Tchaikovsky Suffered from Depression but Composed Sublime Music

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Tchaikovsky Confesses About His Depression

The great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893) suffered from depression. Tchaikovsky didn’t have an easy time of it. He suffered from depression throughout his life, after his mother died in 1854 and his 13-year relationship with Nadezhda von Meck collapsed. (Classic fM, n.d.)

Photo of Tchaikovsky, who suffered from depression and yet composed sublime music
Tchaikovsky, who suffered from depression and yet composed sublime music

Throughout his correspondence with family and friends, Tchaikovsky notes his cyclical lapses into depression. Dogged dedication to searching for beauty and meaning underlay these episodes of depression. This heady mix of sadness and radiance is what made his music timeless, one which penetrates the soul. (Popova, 2015)

Indeed, the history of the arts is the history of mental illness and creativity going together. But while psychologists point out that mild melancholy fuels creativity, its clinically more virulent form of depression can blunt creatively.

Shortly after his 30th birthday, Tchaikovsky wrote thus:

“I am sitting at the open window (at four a.m.) and breathing the lovely air of a spring morning… Life is still good, [and] it is worth living on a May morning… I assert that life is beautiful in spite of everything! This “everything” includes the following items: 1. Illness; I am getting much too stout, and my nerves are all to pieces. 2. The Conservatoire oppresses me to extinction; I am more and more convinced that I am absolutely unfitted to teach the theory of music. 3. My pecuniary situation is very bad. 4. I am very doubtful if Undine will be performed. I have heard that they are likely to throw me over. In a word, there are many thorns, but the roses are there too.” (Popova, 2015)

Tchaikovsky Suffered from Depression

Tchaikovsky was a very sensitive child.  He would remain in the house with his mother while his siblings played outside.  His being sent to a boarding school devastated him tremendously.  These could have contributed to his depression.

The other factors that led to Tchaikovsky’s depression were perhaps the early death of his mother when he was only 14, as well as his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky really only had two strategies for relieving his unbearable sadness. One was alcoholism and the other was composing music.

Tchaikovsky was the guest conductor for the opening ceremony of Carnegie Hall in 1891 in New York.  Although the Americans’ hospitality impressed him, he spent a good bit of time there in his hotel room crying. He had a great fear of his head literally rolling off his body while conducting.   He would put one hand on top of his head and conduct with the other hand.

Tchaikovsky Writes about It

In the fall of 1876, Tchaikovsky even while consoling his beloved nephew going through dejection and melancholy, makes reference to his own depression thus:

“Probably you were not quite well, my little dove, when you wrote to me, for a note of real melancholy pervaded your letter. I recognized in it a nature closely akin to my own. I know the feeling only too well. In my life, too, there are days, hours, weeks, aye, and months, in which everything looks black when I am tormented by the thought that I am forsaken, that no one cares for me. Indeed, my life is of little worth to anyone. Were I to vanish from the face of the earth today, it would be no great loss to Russian music, and would certainly cause no one great unhappiness. In short, I live a selfish bachelor’s life. I work for myself alone and care only for myself. This is certainly very comfortable, although dull, narrow, and lifeless.

“But that you, who are indispensable to so many whose happiness you make, that you can give way to depression, is more than I can believe. How can you doubt for a moment the love and esteem of those who surround you? How could it be possible not to love you? No, there is no one in the world more dearly loved than you are. As for me, it would be absurd to speak of my love for you. If I care for anyone, it is for you, for your family, for my brothers and our old Dad. I love you all, not because you are my relations, but because you are the best people in the world.” (Popova, 2015)

Tchaikovsky Composed Sublime Music

Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia. That town now houses the Tchaikovsky museum and his statue. Tchaikovsky had four brothers and one sister. He learned languages from a young age. He could speak German and French by the age of 6.

His mother died when he was just 14. This affected him for the rest of his life. As he would say later, “Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday.”

As a back-up plan for the possibility of failure in music, Tchaikovsky trained as a civil servant and became one at the age of 19. Though he went on to become a senior assistant within 8 months, luckily he chucked his civil service career and took to musical composition! In his 53 years, Tchaikovsky composed hundreds of pieces.

Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first ballet composition. First performed in 1877, it was an initial box office failure. Eventually, however, this story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse, went on to become a huge success.

Tchaikovsky composed the music to ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in 1889. It is the second of the composer’s three ballets. It has become one of the famous ballets in the classical repertoire.

Although the ballet “The Nutcracker”, first performed in 1892, was denounced by the critics, Tchaikovsky’s innovative score for it was viewed a bit more favorably.

To support his early musical career, Tchaikovsky became a music critic. Those who drew his critical ire were Schumann, who he thought was a poor orchestrator, and Brahms.

Tchaikovsky died in 1893. Speculation is rife about the cause of his death, some attributing it to cholera or his drinking and smoking, and some who suspect suicide. (Classic fM, n.d.)

References

Classic fM, n.d. Tchaikovsky: Compositions, ballets, biography and more facts. [Online]
Available at: https://www.classicfm.com/composers/tchaikovsky/guides/tchaikovsky-facts/
[Accessed 24 Feb 2020].

Popova, M., 2015. Tchaikovsky on Depression and Finding Beauty Amid the Wreckage of the Soul. [Online]
Available at: https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/19/tchaikovsky-letters-depession/
[Accessed 24 Feb 2020].

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Tchaikovsky Suffered from Depression but Composed Sublime Music
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Tchaikovsky Suffered from Depression but Composed Sublime Music
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The great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840–November 6, 1893) suffered from depression. Tchaikovsky didn't have an easy time of it.
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