Dostoevsky was one of many important artists to emerge in Russia in the late 1800s. The tumultuous atmosphere in Russia at this time gave rise to a generation of artists who expressed suffering and internal conflict with poise and acuity. Dostoevsky often is grouped with Leo Tolstoy because the two authors created similarly dense, complex novels about the difficult Russian life around the same time. But another contemporary artist who echoed the soul of Dostoevsky’s works, perhaps more closely, was Tchaikovsky. Dostoevsky’s psychological drama and sweeping scope were expressed in Tchaikovsky’s music; his complex symphonies have been called “Russia’s music.”
Critics have noted that the anguish and ecstasy in Tchaikovsky’s works mimic the psychological dramatics of Dostoevsky. They were very different men with different ideas, but Tchaikovsky had a gift for being able to speak to the people of Russia. The two artists convey passion and tumult, and despite their differences, they hold a similar place in Russian cultural history as creators of epic works of art that express the heart of Russia.
Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky is an interesting counterpoint to Dostoevsky in reflecting the Russian mind with all its angst and suffering. The nationalism inherent in works such as the 1812 Overture match Dostoevsky’s love for his country. Dostoevsky’s writing is expansive and ambitious; his characters struggle with dramatic issues such as murder and madness, and the stakes are very high. Tchaikovsky matched this emotional intensity with works such as his Fourth Symphony, which he began in 1877, the year before Dostoevsky began The Brothers Karamazov. This piece was heralded for its unusually evocative grandiosity.
Tchaikovsky was going through a very difficult time in his life, coming to terms with a bad marriage and his sexuality, and his Fourth Symphony reflects his inner turmoil. Tchaikovsky, like Dostoevsky, had the ability to convey grand themes as well as very personal emotional complexity. At the same time, both artists took their rightful places on the world stage, reflecting and developing some of the trends in Western music and literature at the time.
The two artists were grouped together for their many similarities, but they were not peers, and they did not hold all the same beliefs. Though many people compared the two artistic figures, Tchaikovsky met Dostoevsky only once. Tchaikovsky read Dostoevsky’s works, and he was especially interested in The Brothers Karamazov. He came to the conclusion that the novelist was difficult, saying that the book was, on the whole, “intolerable.” He said that every character was “crazy.” Tchaikovsky favored a more conservative style. He was an avid Tsarist, and he was at odds with the nationalistic school of music started by Mily Balakirev. He disagreed with the Socialist movement, and when he included a Russian folk song in his Fourth Symphony with lyrics that translate roughly, “go to the people,” it almost seemed ironic. He believed in his country, but he did not believe in the same grassroots populism that Dostoevsky believed in. Tchaikovsky’s later works, however, such as Romeo and Juliet, are like reveries, verging on surrealism. He gave in to fancy and aloofness where Dostoevsky wrote about the difficult, gritty details of bleak Russian life. Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky were influenced by the same aspects of Russian strife, but they were by no means ideological allies.