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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter N

Letter N

At the end of the 18th century, German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder wrote that nations, like people, have their own character. This character, he said, was most clearly discernible in their folksongs. This idea fell on fertile ground all over Europe, and especially at its margins. Russia, although it was an imperial rather than an oppressed nation, felt inferior to Europe both in technological and cultural terms, and the Russian intelligentsia already aspired to create its own, specifically Russian art that would eventually be appreciated across Europe. This ambition, together with Herder's ideas, would soon transform Russian music.

The Russian composer Mikhail Glinka was one of the pioneers of musical nationalism. He created the first full-scale Russian opera, A Life for the Tsar (1836), which was technically on a par with European operas but pleased the Russian ear with the familiar turns of popular song. Glinka went on to build a symphonic work entirely out of variations on two Russian folksongs, all the more remarkable for eschewing sonata form, which the composer decided was too Germanic. This work, Kamarinskaya (1842), was later hailed by Tchaikovsky as the "acorn" from which the whole of Russian music grew.

When Tchaikovsky first appeared on the Russian musical scene in the 1860s, the future of nationalist music was hotly debated. The group of composers known as The Mighty Handful (or The Five), claimed the banner of Glinka for themselves, and viewed Tchaikovsky with great suspicion, since he was one of the first graduates of the St Petersburg Conservatoire - an institution which could only breed Germanic routine, as The Five thought. Tchaikovsky's music, which contained echoes of Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, Gounod and Bizet, was too facile and cosmopolitan for The Five's taste, no matter how many Russian folksongs the composer quoted, and no matter how many sets of Glinka-type variations he wrote upon them. After Tchaikovsky's death, Vladimir Stasov, The Five's ideologue, argued that "Tchaikovsky's musical nature lacked the national element" and that his professed sympathy for all things Russian was merely self-deception.

Today we realize how biased this statement was. True, Tchaikovsky's nationalism was not the same as The Five's. He did not search for the soul of Russia in peasant songs. He did not create vocal lines that closely imitated Russian speech patterns (as Musorgsky did at one stage). Neither did he construct an ideal image of Russia from fairytales (as Rimsky-Korsakov did). His musical world was of the Russian gentry, which was split between its country estates and its urban residences in St Petersburg or Moscow. In Eugene Onegin, for example, this world is represented through the melodic gestures of Russian romance - a genre of drawing-room song that absorbed all kinds of European influences, but is still recognizable as Russian to the Russian ear.

In the finale of his First Symphony he quotes an urban popular song, which may have been a vulgarism for the purists of The Five, but it was familiar to Russian audiences, and far more likely to tug at their emotions than any number of folk songs that fell outside their experience. On another occasion, in the Sixth Symphony, he used a funeral chant from the Russian Orthodox service - again, something that every one of his Russian listeners would immediately recognize and identify with. He also left to us a portrait in sound of the Russian Imperial Court in his 1812 Overture (like a Russian Pomp and Circumstance march). But perhaps even more importantly, he tapped into the thoughts and emotions of the Russian intelligentsia of the time, and created a perfect soundtrack for Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Chekhov, whereas the music of The Five is completely at odds with this world. Perhaps this is why listeners around the world not only consider Tchaikovsky music to be Russian, but the most Russian of all.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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