During the last decades of the Russian Empire, an extraordinarily rich cultural life flourished in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, even as the city was rocked by tumultuous political events that led to the downfall of the monarchy. In many ways, the life and works of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) reflect the complex relations between a creative genius and a culture that was both European and Russian, in which music, visual arts, literature, and ballet entwined the dictates of art and the sense of belonging to a nation dominated by an autocracy. While Tchaikovsky died just as the Silver Age was dawning in Russia, it was in that time that his legacy came to fruition in the virtually unprecedented confluence and collaboration of innovation and excellence across the spectrum of the arts.
From its early stirrings in the 18th century and throughout the 19th century, secular Russian culture had been dominated by the autocracy, which created a Westernized elite to rule the empire and provide it with a culture of European stature, keeping a tight rein on any signs of artistic autonomy that might encourage political free thinking. At the same time, liberal critics found evidence of national genius—especially in literature—in the early decades of the 19th century.
Russian music, however, was a latecomer to the scene. The first Russian musical conservatory opened in St. Petersburg in 1862. Its director, Anton Rubinstein, wrote that at that time, “the profession of musical artist did not exist in Russia.” At the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky discovered his love for music, and his teachers discovered his extraordinary abilities. In 1866, the Moscow Conservatory opened, and Tchaikovsky moved there as one of its outstanding teachers. From that point on, Russian music developed with amazing speed. The Mighty Five—Borodin, Mussorgsky,
Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and Balakirev—undertook the task of creating a national Russian music, just as earlier writers (notably Pushkin and Gogol) had done in literature.
As the century drew to a close, the arts came together in ballet, lavishly subsidized by the imperial court. The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake—all with music by Tchaikovsky—entered the Imperial Ballet repertoire in the 1890s. At the same time, St. Petersburg became the scene of industrialization, which exacerbated the rift between imperial ostentation and the squalor of the urban poor. Strikes grew in magnitude and number; the liberal movement became ever more restive, and the radical opposition increasingly resorted to violent terrorist attacks—all of which culminated in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The political disarray, however, seems to have promoted a cultural efflorescence: The monarchy's loss of legitimacy desacralized St. Petersburg and unleashed the imagination of artists, writers, and composers who used their talent to evoke other worlds of inspiration and splendor.
Symbolist poet Alexander Blok incarnated the spirit of the age, celebrating the anarchic music of the coming popular revolution. Almost two decades earlier, Tchaikovsky provided the music for what might well be seen as the final, bittersweet fairy tale of the Empire belatedly saved from its own failings in the ballet The Sleeping Beauty. New ballets, echoing Symbolist ideas, would displace it, while the idyll itself would be brutally crushed by the ruthless march of the Red Guard through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd, given voice in Blok's celebrated poem The Twelve—conceived in the aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover of the city—and in his fellow symbolist Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg.
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