Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky redirects here. For the revolutionary see Nikolai Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky redirects here. For the patter song by Danny Kaye, see Tchaikovsky (song)


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Template:Audio (Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайкóвский, sometimes transliterated as Piotr Ilitsch Tschaikowsky, Anglicised as Peter Ilich), (Template:OldStyleDateTemplate:OldStyleDate) 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 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.


Early life

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was born 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. Musically precocious, he began piano lessons with Maria Palchikova 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 Saint Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the younger 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 acqaintance of the Italian master Luigi Piccioli, who influenced the young man away from all German music, and encouraged the love of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. His father obliged this 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 to the music of Mozart was seeded. When his mother passed away of cholera in 1854, the 14-year-old composed a waltz in her memory.

Pyotr 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. The friend was astonished at Pyotr's musical abilities, and urged him to resign his position and pursue his studies further. Not ready to give up employment just yet, Pyotr 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 Rubenstein, who marvelled at Tchaikovsky's talent.

Musical Career

After graduating, Tchaikovsky was approached by Rubenstein's brother Nicolas to become professor of harmony, composition, and the history of music. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position, with his father having retired and lost his property. The next ten years were spent teaching and composing. Teaching proved taxing on his disposition, and in 1877 he suffered a breakdown. After a year off, he attempted to return to teaching, but retired his post soon thereafter. He spent some time in Italy and Switzerland, but eventually took residence with his sister in Ukraine, who had an estate just outside of 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 when Ippolit Altani had taken ill, his ease increased to the extent that he took to regularily 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 Symphony Society's orchestra in a performance of Marche Solenelle on opening night New York's Carnegie Hall. That evening was followed by subsequent performances of his Third Suite on May 7, and the a capella choruses Pater Noster and Legend on May 8.

Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, Pathétique, in 1893, in Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died, most historians believe, of cholera.

Some musicologists (Milton Cross, David Ewen) believe his Sixth Symphony was his own Requiem, and he knew it. In the development section of the first movement of that symphony, 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 is a "non sequitur", an anomaly — except that it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, and 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 Saint Petersburg.

Personal Life

During his puberty at the School of Jurisprudence, Tchaikovsky discovered his romantic attraction to other boys. As he matured to manhood he continued to engage in affairs with younger men. As a young man he was infatuated with a (female) 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 Saint 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 24 years later. They remained legally married until his death.

The composer's homosexuality has long been generally accepted, as well as its importance to his music. His relationships have been documented by historians such as Rictor Norton, Alexander Poznansky and others.

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.

His life, somewhat embroidered, is the subject of Ken Russell's motion picture The Music Lovers. His last name derives from the word chaika (чайка), meaning seagull in a number of Slavic languages. Like most of Russia's accomplished composers (Shostakovich, Gogol, Rimsky-Korsakov, Khachaturian, Stravinsky), he wasn't really Russian. In an early letter to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote that his name was Polish and his ancestors were "probably Polish."

Tchaikovsky's death

Until recent years it had been generally assumed that Tchaikovsky died of cholera after drinking infected 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, also homosexual, helped conspire to keep the secret.

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 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.

Musical Works

See also Category: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.

  • (18751876): Swan Lake, Op. 20. Tchaikovsky's first ballet, it was first performed (with some omissions) at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. It was not until 1895, in a revival by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov that the ballet was presented in the definitive version it is still danced in today (the music for this revival was much revised by the composer Riccardo Drigo in a version still used by most ballet companies today).
  • (18881889): Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66. This work Tchaikovsky considered to be one of his best. Its first performance was in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
  • (18911892): The Nutcracker, Op. 71. Tchaikovsky himself was less satisfied with this, his last ballet. Though he accepted the commission, he did not particularly want to write it (though he did write to a friend while composing the ballet: "I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task.") This ballet premiered on a double-bill with his last opera, Iolanta. Among other things, the score of Nutcracker is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic poem The Voyevoda (premiered 1891).Template:Note (At some point he remarked about its "divinely beautiful" tone.) Although well-known in Nutcracker as the featured solo instrument in the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from Act II, it is employed elsewhere in the same act.
    • Note: For only this ballet did Tchaikovsky derive a suite (the "suites" from the other ballets were devised by other hands). The Nutcracker Suite is often mistaken by novice listeners as the ballet itself, but it consists of only seven selections from the score intended for concert performance.


Tchaikovsky completed ten operas, although one of these is mostly lost and another exists in two significantly different versions. In the West the most famous of his operas are Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, both of which which hold a firm place in the standard repertoire.

  • (18671868): The Voyevoda [Воевода], Op. 3; full score destroyed by composer, but posthumously reconstructed from sketches and orchestral parts
  • (1869): Undina (or Undine) [Ундина]; was not completed. Only a march sequence from this opera saw the light of day, as the second movement of his Symphony #2 in C Minor and a few other segments are occasionally heard as concert pieces. Interestingly, while Tchaikovsky revised the Second symphony twice in his lifetime, he did not alter the second movement (taken from the Undina material) during either revision. The rest of the score of Undina was destroyed by the composer.
  • (18701872): The Oprichnik [Опричник]
  • (1874): Vakula the Smith [Кузнец Вакула], Op. 14; revised later as Cherevichki
  • (18771878): Eugene Onegin [Евгений Онегин], Op. 24
  • (18781879): The Maid of Orleans [Орлеанская дева]
  • (18811883): Mazeppa [Мазепа]
  • (1885): Cherevichki [Черевички]; revision of Vakula the Smith
  • (18851887): The Enchantress (or The Sorceress) [Чародейка]
  • (1890): The Queen of Spades [Пиковая дама], Op. 68
  • (1891): Iolanta (or Iolanthe) [Иоланта], Op. 69; originally performed on a double-bill with The Nutcracker

(Note: A "Chorus of Insects" was composed for the projected opera Mandragora [Мандрагора] of 1870.)


Tchaikovsky's earlier symphonies are generally optimistic works of nationalistic character, while the later symphonies are more intensely dramatic, particularly in the Sixth, a clear declaration of despair. The last three of his numbered symphonies (the fourth, fifth and sixth) are recognised as highly original examples of symphonic form and are frequently performed.

He also wrote four orchestral suites in the ten years between the 4th and 5th symphonies. He originally intended to designate one or more of these as a "symphony" but was persuaded to alter the title. The four suites are nonetheless symphonic in character, and, compared to the last three symphonies, are undeservedly negelected.


  • (18741875): Of his three piano concertos, it is No.1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, which is best known and most highly regarded, and one of the most popular piano concertos ever written. It was initially rejected by its dedicatee, the pianist Nikolai Grigoryevich Rubinstein, as poorly composed and unplayable, and subsequently premiered by Hans von Bülow (who was delighted to find such a piece to play) in Boston, Massachusetts in 25 October, 1875. Rubinstein later admitted his error of judgement, and included the work in his own repertoire.
  • (1878): His Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35, was composed in less than a month during March and April 1878, but its first performance was delayed until 1881 because Leopold Auer, the violinist to whom Tchaikovsky had intended to dedicate the work, refused to perform it. This violin concerto is one of the most popular concertos for the instrument and is frequently performed today.
  • (1879): Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto, Op. 44, is an eloquent, less extravert, piece, with a violin and cello added as soloists in the second movement, unfairly overshadowed by the First Concerto.
  • (1892): The so-called "Third Piano Concerto in E-flat major," has a curious and complicated history. Commenced after the Symphony No. 5, it was intended initially to be the composer's next (i.e., sixth) symphony. However, after nearly finishing the sketches and some orchestration of the first movement, Tchaikovsky abandoned work on this score as a symphony. However, in 1893, after beginning work on what we know as the Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), he reworked the sketches of the first movement of the abandoned symphony as a concerted movement for piano and orchestra and completed the instrumentation, deciding to issue the work at first as a stand-alone Allegro de concert or Konzertstück. (This single movement was published posthumously as Op. 75.) However, Tchaikovsky at some point must have decided to produce a traditionally three-movement piano concerto, for he also adapted the slow movement and last movement of the symphony to form an Andante and Finale, but left them in a piano arrangement. He turned the scherzo of the unfinished symphony into a piano piece -- the "Scherzo-fantasie" in E-flat minor, Op. 72, No. 10. After Tchaikovsky's death, the composer Sergei Taneyev completed and orchestrated the Andante and Finale. (These were published as Op. 79.) A reconstruction of the original symphony from the sketches and various reworkings was accomplished during 1951–1955 by the Soviet composer Semyon Bogatyrev, who brought the symphony into finished, fully orchestrated form and issued the score as Tchaikovsky's Symphony No 7 in E-flat major.Template:Ref

Other works

For orchestra

Image:1812 overture.jpg

  • (1869, rev, 1870, 1880): Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture This piece contains one of the world's most famous melodies. The tremendously famous love theme in the middle of this long symphonic poem has been used countless times in commercials and movies, frequently as a spoof to traditional love scenes.
  • (1873); The Tempest Symphonic Fantasia After Shakespeare, Op. 18
  • (1876): Marche Slave, Op. 31. This piece is another well-known Tchaikovsky piece and is often played in conjunction with the 1812 Overture. This work uses the Tsarist National Anthem (as does the 1812). This piece is mostly in a minor key and is yet another very recognisable piece, commonly referenced in cartoons, commercials and the media. The piece is much in the style of a capriccio. Band Accept Played the introduction of this piece for their song, Metal Heart.
  • (1876): Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
  • (1880): Capriccio Italien, Op. 45. This piece is a traditional caprice or capriccio (in Italian) in an Italian style. Tchaikovsky stayed in Italy in the late 1870s to early 1880s and throughout the various festivals he heard many themes, some of which were played by trumpets, samples of which can be heard in this caprice. It has a lighter character than many of his works, even "bouncy" in places, and is often performed today in addition to the 1812 Overture.
    • The title used in English-speaking countries is a linguistic hybrid: it contains an Italian word ("Capriccio") and a French word ("Italien"). A fully Italian version would be Capriccio Italiano; a fully French version would be Caprice Italien.
  • (1880): Serenade in C for String Orchestra, Op. 48. The first movement, In the form of a sonatina, was an homage to Mozart. The second movement is a Waltz, followed by an Elegy and a spirited Russian finale, Tema Russo. In his score, Tchaikovsky supposedly wrote, "The larger the string orchestra, the better will the composer's desires be fulfilled."
  • (1880): 1812 Overture, Op. 49. This piece was written by Tchaikovsky to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon in the Napoleonic Wars. It is known for its traditional Russian themes (such as the old Tsarist National Anthem) as well as its famously triumphant and bombastic coda at the end which uses 16 cannon shots and a chorus of church bells. Despite its popularity, Tchaikovsky wrote that he "did not have [his] heart in it".

For choir, songs, chamber music, and for solo piano

For a complete list of works by opus number, see [1]. For more detail on dates of composition, see [2].


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See also


  1. Template:NoteFreed, Richard. [LP Jacket notes.] Tchaikovsky: "Fatum," [...] "The Storm," [...] "The Voyevoda." Bochum Orchestra. Othmar Maga, conductor. Vox Stereo STPL 513.460. New York: Vox Productions, Inc., 1975.
  2. Template:NoteWiley, Roland. 'Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il′yich, §6(ii): Years of valediction, 1889–93: The last symphony'; Works: solo instrument and orchestra; Works: orchestral, Grove Music Online (Accessed 07 February 2006), <> (subscription required). Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: the Final Years (1885-1893). New York: W.W. Norton, 1991, pp. 388-391, 497.


External links

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