Torment Rewarded. Tchaikovsky's Students and Followers
P.I. Tchaikovsky
Francesca da Rimini. Musical fantasy for orchestra
Dedicated to S.I. Taneyev
Copy of the score's first edition
Moscow, Pyotr Jurgenson, 1877

Russian National Museum of Music
Rarely did Tchaikovsky talk about anything as harshly and with such clear distaste as about his own teaching career. Even his letters to Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, which are generally written in a lofty literary style, abound with passages where the composer characterises the loathsome teaching profession in a purely vitriolic, even crass manner. Tchaikovsky was certainly not shy with his choice of colourful epithets: 'unbearable', 'profound disgust', 'I abhor working a a teacher', 'how this work sickens me', 'draining, irritating classes at the Conservatory', 'I find myself in the throes of unfathomable malice' etc. This utterly negative reaction was, in many ways, caused by the composer's own deep-seated belief that he was incapable of teaching anything to anyone. Tchaikovsky himself said as much, and quite often too, whenever he looked back on his many years of teaching at the Conservatory. But there was another, no less important reason behind the composer's bleak outlook on teaching: the very atmosphere and student body of the Moscow Conservatory during the first few years of its history. The students are described very vividly in one of Tchaikovsky's letters to von Meck: 'When I sit and teach men's classes, I at least have to deal with a crowd of youths that, while very underdeveloped, still have some manner of future as musicians <...>. Here, I can make myself useful. But women's classes? Dear God, what nonsense is this? Out of the 60 or 70 little ladies that study harmony in my class, there are 4, or 5 at the most, that will grow into real musicians. The rest enrolled at the Conservatory to pass the time, or for some other purpose that has nothing to do with music'.

To make matters even worse, Tchaikovsky's work as a teacher happened to coincide with a period of his own exceptional creative growth and intense activity as a composer. Just think of it: between 1866 and 1877, when he taught at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky created approximately one half of his entire heritage. This was the period when he composed five operas, a ballet, four symphonies, Piano Concerto No. 1, several orchestral pieces, three string quartets and countless piano miniatures and romances. While he longed with all his soul to fully immerse himself in creating music, Tchaikovsky was forced to dedicate the larger, better portion of his time to gruelling and inefficient work that, by his own firm conviction, he had no natural inclination for.
P.I. Tchaikovsky
Waltz-Scherzo for violin and piano or orchestra
Dedicated to I.I. Kotek
Copy published during the composer's lifetime
Moscow, Pyotr Jurgenson, c. 1890

Russian National Museum of Music
In all, about 400 students completed Tchaikovsky's music theory class, but only a handful of them would go on to play a notable role in the history of musical culture. Even fewer managed to have a warm, amicable relationship with their teacher—and it was in extremely rare cases that such a relationship lasted for more than a few years.

Tchaikovsky's star student was, without a doubt, Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915). Taneyev went down in history as a talented composer, outstanding pianist, prominent musical critic and wonderful teacher, whose students included Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin... He kept contact with Tchaikovsky, first as a student, and then as a fellow composer, for more than 20 years. Taneyev was accepted into the Conservatory among its very first class, in 1866, when he was not even ten years old. But it was not until 1869 that Taneyev began studying under the great Tchaikovsky. The legendary composer taught the young Taneyev two musical and theoretical disciplines: harmony and orchestration. The boy's unique talent became evident during his very first lessons. His unmatched diligence and discipline allowed him to achieve exceptional results in his studies. Taneyev graduated from the Conservatory in May 1875, receiving two qualifications—that of a pianist and a composer—a diploma and a medal. And in 1877, Tchaikovsky already began to feel nostalgic about teaching Taneyev. '<...> it is perfectly natural for my heart to clench as I remember you, my pride and joy for so many years', he wrote to his former student.

Tchaikovsky was highly complimentary of Taneyev, both as a professional and a person. 'A man of flawless morals and an astounding musician'—such was Taneyev's description, penned by Tchaikovsky in one of his letters to von Meck. It was to Taneyev, who was a boy of eighteen at the time, that Tchaikovsky initially dedicated his Piano Concerto No. 1 (1874–1875); however, he subsequently changed the dedication, addressing it to Hans von Bülow, the first musician to perform this piece. Nonetheless, Taneyev soon became the addressee of another, no less important work by Tchaikovsky: the Francesca da Rimini symphonic poem (1876). Tchaikovsky avidly supported Taneyev's nomination for the post of the Moscow Conservatory's director. Taneyev did, in fact, get this position—when he was just 28 years old! He remained director from 1885 to 1889. For his own part, Taneyev became one of the regular performers of Tchaikovsky's piano music; after his famed teacher died, he undertook it upon himself to finish the incomplete creations that he had left behind.
P.I. Tchaikovsky
Pezzo Capriccioso for cello and orchestra or piano
Dedicated to A.A. Brandukov
Autographed score
Aachen—Maidanovo, 1887

Russian National Museum of Music
Perhaps even one student of Taneyev's calibre would have been enough for Tchaikovsky to stop doubting his worth as a teacher. But in fact, he also got to teach other prominent musicians, who remained his friends for many years.

For instance, the young violinist Iosif Iosifovich Kotek (1855–1885) graduated from the Moscow Conservatory in 1876, after completing two courses: violin and composition. Tchaikovsky was his mentor when he studied the latter. After graduation, Kotek became a live-in violinist at the estate of Nadezhda von Meck, who largely had him to thank for her and Tchaikovsky becoming pen friends. Tchaikovsky and Kotek remained very close. When working on his Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky would often ask for Kotek's opinion, and at some point, he even thought of dedicating the Concerto to his former student. Later on, however, he abandoned the idea, dedicating the Valse-Scherzo for the violin to Kotek instead. When describing his student's professional skill, the composer would always emphasise his musical gift, his 'artistic talent and mature understanding of music'. The Violin Concerto received a mixed response, which Tchaikovsky blamed on Kotek, who was responsible for ensuring the 'performability' of the violin segment. They stopped talking to each other for a while, but at the end of 1884, when Tchaikovsky learned that his student and dear friend was dying of consumption, he tossed all his work aside and rushed to see Kotek in Davos, Switzerland. This was their last meeting. In early 1885, shortly after Tchaikovsky left, Kotek passed away. The news shook the composer to his very core.

Two other students of Tchaikovsky, cellist Anatoly Andreyevich Brandukov (1856–1930) and pianist Alexander Ilyich Siloti (1863–1945), mostly interacted with him during the latter years of his life. While both had studied under Tchaikovsky in the 1870s, they did not form a meaningful personal connection with their former teacher until much later, in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Both performed as soloists during concerts that Tchaikovsky conducted, and both were privy to the inner workings of the composer's creative 'laboratory', as he consulted them on the subtle nuances of playing their respective instruments, the cello and the piano. Brandukov became the addressee of Pezzo Capriccioso for cello and orchestra, while Siloti had the Fantasy Scherzo (from the Eighteen Piano Pieces collection) dedicated to him. Tchaikovsky was highly appreciative of both musicians, as well as grateful to them for their contribution to spreading his work. He would often find himself missing them, and longing to talk to them.
Programme of A.I. Siloti's concert feat. P.I. Tchaikovsky
Moscow, Imperial Russian Musical Society, 11 November 1889

Russian National Museum of Music
At the same time, he did not always take kindly to Siloti's constant attempts to 'improve' Concertos No. 1 and 2 and make them more 'appealing' to musicians and 'palatable' to the public. On the one hand, the composer was always willing to listen to the recommendations of the pianist that was performing his Concertos, and would even acknowledge that these recommendations were fair. But on the other hand, he seldom stomached suggestions on altering his music. When discussing Siloti's version of Piano Concerto No. 2, Tchaikovsky wrote, '...my sensibilities as an author take much offence at all these rearrangements and changes of yours, and agreeing to them is more than I can bear. <...> My own changes did not disrupt the logical sequence of the parts; your plan to move the cadence towards the end, however, made my stomach sink and my hair stand on end'.

Interestingly, it is thanks to Siloti that we can now enjoy Tchaikovsky's symphonic ballad, Voyevoda (1891). The composer was so disappointed with its premiere that he destroyed his hand-written copy of the score immediately afterwards. But Siloti, who was in charge of organising the concert, kept the distressed Tchaikovsky from doing the same to the orchestra's scores, which were subsequently used to restore the entire ballad.

The profound, meaningful relationships with the select few students whom he could consider kindred spirits gave Tchaikovsky metaphorical nourishment: he could count on them both for professional understanding and for emotional support. This unique sense of belonging, found among a handful of musicians that he himself had once nurtured, could be considered the reward for the endless torment that the composer had to endure when he was forced to teach.
Senior Researcher
Russian National Museum of Music
PhD (Candidate of Art History)
Alexander Komarov
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