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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russian: Пётр Ильич Чайкoвский, Pëtr Il’ič Čajkovskij;(7 May O.S. 25 April] 1840 – 6 November O.S. 25 October] 1893), also transliterated Piotr Ilitsch Tschaikowski or Peter Ilich Tschaikowsky, was a Russian composer of the Romantic era. Although not a member of the group of nationalistic composers usually known in English-speaking countries as 'The Five', his music has come to be known and loved for its distinctly Russian character as well as for its rich harmonies and stirring melodies. His works, however, were much more western than those of his Russian contemporaries as he effectively used international elements in addition to national folk melodies.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia (at the time the Vyatka Guberniya under Imperial Russia), the son of a mining engineer in the government mines and the second of his three wives, Alexandra, a Russian woman of French ancestry. He was the older brother (by some ten years) of the dramatist, librettist and translator Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Musically precocious, Pyotr began piano lessons at the age of five, and in a few months was already proficient at Friedrich Kalkbrenner's composition Le Fou. In 1850, his father was appointed director of the St Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the young Tchaikovsky obtained an excellent general education at the School of Jurisprudence, and furthered his instruction on the piano with the director of the music library. Also during this time, he made the acquaintance of the Italian master Luigi Piccioli, who influenced the young man away from German music, and encouraged the love of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. His father indulged Tchaikovsky's interest in music by funding studies with Rudolph Kündinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg. Under Kündinger, Tchaikovsky's aversion to German music was overcome, and a lifelong affinity with the music of Mozart was seeded. When his mother died of cholera in 1854, the 14-year-old composed a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky left school in 1859 and received employment as an under-secretary in the Ministry of Justice, where he soon joined the Ministry's choral group. In 1861, he befriended a fellow civil servant who had studied with Nikolai Zaremba, who urged him to resign his position and pursue his studies further. Not ready to give up employment, Tchaikovsky agreed to begin lessons in musical theory with Zaremba. The following year, when Zaremba joined the faculty of the new St Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher and enrolled, but still did not give up his post at the ministry, until his father consented to support him. From 1862 to 1865, Tchaikovsky studied harmony, counterpoint and the fugue with Zaremba, and instrumentation and composition under the director and founder of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, who was both impressed by and envious of Tchaikovsky's talent.
After graduating, Tchaikovsky was approached by Anton Rubinstein's younger brother Nikolai to become professor of harmony, composition, and the history of music. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position, as his father had retired and lost his property. The next ten years were spent teaching and composing. Teaching proved taxing, and in 1877 he suffered a breakdown. After a year off, he attempted to return to teaching, but retired his post soon after. He spent some time in Italy and Switzerland, but eventually took residence with his sister, who had an estate just outside Kiev.
Tchaikovsky took to orchestral conducting after filling in at a performance in Moscow of his opera Tcharodyeika (Чародейка: The Enchantress/Sorceress) (1885-7). Overcoming a life-long stage fright, his confidence gradually increased to the extent that he regularly took to conducting his pieces.
Tchaikovsky visited America in 1891 in a triumphant tour to conduct performances of his works. On May 5, he conducted the New York Music Society's orchestra in a performance of Marche Solenelle on the opening night of New York's Carnegie Hall. That evening was followed by subsequent performances of his Third Suite on May 7, and the a cappella choruses Pater Noster and Legend on May 8. The US tour also included performances of his First Piano Concerto and Serenade for Strings.
Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, Pathétique, in 1893, in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died (see section below).
Some musicologists (e.g. Milton Cross, David Ewen) believe that he consciously wrote his Sixth Symphony as his own Requiem. In the development section of the first movement, the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly "shifts into neutral" in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears absolutely no relation to the music that preceded it, and none to the music which follows it. It appears to be a musical "non sequitur", an anomaly — but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: "And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints." Tchaikovsky was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.
His music included some of the most renowned pieces of the romantic period. Many of his works were inspired by events in his life.
During his education at the School of Jurisprudence, he was infatuated with a soprano, but she married another man. One of his conservatory students, Antonina Milyukova, began writing him passionate letters around the time that he had made up his mind to "marry whoever will have me." He did not even remember her from his classes, but her letters were very persistent, and he hastily married her on July 18, 1877. Within days, while still on their honeymoon, he deeply regretted his decision. Two weeks after the wedding the composer attempted suicide by wading in a cold river. He later fled to St Petersburg a nervous wreck, and was separated from his wife after only six weeks. The couple never saw each other again. Antonina Milyukova died in a mental institution in 1917. They remained legally married until his death.
The composer's homosexuality, as well as its importance to his life and music, has long been recognized, though knowledge about it was especially suppressed during the Soviet era. Although some historians continue to view him as heterosexual, many others - such as Rictor Norton and Alexander Poznansky - accept that some of Tchaikovsky's relationships were homosexual, such as the ones with his servant Alyosha and his nephew, Vladimir Davidov. Evidence that Tchaikovsky was homosexual is drawn from his letters and diaries, as well as the letters of his brother, Modest, who was also homosexual.
A far more influential woman in Tchaikovsky's life was a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he exchanged 1,200 letters between 1877 and 1890. At her insistence they never met; they did encounter each other on two occasions, purely by chance, but did not converse. As well as financial support in the amount of 6,000 rubles a year, she expressed interest in his musical career and admiration for his music. However, after 14 years she ended the relationship unexpectedly, claiming bankruptcy. It was during this period that Tchaikovsky achieved success throughout Europe and (by his own account), in 1891, even greater accolades in the United States. In fact, he was the conductor, on May 5th, 1891, at the official opening night of Carnegie Hall.
Meck's claim of financial ruin is disregarded by some who believe that she ended her patronage of Tchaikovsky because she supposedly discovered the composer's homosexuality. It is possible she was planning to marry off one of her daughters to Tchaikovsky, as she also supposedly tried to marry one of them to Claude Debussy, who had lived in Russia for a time as music teacher to her family. Also, one of her sons, Nikolay, was married to Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova.
Tchaikovsky's life is the subject of Ken Russell's motion picture The Music Lovers. Two other motion pictures were based on his life - the low-budgeted, sanitized and highly fictionalized Song of My Heart, released in 1948, and the 1969 Russian-language "Tchaikovsky" , which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
His last name derives from the word chaika (чайка), meaning seagull in a number of Slavic languages. His family origins may not have been entirely Russian. In an early letter to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote that his name was Polish and his ancestors were "probably Polish." (In fact, the Polish equivalent of his name, Czajkowski, is a not uncommon Polish surname.)
Until recent years it had been generally assumed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after drinking contaminated water. However, a controversial theory published in 1980 by Aleksandra Orlova and based only on oral history (i.e., without documentary evidence), explains Tchaikovsky's death as a suicide.
In this account, Tchaikovsky committed suicide by consuming small doses of arsenic following an attempt to blackmail him over his homosexuality. His alleged death by cholera (whose symptoms have some similarity with arsenic poisoning) is supposed to have been a cover for this suicide. According to the theory, Tchaikovsky's own brother Modest Tchaikovsky, also homosexual, helped conspire to keep the secret. There are many circumstantial events that some say lend credence to the theory, such as wrong dates on the death certificate, conflicting testimony from Modest and the doctor about the timeline of his death, the fact that Tchaikovsky's funeral was open casket, and that the sheets from his deathbed were merely laundered instead of being burned. There are also passages in Rimsky-Korsakov's autobiography years later about how people at the funeral kissed Tchaikovsky on the face, even though he had died from cholera. These passages were deleted by Russian authorities from later editions of Rimsky-Korsakov's book.
The suicide theory is hotly disputed by others, including Alexander Poznansky, who argues that Tchaikovsky could easily have drunk tainted water because his class regarded cholera as a disease that afflicted only poor people, or because restaurants would mix cool boiled water with unboiled; that the circumstances of his death are entirely consistent with cholera; and that homosexuality ("gentlemanly games") was widely tolerated among the upper classes of Tsarist Russia. To this day, no one knows how Tchaikovsky truly died.
The English composer Michael Finnissy has composed a short opera, Shameful Vice, about Tchaikovsky's last days and death.
See also Compositions by Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky is well known for his ballets, although it was only in his last years, with his last two ballets, that his contemporaries came to really appreciate his finer qualities as ballet music composer.
Tchaikovsky completed ten operas, although one of these is mostly lost and another exists in two significantly different versions. In the West his most famous are Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.
For orchestra, choir and vocal soloists
For orchestra, soprano, and baritone
For choir, songs, chamber music, and for solo piano and violin
For a complete list of works by opus number, see . For more detail on dates of composition, see .