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Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky
1840 - 1893


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is one of the most loved of Russian composers. He epitomized the ingenuous opening to the emotions of the romantic era in music, but his product was made durable through sound craftsmanship and rigorous work habits.



Tchaikovsky's name can be spelled in many ways, most of them not used now. For example, Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Tschaikovky, or Tschaikowski. Tchaikovsky was born on April 25, 1840 (May 7 in the New Style Russian calendar) in Votkinsk. He died in St. Petersburg on October 25 (November 6), 1893.

Tchaikovsky is perhaps the best-known composer of ballet music. He wrote Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. He also wrote the 1812 Overture; six symphonies; several tone poems; piano sonatas and concertos; the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet; the operas, The Queen of Spades, The Maid of Orleans, and Eugene Onegin; the comic opera Vakula the Smith, a violin concerto, the orchestral suite Capriccio Italien, the Manfred Symphony, and the Serenade for Strings, among others

Tchaikovsky's father was a government bureaucrat, and his mother was French. As was the custom, he had a French governess. He related well with the governess, but she was dismissed when the family moved first to Moscow, then to St. Petersburg.

Peter was considered a neurotically excitable child, so his interest in music was not encouraged because his parents thought it was not suitable for his temperament. Peter entered the School of Jurisprudence in 1850, where he studied singing, harmony, and piano.

When he was 14, Peter's mother died of cholera, and he missed her greatly. His father was an easygoing man, and he did not appear to grieve unduly for his wife. However, Peter gave vent to his grief by writing a waltz for piano. After he finished school, Peter had a job in the government's Ministry of Justice.

In 1862, Peter left his job to enroll in the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. His teacher there was the great Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. Peter eventually was given a post as professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory by Rubinstein's brother.

Desiree Artot, prima donna of a visiting Italian opera company, fell madly in love with Peter, but their relationship lasted only a short time. Not long after that, one of his students, Antonina Milyukova, swore that she would commit suicide if he did not marry her, so he did. However, they soon found out they were not suited to each other, and the marriage failed. Even after they separated, Desiree demanded money from Peter. This put a severe strain not only on his finances but also on his psychological health. The only other woman in Tchaikovsky's life was Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who admired his music. They never met, but Mme. von Meck gave Peter enough money to allow him to buy off his ex-wife, leave teaching, and spend his time composing music. Peter eventually developed a liking for conducting, and he led several orchestras in performances of his music.

Peter spent most of his life alone, and he did not form friendships or relationships easily. Many people believe that much of his music reflects these feelings, especially his last symphony, which he had labelled Pathetique., with pathos.

Tchaikovsky went on several conducting tours to foreign cities, one to Leipzig, where he met composers Johannes Brahms and Edvard Grieg. Other cities he visited were Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Prague, and London. He also toured the United States and England.

Tchaikovsky bought a home near Moscow, where he spent all but the last year of his life. He took two happy vacations in the Caucasus Mountains, where he was honoured and feted at Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia.

The Pathetique Symphony received its premier in St. Petersburg in August 1893 with Tchaikovsky himself conducting. However, the audience was not receptive to the format of the music. Most classical symphonies are written in four movements, the second of which is usually slow. Peter, for reasons of his own, put the slow movement at the end, and the people just did not understand or appreciate it. He was extremely dejected, and he never recovered his spirits.

Tchaikovsky died two months later, some say from drinking a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, others say from suicide by poisoning. In any event, the world of music lost a major asset when Tchaikovsky was gone.


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is one of the most loved of Russian composers. He epitomized the ingenuous opening to the emotions of the romantic era in music, but his product was made durable through sound craftsmanship and rigorous work habits.

Eschewing the intellectual, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was in no sense a technical innovator; moreover, he attracted, and still attracts, the barbed clevernesses of those less trustful of emotional statement. But his work is always hotly defended as each generation discovers him afresh - a process considerably quickened by a massive and ever-growing body of literature about his music and his interesting, often tragic life.

Born on May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk in the Vyatka district, Tchaikovsky was the son of a well-to-do engineer. Peter and his brothers and sister received a sound education from their French governesses. He apparently showed no early signs of unusual musical talent but was duly exposed to the music lessons suffered by all young gentlemen. He later recalled growing up in a place "saturated with the miraculous beauty of Russian folk song" and the effect some music had on him as a child - that of exquisite torture so beautiful that he begged the music be stopped. He often referred to this in his letters as a mature artist.

Tchaikovsky attended a school of jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, and, while studying law and government, he also took music lessons, including some composing, from Gabriel Lomakin. Tchaikovsky graduated at the age of 19 and took a job as a bureau clerk. This was to be the first step of an official career, but he was already hopelessly enamoured of music. He soon met the Rubinstein brothers, Anton and Nikolai; both were composers, and Anton was a pianist second only to Franz Liszt in technical brilliance and fame. In 1862 Anton opened Russia's first conservatory, under the sponsorship of the Imperial Russian Music Society (IRMS), in St. Petersburg, and Tchaikovsky was its first composition student.

Early Works

Tchaikovsky's early works were technically sound but not memorable. Anton Rubinstein was demanding and critical, often unjustly so, and when Tchaikovsky graduated 2 years later he was still somewhat cowed by Anton's harshness. In 1866 Nikolai Rubinstein invited Tchaikovsky to Moscow to live with him and serve as professor of composition at the Moscow Conservatory, which he had just established. Tchaikovsky's father was now in financial trouble, and the composer had to support himself on the meager earnings from the conservatory. The symphonic poems Fatum and Romeo and Juliet that he wrote in 1869 were the first works to show the style he was thereafter to cultivate. Romeo and Juliet was redone with Mily Balakirev's help in 1870 and again in 1879.

During the seventies and later, there was considerable communication between Tchaikovsky and the Rubinsteins on the one hand and the members of the Mighty Five, Balakirev, Aleksandr Borodin, Modest Mussorgsky, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui, on the other. The traditional "enmity" between the two groups seems a concoction of romantic biographers. Tchaikovsky functioned as an all-around musician in the early seventies, and, as expected of an IRMS licentiate, he taught, composed, wrote critical essays, and conducted, the last not very well. In 1875 he composed what is perhaps his most universally known and loved work, the Piano Concerto No. 1. Anton Rubinstein was sarcastic in his dislike, although it became one of the most popular items in his own repertoire as a concert pianist. Vying in popularity with the concerto is Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake (1876). It is the most successful ballet ever written if measured in terms of broad audience appeal.

A Disastrous Marriage

In 1877 Tchaikovsky married the 28-year-old Antonina Miliukova, his student at the conservatory; it has been suggested that she remained him of Tatiana, his heroine in his opera-in-process, Eugene Onegin. His unfortunate wife, who died insane in 1917, not only suffered violent rejection by her husband but also the vicious libel of Modeste Tchaikovsky, his brother's biographer. Modeste, like Peter a misogynist, vilified her in the biography in an attempt to shield Peter and mask his weaknesses. Subsequent biographers, uncritically and perhaps with relish, repeated and embroidered upon Modeste's assertion that Antonina was cheap, high-strung, and neurotic.

Tchaikovsky was scarcely to find out her character: within a few weeks he had fled Moscow alone for an extended stay abroad. He made arrangements through relatives never to see his wife again. In his correspondence of this period - indeed through a large part of his career - he was periodically morbid about all aspects of his life: about his wife, money, his friends, even his music and himself. He often spoke of suicide. This, too, is a favourite theme of his many biographers. Even during his life he was treated unkindly by critics who sharpened their sarcastic vocabularies on his open, vulnerable, emotionally based music. But he never sought to change his style, though he was dissatisfied, at one time or another, with most of his works; and he never stopped composing.

Arrangement with Madame von Meck

At about the same time as his abortive marriage, Tchaikovsky entered into a liaison of quite another kind. Through third parties an unusual but fruitful arrangement with the immensely wealthy Nadezhda von Meck was made: she was attracted by his music and the possibility of patronizing him, and he was frank in his interest in her money and what it could provide him. For 13 years she supported him at a base rate of 6, 000 rubles a year, with whatever "bonuses" he could manage to extract. He was free to quit the conservatory, and he began a series of travels and stays abroad.

Von Meck and Tchaikovsky purposely never met, save for one or two accidental encounters. In their voluminous correspondence the composer discusses his music thoughtfully; it is disenchanting to note that in letters to his family he complains cavalierly of her parsimony. He dedicated his Fourth Symphony (1877) to her. Tchaikovsky finished Eugene Onegin in 1879; it is his only opera generally performed outside the Soviet Union. Other works of this period are the Violin Concerto (1881), the Fifth Symphony (1888), and the ballet Sleeping Beauty (1889).

Tchaikovsky's fame and his activity now extended to all of Europe and America. To rest from his public appearances he chose a country retreat in Klin near Moscow. From this was derived the "Hermit of Klin" nickname, though hermit he never was. In 1890 he finished the opera Queen of Spades, based on Aleksandr Pushkin's story. As with many of his other works, Tchaikovsky was highly involved emotionally, and he was gratified when, despite the grousing "experts, " the opera was enthusiastically received. In late 1890 Von Meck cut him off. He was self-sustaining by then, but the rebuff rankled. Even Modeste expressed surprise at his irritation. Tchaikovsky had an immensely successful tour in the United States in 1891.

The Sixth Symphony was first heard in October 1893, with the composer conducting. This work, named at Modeste's suggestion Pathétique, was poorly received, very likely because of the inadequate conducting. Tchaikovsky never knew of its eventual astonishing success, for he contracted cholera and died, muttering abuse of Von Meck, on November 6.

Tchaikovsky's gift was melody - sobbing, singing, exalting melody. Yet, one of his favourite and recurring melodic patterns was a simple five-or six-note minor scale, usually descending, which he enveloped in orchestral colour or lush harmonies often electrifying in their piquancy and effectiveness.


Pyotr Il′yich Tchaikovsky. (b Kamsko-Votkinsk, 7 May 1840; d St Petersburg, 6 Nov 1893). Russian composer. His father was a mine inspector. He started piano studies at five and soon showed remarkable gifts; his childhood was also affected by an abnormal sensitivity. At ten he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence at St Petersburg, where the family lived for some time. His parting from his mother was painful; further, she died when he was 14 - an event that may have stimulated him to compose. At 19 he took a post at the Ministry of Justice, where he remained for four years despite a long journey to western Europe and increasing involvement in music. In 1863 he entered the Conservatory, also undertaking private teaching. Three years later he moved to Moscow with a professorship of harmony at the new conservatory. Little of his music so far had pleased the conservative musical establishment or the more nationalist group, but his First Symphony had a good public reception when heard in Moscow in 1868.

Rather less successful was his first opera, The Voyevoda, given at the Bol′shoy in Moscow in1869; Tchaikovsky later abandoned it and re-used material from it in his next, The Oprichnik. A severe critic was Balakirev, who suggested that he wrote a work on Romeo and Juliet: this was the Fantasy-Overture, several times rewritten to meet Balakirev's criticisms; Tchaikovsky's tendency to juxtapose blocks of material rather than provide organic transitions serves better in this programmatic piece than in a symphony as each theme stands for a character in the drama. Its expressive, well-defined themes and their vigorous treatment produced the first of his works in the regular repertory.

The Oprichnik won some success at St Petersburg in 1874, by when Tchaikovsky had won acclaim with his Second Symphony (which incorporates Ukrainian folktunes); he had also composed two string quartets (the first the source of the famous Andante cantabile), most of his next opera, Vakula the Smith, and of his First Piano Concerto, where contrasts of the heroic and the lyrical, between soloist and orchestra, clearly fired him. Originally intended for Nikolay Rubinstein, the head of Moscow Conservatory, who had much encouraged Tchaikovsky, it was dedicated to Hans von Bülow (who gave its première, in Boston) when Rubinstein rejected it as ill-composed and unplayable (he later recanted and became a distinguished interpreter of it). In 1875 came the carefully written Third Symphony and Swan Lake, commissioned by Moscow Opera. The next year a journey west took in Carmen in Paris, a cure at Vichy and the first complete Ring at Bayreuth; although deeply depressed when he reached home - he could not accept his homosexuality - he wrote the fantasia Francesca da Rimini and (an escape into the 18th century) the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra. Vakula, which had won a competition, had its première that autumn. At the end of the year he was contacted by a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who admired his music and was eager to give him financial security; they corresponded intimately for 14 years but never met.

Tchaikovsky, however, saw marriage as a possible solution to his sexual problems; and when contacted by a young woman who admired his music he offered (after first rejecting her) immediate marriage. It was a disaster: he escaped from her almost at once, in a state of nervous collapse, attempted suicide and went abroad. This was however the time of two of his greatest works, the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin. The symphony embodies a ‘fate’ motif that recurs at various points, clarifying the structure; the first movement is one of Tchaikovsky's most individual with its hesitant, melancholy waltz-like main theme and its ingenious and appealing combination of this with the secondary ideas; there is a lyrical, intermezzo-like second movement and an ingenious third in which pizzicato strings play a main role, while the finale is impassioned if loose and melodramatic, with a folk theme pressed into service as second subject. Eugene Onegin, after Pushkin, tells of a girl's rejected approach to a man who fascinates her (the parallel with Tchaikovsky's situation is obvious) and his later remorse: the heroine Tatyana is warmly and appealingly drawn, and Onegin's hauteur is deftly conveyed too, all against a rural Russian setting which incorporates spectacular ball scenes, an ironic background to the private tragedies. The brilliant Violin Concerto also comes from the late 1870s.

The period 1878-84, however, represents a creative trough. He resigned from the conservatory and, tortured by his sexuality, could produce no music of real emotional force (the Piano Trio, written on Rubinstein's death, is a single exception). He spent some time abroad. But in 1884, stimulated by Balakirev, he produced his Manfred symphony, after Byron. He continued to travel widely, and conduct; and he was much honoured. In 1888 the Fifth Symphony, similar in plan to the Fourth (though the motto theme is heard in each movement), was finished; a note of hysteria in the finale was recognized by Tchaikovsky himself. The next three years saw the composition of two ballets, the finely characterized Sleeping Beauty and the more decorative Nutcracker, and the opera The Queen of Spades, with its ingenious atmospheric use of Rococo music (it is set in Catherine the Great's Russia) within a work of high emotional tension. Its theatrical qualities ensured its success when given at St Petersburg in late 1890. The next year Tchaikovsky visited the USA; in 1892 he heard Mahler conduct Eugene Onegin at Hamburg. In 1893 he worked on his Sixth Symphony, to a plan - the first movement was to be concerned with activity and passion; the second, love; the third, disappointment; and the finale, death. It is a profoundly pessimistic work, formally unorthodox, with the finale haunted by descending melodic ideas clothed in anguished harmonies. It was performed on 28 October. He died nine days later: traditionally, and officially, of cholera, but recently verbal evidence has been put forward that he underwent a ‘trial’ from a court of honour from his old school regarding his sexual behaviour and it was decreed that he commit suicide. Which version is true must remain uncertain.










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008