When it comes to classical music, the name "Tchaikovsky" is a very well known name. Many know him for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, or even the 1812 Overture. But what led to this man's excellence? How did the name Tchaikovsky become a household name? Who was Tchaikovsky before he was a world renowned composer and what did that journey look like? As with any story, it's best if we start at the beginning.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia. If you're like me and entirely unfamiliar with Russia, let me save you a bit of research and explain to you that Votkinsk is in the central region of the Western half of Russia; East of Moscow an North of Western Kazakhstan. He was the second of six surviving children. Of his siblings, he was especially close with his sister Alexandra and his twin brothers Anatoly and Modest.
Both of his parents, Ilya and Alexandra, were very well versed in arts and encouraged Tchaikovsky's interest in music at a young age. By the age of five, his parents started him with piano lessons and within three years, he had progressed to be as proficient with reading sheet music as his tutor. However, during that time, professional music education was not available in Russia. In addition, the only musical careers available in Russia at that time were careers in teaching or as an instrumentalist at an Imperial Theater. Both of these career paths were considered the lowest ranking career paths, or being essentially equal to peasants.
Without any profitable career paths in the music field, Tchaikovsky's parents made a choice to switch gears with his education and send him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg in 1850 when he was just ten years old. This line of education would prepare Tchaikovsky for a career as a civil servant. While there weren't great options in the music field, there also seemed to be growing instability with his father's income. To that end, it is speculated that this could have been a contributing factor in encouraging Tchaikovsky to get an education in a field that would bring him a career and independence as soon as possible.
Saint Petersburg is located on the far West side of Russia, close to Finland, making this school 800 miles, or 1,300 kilometres from his family home. As a result of being sent away to a boarding school at such a young age and being separated from his mother, it is believed that this caused Tchaikovsky a certain level of emotional trauma. That trauma was exacerbated at age fourteen when his mother died of cholera. Immediately following her death, his father sent him back to school and hoped that the classes would help to keep his mind occupied. With a lack of familial connection, Tchaikovsky created his own close bonds with fellow school mates Aleksey Pukhtin and Vladimir Gerard. The relationship he created with these two in time became a lifelong friendship.
While in school, music was more of a hobby and fun pastime for Tchaikovsky. However, in 1855, his father hired a man named Rudolph Kundinger to give private lessons. When his father questioned Kundinger on Tchaikovsky's potential for a future music career, Kundinger said he didn't see potential in him to become a future performer or composer. It was later that he admitted that the feedback he gave was driven more by his personal lack of success as a musician in Russia, rather than from Tchaikovsky's true talent. However, as a result of this feedback, Tchaikovsky was urged to finish his civil servant courses and work toward a career in the Ministry of Justice.
In the summer of 1859, Tchaikovsky graduated from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence and was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Within six months, he moved up to the position of a junior assistant and moved up to a senior assistant just two months later. Tchaikovsky maintained his position as a senior assistant for three years, at which point he left the civil service field.
While Tchaikovsky was busy working in the Ministry of Justice, the reigning Tsar Alexander II had something he was also working on. As mentioned earlier, there hadn't been formal musical training or any proper musical organizations in Russia. The previous Tsars had felt that their sources of talent should only be brought in fromt Europe and should not be "home grown," so to speak. Tsar Alexander II, however, was eager to change this. So, in 1859, Tsar Alexander II's aunt Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna and her protege Anton Rubinstein founded the Russian Musical Society (RMS). With the inception of the RMS, doors began to open for Tchaikovsky. In 1861, he began his formal training by taking music theory classes at RMS.
Following his training at RMS, Tchaikovsky enrolled in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory as a part of their first class. The Conservatory had only just opened in 1862. While this training was vital for his future in composition, it also exposed him to various styles. This opened his eyes to styles beyond the Russian and European styles that he had only ever known.
In 1865, upon Tchaikovsky's graduation from the Conservatory, Rubinstein's brother Nikolai offered him a position as the Professor of Music Theory at the new Moscow Conservatory. While the position paid little, it is reported that Tchaikovsky was eager to accept the position.
While people like Nikolai encouraged and supported Tchaikovsky, he was still met with challenges. Around his same time, Tchaikovsky submitted his First Symphony for selection to be performed at the Russian Music Society in Saint Petersburg. Nikolai Zeremba and Anton Rubinstein were among those who chose which piece to perform. In addition, they both were former instructors to Tchaikovsky at the Conservatory. As a student, they found Tchaikovsky talented, but found issue with his "more progressive tendencies." While going through the selections of symphonies, the two men refused to choose his piece unless certain changes were made. Tchaikovsky would abide and made the appropriate changes, but the men still refused to perform Tchaikovsky's piece. Tchaikovsky felt that these men were still treating him as their student, rather than professional composer and withdrew his piece.
After withdrawing his piece, Tchaikovsky restored it to his original piece without the suggested alterations. In 1868, he had his original piece performed in Moscow. Not only was it performed, but it was also well received. I like to think of that success as the ultimate vengeance. There is nothing sweeter than sticking it to someone who doesn't believe in you by proving them wrong.
While Tchaikovsky was become more well known an gaining success, there was also a group of Russian composers known as moguchaya kuchka, or "The Five" that were also beginning to make a name for themselves. Put simply, these five men came together around the time that Anton Rubinstein was working to form the Russian Musical Society. Essentially, these men were staunch nationalists, especially in the realm of music. They were outspoken about their beliefs that Russia musicians should only produce Russian music and strongly opposed any Russian musicians and pieces that had musical influences from other regions.
A handful of Tchaikovsky's pieces drew in the support of The Five. However, Tchaikovsky was a bit ambivalent about this support because he did not agree with their extreme views. In response, Tchaikovsky did his best to express that his style was not to be viewed as the same as The Five while remaining respectful to The Five to stay on their good graces.
Aside from music, what did Tchaikovsky's life look like?
There are details of Tchaikovsky's personal life that Russia, even now, tries to cover up. As time has gone on, it has been discovered that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual man. According to Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, Tchaikovsky's first love was with a fellow student at Imperial School of Jurisprudence named Sergey Kireyev. Modest stated that it was his "strongest, longest, and purset love."
That said, it is believed that Tchaikovsky struggled with his sexuality. In Russia, homosexuality was officially considered illegal, however authorities would turn a blind eye to those among the upper class. Between pressures within society, as well as his on personal struggles, he lived most of his life as a bachelor. In 1868, he met a woman named Desiree Artot who was a Belgian soprano singer. The two became engaged, however, Artot was not willing to give up her career on the stage and settle down in Russia. So the two broke off their engagement. Tchaikovsky later stated that Artot was the only woman that he had ever loved.
Years later in 1877, Tchaikovsky married a woman named Antonina Miliukova. There is some speculation that this marriage may have been sparked from external pressures in combination to Tchaikovsky's brother Modest's growing homosexual tendencies. In short, the marriage may have been a hasty reaction to the overwhelming things going on around him. Miliukova had been a music student who had declared her love for him. However, unsurprisingly, this marriage did not end well. It had only been a couple of months before Tchaikovsky hit his breaking point and left. He quickly became overwhelmingly aware that they not only could not meet one another psychologically, but sexually as well. This conflict had left him with horrible writer's block and he left to go abroad and swore to never live with his wife again.
In 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Anatoly from Florence expressing his realization that he can no longer deny who he is. "Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature."
Since Tchaikovsky spent the majority of his life as a bachelor, he found his sense of family from others. As an adult, his sister Alexandra married a man named Lev Davydov. Alexandra's immediate family grew to become Tchaikovksy's most intimate sense of family as an adult. He also grew very close to his nephew Vladimir Davydov, who he had nicknamed 'Bob."
The only other personal relationship that that is noted as being historically significant to Tchaikovsky's life was one that began in 1876 with a woman named Nadezhda von Meck. Von Meck was a widow to a railway tycoon. She had first made contact with Tchaikovsky not long before he married Miliukova. She had been an admirer of his work and became a benefactor of sorts for him, setting up a monthly allowance that allowed him to resign from the Conservatory and work exclusively on writing music. This led to a routine of spending winters in Europe and summers in Russia. While they wrote to one another frequently and he considered her his best friend, they both agreed to never meet one another.
The early 1880s had a series of events calling for celebration. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow was nearly finished, the 25th anniversary of Tsar Alexander II's coronation was to be celebrated in 1881, and finally the plans for the Moscow Arts and Industry Exhibition were starting in 1882. To celebrate, Nikolai Rubinstein suggested to Tchaikovsky that he compose a piece to commemorate this time. What resulted was the 1812 Overture.
When telling von Meck about this piece, he explained it would be, "very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits on it." He also said to conductor Eduard Napravnik, "I shant be at all surprised and offended if you find that it is in a style unsuitable for symphony concerts." That said, almost 150 years later it is one of the pieces Tchaikovsky is known best for.
Through the mid to late 1880s, Tchaikovsky spent a great deal of his time traveling abroad conducting and performing his various pieces around Europe. In 1890, he became informed that von Meck was just shy of complete financial ruin and could no longer send him money to support his career. This also brought about the end of their correspondence which was devastating to Tchaikovsky.
Heart ache aside, Tchaikovsky pressed on, crossing the Atlantic in 1891 and expanding his performances to the United States, which included the inauguration of Carnegie Hall. Upon his return to Russia, he finished the last of his compositions for stage performances, the last of which being The Nutcracker. In June of 1893, the University of Cambridge awarded Tchaikovsky an honorary Doctor of Music degree.
On October 16, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted his new symphony, the Pathetique, in Saint Petersburg. While the audience's reactions were divided, Tchaikovsky had been confident that this piece was among his very best pieces.
Just days later on October 21, he fell ill and had been diagnosed with cholera, the same illness that had taken his mother when he was a child. At the time, there had been a cholera epidemic taking Saint Petersburg by storm. While doctors worked to help him overcome his illness, Tchaikovsky ultimately succumbed to his illness and died on October 25, 1893 at the age of 53.
While many believe that Tchaikovsky's death was simply due to illness, there are many that also question if his death had in fact been a suicide. However, this is one question we will never be able to answer.
Now, so many years later, Tchaikovsky's music and legacy lives on. His ballets are performed annually as well as his sonnets, operas, etc. And so while Tchaikovsky has become a bit of a household name for most of us, the story of how he became such a well known figure was often left unknown. However, now many of us can say that we know a few more things about Tchaikovsky than just the pieces he is famout for.
Below, I will include links to some of my favorite Tchaikovsky pieces as well as the sources that I retrieved my information from.
Pantomime, Scene 8 from the Nutcracker