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The Pain of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Who Wanted to Believe

A late romantic, restless, and sentimental Russian composer, was born 180 years ago, on May 7, 1840, at Votkinsk, a town in Russia’s Ural Mountains: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893).

He studied composition, we read in the biography, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Anton Rubinstein, pianist and composer attached to German Romanticism. After earning his diploma, he taught harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. In 1876, Nadežda Filaretovna von Meck, a wealthy noblewoman who loved music, granted him a regular monthly allowance; during the 14 years of this “strange relationship,” Tchaikovsky wrote his greatest works. Between 1877 and 1891, he performed in Europe and the United States. In 1893, he completed his Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique) shortly before dying, perhaps by suicide, in St. Petersburg.

To his benefactress, who asked him what he thought about religion, Tchaikovsky replied from Vienna twice. In a letter dated November 20, 1877, he expresses his skepticism regarding faith:

Herein lies precisely the skeptic’s tragedy: once he has broken the ties which bind him to traditional belief, he passes from one set of philosophical speculations to another, always imagining he will discover that inexhaustible source of strength, so needful for the battle of life, with which the believer is fully equipped. You may say what you please, but a faith — not what proceeds from a mere deficiency of reasoning power and is simply a matter of routine, but a faith founded on reason and able to reconcile all misconceptions and contradictions arising from intellectual criticism — such a belief is the supreme happiness. A man who has both intellect and faith (and there are many such) is clad, as it were, in a panoply of armor which can resist all the blows of fate. … And, do you know? It seems to me you only care so much for my music because I am as full of the ideal longing as yourself. Our sufferings are the same. Your doubts are so strong as mine. We are both adrift in that limitless sea of skepticism, seeking a haven and finding none. (M. Tchaikovsky, The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, London; New York: J. Lane, 1906, pp. 235–236)

In a letter dated November 23, 1877, he appears disarmed in the face of the aesthetic appeal of Eastern Orthodox rites:

My feeling about the Church is quite different to yours. For me it still possesses much poetical charm. I very often attend the services. I consider the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom one of the greatest productions of art. If we follow the service very carefully, and enter into the meaning of every ceremony, it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by the liturgy of our own Orthodox Church. I also love vespers. To stand on a Saturday evening in the twilight in some little old country church, filled with the smoke of incense; to lose oneself in the eternal questions, whence, why and whither; to be startled from one’s trance by a burst from the choir; to be carried away by the poetry of this music; to be thrilled with a quiet rapture when the Golden Gates of the Iconostasis are flung open and the words ring out, ‘Praise the name of the Lord!’ All this is infinitely precious to me! One of my deepest joys! Thus, from one point of view, I am firmly united to our Church. From other standpoints I have — like yourself — long since lost faith in dogma. […] You see, my dear friend, I am made up of contradictions[.] … Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. … Perhaps there will be no music in heaven. Well, let us give our mortal life to it as long as it lasts. (M. Tchaikovsky, Ibidem, pp. 237–238)

In what Tchaikovsky wrote, we find the reasons that led him to compose the first of his rare works of sacred music between May 16 and June 8, 1878: the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 41, for unaccompanied mixed choir. The work, named after the great Father of the Church, is one of the richest expressions of the Eastern Liturgy. The Russian musician wrote a score divided into 15 numbers for about 50 minutes of music, performed for the first time in the church of the University of Kiev in June 1879.

After the non-public rite of the preparation of the holy gifts comes the Liturgy of the Catechumens. The first two numbers of Tchaikovsky’s score receive the liturgical moment in which three priestly prayers at the altar, accompanied by three litanies, alternate with three antiphons, which depict the expectation of the Gospel in the Old Testament. The third number corresponds to the so-called “Small entrance”: the Gospel is carried in procession, representing Jesus the Teacher who enters the world. Follow the troparions, which are equivalent to the oremus and commemorate the feast or saint of the day; the Trisagion (hymn “Thrice Holy”), which closes n. 3 — the Epistle, with the verses that precede and follow it; and, by the deacon, the Holy Gospel (n. 4). Then the sermon and a great litany for all (n. 5), including the catechumens, who, not being baptized yet, are mandated to leave the church, follow.

The Cherubic Hymn (n. 6), one of the highlights of the score, opens the Liturgy of the Faithful (baptized Christians); it accompanies what corresponds to the offertory in the Roman Rite, the “Great entrance” in which, representing Jesus as victim and priest who enters the world, the priest and the deacon carry the disc (paten) and the chalice in procession to the altar. We continue with the litany of the completion (n. 7), the liturgical exchange of the Peace and the Nicene Creed (n. 8). Similarly to the Canon of the Roman Rite, we are at the Holy Anaphora (numbers 9 and 10): Preface, Sanctus, Consacration, Epiclesis, and Anamnesis. A hymn to the Mother of God is followed by a prayer for the Patriarch and for the living and the dead (numbers 11 e 12). The litany of supplication precedes the Our Father (n. 13). The last numbers (14 and 15) accompany Communion, Thanksgiving, and Blessing. At the end, bread blessed during the Liturgy (antidoron) is distributed to all those present.

We want to recognize in this score an act of faith by a restless spirit, who with good-natured envy on October 31, 1884 writes in a letter to the musician M. Balakirev, his friend and a deep believer: “I was deeply moved by our conversation of yesterday. How good you are! What a true friend you are to me! How I wish that that enlightenment which has come to your soul would also descend on me. I can say in all truth that more than ever I thirst for solace and support in Christ. I shall pray that faith in Him may be confirmed in me” (D. Brown, Tchaikovsky: The years of wandering, Vol. 3, Gollancz, 1986, p. 301).

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