Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was born on 7th May, 1840, at Votkinsk, Russia, to a
wealthy but unmusical family. His father was a government mining official in St Petersburg, and he was the second of five children. He was sent to law school, and at age
19 gained a position in the Ministry of Justice in St Petersburg. His
heart, however, was set on music, and from an early age he displayed great
musical talent, especially through his improvisations on the piano.
Start of a musical career
Tchaikovsky was studying part time at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, then
directed by Anton Rubinstein, and later gave up law to study full time.
Rubinstein gave him his first composition lessons, and he also took
lessons in harmony and flute. His Characteristic Dances were performed in
1865, and he made his first appearance as a conductor in a performance of
his Overture in F. In the same year, he was appointed professor of harmony
at the new Moscow Conservatoire, eleven years after his mother died of cholera.
Tchaikovksy in Moscow
Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow in 1866 and lived with Rubinstein. He
found Rubinstein's lifestyle and the constant influx of visitors a little
overwhelming, and could see that Rubinstein was going to great lengths for
him to meet many people in order to 'cure' his loneliness. He was introduced to
a group of composers from St Petersburg nicknamed 'The Mighty Five'. The
group consisted of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky,
and they advised Tchaikovsky on the creation of Romeo and Juliet. It was in
this year that he suffered his first nervous breakdown, due to overwork
while composing his First Symphony. The performance of his Second Symphony in 1873
established him as one of the most promising Russian composers.
Tchaikovsky's music attracted the attention of a wealthy widow Nadezdha von
Meck. She offered to provide financial support and to help him as much as she
could, but providing that they never meet. Tchaikovsky agreed. She began to
commission new works, and in 1878 she gave him an annual pension of 6000
roubles. This allowed him to freely tour Europe, and he resigned from the
Moscow Conservatoire in 1878. They wrote long, passionate letters to each
other, the relationship lasting 13 years until she ended it abruptly with no
Tchaikovsky also began receiving love letters in 1877 from a
woman he had never met, Antonina Milyukova. It came to the point that she
threatened suicide if he did not marry her. Tchaikovsky was trapped into
marrying her in July 1877. The marriage had disastrous consequences. She
turned out to be mentally unstable and certainly did not 'cure'
Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. He fled to St Petersburg and Milyukova later
died in a asylum. He spent his last years travelling Europe and parts of
the United States. In 1893, he died of cholera, eight days after
conducting the first performance of his Pathetique symphony.
His great works
Tchaikovsky was the only great Russian Romantic composer who did not use oriental
influences in his music. He disliked the exotic oriental style of
'the five', preferring authentic folk melodies. He wrote ten operas, among them Eugene Onegin
(1879) and the Queen of Spades (1890), and also wrote chamber and sacred
music. But it is his symphonies and ballets that he is remembered for. His
symphonies include: No. 1 in G minor 'Winter Dreams' (1866); No.2 in C minor 'Little Russian' (1873), which makes use of folk tunes; No.3 in D major 'Polish' (1875); No.4 in F minor (1878); No. 5 E minor (1888); and arguably the greatest, No. 6, entitled the 'Pathetique'. He
also composed three piano concertos, and his symphonic poems include Romeo
and Juliet (1880) and Francesca da Rimini (1876). Tchaikovsky's ballet scores are Swan Lake (1877), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and the Nutcracker
(1891). Tchaikovsky is remembered as the composer who brought mainstream Western music into the Russian tradition.
Tchaikovsky lived a lonely and agonising life, partly due to his
homosexuality. But through the pain, he created passionate, stirring
melodies, among the most beautiful in Romantic music. His music tells the
story of his life, and always expresses some part of his own deep feelings,
often with tremendous emotional power.
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Melody: Tchaikovsky wrote some of the most beautiful, and most famous, melodies in all music. They are notable for their immense elegance and gracefulness
Orchestration: Tchaikovsky's orchestral works make full use of the capabilities of the modern symphony orchestra, and are always clearly and sonorously orchestrated
Structure: His music is usually straightforward in terms of form, but proportions are always finely balanced