Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Biography, Music & Death

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was a popular Russian composer whose life was tormented with personal issues, but he lived at a time when he could express those doubts and anxieties through his music. This lesson will refer to some of those and other musical examples, and also examine his controversial death.

Tchaikovsky's Secret

Have you ever had a deep, dark secret? One so worrisome that you were afraid to share it with anyone - a secret with which you lived in constant fear from being found out? For 19th-century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, that secret was his homosexuality. Tchaikovsky was also plagued with an inherited nervous condition, self-doubts about his musical skills and bouts of depression. Despite, and perhaps because of these circumstances, he wrote beautiful and expressive music that is still loved today.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Image of Peter Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky's musical abilities were not encouraged by his family. At age 14, he was sent to the St. Petersburg Imperial School of Jurisprudence to study for a career in civil service. While at this all-boys school, he discovered his homosexuality and always lived in fear of being exposed, because Russian culture at this time severely punished such behavior. The schooling in St. Petersburg provided wonderful cultural opportunities allowing Tchaikovsky to attend operas and concerts, which inspired his musical career. He worked briefly as a civil servant and then enrolled in the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Upon graduation in 1865, he was invited to be on the faculty of the newly established Moscow Conservatory, where he taught for 12 years.

While at the Moscow Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was briefly engaged to Belgian soprano Desiree Artot. He thought that marriage might correct his 'problem'. She broke off the engagement and Tchaikovsky had a brief affair with a 15-year old male student, Eduard Zak. Many scholars believe it was Zak who inspired Tchaikovsky to write his first masterwork, the Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture in 1869.

Later in life, Tchaikovsky fell in love with his nephew Vladimir Davydov, nicknamed 'Bob', and dedicated his Sixth Symphony to the younger man. This work, particularly the anguished opening of the fourth movement, seems to reflect Tchaikovsky's tormented life. Shortly after the work was premiered in late October 1893, Tchaikovsky died at age 53. It was announced that he died from cholera as a result of drinking impure water.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky and nephew, Bob Davydov
Peter Tchaikovsky and nephew, Bob Davidov

Early Compositions

Prior to the success of the Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture, Tchaikovsky had already written his First Symphony in 1868. Within the next few years, he composed two additional symphonies, some string quartets, an opera, a piano concerto, and a set of six songs that included his famous melody 'None But the Lonely Heart'. His First Piano Concerto (1874) is unique in that Tchaikovsky makes the piano an equal partner with the orchestra and demonstrates this by having the work begin with the pianist playing a virtuoso cadenza after a brief orchestral introduction. The cadenza is generally an improvised section that features the soloist and is often reserved for much later in such works. When premiered, it quickly became an audience favorite.

Tchaikovsky's first ballet, Swan Lake, premiered in 1877. Shortly after that, he composed Marche Slave which was soon followed by his work for cello and orchestra, Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Middle Life

Tchaikovsky received a love letter from a former student, Antonina Milyukova. They met and were married in July 1877. The marriage was a disaster and Tchaikovsky attempted suicide a few months later. At the time, he was working on the opera Eugene Onegin and the 'Letter Scene' in Act I especially reflects these personal events.

Tchaikovsky also began exchanging letters with a very wealthy widow and arts patron, Nadezhda von Meck. The two would never meet, but von Meck provided Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy that eventually enabled him to leave the Moscow Conservatory and focus on composing and travel abroad. His next great work was his Fourth Symphony (1877-1878) which was dedicated to von Meck. As she wished to remain anonymous, Tchaikovsky inscribed the work to 'My Great Friend'. The two would go on to exchange over a thousand letters. The Fourth Symphony was soon followed by his Violin Concerto in D Major, the Serenade for Strings, another opera, the Second Piano Concerto, and his well-known 1812 Overture.

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