Composer - Life and Works (1840 - 1893)
Pëtr Il'ic Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, in the government of Vyatka, Russia on May 7th, 1840 and was the second eldest in a family of five sons (the last two sons were twins and were adored by Pyotr), and one daughter, to whom he was also tenderly devoted. Their father was a mine inspector. Pyotr 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; furthermore, 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 during which time he went on a long journey to western Europe and became increasingly involved in music. Finally he rebelled against the profession he was in and in 1863 he plucked up the courage to dedicate his time completely to the study of music and he entered the Conservatory, undertaking private teaching to support himself. Even though he was a ready improviser and had a natural sense of harmony he had had little schooling and therefore, had a lot of work to do to reach an adequate level. He frequently went to see the Italian operas which at that time almost monopolized the Russian stage and increased his knowledge of composers and their music, becoming particularly interested in Mozart. In the Conservatory he was taught the form of music by Nikolay Zaremba in instrumentation by Anton Rubinstein. Only one of Tchaikovsky's student compositions is of any permanent value: his overture to Ostrovsky's play Groza ('The storm'). In this composition there is a reflection of Tchaikovsky's growing command of Western musical techniques and also a degree to which his own musical personality is already apparent in the attractive and sometimes striking invention. He graduated from the Conservatory with not only a diploma but also with a silver medal.
Three years later Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow, with which all his later musical fortunes are associated, to take up a professorship of harmony at the new conservatory established by Rubinstein's brother Nicholas. Here he completed the orchestration of a Concert Overture in C minor which remained unperformed until it became the revised Overture in F which was directed by Nikolay Rubinstein and was successful. He then embarked on the composition of his First Symphony "Winter Dreams" which proved to be a severe labour as no previous composition of his had demanded such sustained effort. The work proceeded sluggishly and overwork brought him to the verge of a breakdown, delaying the completion of the symphony. After having been revised, and different sections of it played in various places, the symphony was given its complete performance in February 1868, when it was well received.
At the end of 1866 Tchaikovsky was also occupied with a Festival Overture on the Danish national hymn, composed in connection with the wedding of the tsarevich to a Danish princess. To show their appreciation, the imperial family awarded him with a pair of cufflinks which the composer immediately sold. Around this time Tchaikovsky was becoming interested in opera but postponed working on any until his First Symphony had been complete. He started work on Ostrovsky's melodrama Voyevoda in 1867 and wrote the libretto of most of Act 2 and the whole of Act 3 himself. The orchestration was completed while he was on a visit to Paris in summer 1868 and the first performance was given in early 1869. It was unsuccessful and he destroyed the score after incorporating some material from it into his opera Oprichnik, which was completed in April 1872, though virtually the whole opera has been reconstructed from the surviving orchestral parts and other material.
In 1867, while on holiday in Hapsal with his sister's sisters-in-law, he composed three slight piano pieces Souvenir de Hapsal and the third of this group became very popular. In the same year Tchaikovsky met Berlioz who was on a visit to Moscow to conduct some concerts. He also met Balakirev at this time who conducted the first St Petersburg performance of his (Tchaikovsky's) symphonic fantasia Fatum in 1869, a composition which was composed in the last months of 1868. This was followed by Romeo and Juliet, a work which was greatly influenced by Balakirev. It proved to be Tchaikovsky's first masterpiece and the first version of the piece was conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein in March 1870. A set of six songs op.6, were written immediately after the first version of Romeo and Juliet and in 1871 he composed a string quartet which was included in a concert he gave in March of the same year. Subsequently his Second Symphony was written and represents the composer's nationalism at its strongest; it received the nickname 'Little Russian' after his death because of its incorporation of Ukrainian folktunes. It was completed in November 1872 and was greeted with enthusiasm but the writer himself was unhappy with it and made various changes to it. In 1873 he wrote the overture The Tempest.
In the summer of 1875, Tchaikovsky worked on his Third Symphony which, although the dullest of the series, was warmly received. At the end of this year, he began his set of 12 pieces for piano, Les saisons and in the same year he began work on the score of 'Swan Lake', which was commissioned by the Imperial Theatres in Moscow. It was finished a year later and was first performed in March 1877 but was performed badly. It is, however, among the more satisfactory of the composer's works. It was actually with the revival of Swan Lake in 1895, with choreography by Petipa and Ivanov, that it received the appreciation that it merited and that has subsequently endured. In 1877 the composer wrote the tone-poem Francesca da Rimini which was first performed in 1877 and was warmly greeted by both the public and the critics.
Around 1877 Tchaikovsky met the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose interest in him had been aroused by his music. She commissioned him to write violin and piano arrangements and an extraordinary relationship began between them which lasted for 14 years but was conducted only through correspondence. The growing confirmation of his homosexuality was to be seen in his works as this was possibly an outlet for emotional drives that could not be channelled into a full physical relationship. The only woman who seems to have interested him at all was the singer Désirée Artôt, whom he met in September 1868, and in whose company he spent much time. For Artôt's benefit performance of Auber's Le domino noir he provided special choruses and recitatives. He wrote to his father that they wished to marry; but his own friends and Artôt's mother all opposed the match, and the affair was concluded when she suddenly married a Spanish baritone a year later.
Also in 1877, while working on his Fourth Symphony, Tchaikovsky received a written declaration of love from a certain Antonina Milyukova, who claimed to have already met him but he didn't remember her. He told her that he would not be able to love her but rethought his rejection of the woman and decided in a very short time to marry her. She accepted, even though he tried to make it clear to her that there would be no physical contact. It turned out to be a disaster and he escaped from her almost immediately, the relationship giving rise to nervous collapse. He left for Switzerland. Around this time he composed two of his greatest works, the Fourth Symphony and Eugene Onegin which both bear unmistakable marks of the events in Tchaikovsky's private life at the time of their creation.
The same year he wrote the immensely popular Violin Concerto at Clarens and in 1885, Manfred. Then came the Fifth Symphony in 1888, Pique Dame (the Queen of Spades) in 1890 and the Nutcracker Ballet in 1891. His fame world-wide was rapidly increasing and he went on trips to various European capitals such as London, Prague, Paris and Hamburg for performances of his works. In France, he was elected a corresponding member of the Académie Française and Tchaikovsky Festivals began to take place in various cities. In 1891 he travelled to New York to conduct some of his work at the ceremonies for the opening of Carnegie Hall.
The composer continued to write music, preferring a selection of comfortable country houses in Russia as locations in which he could be left in peace. Maidanova and also Klin, near Moscow are examples of these locations. In was in Klin that he composed his most famous work, the 'Pathétique' Symphony (the title 'Pathétique' was proposed by his brother Modest on the day of the première) which he conducted at St. Petersburg on October 28th. Initially it was not overly successful and the composer died before having the opportunity to witness the success it finally received. The artist's final composition was his Sixth Symphony which was his most profoundly pessimistic piece of work.
On November 6th, 1893, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky died almost certainly from arsenic poisoning. The story that he died of cholera from drinking unboiled water is fabrication. He committed suicide after a story began to circulate about a liaison between the composer and his own nephew. To avert the scandal, Tchaikovsky took his own life. He was buried in the Alexander Nevsky cemetery in St Petersburg. A second performance of the Sixth Symphony on November 18th made a deep impression, the work being seen in retrospect as a premonition of the composer's own end.