Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky -

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Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky


Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky
Votkinsk, Russia, 1840
November 6, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1893

Perhaps one of the most tormented of all composers, Tchaikovsky’s story may have been very different if he had been born in a more modern age. He did not formally study music until he was twenty-one; prior to this he had graduated from the School of Jurisprudence after his family moved to St. Petersburg in 1850, and took a position within the Ministry of Justice as a clerk.

When the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher, Nikolai Zaremba, and in 1863 resigned from his commission to study music full-time. The Conservatory’s founder, Anton Rubinstein, recommended Tchaikovsky to his brother Nikolai Rubinstein, where Tchaikovsky accepted a position as a harmony teacher for the Moscow Conservatory where Nikolai taught. In 1877, Tchaikovsky married Antonia Ivanovna Miliukova, a woman considerably younger than he; the marriage collapsed after nine weeks.

Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky

During that time, he attempted suicide by plunging himself into a frigid river, probably resulting from his despair at being a closeted homosexual. In addition, Tchaikovsky had severe social anxiety which plagued him throughout his life. He recalled: “. . . in my soul there was despair and a desire to flee from (people) to the ends of the earth”. Financial relief came in 1877 in the form of a wealthy forty-six year old widow named Nadezha von Meck, who paid Tchaikovsky an annual stipend, alleviating all his financial concerns, on one condition, that the two of them would never meet. This promise Tchaikovsky happily kept, as they both felt that meeting the man behind the music would disappoint Meck’s expectations. As Tchaikovsky’s music became increasingly well known, he began to travel more extensively. But after thirteen years of Meck’s patronage, she pulled her support after believing she was going bankrupt. This was a large blow to Tchaikovsky not only financially, but also psychologically.

He believed himself to have been used by Meck after so many years of an intense, yet unspoken relationship. In 1891, he traveled to America, participating in the grand opening concert series of New York’s Music Hall (later renamed Carnegie Hall). He visited Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and had a very high opinion of the openness and sincerity of the American people. He returned to Russia shortly afterward and began writing his final orchestral piece, the Symphony No. 6, later entitled “Pathétique”. Tchaikovsky explained that his symphony, which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1893, was “subjective through and through, and during my journey I often wept bitterly when composing it in my head”. Less than a week after the symphony’s premiere, Tchaikovsky fell ill after drinking an unboiled glass of water and contracted cholera. After a few days of suffering he died on November 6th , 1893.


In the time of 19th century Russian nationalism, Tchaikovsky stands outside the realm of the “Mighty Handful”, mostly because he was formally trained at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The other composers of the Five certainly appreciated his ability to utilize Russian folk tales, specifically in his three ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, but they had difficulty accepting his use of Classical forms in his larger-scale orchestral works. In truth, Tchaikovsky is one of the few composers to reconcile traditional formalistic structure with folk music. He was bored by the composers of the Baroque Era, did not idolize the music of Beethoven, and completely deplored Wagner and Brahms. In fact, in his own criticism of Brahms, Tchaikovsky mentions that “it angers me that (Brahms’) presumptuous mediocrity is recognized as a genius”. The composer that Tchaikovsky worshipped above all others was Mozart, even so far as calling him “a musical Christ”. Tchaikovsky himself would struggle to attain the clarity of form he admired so much in Mozart.

Of his symphonies, of which the last three are the most famous, he is characterized by his use of a wide dynamic range, expressive orchestrations, and a haunting yet beautiful sense of melody. His music is almost neoclassical, particularly in his two major operas Eugene Onegin (1878) and The Queen of Spades (1890). Mozart himself is quoted in some passages, a retrospective that Tchaikovsky indulged in his piece Mozartiana, which consists of four orchestrations on Mozart’s piano pieces. However, what is most characteristic of Tchaikovsky’s work is his expressive dramatic tensions and climaxes, no doubt stemming from his struggle to live with his despair and torment. Throughout almost his entire life, Tchaikovsky had to suppress his homosexuality for fear, and rightfully so, that it would completely ruin him. His anxiety highly contributed to this fear, yet though it all he considered himself a nationalistic composer: “I am Russian in the fullest sense of the world”. Had Tchaikovsky lived in the latter half of the 20th century, along with homosexual composers such as Benjamin Britten, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and John Corigliano, his fate may not have been so inescapable.

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