed. 1942).
* Spencer, Jennifer, "Lyadov [Liadov] , Anatol [Anatoly] Konstantinovich," "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, First Edition" (London: Macmillian, 1980). ISBN 0-333-23111-2
* Stravinsky, Igor, "An Open Letter to Diaghilev," "The Times", London, October 18, 1921.
* Stravinsky, Vera and Craft, Robert, "Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).
* Tchaikovsky, Modest, "Zhizn P.I. Chaykovskovo" [Tchaikovsky's life] , 3 vols. (Moscow, 1900-1902).
* Tchaikovsky, Pyotr, "Perepiska s N.F. von Meck" [Correspondence with Nadzehda von Meck] , 3 vols. (Moscow and Lenningrad, 1934-1936).
* Tchaikovsky, Pyotr, "Polnoye sobraniye sochinery: literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska" [Complete Edition: literary works and correspondence] , 17 vols. (Moscow, 1953-1981).
* Volkoff, Vladimir, "Tchaikovsky: A Self Portrait" (Boston: Crescendo Publishing Company, 1975).
* Weinstock, Herbert, "Tchaikovsky" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1944) ISBN n/a.

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