Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

From Seeds of the Word, the encyclopedia of the influence of the Gospel on culture

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, c. 1888[a 1]
Tchaikovsky's signature

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky[a 2] (English: /ˈkɒfski/ chy-KOF-skee;[1] Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский,[a 3] IPA: [pʲɵtr ɪlʲˈjitɕ tɕɪjˈkofskʲɪj] (About this soundlisten); 7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893[a 4]) was a Russian composer of the Romantic period. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally. He was honored in 1884 by Tsar Alexander III and awarded a lifetime pension.

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at the time and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching that he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Five with whom his professional relationship was mixed.

Tchaikovsky's training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From that reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music, which seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or for forming a composite style, and it caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky's self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great. That resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia about the country's national identity, an ambiguity mirrored in Tchaikovsky's career.

Though a russian orthodox, Tchaikovsky had a number of personal doubts about the Christian faith, which in any case had a profound impact on him and his works.

Religious views

Tchaikovsky expresses his views on religion and christianity in his letters[2] and in his personal diary[3].

Touching on the question of eternal life, he writes in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck in 1877:

However, conviction is one thing, and instinct and feeling another. Whilst I deny an eternal afterlife, it is with indignation that I reject at the same time the monstrous thought that I shall never see again some loved ones who are now dead. In spite of the triumphant force of my convictions, I shall never reconcile myself to the thought that my mother, whom I so loved and who was such a wonderful person, has disappeared forever and that I will never be able to tell her that even after twenty-three years of separation I still love her the same

In another letter to Mrs von Meck in 1879, he recounts his impressions of reading the scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Father Zosima has to comfort a woman who has lost all her children. The question of the afterlife thus seems to be one which he thought about often:

Yes, my friend! It is better to have to die oneself every day for a thousand years than to lose those whom one loves and to seek consolation in the hypothetical idea that we shall meet again in the other world! Will we meet again? Happy are those who manage not to have doubts about this

In his special diary he made a note in 1886 about his relationship with the Sacred Scriptures:

What an infinitely deep abyss between the Old and the New Testament! Am reading the Psalms of David and do not understand why, first, they are placed so high artistically and, second, in what way they could have anything in common with the Gospel. David is entirely worldly. The whole human race he divides into two unequal parts: in one, the godless (here belongs the vast majority), in the other, the godly and at their head he places himself. Upon the godless, he invokes in each psalm divine punishment, upon the godly, reward; but both punishment and reward are earthly. The sinners will be annihilated; the godly will reap the benefits of all the blessings of earthly life. How unlike Christ who prayed for his enemies and to his fellow man promised not earthly blessings but the Kingdom of Heaven. What eternal poetry and, touching to tears, what feeling of love and pity toward mankind in the words: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” All the Psalms of David are nothing in comparison with these simple words.

— Pyotr Tchaikovsky[4]

This contrast between the Old and New Testament and his admiration for the figure of Christ, and, in particular, for Christ’s exhortation: “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28) — the underlying idea of which he once tried to set into music — are themes he often returned to in those years. Another interesting diary entry is that which he made in Maydanovo in 1887, on the same day that his old friend Nikolay Kondratyev died after a long illness in Aachen (where Tchaikovsky had visited him that summer):

Yelena Dyachkova (or), Ph.D. in History of Arts and Assistant professor at the Petro Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine, wrote an interesting essay entitled “Tchaikovsky and the Bible”. Her thesis begins by stating:

Biblical mythology as a possible programme for a musical work never attracted Tchaikovsky's interest. Epistolary heritage also does not give the reason to suppose that the Bible was the composer's favourite book. Nevertheless, these superficially obvious facts do not settle the question about Tchaikovsky and the Bible. The Bible, together with ancient mythology, forms one of the basic conceptual paradigms of European culture. Its major semantic and psychological constants, such as the linear perception of time as a stream flowing from its source (the Creation) towards the end (the Judgement Day), the fear of Death, the responsibility for deeds (ethical principles), and finally, treating anguish and torments of the indi- vidual as a spiritual feat, are characteristics of practically all the works belonging to the European literature tradition. In particular, these constants may be perceived as peculiar cultural and artistic archetypes in Tchaikovsky's work.

— Yelena Dyachkova, Tchaikovsky and the Bible

It was in the decade between 1877 and 1887 that Tchaikovsky created most of his spiritual works. This also happened to be a time in which his close friendship with Nikolaj Kondrat'ev and family was under some stress, and they did not visit each other very much. During this time Tchaikovsky thought about existential questions, up to creating his own creed. In 1877 the composer writes:

I have forgotten that there are plenty of people who managed to create for themselves an harmonic set of ideas that replaced religion for them. It remains for me only to envy those people. It seems to me that all my life I am doomed to doubt and to look for a way out of contradictions

— Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 1, p. 111 (letter from Venice, December 5-17, 1877)

And in 1887 again the composer makes a record in his diary touching on his religious beliefs:

How strange it was for me to read that 365 days ago I was still afraid to acknowledge that, despite all the fervor of sympathetic feelings awakened by Christ, I dared to doubt His Divinity. Since then, my religion has become infinitely more clear; I have been thinking much about God, life and death all this time, and especially in Aachen the fatal questions - what for, how, why? - often occupied me and anxiously flashed before me. It is the religion of mine that I would like to word in detail some time, if only to clarify for myself once and forever my beliefs and that border where they arise after the speculation. However, life with its vanities flies by, and I don't know if I shall have time to express that Credo that has been worked out by me lately. It has been worked out very clearly, but nevertheless, I do not use it for my praying practice yet. I am praying still as before, as I was taught to pray. However, God hardly needs to know how and why people pray. God does not need prayer. But we need it

— Pyotr Tchaikovsky[5] [6]

Ironically, Kondrat'ev's words: "Pray, my friend, pray. God will help you to get out of this situation"[7], that had offended Tchaikovsky so much in 1877, appeared to be prophetic.

— Yelena Dyachkova, Tchaikovsky and the Bible

It is possible that the Fifth Symphony grew out of some of these reflections, as suggested by Tchaikovsky’s notes on the initial sketches.[8]

Though having many doubts about christianity, Tchaikovsky however liked and at times attended Orthodox liturgies. Yelena Dyachkova writes:

It gave him strong emotional experience. "My attitude to church completely differs from yours," Tchaikovsky wrote to Nadežda von Meck. "For me it still keeps plenty of poetic charm. I attend mass very often; in my opinion, the Liturgy of John Chrysostom is one of the greatest artistic works. Being attentive at our Orthodox service and going carefully into the sense of every ceremony, you are certainly touched by the spirit. I also love all night vigil. To go on Saturday to an old small church, to stand in twilight filled with incense smoke, to dip into yourself and to search inside yourself for the answer to eternal questions: what for, when, where to, why?, awaking from muse when the choir begins to sing "From my youth many passions possess me", and to give yourself up to the influence of the fascinating poetry of this psalm, to be filled with some quiet admiration, when holy doors open and it is heard "Praise God from Heaven!", - oh, I like all that enormously, it is one of my greatest delights!"[9] In another letter the composer writes: "This week I have attended many church services and experienced great artistic delight. The Orthodox service acts upon the soul amazingly, if it is arranged, for example, like here in the Church of the Saviour!"[10]

— Yelena Dyachkova, Tchaikovsky and the Bible

In particular Tchaikovsky liked the Easter celebrations:

In one of his letters he complains: "For the first time in my life I have to spend Passion Week and celebrate Easter outside Russia. It is a considerable privation for me; from my early years I used to love this festival especially, and now I feel envy while thinking of those who celebrate it in Russia"[11]

— Yelena Dyachkova, Tchaikovsky and the Bible

In his diary he writes of his impressions of Beethoven and Mozart, comparing them with his impressions of God and Jesus:

I shall begin with Beethoven, whom it is usual to extol indisputably, and it is enjoined to worship him as a god. Thus, what is Beethoven for me? I admire a greatness in some of his works - but I do not love Beethoven. My attitude to him reminds me what I felt in my childhood about the Lord of Sabaoth. I felt (and by now my feelings have not changed) amazement, and at the same time, fear towards Him. He created Heaven and Earth, and He created me also, and yet, although I cringe before Him, there is no love. Christ, on the contrary, arouses just and only feeling of love. Although he was God, at the same time he was a man. He suffered like we. We feel sorry for him, we love in him his ideal human features. And when Beethoven takes a place in my heart similar to the Lord of Sabaoth, then I love Mozart as the Christ of music. By the way, you know, he lived almost as long as Christ

— Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Dnevniki P. I. Cajkovskogo, p. 209-210 (record of June 29, 1886)

Musical compositions

Pjotr I. Tschaikowski, oil on canvas, by Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kuznetsov (1893)

Musical compositions by Tchaikovsky which were religiously inspired are:

The All-Night Vigil (Vesper Service), for unaccompanied chorus Op. 52 (1881-82)

The All Night Vigil (Всенощное бдение), Op. 52, also known as the Vesper Service, was written between May 1881 and March 1882. Tchaikovsky described it as "An essay in harmonisation of liturgical chants".

Movements and Duration

There are seventeen numbers, intended to be sung at specific points during the service.

  1. Introductory Psalm: "Bless My Soul, O Lord" (Предначинательный псалом: «Благослови душе моя»)
  2. "Lord Have Mercy" and other brief responses («Господи, помилуй» и другие краткие молитвословия)
  3. Kathisma: "Blessed is the Man"' (Кафисма: «Блажен муж»)
  4. "Lord, I Call to Thee" («Господи, воззвах к Тебе»)
  5. "Gladsome Light" («Свете тихий»)
  6. "Rejoice, O Virgin" («Богородице, Дево, радуйся»)
  7. "The Lord is God" («Бог Господь»)
  8. Polyeleion: "Praise the Name of the Lord" (Полиелей: «Хвалите имя Господне»)
  9. Troparia: "Blessed Art Thou, Lord" (Тропари: «Благословен еси Господи»)
  10. Gradual Antiphon: "From My Youth" (Степенна «От юности моея»)
  11. Hymns after the Gospel Reading: "Having Beheld the Resurrection of Christ" (Песнопения по Евангелии: «Воскресение Христово видевше»)
  12. Common Katabasis: "I Shall Open My Lips" (Катавасия рядовая: «Отверзну уста моя»)
  13. Canticle of the Mother of God (Песнь Богоматери с припевом)
  14. "Holy is the Lord Our God" («Свят Господь Бог наш»)
  15. Theotokion: "Both Now and Forever" (Богородичен «И ныне и присно»)
  16. Great Doxology: "Glory to God in the Highest" (Великое славословие: «Слава в вышних Богу»)
  17. "To Thee the Glorious Leader" («Взбранной Воеводе победительная»)

A complete concert performance lasts around 45 minutes.


Tchaikovsky adapted the text from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy service. Several of the numbers are based on the text of Biblical psalms:

  • No. 1 – after Psalm 103
  • No. 3 – after Psalm 150
  • No. 4 – after Psalm 140
  • No. 7 – after Psalm 117
  • No. 8 – after Psalm 134 and Psalm 135
  • No. 9 – after Psalm 148
  • No. 10 – after Psalm 119, Psalm 120, Psalm 121, Psalm 122, Psalm 123, Psalm 124, Psalm 125, Psalm 126, Psalm 127, Psalm 128, Psalm 129, Psalm 130, Psalm 131, Psalm 132.
  • No. 11 – after Psalm 148, Psalm 149, Psalm 150 and Psalm 140

The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

See Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (Tchaikovsky) and Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.

Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom (Литургия святого Иоанна Златоуста), Op. 41, is a setting for unaccompanied voices of fifteen numbers from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy for unaccompanied voices, made by Tchaikovsky in 1878.

Tchaikovsky, known primarily for his symphonies, concertos and ballets, was deeply interested in the music and liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1875, he compiled A Concise Textbook of Harmony Intended to Facilitate the Reading of Sacred Musical Works in Russia.[12]

Movements and Duration

The fifteen numbers are intended to be sung at specific points in the liturgy service.

  1. Amen. Lord Have Mercy (Амин. Господи помилуй)
    After the exclamation "Blessed is the Kingdom" (После возглашения «Благословенно царство») (50 bars).
  2. Glory to the Father and to the Son (Слава Отцу и Сыну)
    After the First Antiphon (После первого антифона) (63 bars).
  3. Come, Let Us Worship (Придите, поклонимся)
    After the Little Entrance (После малого входа) (56 bars).
  4. Alleleuja (Аллилуйя)
    After the Epistle Reading (После чтения апостола) (15 bars).
  5. Glory to Thee, O Lord (Слава тебе Господи)
    After the Gospel Reading (После чтения евангелия) (26 bars).
  6. Cherubic Hymn (Херувимская песнь) (98 bars).
  7. Lord Have Mercy (Господи помилуй)
    After the Cherubic Hymn (После херувимской песни) (16 bars).
  8. I Believe in One God, The Father, The Almighty (Верую во Единаго Бога Отца)
    The Creed (Символ веры) (92 bars).
  9. Merciful Peace (Милость мира)
    After the Creed (После Cимвола веры) (42 bars).
  10. We Hymn Thee (Тебе поем)
    After the exclamation "Thine Own of Thine Own" (После возглашения «Твоя от твоих») (39 bars).
  11. It is Truly Fitting (Достойно есть)
    After the words "Especially For Our Most Holy" (После слов «Изрядко о пресвятей») (55 bars).
  12. Amen. And With Your Spirit, Lord Have Mercy (Амин. И со духом твоим, Господи, помилуй)
    After the exclamation "And Grant That With Our Mouths" (После возглашения: «И даждь нам единеми усты») (13 bars).
  13. Our Father (Отче наш)
    The Lord's Prayer (Молитва Господня) (44 bars).
  14. Praise the Lord from the Heavens (Хвалите, хвалите, Господа с небес)
    Communion Hymn (Причастный стих) (86 bars).
  15. Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord (Благословен грядый во имя Господне)
    After the Exclamation "In the Fear of God" (После возглашения «Со страхом Божиим») (92 bars).

A complete concert performance lasts around 50 minutes.


Tchaikovsky adapted the text from the Russian Orthodox Liturgy service.

The Cherubikon is the usual Cherubic Hymn sung at the Great Entrance of the Byzantine liturgy. The hymn symbolically incorporates those present at the liturgy into the presence of the angels gathered around God's throne.


See Legend (Tchaikovsky) and Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54.

Tchaikovsky's Sixteen Songs for Children (Шестнадцать песен для детей), Op. 54, were written at Kamenka in October and November 1883, except for No. 16 which dates from around December 1880.

Legend (Russian: Легенда, Legenda), Op. 54, No. 5 (also known as The Crown of Roses in some English-language sources) is a composition by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Originally written in 1883 as a song for solo voice and piano, it was subsequently arranged by Tchaikovsky for solo voice and orchestra (1884), and then for unaccompanied choir (1889). The words are based on the poem "Roses and Thorns" by American poet Richard Henry Stoddard, originally published in the May 1856 edition of Graham's Magazine, and translated into russian by Aleksey Pleshcheyev:


The young child Jesus had a garden
Full of roses, rare and red;
And thrice a day he watered them,
To make a garland for his head!

When they were full-blown in the garden,
He led the Jewish children there,
And each did pluck himself a rose,
Until they stripped the garden bare!

"And now how will you make your garland?
For not a rose your path adorns:"
"But you forget," he answered them,
"That you have left me still the thorns.

They took the thorns, and made a garland,
And placed it on his shining head;
And where the roses should have shone,
Were little drops of blood instead!

— Roses and Thorns, Stoddard, R[ichard] H[enry] (May 1856). "Roses and Thorns". Graham's Magazine. Philadelphia. xlviii (5): 414.

The Maid of Orleans

The Maid of Orleans (Орлеанская дева), in 4 acts and 6 scenes, is Tchaikovsky's sixth completed opera, based on the historical legend of Joan of Arc. It was composed between December 1878 and March 1879, and orchestrated between April and August 1879, with revisions in December 1880, and September-October 1882.


The opera's libretto was compiled by Tchaikovsky, after Friedrich Schiller's tragedy Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801) in a Russian translation by Vasily Zhukovsky, with additional material from Auguste Mermet's opera Jeanne d'Arc and Jules Barbier's drama of the same name [13].

During the summer of 1878 Tchaikovsky began to look for a subject for a new opera.

"Here I'm writing the Introduzione e Fuga. Both of them will go to make up a suite, which I want to do now in order to take a long break from symphonic music, and set about an opera. What shall it be? Romeo or Les Caprices de Marianne?", Tchaikovsky wrote in the summer of 1878 [14].

Many of the composer's statements dating from the summer and autumn of 1878 indicate his desire to find a plot for an opera that could inspire him. Ultimately a subject was found. On 21 November/3 December 1878 [15], Tchaikovsky writes to Nadezhda von Meck: "I am attracted by a new operatic subject, namely:The Maid of Orleans by Schiller [...] The idea of writing an opera based on this story came to me in Kamenka while I was leafing through Zhukovsky, who has translated Schiller's The Maid of Orleans. It has wonderful potential for music [...] I was pondering the subject before my last visit to Saint Petersburg, but now I am seriously interested" [16].

Intending to write the libretto himself, Tchaikovsky embarked on studying the story. The composer did not restrict himself to Schiller's drama only: he sought to incorporate a variety of historical and artistic sources [17]. On 6/18 December 1878 he told Nadezhda von Meck: "For the moment I have only Schiller's drama translated by Zhukovsky. Obviously the opera text cannot be based strictly on Schiller's scenario. There are too many characters, too many minor episodes. It requires a reworking, not just an abridgement..." [18]. "I want to burrow in catalogues and obtain a small collection of books on Jeanne d'Arc" [19] . "I'm thinking a very great deal about the libretto and can't yet make a definite plan. There's much that pleases me in Schiller, but I must admit I'm disturbed by his disdain for historical accuracy" [20].

He was particularly impressed by a scene in which "the king, archbishops and knights recognize Jeanne as a missionary from on high"[21] and decided that it just had to be a part of his opera. And the scenes of her passion, which he related to the passion of Christ, had a profound impact on him:

Imagine, my dear friend, that my heroine, that is Jeanne d'Arc, is to blame for my yesterday's abnormally excited condition and bad night. At last, in the evening I began reading your book [Henri-Alexandre Wallon, Jeanne d'Arc, Paris, 1876.], and having reached Jeanne's last days, her sufferings and execution that was preceded by abjuration, when her strength was out and she admitted that she was a witch, I felt such a pity and pain for all the mankind in her person, that it made me feel completely destroyed

— Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 1, p. 539-540 (letter from Florence, December 10, 1878)

Movements and Duration

See The Maid of Orleans#Movements_and_Duration on the Tchaikovsky wiki.


  1. Published in 1903
  2. Often anglicized as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky; also standardized by the Library of Congress. His names are also transliterated as Piotr or Petr; Ilitsch or Il'ich; and Tschaikowski, Tschaikowsky, Chajkovskij, or Chaikovsky. He used to sign his name/was known as P. Tschaïkowsky/Pierre Tschaïkowsky in French (as in his afore-reproduced signature), and Peter Tschaikowsky in German, spellings also displayed on several of his scores' title pages in their first printed editions alongside or in place of his native name.
  3. Петръ Ильичъ Чайковскій in Russian pre-revolutionary script.
  4. Russia was still using old style dates in the 19th century, rendering his lifespan as 25 April 1840 – 25 October 1893. Some sources in the article report dates as old style rather than new style.


  1. "Tchaikovsky". Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary.
  2. Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk [Correspondence with N. F. von Meck], ed. by V. A. Ždanov and N. T. Žegina, Moscow-Leningrad 1934-1936, ISBN 5962801423
  3. Dnevniki P. I. Cajkovskogo [Tchaikovsky's Diaries], Moscow-Petrograd 1923
  4. Wladimir Lakond, The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1945), p. 244
  5. Wladimir Lakond, The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1945), p. 249
  6. Dnevniki, P. I. Cajkovskogo, p. 213 (record of September 21, 1887)
  7. Pëtr Il'ic Cajkovskij, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 1, p. 113-114 (letter from Venice, December 5-17, 1877)
  8. see the work history
  9. Pëtr Il'ic Cajkovskij, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 1, p. 91 (letter from Vienna, November 23 - December 5, 1877)
  10. Pëtr Il'ic Cajkovskij, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 3, p. 270 (letter on the way from Moscow to Kamenka, April 7, 1884)
  11. Pëtr Il'ic Cajkovskij, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 3, p. 172 (letter from Paris, April 16, 1883)
  12. "Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)". Musica Russica. Retrieved 22 March 2013.
  13. Jules Barbier's drama Jeanna d'Arc, in 5 acts, 7 scenes with music by Charles Gounod was first performed in Paris on 8 November 1873. According to Félix Clément (1822–1885), this drama represented events with historical accuracy Among the musical numbers, Clément highly rated the chorus of refugees, the soldiers' chorus, and the funeral march — see Félix Clément & Pierre Larousse, Dictionnaire des operas (Dictionnaire lyrique) (1897 edition, revised by Arthur Pougin), p. 604. Auguste Mermet's opera Jeanna d'Arc, in 4 acts, 6 scenes, was first performed in Paris on 5 April 1876.
  14. See Letter 900 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 21 August/2 September 1878.
  15. The original gives an incorrect date of "2 December".
  16. Letter 973 to Nadezhda von Meck, 21 November/3 December 1878; see also Letter 966 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 13/25 November 1878.
  17. See Letter 968 to Pyotr Jurgenson, 15/27 November 1878; Letter 976 to Nadezhda von Meck, 23 November/5 December 1878; Letter 1016 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 11/23 December 1878; and Letter 1008 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 6/18 December 1878.
  18. Letter 1007 to Nadezhda von Meck, 6/18 December 1878.
  19. See Letter 1007 to Nadezhda von Meck, 6/18 December 1878.
  20. Letter 1013 to Nadezhda von Meck, 10/22 December 1878.
  21. Pëtr Il'ic Cajkovskij, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, vol. 1, p. 543 (letter from Florence, December 6-18, 1878)


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Further reading

External links