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Classical Composers A-Z: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Peter Wintersgill presents an outline of the life and career of Russia's best-know composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

7th May, 1840, at Kamsko-Votinsk in Russia.

Ilia, mining engineer, became mine manager.

Alexandra, father's second wife.

One elder brother, three younger brothers and one younger sister:

Showed early signs of musical ability. His very sensitive nature was to last all his life. Started piano lessons with his governess at four, then with a music teacher from five.

First showed signs of nervous instability at nine, when the family moved to St. Petersburg and he was sent to boarding school. He had measles very badly at this time, and took six months to fully recover. The family soon moved to Alapiev, when his health improved.

A year later, when he was 10, he was sent back to St. Petersburg to enter the School of Jurisprudence. The parting from his mother was very disturbing, as one might expect.

A school friend, with whose family he was staying, died of scarlet fever. This again upset him very much, as he blamed himself for introducing the infection into the house.

In 1852, when he was 12, the family joined him in St. Petersburg, his mother dying of cholera some two years later. This again caused further emotional upset, which lasted for some time.

He graduated in law from the school in 1859, joining the Ministry of Justice as a clerk, where he worked for four years.

Early Adult Life
He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatoire in 1863 and studied composition with Anton Rubenstein, as well as piano and flute.

He moved to Moscow in 1865 to take up offer of the post of Professor of Harmony at the Conservatoire there, made by Anton's brother Nicholas. Early works of this period include the Overture in F, the song Mezza Notte and the Characteristic Dances.

Always nervous and highly strung, he was very homesick, as he was destined to be whenever he was away from home. Yet right through his life, as soon as he was home, he was anxious to be off again on his travels.

He worked hard at his first two serious compositions, the First Symphony (1868), which he called Winter Daydreams, and the Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet (1869), which he dedicated to Balakirev. The latter was one of the Big Five, as they were called, the other four being Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, Borodin and Mussorgsky.

About this time he got engaged to a Belgian soprano, Desiree Artot, five years older than himself, but she went off and married a Spanish baritone. It is quite possible that she found something a bit odd about Tchaikovsky; after all he was a homosexual.

He then wrote the first String Quartet (1871), of which the slow movement is Andante Cantabile, often played alone by an orchestra.

He had been living in Rubenstein's town house, but he left and took a flat of his own to concentrate better on his work. He was always a lonely soul; he didn't mix well or get on well with girls. This could perhaps be explained by his homosexual leanings.

Among his compositions of this period were two operas, the Second and Third Symphonies, his ballet Swan Lake (1876) and the first B Flat Minor Piano Concerto (1874).

He now got a letter from a wealthy widow, Madame von Meck, who admired his music, offering him a regular allowance, on the condition that they never met. They never did meet and the relationship continued for 14 years till 1890, when Madame von Meck wrote to say she was in financial trouble and the relationship must cease.

Tchaikovsky was very upset about this. It seemed to imply that it had all depended on the allowance. Moreover he worried constantly about his homosexual urges, but that was soon to come to a head.

Later Adult Life
In 1876 he heard from a girl who admired his music, wanting to meet him. She alleged she knew him at the Conservatoire, but he had no recollection of her. However they did meet and Antonia declared her love for him.

He was not attracted to her, but thinking it might rid him of his homosexual urges, he married her in the summer of 1877. It was the worst move he ever made. They fell out constantly and separated after only a month. This episode, like previous upsets, caused him great distress. His doctor sent him to Geneva to recuperate.

He later moved to Italy, where he wrote the Italian Caprice (1880). He attempted suicide, fortunately without success, but spent several months abroad. With the help of Madame von Meck's allowance, he was gradually able to recover. While doing so he wrote his finest opera, Eugene Onegin, and his fourth symphony, which he dedicated to Madame von Meck. The same year (1878) he wrote the violin concerto, the premiere being conducted by Hans Richter, who later conducted the Halle Orchestra.

His B Flat Minor Piano Concerto he dedicated at first to Nicholas Rubenstein, who poured such a torrent of abuse on it that Tchaikovsky changed the dedication to Hans von Bulow, who liked it very much. However he revised it considerably, and Rubenstein came to like it very much in the revised form. After a visit to Antonia by his brother Anatoly and Rubenstein the couple were eventually divorced.

After this he travelled about a lot without settling to composing for any length of time. Eventually he wrote the 1812 Overture and the Serenade for Strings (both in 1880), followed by the piano trio and the Legend (a carol). He came to dislike the Overture very much, saying it was "loud and noisy ... no artistic merit".

He bought a house in 1885 at Klin, several miles outside Moscow, which was his base, if not his home, for the rest of his life. He often went to stay with his sister and her family at Kamenka, where he could see his favourite nephew Bob.

He wrote an orchestral work Manfred (1885), during which he became very depressed. He wrote that great favourite The Nutcracker Suite in 1892.

Later on he took to travelling with a purpose, usually on conducting tours. He had a fear of conducting, but overcame this by degrees, finding he was much in demand. He went to the USA in 1891, followed by London and Cambridge, where he received Hon. Mus. Doc. in 1893, and Paris, where he heard of his sister's death.

This predictably upset him very much. He was very depressed and homesick in the USA, but was cheered a little by his enthusiastic reception. He wrote his 6th Symphony (the Pathetique), conducting the premiere himself in 1893 in St. Petersburg.

About his death there is still some controversy. It was generally accepted until recently that he died of cholera, after drinking a glass of infected water. However it is now thought that he was condemned by a "Court of Honour" to commit suicide, and that the story about the glass of water was put about by the "Court". It seems that one of them had a son with whom Tchaikovsky had a homosexual relationship. He died on 6th November, 1893, aged 53 in St. Petersburg.


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