With his profound melodic gift, Tchaikovsky entranced audience after audience and provided us with a living soundtrack for 19th century Russia. This course will give Tchaikovsky his due as a Russian nationalist and reveal how gracefully he navigated between the sometimes rough-hewn Slavocentrism of his contemporaries and the technical demands of Western cosmopolitanism.
Pyotr (Peter) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Vyatka region, Russia. He was the second of six children (five brothers and one sister). His father, named Ilya Chaikovsky, 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.
Tchaikovsky played piano since the age of 5, he also enjoyed his mother's playing and singing. He was a sensitive and emotional child, and became deeply traumatized by the death of his mother of cholera, in 1854. At that time he was sent to a boarding school in St. Petersburg. He graduated from the St. Petersburg School of Law in 1859, then worked for 3 years at the Justice Department of Russian Empire. In 1862-1865 he studied music under Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1866-1878 he was a professor of theory and harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. At that time he met Franz Liszt and Hector Berlioz, who visited Russia with concert tours. During that period Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet 'Swan Lake', the opera 'Eugene Onegin', four Symphonies, and the brilliant Piano Concerto No1.
As a young man Tchaikovsky suffered traumatic personal experiences. He was sincerely attached to a beautiful soprano, named Desiree Artot, but their engagement was dissolved by her mother and she married another man. His homosexuality was caused him tremendous guilt. In 1876 he wrote to his brother, Modest, about his decision to "marry whoever will have me." One of his admirers, a Moscow Conservatory student named Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova, wrote him love letters and threatened suicide if Tchaikovsky didn't marry her. But it was he who attempted suicide shortly into their brief marriage in the summer of 1877. Antonina was eventually institutionalized, and died in an asylum after 20 years. Although legally divorced, Tchaikovsky supported her financially until his death.
Ordered by his doctors to leave Russia until his emotional health was restored, Tchaikovsky lived in Europe for a few years. Tchaikovsky settled with his brother, Modest, in a quiet village of Clarens on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and lived there in 1877-1878. 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 Nadezhda von Meck. From 1877 to 1890 Tchaikovsky was financially supported by this wealthy widow, who also supported Claude Debussy. She loved Tchaikovsky's music and became his devoted pen-pal. They exchanged over a thousand letters in 14 years; but they never met, at her insistence. In 1890 she abruptly terminated all communication and support, claiming bankruptcy.
Tchaikovsky played an important role in the artistic development of Sergei Rachmaninoff. They met in 1886, when Rachmaninov 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 recommending Rachmaninov for the Gold Medal in 1892. Later Tchaikovsky helped promote Rachmaninov's graduation work, the opera 'Aleko'.
In 1883-1893 Tchaikovsky wrote his Symphonies No.5 and No.6, ballets 'The Sleeping Beauty' and 'The Nutcracker', operas 'The Queen of Spades' and 'Iolanta'. In 1888-1889, he made a successful conducting tour of Europe, appearing in Prague, Leipzig, Hamburg, Paris, and London. In 1891, he went on a two month 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. He was a friend of Edvard Grieg and Antonín Dvorák. In 1892 he heard Gustav Mahler conducting his opera 'Eugene Onegin' in Hamburg. Tchaikovsky himself conducted the premiere of his Symphony No.6 in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the 16th of October, 1893. A week later he died of cholera after having a glass of tap water. He was laid to rest in the Necropolis of Artists at St. Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Musical Legacy (Wikipedia)
Tchaikovsky wrote many works which are popular with the classical music public, including his Romeo and Juliet, the 1812 Overture, his three ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty) and Marche Slave. These, along with his First Piano Concerto and his Violin Concerto, the last three of his six numbered symphonies and his operas The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin, are among his most familiar works. Almost as popular are the Manfred Symphony, Francesca da Rimini, the Capriccio Italien and the Serenade for Strings.
Tchaikovsky displayed an unusually wide stylistic and emotional range, from salon works of innocuous charm to symphonies of tremendous depth, power and grandeur. Some of his works, such as the Variations on a Rococo Theme, employ a poised "Classical" form reminiscent of 18th century composers such as Mozart (the composer whose work was his favorite). Other compositions, such as his Little Russian symphony and his opera Vakula the Smith, flirt with musical practices more akin to those of the Five, especially in their use of folk song. Other works, such as the last three symphonies, employ a personal musical idiom that facilitated intense emotional expression.