Brain Pickings

Tchaikovsky on the “Immeasurable Bliss” of Creativity, the Mystical Machinery of Inspiration, and the Evils of Interruptions

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The creative process, cracked open at its rawest.

“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” legendary composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in 1878 in a letter to his benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, attesting to what psychologists have since demonstrated empirically — that “grit” is more important than inborn ability and “deliberate practice” outweighs talent in the quest for creative mastery. And yet, like most artists, Tchaikovsky himself was a creature of paradoxical convictions and despite scoffing at the notion of being “in the mood,” he gave great credence to the parallel concept of inspiration — so much so that he once turned down a handsome commission from Von Meck because he believed that producing a piece of music out of commercial motives rather than genuine inspiration would constitute “artistic dishonesty.”

From the timelessly excellent The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) comes the beloved composer’s raw account of inspiration, an electrifying articulation of what T.S. Eliot once called the mystical quality of creativity and countless other creators have echoed over the years.

Responding to an 1878 letter from Von Meck, Tchaikovsky describes “those vague feelings which pass through one during the composition”:

It is a purely lyrical process. A kind of musical shriving of the soul, in which there is an encrustation of material which flows forth again in notes, just as the lyrical poet pours himself out in verse. The difference consists in the fact that music possesses far richer means of expression, and is a more subtle medium in which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the mood of a soul. Generally speaking, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready — that is to say, if the disposition for work is there — it takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches, leaves, and, finally, blossoms. I cannot define the creative process in any other way than by this simile. The great difficulty is that the germ must appear at a favorable moment, the rest goes of itself. It would be vain to try to put into words that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly [when] a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch, before one thought follows another.

Scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Tchaikovsky's 'The Nutcracker,' the most popular ballet in the world, with set design by Maurice Sendak (Photograph © Angela Sterling)

Tchaikovsky admonishes against the outside interruption of this state, known in contemporary psychology as “flow” — a cautionary lament all the more prescient today, in our age of constant bombardment with distractions and demands on our attention, the worrisome repercussions of which on our cognition and creative capacity philosophers have warned about for decades and psychologists are only just beginning to understand. Tchaikovsky writes:

In the midst of this magic process it frequently happens that some external interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state: a ring at the bell, the entrance of my servant, the striking of the clock, reminding me that it is time to leave off. Dreadful, indeed, are such interruptions. Sometimes they break the thread of inspiration for a considerable time, so that I have to seek it again — often in vain.

And yet, he sees these interruptions of inspiration as inevitable and finds an antidote in the steadfast application of technical skill, the sort of mastery acquired through deliberate practice:

In such cases cool head work and technical knowledge have to come to my aid. Even in the works of the greatest master we find such moments, when the organic sequence fails and a skillful join has to be made, so that the parts appear as a completely welded whole. But it cannot be avoided. If that condition of mind and soul, which we call inspiration, lasted long without intermission, no artist could survive it. The strings would break and the instrument be shattered into fragments. It is already a great thing if the main ideas and general outline of a work come without any racking of brains, as the result of that supernatural and inexplicable force we call inspiration.

More of the great composer’s wisdom endures in The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement it with legendary songwriter Carole King on inspiration vs. perspiration and Vladimir Nabokov on the “prefatory glow” of inspiration, then revisit Graham Wallace’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of creativity, the third of which reflects the phenomenon Tchaikovsky describes.

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