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BIOGRAPHY - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–93)


Tchaikovsky was the second of six children born to upper-middle-class parents – his father was at one time director of a technological institute. Though the family’s material existence was somewhat precarious, they aspired to the status of minor gentry. The future composer was thus lined up for a career in the civil service, but there was no opposition when he switched to music. Tchaikovsky was one of Anton Rubinstein’s first pupils at the newly founded Conservatoire in St Petersburg. Rubinstein’s musical horizons were Mendelssohn and Schumann, and he disapproved of Tchaikovsky’s first important orchestral work – a concert overture inspired by Ostrovsky’s play The Storm – partly because it required instruments like tam-tam and harp, partly because it was based on a literary programme. Nikolay Rubinstein, Anton’s brother, was no more approving, but invited Tchaikovsky to teach harmony at his recently opened Conservatoire in Moscow. There Tchaikovsky composed his First Symphony (‘Winter Daydreams’). Nearly two years later he met Balakirev, father-figure to the Russian Nationalist composers, who gave Tchaikovsky the structural plan for his Romeo and Juliet overture. The First Piano Concerto had its premiere in 1875, the year that Tchaikovsky’s first ballet, Swan Lake, was commissioned. By now he was a national celebrity.

Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was first discussed by Soviet musicologists in the 1930s, since when he has been stereotyped as a guilt-ridden closet case. Yet he doesn’t seem to have been sexually isolated, and had friends, as well as lovers, who were homosexual. But in 1877 he agreed to marry an importunate young woman who threatened suicide if he rejected her; he left her within the year, and she spent her last two decades in a mental hospital. Also about the same time, Tchaikovsky was approached by a rich widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who initiated a 13-year friendship, by correspondence only, and granted him a pension. Eventually, she ended the arrangement, possibly because of pressure from her children, and although there was no quarrel, Tchaikovsky’s last three years of life were embittered by the loss of one of the most fulfilling, platonic, friendships he had known.

Meanwhile came some of the most productive years of his life, beginning with the first big success among his symphonies, the Fourth, and the opera Eugene Onegin, the fifth of eight completed operas. After Onegin, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and three orchestral suites marked a period of sunny relaxation. Clouds gathered again – though with magnificent artistic results – in the Manfred symphony (1885), based on Byron, and the Fifth Symphony (1888). His sixth and final symphony, the ‘Pathétique’, with its daring final movement sinking into oblivion, had its first performance only nine days before Tchaikovsky died. There is continuing controversy as to the cause of his death: cholera, as his brother Modest said, or suicide.

Profile © BBC/Adrian Jack, 2003

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Biographical A to Z

Comprehensive guides to the lives of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky

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