Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). The reason for the variety of spelling of Tchaikovsky’s name comes from the problem of transliteration of the Cyrillic alphabet, hence Tschaikovsky (German), Chaikovski (Library of Congress), Peter (German and English), Pyotr (Russian), Ilich, Illyich, and Ilyich. When researching Tchaikovsky it is therefore necessary to try several spellings.
General: Tchaikovsky is the most famous and successful Late Romantic Russian composer. He held himself aloof from the “Mighty Five” for various reasons, including a difference in aesthetic sense and fear of domination by Balakirev. He attempted, and was largely successful, in blending Russian melody, folkstyle and literature with the European and German symphonic and operatic tradition. His style of melody (long, arching melodies often of an emotionally highly charged nature) was difficult to integrate into symphonic discourse. He is usually criticized for weakness in form, but that arises from the aesthetic endeavor.
Biography: Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, a mining town in eastern Russia, to a Russian father a mother of French ancestry (2nd of three wives). Tchaikovsky was musically precocious as a started piano at age five. He was deeply attached to his mother as well as his French Nanny. Separation from them at an early age, when he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence may have caused him deep emotional harm. He was in the first class of the school which was established by the Czar to create a bureaucratic class to modernize Russia. His homosexual tendencies manifest at the school. His brother Modest was also homosexual; however, Modest was open about his orientation, while Pyotr struggled with his identity for most of his life.
Tchaikovsky entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 and was appointed a professor at the Moscow Conservatory in 1866 (the two conservatories were headed by the Rubinstein brothers).
Although Tchaikovsky was homosexual and had known affairs with several men including the violinist Kotek and his nephew Vladimir Davidov, three women figure prominently in his biography:

  • Desiree Artot—a soprano who Tchaikovsky was infatuated with as a young man

  • Antonina Mylukova—a student at the Moscow Conservatory who wrote Tchaikovsky passionate love letters at a particularly vulnerable time in his life. He determined to marry her in 1877 when she threatened suicide if he did not. The marriage was a disaster and Tchaikovsky fled her. Modest arranged for a settlement, his brother never divorced her, and she died in an asylum in 1924. Tchaikovsky’s estate took care of her for her entire life.

  • Nadezhda von Meck—Russian widow of wealthy German industrialist, Nadezhda was a recluse. She was possibly sexually withdrawn, after having born eight children for her husband. Nadezhda had a passionate obsession with Tchaikovsky’s music and offered to be his patron in 1877, which provided Tchaikovsky an escape from his disastrous marriage and the financial problems it created. Between 1877 and 1890, the two two exchanged about 1200 letters confessing their deep emotional turmoil to each other. Nadezhda’s children may have forced her to abandon her correspondence and support of Tchaikovsky, either for financial reasons, or possibly for concern over scandal. She may also have imagined marrying one of her children off to him.

  • Tchaikovsky’s death is hotly debated. The original claim was an accidental death caused by hastily drinking unboiled water during a cholera epidemic. This is unlikely. The Russian musicologist Aleksandra Orlova claimed that Tchaikovsky poisoned himself with arsenic under orders of an “Honor Court” from the School of Jurisprudence to avoid a scandal over a homosexual affair. This is disputed by Alexander Poznansky. In any case, Tchaikovsky likely suffered from depression and probably died of a suicide. He had attempted in once before in his life


  • Six completed symphonies

  • Ten operas, the most important of which are Eugene Onegin, and Queen of Spades.

  • Three ballets which solidified the romantic ballet structure: Swan Lake,Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker

  • Concerti for violin and piano (3) and a concert piece for cello

  • Numerous orchestral tone poems, including 1812 Overture, Francesca de Rimini, The Voyavode, Cappricio Italien

  • Songs and chamber music

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