Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was undoubtedly the greatest Russian musical talent of the Romantic era. With his gift for eloquent melody and his mastery of writing for the orchestra, he created dramatic and evocative works through which he could express something of his tortured private life.
Tchaikovsky was born in 1840, living in St. Petersburg from 1848. He showed early promise at the piano and began to compose seriously after his mother died in 1854, but he was obliged to take a job in the Ministry of Justice after he left school. However, in 1863 he entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
Although Tchaikovsky championed traditional Russian music and culture, his musical education at the Conservatory was entrenched in the Western Classical tradition, a legacy he passed on when he became Professor of Harmony at the Moscow Conservatory in 1866. Because of this, Tchaikovsky stood apart from his 'nationalist' contemporaries who were concerned with developing a particularly Russian style.
'The Five', as they were known, heavily criticised Tchaikovsky's First Symphony. However, the leader of the group, Mily Balakirev, encouraged him by suggesting he write a work based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Balakirev gave Tchaikovsky a plan for the work and even wrote the first four bars. The result was the Romeo And Juliet Fantasy Overture (1869), which remains a popular concert piece.
The most famous work of this early period is his Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor (1874–75). This highly dramatic work has been criticised for having a major structural 'fault', in that the famous opening theme never reappears again in the work. It was rejected by the pianist Nikolai Rubinstein as ill-composed and unplayable, although he later became a great interpreter of it.
In 1876 Tchaikovsky began a 14-year correspondence with a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck. She supported him emotionally and financially on the condition that they should never meet. She became his confidante as he struggled with his homosexuality and his desire to avoid public shame. To 'cure' himself he married in July 1877. Antonina Miliukova had professed her love for him in a letter just three months earlier, and Tchaikovsky could not even remember what she looked like. The marriage was a shambles and by October the couple were permanently separated. Tchaikovsky's near-hysterical state is recorded in letters to Mme von Meck and his brother Modest, as well as being clearly apparent in his music. Symphony No.4 is full of emotional excess and hysteria, and the opera Eugene Onegin has obvious parallels to his own situation, as it tells the story of a girl who is rejected by a man who fascinates her.
Tchaikovsky's flair for writing dramatic music coupled with his brilliant orchestration meant that he was perfectly suited to writing for the ballet, and his three scores are generally considered to be the culmination of the Romantic ballet tradition - Swan Lake (1875–76), his masterpiece The Sleeping Beauty (1888–89), and The Nutcracker (1891–92).
Although known primarily as an orchestral composer, Tchaikovsky wrote over 100 pieces for the piano. The Seasons, a suite of 12 piano pieces, was published throughout 1875–76 in a monthly periodical. Two years later he composed the Album For The Young, a set of 24 pieces with descriptive titles, which he declared to be '…in the style of Schumann'.
After a long stay in Europe, Tchaikovsky returned to Russia in 1878 and soon after he resigned from the Moscow Conservatory and lived on his allowance from Mme von Meck. The strain of trying to obtain a divorce affected his work, his wife only finally agreeing to it when she had an illegitimate child. However, during this period he wrote what was to become one of his most famous works, the 1812 Overture. Commissioned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Russia's victory over Napoleon in 1812, Tchaikovsky did not have much enthusiasm for the piece and declared it to be 'very loud and noisy', but it was an immediate success and its popularity has never waned.
Tchaikovsky began to recover, both emotionally and musically. The immensely popular Symphony No.5 and Symphony No.6 are highly emotional and dramatic. The anguished and sorrowful Symphony No.6, first performed on 28th October 1893, was given the title 'Pathétique' by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest. Three days after the premiere, Tchaikovsky was brought before a court of his peers from his old school. He was accused of bringing the school into disrepute through rumours of his homosexuality and was sentenced to commit suicide.
One week later, Tchaikovsky was dead. The cause of his death is shrouded in uncertainty. The official reason given was that he died from cholera as a result of drinking untreated water, but it is also possible that he killed himself by taking arsenic.
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