Tchaikovsky, Peter

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TCHAIKOVSKY, PETER (1840–1893), Russian composer.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia. His father worked as a superintendent of state mines; his mother, who was half French, insisted on hiring French servants to attend to her son. Even as a child, Tchaikovsky was introspective and neurotic. By age thirteen, his homosexuality had become obvious. At fourteen he lost his only true friend, his mother, to cholera. He felt no closeness to any of his other relatives, nor was he interested in communicating with any of his peers. After a short period as a student in a government law school, which he despised, he left to study with the composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, the founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. Several years thereafter, he accepted an offer to teach harmony and was also invited by several western and southern European countries to appear as a guest conductor in major concert halls, as well as at his home base, the Moscow Conservatory. He resigned from his professorship in 1878.

Tchaikovsky was one of the innovators of Russian Romanticism, but he also considered it his duty to introduce Russian patriotism and nationalism into his music. His vast output included piano and violin concertos, choral works, symphonies, chamber music, and church music. His most creative works were in genres that included fantasies, overtures such as "Romeo and Juliet," choral works, and piano-and-violin concertos. In western Europe, Tchaikovsky's music was well received, and in Russia he was considered to be the most Romantic and patriotic of composers. The literary giants of his time were Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy, yet controversy exists over whether Tchaikovsky ever made the time or had the desire to meet either of them.

In 1888 Tchaikovsky took a significant tour to Leipzig, Germany, to meet with Edvard Grieg and Johannes Brahms. He also visited London, Paris, and Prague. His labors on Symphony No. 5 in E Minor became increasingly intense and emotional, which fed his neurotic despair. Nevertheless, he insisted on continuing his travels. He went to the United States and to England, where he was awarded an honorary doctorate of music at Cambridge.

Tchaikovsky's attempts to masquerade as heterosexual were obvious to all. The only woman he ever truly loved was his mother. He spent one night with Desire Artot, a singer and prima donna of a visiting Italian troupe, but refused to comment on it. In the 1870s he visited Georgia and other Russian territories. A former student of his, Antonia Milyukova, talked him into marrying her but the marriage did not last long. Beginning in 1876 he was subsidized by the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, who gave him the means to survive. In 1885 he bought a house in Maidanovo, near Moscow and lived there until a year before his death.

Despite his successes, his mental condition deteriorated, and this was aggravated when Nadezhda von Meck stopped supporting him, both financially and socially. By then he was no longer in need of her money, but the psychological damage was noticeable. On his deathbed, he repeated her name over and over. He had just completed his last symphony, the Pathetique, which he rightfully considered his masterpiece. Several historians have claimed that he wanted to poison himself after having allegedly been accused of involvement with a male member of the British imperial family.

Tchaikovsky's major works include the operas Undine, 1869; Mazepa, 1884; Pathetique, 1893; Queen of Spades, 1890; and Eugene Onegin, 1879; the ballets The Nutcracker Suite, 1892; The Sleeping Beauty, 1890; and Swan Lake, 1877; the symphonies No. 4 in F Minor, No. 5 in E Minor, and No. 6 in B Minor (Pathetique); the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat Minor; and the Americanized Russian vocals "None but the Lonely Heart"; "Why Did I Dream of You"; and "Don Juan's Serenade"; as well as chamber and instrumental music.

See alsoDiaghilev, Sergei; Music; Mussorgsky, Modest; Rimsky-Korsakov, Nikolai.


Abraham, Gerald, ed. Tchaikovsky: A Symposium. London, 1945.

Brown, David. Tchaikovsky. 4 vols. New York, 1978–1992.

Garden, Edward. Tchaikovsky. New York, 1973.

Strutte, Wilson. Tchaikovsky: His Life and Times. Speld-hurst, U.K., 1979.

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilich. The Diaries of Tchaikovsky. Translated by Wladimir Lakond. New York, 1945.

Volkoff, Vladimir. Tchaikovsky: A Self-Portrait. Boston, 1975.

Warrack, John.Hamilton Tchaikovsky. London, 1973.

Leo Hecht