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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Updated on January 8, 2011


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer, who is generally regarded as one of the greatest musicians his country has produced and who is ranked among the outstanding composers of the world.

His music, written with immense technical skill and marked by emotional warmth, lyrical melody, and colorful orchestration, has long had wide appeal for the general public. A versatile composer, he wrote operas, symphonies, concertos, chamber works, solo songs, piano compositions, and liturgical music, and he succeeded brilliantly in several spheres. At least one of his operas, Eugene Onegin, is an acknowledged masterpiece. His Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and Nutcracker helped to reestablish, as an important art form, the full-length ballet, which had suffered a decline in the mid-19th century. Among his orchestral works, his symphonies, particularly the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth (the Pathetique), his Piano Concerto No.1, and his Violin Concerto are among the most popular world classics.

Tchaikovsky's Early Years

Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk on May 7, 1840. His father, an inspector of mines, was Russian, but his mother was halfFrench. Peter showed signs of exceptional musical ability at an early age, but his parents did not encourage his interest, and he had only piano lessons from indifferent teachers. In 1852 he enrolled in the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, and following his graduation in 1859, he became a clerk in the ministry of justice. He began to study music seriously in 1861, when he started to take hannony lessons with Nikolai Zaremba, at first privately and in the next year at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1863 he resigned from the civil service and broadened his musical studies, including instrumentation from Anton Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky's Middle Years

After graduating from the Conservatory in 1865, Tchaikovsky accepted the post of professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. He composed his first symphony, the Symphony in G Minor (Winter Day-dreams), in 1866 and his first opera The Voyevoda in 1868. During rehearsals of the opera he met a French soprano, Desiree Artot, with whom he fleetingly contemplated marriage, presumably in an effort to conquer his homosexual tendencies. The Voyevoda had only five performances.

Tchaikovsky's next opera, Undine (1869), was never produced, and the two that followed, The Opriclinik (1872) and Vakula the Smith (1874), were unsuccessful. It was Tchaikovsky's instrumental works that earned him his early triumphs. These included the Second Symphony in C Minor (1872) and Third Symphony in D Maj or (1875), the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet (1869), the symphonic fantasias The Tempest (1873) and Francesca da Rimini (1876), the Piano Concerto No.1 in B-Flat Minor (1875), the 3-act ballet Swan Lake (1876), and his three string quartets (1871, 1874, 1876).

Tchaikovsky's Later Years

The year 1877 was one of shattering crisis for Tchaikovsky. In July 1877 he made a last desperate attempt to conquer, or at least conceal, his homosexuality by marrying Antonina Milyukova, a 28-year-old ex-student from the Conservatory who had declared her love for him. The marriage collapsed almost immediately. Tchaikovsky tried to commit suicide by walking into the Moskva River in an unsuccessful attempt to contract pneumonia. After fleeing to St. Petersburg, he was taken abroad for several months by one of his brothers. Yet in this same year he wrote two masterpieces, Eugene Onegin and the Fourth Symphony.

Earlier in 1877, Nadezhda von Meek, a wealthy and eccentric widow, who admired his music, communicated with Tchaikovsky. Nadezhda von Meek, who insisted on never meeting Tchaikovsky personally, settled on him a handsome annuity that enabled him, in 1878, to resign from the Conservatory. His new financial independence enabled him to spend his winters abroad, usually in Italy or France, and his summers in the country. Although he continued to write operas, including The Maid of Orleans (1879), Mazeppa (1883) , The Little Shoes (a much revised version of Vakula; 1885), and The Sorceress (1887), his fame was enhanced, as before, by his orchestral works. Among these were the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878), the overture The Year 1812 (1880), the Manfred Symphony (1885), and the Fifth Symphony in E Minor (1888).

In 1887-1888, Tchaikovsky embarked on his first conducting tour of western Europe. He met with great success, notably in England, and made a second tour in 1889. In 1890 he suffered another personal crisis when Nadezhda von Meck arbitrarily terminated both his annuity and their long epistolary friendship. Despite this blow, which deeply affected Tchaikovsky's neurotic, self-torturing ego, he composed in that year two of his finest scores, the 3-act ballet Sleeping Beauty and the opera The Queen of Spades.

In April and May of 1891, Tchaikovsky was in the United States, conducting in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia before highly enthusiastic audiences. On his return to Russia, he completed a one-act opera, Iolanta (1891), and the two-act ballet, Nutcracker (1892), and started to compose the Paihetique. Although his work on the symphony was interrupted by a last visit to England in June 1893, it was finished in August and had its, first performance in St. Petersburg on Oct. 28, 1893. A few days later, in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky knowingly drank a glass of unboiled water and was stricken with cholera. He died on November 6, 1893.


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    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 6 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      Great hub - Tchaikovsky is one of my favorite composers of all times.