A Comparison of Tchaikovsky and Holst

Holst and Tchaikovsky were two composers that lived in different parts of the world and lived out the majority of their careers in different centuries respective to each other. They were also very different in their personality, beliefs, and lifestyles. You may be able to go as far as to say that they really had nothing in common at all. However, in the midst of their differences they were still both composers having similar minds and priorities in their careers. On the outside they seemed very different, but they both struggled with the same blessing of creativity in their lives, and therefore had more in common than some people might think.

Tchaikovsky’s and Holst’s personalities seemed to be very much polar opposites. While Tchaikovsky had a pessimistic attitude, emotional intensity, and relentless depression, (Newmarch, 30) Holst was a much more jovial person. In fact, his first composition teacher in college said this about him: “Enthusiastic, and happily not devoid of humor.” (Short, 21) These two men journeyed through life with these very different outlooks on life and somehow managed to have the same career path.

There were a few things in Tchaikovsky’s life that heavily influenced his work: Personality, tradition vs. Liszt, and friends. Within Tchaikovsky’s personality was a certain sense of depression which was big part of what made his work his. Almost all of his works have a monotonous melancholy to them that were probably influenced by his dark outlook on life. (Newmarch, 30) This is also part of what made his music so wonderful; depression is a large part of what sparks creativity, which can help a creative thinker conceive greater material. Tchaikovsky’s interest in progress (Liszt) and classicism also heavily influenced his work. He composed under these two influences exclusively, which is why some critics say that there is a lack of unity throughout his work. (1-4) His friends seemed to simply influence where he got a lot of his ideas. In some cases he’d write for them or in other cases they would make a suggestion and he would take it.

Holst liked music in a bit of a different way, and was inspired by different things. While he loved tradition in music, he was also very interested in preserving the folk music of his time, using it in his works to make his music better while keeping the folk tunes alive at the same time. (Short, 63) Tchaikovsky also enjoyed folk tunes and used them in his works, but his reasoning came from his nationalistic ideals. Holst liked to combine everything that he saw and heard and put it into his work, including the ideas of people from the past and present: “I believe very strongly that we are largely the result of our surroundings and that we never do anything alone. Everything that is worth doing is the result of several minds playing on eachother.” -Holst

To effectively compare these two composers it is important to know a little bit about their lives. It is interesting to note that the beginning of Holst’s life was hard, and that the rest of it was quite happy, while the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s life was happy and the rest of it was a bit darker. Their childhoods are ironic when keeping in mind these two composer’s personalities, and the mood of the music that they composed. Holst has very much a more jovial and less emotional aura about the music he writes when compared to Tchaikovsky who has a certain sense of depression which is a big part of what makes his work his. To understand why the music of these two composers is the way it is one must know what happened in their lives, and what their circumstances were during the compositional process.

Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840 and Votinsk, in the government of Viaka. He did not have much of a musical family seeing as his father was a mining engineer, and was later appointed director of the Technological Institute. (Newmarch, 5) As Tchaikovsky grew up, he received a position in the ministry of justice in St. Petersburg, but his interest in music carried on throughout the duration of this job in the form of being an armature musician. He played for evening parties and the like, but never considered music as a possibility for a career until a little later in life.

One day, almost randomly, his cousin showed him the possibility of modulating to any key using only three chords. Tchaikovsky was amazed by this and wanted to know where he could learn this sort of knowledge as well. He wasted no time getting into Michailovsky Palace to start studying music, but at this point he was still not totally convinced that he was going to be a musician. But then in the December of 1861, he wrote this letter to his sister: (6)

“I told you I was studying the theory of music with considerable success. It is generally agreed that with my uncommon talents (I hope you will not take this for mere boasting) it would be a pity not to try my luck in this career. I am only afraid of a want of purpose; perhaps idleness may take possession of me and I may not persevere. You know I have power and capacity, but I am ailing with your malady, which is called ‘fragmentariness,’ and if I do not become enthusiastic over a thing am I easily done for.” (7)

During Tchaikovsky’s time at Michailovsky Palace, he met his lifelong teacher and friend, Rubinstein. Rubinstein may very well have been one of the most important figures in Tchaikovsky’s life. In 1863, he noticed Tchaikovsky’s talent in music and especially for composition and decided to become his teacher. (7) After a few years at the school in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow and started teaching while he continued his studies at the music society, a Nationalistic school (Where Rubinstein normally was as well). (10) It was at this time that he met his lifelong friend Kashkin, who was also a very important person in Tchaikovsky’s life. (11)

You could say that these two life long friends (Rubinstein and Kashkin) were opposites within Tchaikovsky’s life. After Tchaikovsky was done with school he continued teaching at the music society, staying in the presence of his teacher and best friend. Rubinstein thought very highly of his former pupil as a man and loved his talent, but took an almost hostile view of his compositions, especially the great ones. (34) This made Rubinstein very much the pessimist in Tchaikovsky’s life, while Kashkin was constantly encouraging him and wondering why Rubinstein was being so critical of Tchaikovsky’s work.

At one point, Tchaikovsky decided that he wanted to write a piano piece (Bb Minor concerto) for Rubinstein out of gratitude and admiration for his influence on his life, and for his remarkable piano playing ability. But Rubinstein ripped the composition apart (figuratively) and would not stop talking about the flaws in the piece. Tchaikovsky was very upset, and instead of changing the piece to make it better he simply changed the person that the work was dedicated to. (43-45) In spite of episodes like this one they remained close friends, and when Rubinstein died in 1880 it was a truly heavy blow on Tchaikovsky. He responded to this by writing a work to honor the “Memory of a great artist”. He did not specify Rubinstein himself keeping in mind the fiasco that occurred with the piano concerto, knowing that it would not be what Rubinstein would have wanted. (85)

Tchaikovsky had one more friend that is worth mentioning in this very brief biographical study. Going back to the time he was at the music society, there was a man named Balakirev that succeeded Rubinstein as conductor of the St. Petersburg orchestra when Rubinstein when back to Moscow. He was forced to resign because his nationalist tendencies were not liked by the management of that music society. Tchaikovsky wrote a letter to them on Balakirev’s behalf and the two became friends after Balakirev moved to Moscow. Balakirev was important to Tchaikovsky’s work, because it was he who suggested that Tchaikovsky write a symphonic poem to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (22) This piece has become quite popular even today. This is merely another of the many times where Tchaikovsky received an idea from a friend.

Tchaikovsky’s means improved through becoming a music critic and he decided to give up teaching in order to focus on composition in 1874. A couple of years later he randomly got married, and became very withdrawn and absentminded. Soon after, he attempted suicide by trying to freeze himself in the cold river, but didn’t end up going through with it. He did, however, stay in the water long enough to become seriously ill. When he came around from his brush with death, he went abroad for quite some time, keeping very limited correspondence with his friends in Moscow. (67-69) In 1878, he returned to Moscow again and resumed his duties there, but quickly resigned from everything but composition and left Moscow. (76) Part of what enabled him to do this, was that an anonymous woman gave him a large sum of money so that he would have the ability to work exclusively on his compositions. He then returned once again to Moscow in the spring of 1879 for the last rehearsal of his work “Eugene Oniegin” (76).

Tchaikovsky became very reclusive starting in 1885, only having guests over once in a great while when he needed to rest from his work. (94-95) Rest was important for him, for besides his suicide attempt he has also had a nervous breakdown in 1875 and doctors ordered him abroad and didn’t let him touch a piano or paper. (53) Even though he was wiry and not easily fatigued, he still started slowing down at age fifty, and his eyes started to go bad. (104) It was during this time that he wrote his sixth symphony, in which he depicts not his thoughts on his own death, but as a seal of finality on human hope. (107) On November 6, 1893 (Wikipedia), A few days after the premier of this work, Tchaikovsky died of cholera.

Gustav Holst was born September 21, 1874 in Cheltenham, England. (Short, 9) His childhood was not the happiest one, mostly caused by his mother’s death when he was only seven years old. His father remarried about three years later, and Holst’s step mother neglected him and his brother for she was too busy with her career. She had come into the family with two boys that were brought up with the same neglect, and all four boys suffered the consequences of not really having a devoted mother. (11)

Holst (unlike Tchaikovsky) had been encouraged to be a professional musician from a very young age. Holst’s father, being a musician himself, was the soul supporter of this encouragement. From the time he was old enough to reach the keyboard he encouraged to play the piano. (11) He did not, however, become the great pianist he wanted to be because neuritis in his right arm made it difficult, and he eventually gave up the idea of being a concert pianist. (20) Along with his neuritis Holst also had asthma as a child, and when his father discovered that Holst had asthma, his father also encouraged him to play the trombone in hopes that it would aid the ailment. Since Holst had access to all of these instruments and knowledge freely, he was allowed to experiment with melodies simply as part of childhood tinkering. (12)

Holst was general a smart boy and did well academically, but he was obviously more interested in music rather than school whether school involved music or not. In his spare time he would try to write his own compositions, although his early attempts resulted in disappointment. He kept at it though, and in no time at all he started entering competitions and did quite well which encouraged him. This of course is how his interest in a career in composition started. (13)

As he grew up and became more and more mature of a musician, he was allowed to play in his church’s orchestra. Because of his father’s role in the church as an organist, Holst was also allowed to have access to the church organ and experimented with this as well. (15) Then on February 7, 1893, there was a performance in which some of Holst’s compositions were played. As a result of this performance, audiences were surprised by his youth in comparison to his skill in the art. (18)

Unfortunately, when it was time for Holst to start college, officials at the Royal College of Music were not quite as enthusiastic about his work as the local audience. He still started school in May of 1893, but he ended up having to take out a loan for his first few of years of his education. (19-20) This sort of defeat seemed to be a trend throughout Holst’s college career. All throughout his schooling, none of the things that he wrote were ever up to the college’s standards, resulting in none of his compositions ever being good enough to be played in the school concerts. He did, however, receive a full tuition scholarship right before he was about to have to take out another loan. Because of this, he stayed in school a total of five years when he decided that he wanted to go out and try to make his own way in the world for music. (23-34)

Upon finishing his time at the college in 1898, he decided to join the Carl Rosa Opera Company, which he seemed to have very little respect for as far as the musicality of the group as a whole went. (35) While he was touring with them, he spent much of his spare time in his compositions trying to get a career started in what he had originally wanted to do with his life. (38) This extra time to compose was significantly diminished, however, when he quit the company and got a regular job as a trombonist with the Scottish Orchestra in the fall of 1900. His composition time was also most likely lessened because of his new marriage to Isobel during this time of his life, for they married in June of 1901. (40-42) After his time with the orchestra, he then began teaching in 1904 at the James Allen’s girl’s school where he stayed for quite some time. (50)

Holst was generally a very healthy person despite his childhood asthma, terrible eyesight, and neuritis in his right arm. During his time in college he would walk or bike the 97 mile trip to and from school and kept up walking all his life and asthma ended up being not an issue. (22) But his health took a turn for the worst in 1923 when he slipped off the back of a podium during a rehearsal and got a slight concussion. This ended up turning into a problem for the rest of his life and as a result he came onto the verge of a nervous breakdown. At this point, an anonymous person gave him seven hundred pounds to give him more leisure for composing and rest. He then took three months off from teaching, but it didn’t help. (Lace)

In the May of 1934, Holst’s health once again took a turn for the worst. He developed a duodenal ulcer, and either had to have a smaller operation and have to limit his lifestyle and activities, or get a major more dangerous operation and live normally. He chose the major operation and handled it well until his heart gave out on him. (325-326) Holst died on May 25, 1939 (wikipedia) with all of family near him, including his loving wife. (326)

Holst’s and Tchaikovsky’s stories have many differences and similarities to eachother, but more differences. One of the more major differences is their childhood. Holst’s childhood was most certainly not the happiest one you’ll hear, where Tchaikovsky’s (while not much information is found about in this study) seems to be neither good nor bad. Also, while Holst’s childhood may have been not the greatest, it was still a musical childhood, and he knew that he was going to have some kind of career in music from the very beginning. Tchaikovsky had not even thought of the possibility of having a career in music until he was ready to go to college.

Another major difference is these two composer’s marriages. Holst had a very happy marriage his entire life, which I’m sure effected his work based on his belief that everything is the result of several minds playing off of eachother. Tchaikovsky’s marriage obviously was not a happy one since he became abnormally absent minded and withdrawn immediately afterwards. After he tried to commit suicide soon after the marriage, the darkest and most emotional part of his life took place for the next few years. This undoubtedly effected Tchaikovsky’s compositions in a different way that Holst’s wife affected his work. Despite the drastic difference here, we can draw a similarity between the two lives in that their relationships with their wives affected their lives’ work.

The weaknesses and strengths of these two composers seemed to be opposites as well. Host’s weaknesses (besides Isobel) mostly existed within his academics, while Tchaikovsky’s weaknesses (besides giving children money (Newmarch 97) consisted more in details within his work along with physical proficiency in general. Although Holst received high marks in elementary school, he did not do quite as well in music school. He had trouble getting scholarships, none of his compositions were ever played during his time at school, and he had trouble with learning theory in comparison to the rest of his class. (Short 20) While Tchaikovsky had no trouble in school at all, he had problems with things that Holst didn’t seem to have any trouble with what-so-ever. Probably the biggest weakness Tchaikovsky had that Holst did not share was his fear of conducting that he eventually overcame. The first time he had to conduct a work of his, he became so nervous and anxious that he conducted terribly and burned the score once the performance was over. (Newmarch 19-22) Another instance of weakness that didn’t affect Holst as much is when he wrote his piano concerto for Rubinstein, he had a difficult time combining piano and orchestra because it did not come easily to him.

Despite all of these drastic differences, there are a few similarities here and there as well. Neither of them really got their careers going in composition until they were into their adult years. They had very similar higher educational backgrounds, and they both had love interests during this time in their lives. But the main similarity between them is that they were both composers that made a great impact in the music world. They were from different sides of the overall spectrum, but they were still in the same art.


Lace, Ian. “A Biography of Gustav Holst.” The Gustav Holst Websight. 1996. 13 Apr. 2007.

Newmarch, Rosa, and Edwin Evans. The Life and Works of Tchaikovsky. London: William Reeves, 1940.

“Pyotr Llyich Tchaikovsky.” Wikipedia. 13 Apr. 2007. 13 Apr. 2007.

Short, Michael. Gustav Holst: the Man and His Music. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

“Gustav Holst.” Wikipedia. 10 Apr. 2007. 13 Apr. 2007.