Peter Tchaikovsky - Composer
Created | Updated May 7, 2010
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky is remembered today as the greatest Russian composer ever. He wrote music which stands very clearly in the European tradition, but has a distinctly Russian flavour. He was a master of melody, setting glorious melodies against distinctively Russian rhythms in a way that probably nobody else has ever done.
There is no definitive spelling for Tchaikovsky's name in the Roman alphabet that we use, since Russians use the Cyrillic alphabet. He is sometimes referred to as Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky.
Born on 7 May, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia, (about 500 miles east of Moscow) to an upper-class family, Tchaikovsky was a highly-strung child. Although musically gifted, he was not encouraged by his family. When he was eight, the family moved to Moscow and then to St Petersburg. His mother died of cholera when he was 14 and this affected him deeply. He studied law and got a reasonably good job in the civil service but didn't like it. When he was 22, he left the civil service and entered the Conservatory of Music in St Petersburg as a student, teaching music privately to pay for his studies. At 26, he was offered a job in the Moscow Conservatory as a professor. The (meagre) salary from this enabled him to devote his spare time to composing.
Tchaikovsky's subsequent career consisted of the production of huge amounts of quality music interspersed with nervous breakdowns. He was an extremely emotional person and suffered from numerous neuroses. For example, he was convinced that if he conducted an orchestra, his head would fall off. On the rare occasions when he had to conduct, he held his chin with his left hand throughout the performance. In later years he seems to have got over this particular phobia. Tchaikovsky was also a secret homosexual. At the time in Russia, this was considered a terrible crime and if found out, he would be stripped of all his possessions and deported to a Siberian labour camp.
In 1876 he was approached by Antonina Milyukova, a former fellow student, who was quite clearly mentally unbalanced. She said that she loved him and would commit suicide if he did not marry her. Strangely, Tchaikovsky agreed, and the two were married. Perhaps Tchaikovsky thought he could 'cure' himself of his homosexuality or perhaps he wanted the respectability of a wife as a front. But the relationship was doomed from the start; he found her constant demands for sex repulsive. They were separated within nine weeks.
Also in 1876, Tchaikovsky entered into a strange relationship with a woman which brought an element of stability to his life. He was approached in writing by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who wished to sponsor his musical talent. He accepted and proceeded for the next 14 years to converse in writing with Madame von Meck. He poured out his heart to her in letters, often sending one a day. She appears to have been equally forthcoming in her letters. He was even entertained in her country mansion, when she was absent from it. But the two never met in person, on her insistence. She provided money to keep him going during his composing, enabling him to resign from his teaching job and devote himself fully to composing. Eventually, in 1890, she decided to break off the relationship abruptly, never speaking to him again. It is not clear why and Tchaikovsky never forgave her. By this time, however, Tchaikovsky had made his name as a composer and could support himself.
Tchaikovsky died in 1893 at the age of 53. His death is reported in two entirely different versions. The official story published at the time of his death was that he drank some untreated water during a cholera outbreak, rapidly contracted the disease and died. This account is often given in histories of the composer. But it does not quite ring true. At the wake, Tchaikovsky's body was on display and many of his friends wept over the corpse. If he had really died of cholera, his body would have been kept in quarantine.
The other version of Tchaikovsky's death is that his homosexuality was discovered, with the threat of it being revealed to the authorities. Rather than face utter disgrace and ruin, Tchaikovsky committed suicide. As suicide was viewed as a sin, the alternate explanation might have been constructed to allow him a proper burial.
Tchaikovsky's music is very well known. He had arguably the greatest gift for writing melodies of any composer ever. He was also a master of orchestration, developing his melodies to the full. His most famous works are probably his ballets and his first piano concerto. The rest of this entry gives a sample of his best known works.
Tchaikovsky's ballets are now considered the centre-piece and mainstay of Russian Ballet.
This tells the story of a girl who is given a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier for a Christmas present. She falls asleep and when she awakes (or is she really dreaming?) the nutcracker and all her other toys have come alive.
The ballet features a sequence of short dances by various characters ('Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy', 'Dance of the Two Flutes', etc) which are often played separately as The Nutcracker Suite. Everybody will be familiar with at least some of these. Disney featured the whole of this suite in the animated film Fantasia in 1938.
Initially a failure, this ballet is now a favourite. It tells the tale of Princess Odette, who has been turned into a swan by an evil magician. She returns to human form for a few hours at midnight each night. Prince Siegfried sees her and falls in love, vowing to free her. But by the machinations of Odile, daughter of the evil magician, he ends up engaged to the wrong woman. Realising everything has gone terribly wrong, the two lovers mourn by a lake. They are drowned when, with an enormous wave, the lake takes them into itself.
The fairy tale story of the beautiful princess who pricks her finger on an enchanted spindle and falls asleep, to be woken by the kiss of the handsome prince. Much of the music of the ballet was used as incidental music in Disney's animated version of the story.
Tchaikovsky wrote seven symphonies, bizarrely numbered 1, 2, 3, Manfred, 4, 5 and 6. The best of these are the last three.
The 4th Symphony
Opening with a wonderful fanfare on brass, which is said to represent Fate, this work is dramatic and moving from start to finish.
The 5th Symphony
This symphony is one of his most morose, starting with a mournful deep theme played on clarinets. The symphony progresses but stays close to this theme throughout, ending with a triumphant version of it in a major key. This is a great favourite with the concert-going public.
The 6th Symphony - 'Pathétique'
This symphony is a wonderful piece, full of emotions. The four movements are said by some to represent passion, love, disappointment and death. Whether these were exactly what Tchaikovsky intended or not, they are appropriate to the emotional intensity of the music. Tchaikovsky himself rightly considered this his finest work.
Other Well-known Music
Tchaikovsky wrote ten operas; this is the most famous of them. Based on the dramatic poem of the same name by Pushkin, it tells of a shy young woman, Tatiana, who falls in love with a man, Eugene Onegin. He rejects her love. Many years later, when she is happily married to a prince, Onegin realises his mistake and declares his love for her, but it is too late.
Piano Concerto No. 1
The First Piano Concerto is the most famous piano piece by Tchaikovsky. He dedicated it to the pianist Nicolai Rubinstein, but Rubinstein labelled it 'worthless and unplayable'. The composer rededicated it to Hans von Bülow, who then gave the first performance of the work. It was an instant success.
This is considered standard fare for the great virtuoso players, along with the concertos of Brahms and Beethoven.
Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
An early piece, this has one of the most glorious melodies ever.
This piece was written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon when he attempted to attack Moscow and was forced to retreat. The music contains frequent quotes from the French and old Russian national anthems, ending with the Russian music triumphant and accompanied by a cavalcade of real cannons. This is a definite show-stopper.