Tchaikovsky reads the Bible
A copy of the Bible owned by P.I.Tchaikovsky Title page Vienna, 1878

Russian National Museum of Music
The great composer repeatedly emphasised that he was the son of his era. In such statements Tchaikovsky, first of all, meant the fundamentals of his own life, strikingly different from the way people used to live before. The cornerstone of his reasoning on this topic was the role of God in human life.

As a 'man of his era', Tchaikovsky felt himself 'broken' and 'morally hurt' and 'eaten reflex', whereas in the past, according to his ideas, people were soul more integral and carried 'warm, naive faith' in their hearts. The composer's self-perception had quite objective reasons, similar to those of many of his contemporaries. The middle and second half of the 19th century was a time of gradual decay of religious life in Russian society, strengthening of various doubts and search for an alternative to Christianity. Remaining a state religion, it became more and more formalised, exhausted and for many people, it ceased to be that indestructible life-giving force that once inspired great accomplishments of entire nations and individuals. Regular reading of the Book and religious literature, theological thought and praying were no longer a part of everyday practice. All this gradually ceased to be interesting and meaningful, giving way to a variety of new ideas, goals and values. However, there was no real substitute for the previous order of thought and this caused social tension and numerous personal tragedies (for example, in the 1880s, Russia saw a wave of suicides).

As a child, little Pyotr had warm religious feelings, as can be seen from his poems. They were mainly about love for God and his Motherland. During his study at the School of Law, the future composer, who even sang in the church choir of the school, did not immerse deeply in church life and did not occupy his mind looking for answers to philosophical questions about the meaning of life and the world order. Despite the fact that at the age of 14 he faced his mother's death, the common interests of young people and the general secular order of St. Petersburg life took over and for many years determined the main aspirations of the young man. A confession of the 21-year-old Tchaikovsky in one of his letters to his sister is quite distinctive: 'Do you know my weakness? When I have money in my pocket, I spend it all on pleasure; it's mean, it's stupid—I know; strictly speaking, I can't have money for pleasure; there are exorbitant debts that require payment, there are the very first needs—but I (again, by weakness) don't really see anything and have fun. That's my character'.
Cloth bookmark from the Bible belonging to P.I.Tchaikovsky The inscription in English is embroidered: "Forget me not"

Russian National Museum of Music
A dramatic change in Tchaikovsky's life in the early 1860s, when he chose the path of a professional musician, affected all aspects of his existence. From then on, he sought comprehensive mastery of composing skills and devoted all his time and energy to it. His cheerful temper still deterred the young composer from staging and searching for answers to 'damned questions' and allowed him to make jokes on religious topics. However, as time passed, the challenges of life and the grown-up mind finally made Tchaikovsky more conscientious. In early January 1875, the author of the newly completed First Piano Concerto admitted in a letter to his brother Anatoly Ilyich: 'Can you imagine, I often and for a long time now think about a monastery or something like that?' However, it was long before Tchaikovsky started regularly reads the Book and religious and philosophical literature, and began his deep reflections on life goals.

Since the late 1870s, being able to give up a huge workload of his current conservative work and lead the life of a free artist who disposes of his time on his own allowed Tchaikovsky to pay attention to religious matters. His path in this area became a true quest. The composer went through a fascination with the ideas of B. Spinoza, A. Schopenhauer and L. Tolstoy, arguing with them, rejecting something, but at the same time finding consonance in them. In 1885, Tchaikovsky began to read the Bible regularly.

A copy of the composer's Bible is now kept in the collections of the Russian National Museum of Music. It contains a translation of the Old and New Testaments into modern literary Russian. The book was published in Vienna in 1878. On the pages of the printed copy, Tchaikovsky left over 200 notes, and 75 dates covering six and a half years, from 11 September 1885 to 3 February 1892.

Researchers have repeatedly noted that the composer read the Bible not from beginning to end, but in parallel with the Old and New Testaments. His heartfelt sympathy was certainly on the side of the Gospel, which preaches love, mercy and forgiveness. The composer's favourite place, which he even expressed in music, was the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew: 'Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11:28–30). 'What an infinite poetry and a tearful feeling of love and pity for people', this is how Tchaikovsky described these words in his diary. Another fragment that also deeply touched the composer was also the Saviour's words: '...Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these' (Matthew 19:14). For the latter, he wrote in the bottom margin of the page: 'This and also "Come unto Me all ye that labour" etc., most befits me in the Gospel'.
Flowers embedded in the Bible owned by P.I.Tchaikovsky

Russian National Museum of Music
Tchaikovsky always reflected on the deep difference ('an infinitely deep abyss', in the words of the composer) between the messages of the Old and New Testaments. While the words of the New Testament softened Tchaikovsky's heart and caused him to cry, many pages of Old Testament books made him confront.

The composer was surprised that in the Old Testament God appeared as a chastener and avenger to those who violated His laws. The composer left confused comments on the ideas of revenge on enemies and the triumph of the righteous over the ungodly, which is repeatedly found in biblical texts. Tchaikovsky refused to understand how, along with these ideas, the same book calls 'not to resist the one who is evil and if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also' (Matthew 5:39). The composer left numerous comments and question marks in the margins of the Old Testament of the Bible, and there is a feeling of indignation and grumbling in the notes, a desire to challenge almost every statement. Apparently, Tchaikovsky could not read the Old Testament to the end: the last comment was made in February 1892 at the end of the second chapter of the Book of Jeremiah the Prophet. However, even before that, the composer had tried to give up reading the Old Testament. Apparently, having reached an extreme degree of irritation caused by a lack of understanding of the meaning of the text, after verses 23–25 of chapter 13 of Solomon's Proverbs, he wrote down: 'These are the times! Only temptation! I will not read it anymore'.

Tchaikovsky's copy of the Bible has two bookmarks (for parallel reading of both Testaments), a bird's feather and thirteen dried flowers. According to researchers, the flowers were perceived as some kind of evidence by the composer's August note: '...thank God I can once again easily communicate with nature and the ability of each leaf and flower to see and understand something unattainable, beautiful, resting, peaceful, giving thirst for life'.

We can hardly speak of some slender and complete religious and philosophical views of Tchaikovsky, although at the end of September 1887, in his diary, the composer stated that he had a certain 'religion' and a 'symbol of faith' that he would like to set out one day, but never did. However, the constant 'floating of the mind' in the texts of the Old and New Testaments, interviewing, arguing and agreeing with them have had an essential impact on Tchaikovsky in his final years of life, both as a man and as a composer. Their direct and indirect reflection can be caught in all of Tchaikovsky's works from 1885–1893, ranging from the Witchcraft and Manfred Symphony to Iolanta and the Sixth Symphony. Translated with (free version)
Senior Researcher
Russian National Museum of Music
PhD (Candidate of Art History)
Alexander Komarov
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