Tchaikovsky is considered to be one of the most influential classical musicians in the world and is perhaps the most important to come out of the former Russian Empire and among the first Russian composers to have his music recognized on an international level. His music was initially not as well received as it is now due to its (and Tchaikovsky’s) non-traditional Russian style but it went on to get him recognized as one of the greatest composers of his era. His world famous symphonies, ballet compositions, operas and orchestral works eventually earned him worldwide recognition as well as a high honor awarded to him by Emperor Alexander III of Russia in 1884. [Newmarch, 2002]
Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th, 1840 in the town of Votkinsk where his father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, worked as a mining engineer. He had a large family including four brothers and two sisters and was close to all of them. A few years after his birth his father moved to family to St. Petersburg where Tchaikovsky was eventually educated and where his love of music and composing career started. Tchaikovsky was initially educated at the School of Jurisprudence and as a youth played pieces by Dohler and Weber at dinner parties, which increased his popularity. These musical talents were further invested in with his father funding his private music lessons. [Newmarch, 2002] However, he considered his early musical interests as only a hobby and since Russia had no proper higher public musical education system at the time he went on to get a civil service education. Tchaikovsky began his civil service career at the age of 19 working in the Ministry of Justice, but this was a short lived 3 year career and during his time there he enrolled in Musical Society classes held at the Mikhailovsky Palace. Shortly after he enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862, and a year later he quit his Ministry of Justice post to pursuit his music career full time. [Brown, 2007]
Tchaikovsky completed his first symphony, simply titled Symphony No. 1, but due to disagreement from his previous professors, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba, no performances of it occurred until 1968 due to changes that Tchaikovsky was forced to make within the symphony. It was after this point that Tchaikovsky came to the conclusion that his composing style was different than that of his Russian counterparts in that it was a mix of both Russian and Western musical influences. This was a great factor to his uniqueness and shortly thereafter it influenced other Russian composers to build their own musical style. After the eventual success of his first composition Tchaikovsky was offered a post as a professor at the newly opened Moscow Conservatory. His next full composition was played to the public during his time. Titled Characteristic Dances it was conducted by Johann Strauss II on September 11, 1865 at a concert in Pavlovsk Park. [Brown, 1978] In the following 25 years Tchaikovsky’s professional composing career would lead him to produce some of the finest and most recognizable classical pieces. The Tempest (1873), Swan Lake (1877), Eugene Onegin (1879), 1812 Overture (1882), The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892) were some of the few widely recognizable and incredibly popular Tchaikovsky works. These works made Tchaikovsky famous across Europe and even the world and would lead him on a number of European tours as well as a visit to New York City. During this era he was even commissioned by the Russian Musical Society and the Red Cross to compose a piece that would show support to Russia’s long time ally Serbia who at the time was engaged in a war with the Ottoman Empire. The composition was called the Serbo-Russian March by Tchaikovsky but was officially known as March Slave (The Slavonic March) and debuted in 1876. [Brown, 1982]
Even though he lead a very successful musical career Tchaikovsky had a number of problems with his personal life. His life was amongst the most discussed and gossiped amongst the people of Russia’s elite, mainly due to his sexual attraction to other men. This lead to confusion as to the life that he lead especially with the Soviet government seeking to eliminate any and all mentions of his same-sex attraction and their goals to portray him as a heterosexual. He lived as a batchelor during the majority of his life but at the age of 37 he wed a former pupil, Antonina Miliukova. This marriage only lasted for two and a half years due to their emotional and sexual incompatibility and shortly after connected with Nadezhda von Meck who became his patroness for the next 13 years. [Maes, 2002] Tchaikovsky suffered from a great state of depression throughout much of his life. Contributing factors include the early death of his mother when he was younger and the constant battle with the public side of his often discussed and written about homosexuality. This depression affected his health negatively and in 1893, at the age of 53 he died of cholera. However even this is debated as some people believe that he purposely contracted cholera in order to commit suicide. [Holden, 1995] Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky lead a hard and complicated life but this did not stop him from becoming a world renown composer whose works are still greatly studied, appreciated and listened to.
Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: A Biographical and Critical Study, Volume 2 The Crisis Years 1874-1878 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1982).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, 1840–1874 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978).
Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music (New York: Pegasus Books, 2007).
Holden, Anthony, Tchaikovsky: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1995).
Maes, Francis, tr. Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans,A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2002).
Newmarch, Rosa. Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works. (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, 2002).