Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

The first fully conservatory-trained, professional composer of consequence in Russia. His melodic gift made him an international superstar and he remains one of the most popular Romantic composers.

Vital Statistics
Kamsko-Votkinsk,in present day Udmurtia, about 620 miles southeast of Moscow, May 7, 1840
St. Petersburg, Nov. 6, 1893
Performed As:
Pianist, conductor
During Lifetime:
Czar Alexander II abolishes serfdom in Russia and promotes other modernizing reforms. Anton Rubinstein establishes the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first institution of its kind in Russia, in 1862. The period of reform in Russia comes to an end with the assassination of Alexander II in 1881.
Biographical Outline
  • Early years: Son of a mining engineer, Peter is sent to St. Petersburg to study at the School of Jurisprudence, from which he graduates in 1859. While there he also studies piano and singing, with the encouragement of an aunt.
  • Conservatory training, 1862: Denied a promotion in his civil service job, Tchaikovsky applies to the brand new St. Petersburg Conservatory and studies there under Anton Rubinstein. He graduates in 1865.
  • Young professional, 1866-77: Anton's brother, Nikolai, recruits Tchaikovsky to teach music theory at the recently founded Moscow Conservatory. Nikolai befriends the composer and introduces him to the high literary/ social circles of Moscow. As a pianist and the conductor of the Russian Musical Society Orchestra, he also introduces many of Tchaikovsky's works, including the first four symphonies, the Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture (1869) and other early program music.
  • Marriage and separation, 1877: For reasons not entirely understood, Tchaikovsky marries Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova. He insists on a platonic marriage, because of his homosexuality. Two months later, they separate (but never divorce). The episode creates a crisis for Tchaikovsky, who reports, afterward, a sense of loss both of himself and of deep creative inspiration.
  • The patron, 1877-84: Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow with a passion for Tchaikovsky's music begins sending him a monthly stipend. In October, he leaves Russia for extensive travel in Italy, where he completes the Fourth Symphony and the opera, Eugene Onegin. He resigns his teaching position and for six years lives nomadically, traveling in Europe and Russia. His fame as a composer spreads internationally.
  • Reluctant public figure, 1885-88: Tchaikovsky finally settles in the town of Klin, about 90 miles from Moscow, where he lives until his death. He assists the head of the Conservatory, and runs the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society. He takes up conducting, mainly his own works, and in December 1887 sets off on the first of many conducting tours. In 1888, Tsar Alexander III awards him a lifetime pension, and the composer corresponds with members of the royal family. However, Tchaikovsky's health is poor during these years and several close friends and contemporaries die.
  • Creative conclusion, 1889-1893: In his last years, Tchaikovsky regains his youthful creative fluency, now married to much greater compositional control and range of reference. Through the Director of Imperial Theaters, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Tchaikovsky meets the choreographer Marius Petipa and the two collaborate on The Sleeping Beauty ballet (1890). Tchaikovsky dies nine days after conducting the premiere of the Sixth Symphony.
Fun Facts
  • Mystery: Tchaikovsky's death has become a subject of dispute. A few biographers, raising rumor to fact, report that he committed suicide rather than face public disclosure of his homosexuality. The testimony of Modest Tchaikovsky, the composer's brother and not-always-reliable biographer, that he accidentally contracted cholera by drinking unboiled water is also unproven. We still don't fully know the cause of death.
  • Turbocharged: Tchaikovsky was incredibly inspired in his last years. He sketched Sleeping Beauty (1889) in 40 days, then went to Italy where he composed the huge opera The Queen of Spades (1890) in 43 days, and managed to sneak in the string sextet, Souvenir de Florence in June/ July of the same year.
  • Pistol Pete: Known for his oh-so-Russian melancholy, Tchaikovsky enjoyed clowning around in his youth. During his early years in Moscow he was also a free-spender.
  • Confidante: Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck covers 14 years (1877-1890). For most of that time his letters are virtually a diary.
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Explore the Music
  • Though pegged as overly emotional by Western European musical critics during his lifetime and even now, Tchaikovsky commanded impeccable technique and managed to fuse Western European classicism with Russian national idioms.
  • Tchaikovsky's three ballet scores-Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty-were the most ambitious, complex, and fully realized works created for the form up to that time. They laid the foundation for the important role that dance would play in 20th-century music and remain to this day staples of the ballet repertoire.
  • Swans aplenty: The version of the ballet Swan Lake that we generally know today, is very different from the one that premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877. Today's standard version of this classic was choreographed by Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov, to a new libretto/scenario after the composer's death. Their version required some shuffling of music, which was done by Richard Drigo, who also added arrangments of other Tchaikovsky compositions.
  • Nutcracker Knocked: Though the Suite from the Nutcracker ballet (1892) quickly became popular, the ballet itself was panned at its first performance. It was not performed outside Russia until 1934, in London. The first full-length U.S. production was by San Francisco Ballet, in 1944, and the famous George Balanchine production, which cemented the work in the repertory, was first seen at the New York City Ballet in 1954.
  • 1812 Remembered: Tchaikovsky's famous "solemn overture" was written to commemorate the anniversary of the Russian victory over Napoleon's armies at the Battle of Borodino. Tchaikovsky never liked the piece. It was first performed in the new Cathedral of Christ the Savior, in Moscow on August 20, 1882...without the cannons or pealing bells that the score calls for.
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