Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer of the Romantic era, born on May 7, 1840AM in Votkinsk, Russia. His works include symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire including the ballets Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.
Tchaikovsky was born to a fairly wealthy middle class family. His father, named Ilya Tchaikovsky was a mining business executive in Votkinsk. His father\’s ancestors were from Ukraine and Poland. His mother, named Aleksandra Assier, was of Russian and French ancestry. His father, Ilya Petrovich (a two time divorced) married Alexandra and the two had two sons, Pyotr and Modest.
Childhood and Mother death
Tchaikovsky started piano studies at five and soon showed remarkable gifts. He also learned
to read French and German by the age of six. A year later, he was writing French verses. The family hired a governess, Fanny Dürbach, to keep watch over the children, and she often referred to Tchaikovsky as the \”porcelain child.\” Tchaikovsky was ultra sensitive to music. He would complain at night that the music in his head would not let him sleep.
Since both parents had graduated from institutes in Saint Petersburg, they decided to educate Tchaikovsky as they had themselves been educated. The School of Jurisprudence mainly served the lesser nobility and would prepare Tchaikovsky for a career as a civil servant. As the minimum age for acceptance was 12 and Tchaikovsky was only 10 at the time, he was required to spend two years boarding at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence\’s preparatory school, 1300 km from his family. Once those two years had passed, Tchaikovsky transferred to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to begin a seven-year course of studies. Tchaikovsky\’s separation from his mother to attend boarding school caused an emotional trauma that tormented him throughout his life.
On June 25, 1854, when he was 14 Tchaikovsky suffered the shock of his mother\’s death from cholera. His parting from his mother was painful – an event that may have stimulated him to compose. Tchaikovsky bemoaned the loss of his mother for the rest of his life, and admitted that it had \”a huge influence on the way things turned out for me”. He was so affected that he was unable to inform Fanny Dürbach, until two years after the fact.
Tchaikovsky\’s father, who also became sick with cholera at this time but made a full recovery, immediately sent the boy back to St. Petersburg school in hope that the class work would occupy his mind.
At the age of 40, approximately 26 years after his mother\’s death, Tchaikovsky wrote to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck \”Every moment of that appalling day is as vivid to me as though it were yesterday.\” However, within a month of his mother\’s death he was making his first serious efforts at composition, a waltz in her memory.
To make up for his sense of isolation and to compensate for the loss in his family formed important friendships with fellow students, such as those with Aleksey Apukhtin and Vladimir Gerard, which lasted the rest of his life. He may have also been exposed to the allegedly widespread homosexual practices at the school. Whether these were formative experiences or practices toward which the composer would have gravitated normally, biographers agree that he may have discovered his sexual orientation at this time.
On June 10, 1859, at the age of 19, Tchaikovsky graduated from the School of Jurisprudence, then, worked for 3 years at the Justice Department of Russian Empire. On June 15, he was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later he became junior assistant and two months after that, a senior assistant, where he remained for the rest of his three-year civil service career.
Early adult Life and Music Study
Tchaikovsky decided not to give up his Ministry post until he was quite certain that he was destined to be a musician rather than a civil servant.
In 1861, Tchaikovsky attended classes in music theory organized by the Russian Musical Society (RMS) and taught by Nikolai Zaremba. A year later he followed Zaremba to the new Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
In 1863, Tchaikovsky abandoned his civil service career and began studying music full-time at the St. Petersburg ́s Conservatory, He studied harmony with Zaremba, while Anton Rubinstein, director and founder of the Conservatory, taught him instrumentation and composition. He graduated from the Conservatory in December 1865.
At that time he met Franz Liszt, a 19th-century Hungarian composer and Hector Berlioz, a French Romantic composer who visited Russia with concert tours. During that period Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet \’The Swan Lake\’, opera \’Eugene Onegin\’, four Symphonies, and the brilliant Piano Concerto No1.
In 1866, Tchaikovsky took a job as a harmony teacher for the Moscow Conservatory with Rubenstein\’s recommendation. He was professor of theory and harmony at the Moscow Conservatory until 1878. Little of his music so far had pleased the conservative musical establishment or the more nationalist group, but his First Symphony had a good public reception.
Tchaikovsky’s musical talent impressed Rubinstein. He and Zaremba later clashed with the young composer over his First Symphony, written after his graduation, when he submitted it to them for their perusal. The symphony was given its first complete performance in Moscow in February 1868, where it was well received.
Tchaikovsky’s formal, Western-oriented training set him apart from the contemporary nationalistic movement embodied by the influential group of young Russian composers known as The Five, with whom Tchaikovsky\’s professional relationship was mixed.
In 1868, he had a brief flirtation with soprano Désirée Artôt , a Belgian soprano who was famed in German and Italian opera and sang mainly in Germany.
In 1868 she visited Russia with a touring Italian. Désirée Artôt met Tchaikovsky briefly at a private party in the spring. He also visited her after her benefit performance. They again met by chance at a musical party, where she expressed her surprise that he had not visited her more often during the autumn. He promised he would do so, but he did not intend to keep his promise. However Anton Rubinstein persuaded him to see her at the opera.
She then started to send him invitations every day, and he became accustomed to visiting her every evening. He later described her to his
brother Modest as possessing \”exquisite gesture, grace of movement, and artistic poise\”.
He had put aside his work on his symphonic poem Fatum in order to give her all his attention. It seems plausible that Tchaikovsky was more captivated in her as a singer and actor than as a romantic interest, and had difficulty in separating the artist from the person. Tchaikovsky dedicated his Romance in F minor for piano, Op. 5, to her.
By the end of the year, marriage was being considered. It has been said that this was Tchaikovsky’s first serious attempt to conquer his homosexuality. Her mother, who was traveling with her, opposed the marriage and she married a Spanish baritone.
Though his personal life may have been unsuccessful, Tchaikovsky was steadily completing composition after composition. In 1875, Tchaikovsky\’s world premiere of his third symphony was given in Boston on October 25, and was conducted by Hans von Bulow. Despite there being pockets of opposition towards his music, his works and reputation began to spread across Europe.
In 1877, he married a beautiful young woman named Anotonina Miliukova, but divorced her 9 weeks later.
Nadeshda von Meck
During the same year of his disastrous marriage, Tchaikovsky also entered into another relationship – only instead of meeting face to face, they communicated through letters. This worked out very well for him given his extreme shyness, and also in part, he did not have to consummate the relationship.
The woman was Nadeshda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate who had begun contact with him not long before the marriage with Miliukova. As well as an important friend and emotional support, she also became his patroness for the next 13 years, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition.
Though it is unclear why she did not want to meet him, she sent
him money as she greatly admired his work. Despite what it seemed on the outside, Tchaikovsky was emotionally troubled,
weeping and doubting himself very often, and took to alcohol as a form of relief.
After enjoying numerous successes and frequent travels, Tchaikovsky money and letters from Meck came to a halt. In 1890, she abruptly terminated all communication and support, claiming bankruptcy, though that wasn\’t the case.
It wasn\’t the loss of the money that had greatly upset him. It was the sudden termination of his emotional companion of 13 years. This was a blow for the already emotionally sensitive composer. In 1891, he fled to the US after receiving an invitation to the opening week of New York\’s Music Hall (which was renamed Carnegie Hall a few years later). He visited Niagara Falls and conducted in Philadelphia and Baltimore before returning to Russia.
Traumatic Experience and Crisis
Discussion of Tchaikovsky\’s personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer
of his time. It has been said that Tchaikovsky experienced deeper, more violent continual emotional upheavals than all the other composers combined. As a young man Tchaikovsky
suffered traumatic personal experiences. Although he enjoyed many popular successes, Tchaikovsky was never emotionally secure, and his life was punctuated by personal crises and periods of depression. Contributory factors were the shock of his mother\’s death, his suppressed homosexuality and fear of exposure, his disastrous marriage, and the sudden collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck.
His homosexuality was causing him a painful guilt feeling. In 1876 he wrote to his brother, Modest, about his decision to \”marry whoever will have me.\” Tchaikovsky took the decision to get married, in order to mitigate the social effects of his homosexuality.
“I am now going through a very critical period of my life. I will go into more detail later, but for now I will simply tell you, I have decided to get married. It is unavoidable. I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modeste, and all those I love. I think that for both of us our dispositions are the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must fight our natures to the best of our ability. So far as I am concerned, I will do my utmost to get married this year, and if I lack the necessary courage, I will at any rate abandon my habits forever. Surely you realize how painful it is for me to know that people pity and forgive me when in truth I am not guilty of anything. How appalling to think that those who love me are sometimes ashamed of me. In short, I seek marriage or some sort of public involvement with a woman so as to shut the mouths of assorted contemptible creatures whose opinions mean nothing to me, but who are in a position to cause distress to those near to me”.
One of his admirers, a Moscow Conservatory student Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, was persistently writing him love letters. She threatened to take her life if Tchaikovsky didn\’t marry her.
Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova in 1877, but frankly told his wife he did not love her though he would be her devoted friend. Not surprisingly, the marriage ended disastrously after a few months, which brought Tchaikovsky close
to a nervous breakdown. He even made a suicide
attempt by throwing himself into a river. The fact helped him accept his unchangeable sexual nature and stop tormenting himself.
She eventually ended up in an insane asylum, where she spent over 20 years and died. They never saw each other again. Although their marriage was terminated legally, Tchaikovsky generously supported her financially until his death.
Tchaikovsky was ordered by his doctors to leave
Russia until his emotional health was restored. He
went to live in Europe for a few years. Tchaikovsky
settled together with his brother, Modest, in a quiet village of Clarens on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and lived there in 1877-1878.
Tchaikovsky and Milyukova
There he wrote his very popular Violin Concerto in D. He also completed his Symphony No.4, which was inspired by Russian folk songs, and dedicated it to a wealthy widow called Nadezhda von Meck.
Work and Collaboration with other Musician
Tchaikovsky played an important role in the artistic development of Sergei Rachmaninoff, a legendary Russian composer and pianist who emigrated after the Communist revolution of
1917, and became one of the highest paid concert stars of his time, and one of the most influential pianists of the 20th century. They met in 1886, when Rachmaninoff was only 13 years old, and studied the music of Tchaikovsky under the tutelage of their mutual friend, composer Aleksandr Zverev. Tchaikovsky was the member of the Moscow conservatory graduation board. He joined many other musicians in recommendation that Rachmaninoff was to be awarded the Gold Medal in 1892.
Later Tchaikovsky was involved in popularization of Rachmaninov\’s graduation work, opera \’Aleko\’. Upon Tchaikovsky\’s promotion Rachmaninov\’s opera \”Aleko\” was included in the repertory and performed at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
In 1888, Tchaikovsky and Grieg, a componist born on June 15, 1843, in Bergen, Norway, met in Leipzig. Grieg was struck by the sadness in Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky thought very highly of Grieg\’s music, praising its beauty, originality and warmth.
Tchaikovsky was also a friend of Antonín Dvorák, born on 8 September 1841, Nelahozeves, Bohemia, Austria (now Czech Republic). Tchaikovsky and Dvořák first met at the National Theatre in Prague in February 1888, during preparations for a production of Evgenii Onegin, which Dvořák described as \”such beautiful music as permeates the sole and cannot be forgotten\”. During this visit Tchaikovsky also attended rehearsals of Dvořák \’s Seventh Symphony, which he also admired.
In 1891, he went on a two months tour of America, where he gave concerts in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In May of 1891 Tchaikovsky was the conductor on the official opening night of Carnegie Hall in New York.
In 1892 he heard Gustav Mahler, conducting his opera \’Eugene Onegin\’ in Hamburg. Gustav Mahler is largely considered one of the most talented symphonic composers of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. It has been claimed that Gustav Mahler\’s Ninth Symphony was directly inspired by Tchaikovsky\’s Sixth.
Relationship with The Five
“The Five”, also known as The Mighty Handful, The Balakirev Circle, and The New Russian School, refers to a circle of composers who met in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in the years 1856–1870: Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky- Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. The group had the aim of producing a specifically Russian kind of art music, rather than one that imitated older European music or relied on European- style conservatory training. In a sense, they were a branch of the Romantic Nationalist movement in Russia, sharing similar artistic goals with the Abramtsevo Colony and Russian Revival.
Rubinstein\’s Western musical orientation brought him into opposition with the nationalistic “The Five”. As Tchaikovsky was Rubinstein\’s best-known pupil, he became a target for the group, especially for César Cui. Cui\’s criticisms began with a blistering review of a cantata Tchaikovsky had written as his graduation exercise from the Conservatory. Calling the piece \”feeble\”, Cui wrote that if Tchaikovsky had any gift for music, \”then at least somewhere or other the cantata, would have broken through the fetters of the Conservatoire\”. The effect of this review on Tchaikovsky was devastating: \”…My vision grew dark, my head spun, and I ran out of the café like a madman…” All day I wandered aimlessly through the city, repeating, \’I\’m sterile, insignificant, nothing will come out of me, I\’m ungifted\’.
When in 1867, Rubinstein resigned as conductor from Saint Petersburg\’s Russian Musical Society orchestra he was replaced by composer Mily Balakirev, leader of The Five. Tchaikovsky, now Professor of Music Theory at the Moscow Conservatory, had already promised his Dances of the Hay Maidens (which he later included in his opera The
Voyevoda, as Characteristic Dances) to the society. In submitting the manuscript (and perhaps mindful of Cui\’s review of the graduation cantata), Tchaikovsky included a note to Balakirev that ended with a request for a word of encouragement: Should the Dances not be performed? Possibly sensing a new disciple in Tchaikovsky, Balakirev wrote \”with complete frankness\” in his reply that he felt that Tchaikovsky was \”a fully fledged artist\”. These letters set the tone for Tchaikovsky\’s relationship with Balakirev over the next two years. In 1869, the two entered into a working relationship, the result being Tchaikovsky\’s first recognized masterpiece, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, a work that The Five wholeheartedly embraced.
Though, personally, Tchaikovsky remained on friendly terms with most of The Five, professionally, he was usually ambivalent about their music. Despite the collaboration with Balakirev on the Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture, Tchaikovsky made considerable efforts to ensure his musical independence from the group as well as from the conservative faction at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.
The history of Tchaikovsky\’s homosexuality was suppressed in Russia by the Soviets, and it has only recently become widely known in post-Soviet Russia. Tchaikovsky\’s letters and diaries, as well as the letters of his brother Modest, who was also gay, make clear his orientation. Many of Tchaikovsky\’s most intimate relationships were homosexual.
A biography by Roland John Wiley and reviewed by Michael Church claims that some of those mysteries are no more than myths. For instance, Wiley points out that Tchaikovsky was openly gay all his life, to the point that he feminized the names of the young men he consorted with, and indeed his own – signing a letter to his brother \”Petrolina\”.
In his book, “Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man”, Alexander Poznansky, showed that Tchaikovsky had homosexual tendencies and that some of the composer\’s closest relationships were with persons of the same sex.
Tchaikovsky\’s servant Aleksei Sofronov and the composer\’s nephew, Vladimir \”Bob\” Davydov, have been suggested as possible romantic interests. Tchaikovsky dedicated his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, to Davydov.
Tchaikovsky and Davydov
The Tchaikovsky love theme from Romeo and Juliet is considered to having been inspired by Eduard Zak, his pupil, who killed himself in 1873.
Biographer Anthony Holden claims British musicologist and scholar Henry Zajaczkowski\’s research \”along psychoanalytical lines\” points to \”a severe unconscious inhibition by the composer of his sexual feelings\”.
It seems that Tchaikovsky was tormented by his suppressed homosexuality and the constant fear of exposure. Although he married one of his students, his attempt at straight family life was disastrous. Even though they remained married, they had no children and did not live together. Within two weeks of their wedding he tried to kill himself, hoping to catch pneumonia by plunging himself into the Moscow River.
Musicologist and historian Roland John Wiley, based on Tchaikovsky\’s letters, suggests that
while Tchaikovsky experienced \”no unbearable guilt\” over his homosexuality, he remained aware of the negative consequences of that knowledge becoming public, especially of the ramifications for his family. His decision to enter into a heterosexual union and try to lead a double life was prompted by several factors—the possibility of exposure, the willingness to please his father, his own desire for a permanent home and his love of children and family.
In his later years, Tchaikovsky was open about his homosexuality.
Tchaikovsky died less than one week after the premiere of his Symphony No.6 in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the 16th of October 1893. The premiering what is considered to be his greatest work, Symphony Pathetique.
There are many rumors about Tchaikovsky\’s cause of his sudden death at the age of 53. For a long time it was thought that he died of cholera after drinking a glass of water that wasn\’t boiled.
The death by suicide became almost a fact when, in the mid-70\’s, testimonial evidence was made public in the Soviet Union, coming from the families of those concerned, of the way in which Tchaikovsky died.
Although it is not a \”proven fact\”, this new version has been widely accepted. According to the testimonies, a member of the nobility, Stenbok-Fernor, had threatened to complain to the Tsar about an alleged homosexual relationship between Tchaikovsky and his
nephew. Stenbok-Fernor wrote a letter of accusation to the Tsar in the autumn of 1893 and gave the letter to Jacobi, an eminent Lawyer, to deliver. Jacobi wanted to avoid a public scandal. Exposure would have meant loss of civil rights and exile to Siberia, and public disgrace not only for Tchaikovsky but also for his fellow former students of the School of Jurisprudence.
To avoid open scandal Jacobi invited all of Tchaikovsky\’s former schoolmates that he could locate in St. Petersburg—eight people altogether—to serve in a \”court of honor\” to discuss the charge.
This meeting was held in Jacoby\’s study. Jacobi\’s wife could hear loud voices behind the closed door, and after the meeting that lasted five hours Tchaikovsky ran unsteadily from the room, very white and agitated. They had condemned Tchaikovsky to death, forcing him to take his own life. Once everyone else had left, Jacobi told his wife that they had decided that Tchaikovsky should kill himself. Within a day or two of this meeting, news of the composer\’s illness was circulating in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky may have been forced to drink the cholera/arsenic-laden water.
His works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire.
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