The music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, particularly that written for orchestra, is deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness. His contemporary compatriots energetically encouraged labeling it "emotional and over-westernized," and this characterization has been widely accepted as axiomatic. It is partly true; he did lead a life of desperate sadness, and expressed his feelings in passionate and sensuous melody. Further, while Tchaikovsky dismissed Brahms and Wagner, he admired Schumann and worshipped Mozart ("a musical Christ"), and his music was influenced by both. However, in recent decades, as his operas have earned overdue exposure, a compelling case has emerged for his profound Russian heart. Mazeppa is a virtual proof text.
Tchaikovsky was lionized in Europe and even more in America. At home, though, this served to fuel the disdain of the influential group of composers, self-proclaimed the "Mighty Five," Cui, Borodin, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mussorgsky. Considering themselves the sole heirs of Glinka as keepers of the sacred Russian musical flame, they scorned his music as international, academic, Europe-oriented. Balakirev had even treated his early Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture with contempt, though it was dedicated to him.
Tchaikovsky was eager to dispute their glib categorization. He wrote, "I am passionately fond of the national element in all its varied expressions. In a word, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word."
This extra purpose energized his later pursuit of an explosive quintessentially Russian opera subject that none of his professional competitors touched: Ivan Stepanovich Mazeppa, the turncoat Cossack who was once a favorite of Peter the Great. Tchaikovsky quickly snapped up a scenario that had been prepared by the poet Victor Burenin at the command of the Tsar for Karl Davydov, chief of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, who turned it down. Mazeppa might revalidate his Russianism.
Tchaikovsky was a country boy who was homesick and depressed in big cities. After working at law, his ardor for music led him to study in St. Petersburg before teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. He enjoyed some compositional success, albeit not with the Five. César Cui wrote, "Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, like the first pancake, is a flop."
As a music critic himself from 1872 to 1876, Tchaikovsky first visited Paris, where he heard Bizet's Carmen, which exhilarated him; then Bayreuth for the first Ring cycle in 1876, which did not impress him.
Meanwhile he was struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. Anxiously, foolishly, in 1877 Tchaikovsky tried to suppress his feelings by marrying the infatuated music student Antonina Milyukova, hot-blooded but not overly bright. He endured the painful experience only nine weeks before suffering an emotional collapse of such severity that he attempted a Schumann-like suicide by drowning. His brother Modest rescued him, nursed him into a veneer of health and a period of feverish creativity, although his drinking became obsessive: "I, a sick person, full of neuroses, absolutely cannot do without the alcoholic poison."
Meanwhile, his most healing relationship had begun in late 1876, a scrupulously platonic one with the wealthy widow, Baroness Nadezhda von Meck, mother of eleven children. She supported him in style for 14 years, enabling him to stop teaching, but stipulated that they never meet. In one letter of many to him, she wrote, "I fear your acquaintanceship. I prefer to think of you from afar, to hear you speak in your music and share your feelings through it." This arrangement fit Tchaikovsky's inhibited personality perfectly. When their paths crossed by accident, they avoided looking at each other.
Although Tchaikovsky called opera "a false type of art," he also confessed that it held "something irrepressible that attracts all composers." It certainly engaged him. After some minor efforts, in 1877-78 he delivered a masterpiece, Eugene Onegin. Alone at the time, with Verdi's La Traviata, it had a contemporary setting, plus the tang of realism which he admired in Carmen, glowing with luscious melancholy. Yet, here is Cui again: "Eugene Onegin begins with a whimper… Lensky's aria in the duel scene is pitiful diatonic whining… As an opera, Eugene Onegin is stillborn and absolutely incompetent."
Tchaikovsky's next opera was The Maid of Orleans, a grand epic on a very non-Russian theme, but then Mazeppa rode into his life.
There is as much legend as fact surrounding Mazeppa. Born in 1632 or 1644, he was educated either in Kiev or at the Jesuit College in Warsaw‹his Russian Orthodox foes preferred the latter version‹then became a low-level courtier to the Polish King John II. According to a story almost certainly manufactured by a rival, a sexual peccadillo caused him to be strapped naked to a wild stallion and spurred into the ice-covered wilderness. So tough was Mazeppa, though, that the horse died while he survived, arriving in the Ukraine frozen and near death like a mystical messiah. He rose to become not only the local Cossack hetman, or leader, a hero fighting the Turks, but a favorite of Tsar Peter the Great, given authority over all the Ukraine. He ruled well for years, building schools and churches in a style still known as "Mazeppa Baroque."
Then, for reasons still debated, when Charles XII of Sweden invaded Russia at the start of the 18th century, Mazeppa began secret negotiations with him. The Great Northern War was still raging in 1708 when Charles and his Polish allies entered Ukraine, and Mazeppa switched sides. In the end Peter defeated the Swedes, reinforcing Russian hegemony. The disgraced hetman fled to a Turkish town, dying within months.
For Ukrainians he remains a champion, willing to die for the cause of their freedom from Muscovite tyranny. To Peter the Great, and thence all loyal Russians, he was the ultimate traitor, the treacherous Cossack who revolted against the Tsar who loved him and the country which had nurtured him. A popular anonymous poem from 1709, began, "Ah, treacherous John Hetman Mazeppa! Why didst thou betray the Tsar?" All traces of him were ordered obliterated, and he was pronounced anathema by the Russian Orthodox Church, to be ritually condemned in services.
The Mazeppa saga, including the legendary messianic winter gallop, became celebrated in Europe after appearing in Voltaire's biographies of, respectively, Charles XII and Peter the Great, each treating Mazeppa in diametrically opposing ways, as hero and villain. In the 19th century, mythic highlights such as a cold-tortured body hosting a possibly transcendent soul, with later overtones of a Lucifer-like revolt, were irresistible to Romantic poets like Hugo and Byron, the painter Delacroix, and Liszt, who composed four etudes and a symphonic poem on the subject.
In Slavic countries, attitude depended upon allegiance. On one anti-Russian extreme, the Pole Juliusz Slowacki, Chopin's contemporary, drew Mazeppa in reverential hues, almost holy; Russian poet Kondrati Ryleyev, before being hanged himself as a Decembrist revolutionary, wrote a story in verse extolling him. But the dominant depiction of Mazeppa's later years came in 1828, when Aleksander Pushkin published his zealous pro-tsarist epic poem Poltava, with the Cossack's self-serving treachery. That became the definitive Russian version, the one adapted for Tchaikovsky's libretto.
Retaining that shading, the love-bedeviled composer nonetheless emphasized the surprisingly sincere passion between Mazeppa, unavoidably a baritone, and, the decades-younger Maria, daughter of the rich landholder Kochubey. She so fervently returns the feeling that she leaves her shocked father for the hetman, inadvertently leading to Kochubey's torture and beheading. Burenin had taken two obscure Pushkin references to a young Cossack who also loved Maria, named him Andrey and had made him the obligatory tenor. Tchaikovsky gave him an odd duet with Maria‹he enamored of her, she of Mazeppa. Most significantly, he also changed Burenin's ending, where Maria, insane after just failing to save her father, drowns herself, leading to a traditional closing chorus of consternation. Tchaikovsky instead has the mad girl stumble across the mortally wounded Andrey. Mistaking him for a sleeping child, she sings a lullaby as he dies. It is an eloquent, tender finale to a powerful opera of war and its anguish.
The conductor of Mazeppa's St. Petersburg premiere spoke of "scene upon scene each more horrible than the last: enmity, betrayal, torture, execution, murder, and madness‹there is nowhere for the listener to relax." Perhaps, but the cumulative impact climaxing in that gentle conclusion is heartbreaking, an echo not only of the pain within Tchaikovsky's life, but the compassion of his innate Russian soul.
Somehow he knew he had to write Mazeppa. It sparked such revived interest in his work in his homeland that the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theaters vied to get the first performance in1884. The patriotic plotline let him utilize nationalist colorations, like the familiar folk song "Slava" (best known to audiences today from Mussorgsky's use of it in Boris Godunov) traditional Cossack dances, Ukrainian tunes, even a hint of a polonaise in Act I. Above all, there is an essence that is wonderfully, inescapably Russian.
Tchaikovsky's unusual friendship with Baroness von Meck abruptly ended in 1890. He was shattered, unable to comprehend that not only her bank account but her mental health was in trouble. Increasingly despondent, he poured his anguish into his final work, the Sixth Symphony, "Pathetique," and within a week he had died.
From the ruins of that life, new glories are resurrected with the passage of time. They confirm that, as Igor Stravinsky wrote, "Tchaikovsky's music … is more often profoundly Russian than music which has long since been awarded the facile label ... quite as Russian as Pushkin's verse or Glinka's song... Tchaikovsky drew unconsciously from the true, popular sources of our race."
Mazeppa, as emotionally open and thrilling as any Tchaikovsky opera, could be exhibit number one.