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Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893) 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 his Russian contemporaries as he effectively used both nationalistic folk melodies and international elements. Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia, to a Ukrainian mining engineer and his second wife, a woman of French ancestry. His last name derives from chayka (чайка) which means gull. Musically precocious, he began piano lessons at the age of five. He went on to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory from 1861 to 1865. In 1866, he was appointed professor of theory and harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, established that year. He held the post until approximately 1878. Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova, who had written to him declaring her love, on July 18, 1877. The marriage was hasty, and he quickly found he could not bear his wife. First, the composer made an attempt at suicide two weeks after the wedding, then he fled to Saint Petersburg a nervous wreck, and was separated from his wife after only six weeks. The couple never saw each other again, although they never divorced and Tchaikovsky died a married man. This episode only served to confirm Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, which he was apparently trying to conceal through the marriage. (Kamien, p. 253)
A far more influential woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was a wealthy widow, Madame Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he corresponded from 1877 to 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 of 6000 rubles a year, she expressed her interest in his musical career and admiration for his music. However she abruptly cut off her support for the composer. It is widely believed that she did so because she found out about Tchaikovsky’s sexual preference. It is possible she was planning to marry off one of her daughters to Tchaikovsky, as she also tried unsuccessfully to marry one of them to Claude Debussy, who had lived in Russia for a time as music teacher to her family. It was during this period that Tchaikovsky achieved success throughout Europe and as well as in the United States in 1891. Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, Pathétique, in 1893, in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died. It is generally accepted that his death was by suicide, although the manner (commonly claimed to be from cholera brought about by drinking infected water, although arsenic poisoning is more likely) and circumstances are uncertain. One suggestion is that a group of his former classmates encouraged him to commit suicide to avoid the scandal of an alleged affair with the nephew of a member of the Russian aristocracy. Tchaikovsky was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Saint Petersburg. His life, somewhat embroidered, is the subject of Ken Russell’s motion picture The Music Lovers.


Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Date of birth
May 7, 1840

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