In today’s video, we’re going to look at the history of Tchaikovsky. We’ll talk about the life he led, some of his famous compositions, his mysterious death, and a look at his personality.
Let’s get started!
History of Tchaikovsky: Basics
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (anglicized as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky) was born in 1840 and lived until 1893, to the age of 53 years old. He was a Russian Romantic-era composer, and was the first Russian composer to impact the wider Western music landscape.
Tchaikovsky’s Early life
Tchaikovsky was born in a small Russian town to parents named Ilya and Alexandra. Ilya, Tchaikovsky’s father, was a military man. His mother, Alexandra, was a German-French woman nearly 20 years younger than Ilya.
The Tchaikovsky family was capable in the arts, largely because of the need for entertainment when living in a small town.
Tchaikovsky had six siblings – after his mother’s death, his father remarried and Tchaikovsky gained even more siblings. Of those, he was very close for his entire life with his sister Alexandra, and twin brothers Anatoly and Modest.
Tchaikovsky was a bright little boy, becoming fluent in French and German by age six and starting piano lessons at age 5. By the age of 8, he was as good at reading sheet music as his teacher.
His parents supported his early music education, but didn’t consider it a serious career path. At the time, options for musicians were very limited and would garner little societal respect. So they sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg for serious study.
Tchaikovsky’s teen years
While Tchaikovsky was in school, his mother died of cholera in 1854. He wrote his first serious piece of music, a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky and his schoolmates had fun with music outside of their studies. They went to the opera, they sung in choir, and did some improvising. None of it was particularly serious, and Tchaikovsky’s friends and classmates were surprised that he ended up later making something of himself as a musician.
Once out of school, Tchaikovsky got a “real job” in 1859 in civil service. He was appointed to the Ministry of Justice and climbed the beaurocratic ladder for a few years before deciding he’d much rather pursue a career in music, instead.
History of Tchaikovsky: Conservatory years
The Russian Musical Society (RMS) was founded in 1859, which gave Tchaikovsky the opportunity to attend Russian-focused converts and take some music theory classes.
Eventually the Saint Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862, which Tchaikovsky became one of the very first students of. It was here that he engaged in serious musical study with renowned musicians such as Anton Rubinstein.
The Conservatory had a huge impact on Tchaikovsky as a blossoming composer. It exposed him to a wide variety of styles – his own style would end up being a blend of Russian and other European styles. This blending would then go on to influence other Russian composers after him.
His early compositions at the Conservatory would also be the beginning of a lifelong series of mixed reactions to Tchaikovsky’s music. When Tchaikovsky submitted his First Symphony to be performed by the RMS, Rubinstein and other instructors said that he needed to make huge changes to the symphony or else they wouldn’t perform it.
During his three years at the Conservatory, Tchaikovsky was supporting himself by giving private piano and theory lessons.
Professor of music theory
Tchaikovsky was given an excellent job opportunity when he graduated in 1865. Anton Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolai, offered him the chance to be a Professor of Music Theory at the brand-new Moscow Conservatory. It wasn’t great pay, but Tchaikovsky was eager and honored.
While he taught as a professor, he also composed and wrote music criticisms. From his critiques in this time period, we learned that Tchaikovsky really liked Beethoven but wasn’t keen on Brahms. We learned that he thought Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” was cool but the music was “unlikely nonsense”. He also wrote about the poor state of Russian opera.
History of Tchaikovsky: Early fame
Tchaikovsky didn’t immediately rise to stardom, largely due to the mixed reactions his works received. But well-respected performers such as Hans von Bulow admired his work, and Tchaikovsky’s music received an audience that way.
The musical landscape was also changing in the latter half of the 1800s. People were becoming less thrilled with flashy but thin performances, and started craving more depth in the music (something Tchaikovsky’s music has always had).
Romeo and Juliet
One of Tchaikovsky’s more well-known compositions was written during this time – his Romeo and Juliet Symphonic Poem. It was conceived in 1869 and first performed in 1870, and remained one of Tchaikovsky’s favorites of his own works throughout his life.
History of Tchaikovsky: Romance
Before we get any further, let’s delve into Tchaikovsky’s personal life. We’ve reached the year 1870, so Tchaikovsky would be 30 years old by now.
In 1868, he met his first fiancée, Desiree Artot. His father was pressuring him to get married, so he decided to go for it to appease his family. But there was one major problem with this arrangement: Tchaikovsky preferred the company of men.
The engagement ended almost as soon as it began (likely because Desiree’s mother found out about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality). Tchaikovsky was only casually disappointed at the broken engagement.
About a decade later, another woman would come into his life – Antonina Miliukova.
This time the engagement turned into an actual marriage in 1877, though the marriage only lasted for a couple months.
Tchaikovsky’s decision to marry a woman was largely based on his family. In a letter Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modest,
“I have decided to marry. It is inevitable. I must do this, and not only for myself, but also for you and for Anatoly, Aleksandra [their sister] and all whom I love. For you in particular!
Antonina and Tchaikovsky had met a while back, and she was apparently infatuated with him for many years. She eventually sent him a love letter, and they started corresponding back and forth.
They were married in Moscow in 1877. Very shortly after, Tchaikovsky realized he had made a terrible mistake – aside from being gay, he also didn’t seem to particularly like Antonina or her family – and their marriage remained unconsummated.
He tried, and failed, to divorce her. Antonina seemed to hope they could eventually get back together. Eventually Tchaikovsky abandoned pursuit of divorce, and settled for sending her some money each month.
He considered Antonina a “terrible wound”, and was burdened not only by his legal ties to her, but also the possibility that she would brazenly disclose his homosexuality to the general public. At the same time, he also felt quite bad for her, realizing it was his fault for marrying her in the first place.
This rocky period in Tchaikovsky’s life, from 1877 to 1880, had the one benefit of being a very creative and productive time for him. He wrote his fourth symphony, various piano works such as his Children’s Album and his second Piano Concerto, and many others.
Nadezhda von Meck
The third and final woman we must discuss in Tchaikovsky’s life story is Nadezhda von Meck – a woman who would greatly benefit Tchaikovsky.
She was a widow who started a mail correspondence with him around the time of his imploding marriage. They became fast friends, and she financially supported him for 13 years, allowing him to travel, tour, and focus exclusively on composing.
Their friendship, though close, was also a little strange – they agreed to never meet, communicating only through letters (of which they sent over 1200). They actually ended up meeting a couple times by accident, but basically fled each other without even saying hello.
It seemed that Nadezhda had a romantic interest in Tchaikovsky, but she probably knew about his homosexuality and never intended to pursue it. This meant that Tchaikovsky felt comfortable corresponding her – a woman who wasn’t after his heart. The two developed a very deep bond over the years.
History of Tchaikovsky: Travel
Tchaikovsky did a large amount of travel and touring in the 1870s and 1880s. He traveled with his brother Modest and saw Bizet’s Carmen in Paris. He visited a festival devoted to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He didn’t end up meeting Wagner, but he did meet Liszt.
He also did lots of solo traveling, mainly across rural Russia and Europe. This was a reclusive time for Tchaikovsky, and he tended to avoid social events where possible. So it’s interesting that this was also the time, around 1880, when his fame increased.
A part of his growing fame had to do with the author Dostoyevsky, who made a speech in favor of universal unity. At the time, Russians weren’t a big fan of Russian music that wasn’t distinctly Russian-sounding – Tchaikovsky’s fusion of Western styles wasn’t really appreciated. But as soon as Dostoyevsky made this speech, Russians became more accepting of Tchaikovsky’s music.
During this time (1881) he wrote the famous “1812 Overture”, but Tchaikovsky didn’t particularly enjoy it. He wrote to Nadezhda,
“[it is] very loud and noisy, but I wrote it with no warm feeling of love, and therefore there will probably be no artistic merits in it.”
Also in 1881, he composed his Piano Trio in A minor, dedicated to his mentor Nikolai Rubinstein who had recently died. This composition also became hugely popular, even in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime.
Back in Russia
In the mid 1880s, Tchaikovsky craved a change of pace from all of the travel and social isolation he’d been experiencing for a decade. At this point, Tchaikovsky’s social standing was high, since he was “in” with the Tsar Alexander III, receiving a lifetime annual pension from him. He was essentially the premier court composer in St. Petersburg.
So he settled down in the countryside. His new place had easy access to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and Tchaikovsky enjoyed some quiet, walking in the forest, reading, and playing cards or music with friends in the evening.
Tchaikovsky became even more involved in promoting Russian music (despite not loving the socialite life). He started conducting Russian music, and did some touring as a conductor. He conducted his own premiere, his Fifth Symphony, in 1888.
He toured to many cities, including Berlin, Prague, Paris and London, where he had the opportunity to meet other well-known composers such as Brahms, Grieg and Dvorak.
It was his newfound fondness of conducting that also brought him to the United States in 1891, where he led the orchestra in his Festival Coronation March.
His famous Sleeping Beauty ballet was created and performed during this time period (1890), as well as his Queen of Spades. Queen of Spades received mixed reviews (as did so many of his compositions), but Tchaikovsky maintained that the music from it was among some of the best in the world of opera.
And then, of course, he created the well-loved ballet The Nutcracker
It was also around this time that Nadezhda ran out of money, and was unable to continue supporting Tchaikovsky financially. Aside from this, she wasn’t able to continue sending him letters, either. This understandably left Tchaikovsky feeling quite depressed.
Nevertheless, he toured and traveled. In 1893, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the University of Cambridge. He was considered to be one of the greatest living musicians, and was at the top of his game.
Because of his fame and success, he had a packed touring and concert schedule. His new symphony, Symphony no. 6, was premiered at the end of October 1893, and he had performance dates scheduled in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Amsterdam and London.
But then he fell ill and died.
History of Tchaikovsky: Death
Nine short days after the premiere of the Pathetique Symphony, Tchaikovsky died in Saint Petersburg at the age of 53. The official cause of death? Cholera, which was endemic at the time (mainly to lower-class citizens, but not unheard of in those with higher social standing).
His funeral was on November 9, 1893. The cathedral his funeral was held at had a capacity of 6,000 people, but 8,000 people crammed in that day (60,000 applied for tickets).
Historians have been arguing about the cause of his death for decades – was it simply cholera? Or something more dramatic, like suicide?
So I’ll lay out some of what we know about his death, and then share my best guess as to what happened. Like so many composers, we’ll probably never know what happened for sure.
The cholera theory
On November 1st, Tchaikovsky went to a restaurant called “Leiner’s” with some close friends and brother Modest. Tchaikovsky ordered a glass of water – however, no boiled water was apparently available at the time. Boiled water was the standard health practice at the time, due to the outbreak of cholera in the city.
When no boiled water was available, Tchaikovsky supposedly asked for cold unboiled water. His friends told him not to drink it, but Tchaikovsky did anyway.
This was a strange thing for anyone to do, especially Tchaikovsky, who was known for having excellent personal hygiene.
Tchaikovsky predictably got sick the next day, and died a week later. The unusual nature of this story is a major reason why people have questioned its validity. Choosing to drink unboiled water was strange. It was out of character.
Another reason why people question this cause of death is simply because of the stigma of cholera being a peasant’s disease. With Tchaikovsky’s high social standing, it was unthinkable to many that he could have contracted cholera.
Something else that caused suspicion was how his corpse was handled. Typically corpses of cholera victims are removed immediately in a closed coffin – you know, to avoid any contamination. But Tchaikovsky’s body was displayed at his brother Modest’s place, for visitors to pay their respects.
All of these strange happenings have led to alternate theories of Tchaikovsky’s death.
Another common theory is that Tchaikovsky killed himself. Some say it was his tragic nature, others suggest the Tsar of Russia ordered it, and yet others are convinced it was a sentence imposed in a “court of honor” to censor his homosexuality.
The idea that Tchaikovsky committed suicide by drinking contaminated water is supported by his unusually potent and dark Sixth Symphony, which premiered mere days before his death. This symphony was so upsetting that the audience apparently cried instead of applauded, and the end of the performance was greeted with silence, save a few sobs.
Many people considered it to sound like a requiem, a sort of musical suicide note. Perhaps Tchaikovsky was devastated about being unable to pursue relationships with the people he really loved. Maybe it was something else.
However, I don’t find this theory to be particularly strong, mainly because, by all accounts, Tchaikovsky seemed to be a reasonably balanced human. Sure he could be a bit antisocial. Sure he had ups and downs, and his own personal struggles. But there’s nothing in his writings (or the writings of friends) to suggest he struggled with suicidal thoughts or mental disorders of any kind.
The thing is, Tchaikovsky’s numerous letters and diaries are well-documented (there are literally thousands of them). From the sheer quantity of his writings, you think you’d at least get a sense of suicidal thoughts or even depression from them – aside from the normal ups and downs of life.
Alternative cholera theory
One theory which I find fairly convincing is that Tchaikovsky caught cholera, but not from drinking cold water at the restaurant. Perhaps he caught it from a “man of the night” by an unprotected encounter.
If this was true, then Tchaikovsky and his brother Modest would have tried really hard to conceal the truth. They might have choreographed the whole scene at the restaurant – have Tchaikovsky drink cold water in front of a bunch of witnesses, so that any cholera could be attributed to that instead.
The doctors might have even gone along with this ploy, since Tchaikovsky was such a well-respected figure.
There isn’t really evidence for this theory, though, aside from speculation. I just find this to be a decent explanation for the whole weirdness of the cold water incident.
Court of honor theory
There’s also the “court of honor” theory in which it was suggested that eight of Tchaikovsky’s old schoolmates gathered together to discuss the “disturbing” relationship between Tchaikovsky and his much younger nephew (though we have no such evidence of “funny business”).
Apparently Tchaikovsky rushed out of this meeting pale and agitated, and fell ill shortly after. Apparently this “court of honor” had decided that Tchaikovsky should kill himself.
One thing in favor of this theory is that this supposed meeting might have happened on October 31st, the only day where no one knows what Tchaikovsky was doing until the evening. This is also the theory that BBC’s documentary on the death, titled Pride and Prejudice, found the most convincing. They suggest that he actually suffered arsenic poisoning.
I mistrust this theory on the basis that it reads too much like a tragic novel to be real life. But there is some evidence to support it.
History of Tchaikovsky: Music
Moving on from the mystery of Tchaikovsky’s death, let’s take a look at his musical accomplishments and personality.
We’ve already talked about many of his famous compositions already (such as the ballets The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty). One thing that’s remarkable about Tchaikovsky as a composer is his diverse range – his music truly spans the spectrum of human emotion.
He was also essentially “the first full-time professional Russian composer”. He brought Eastern and Western styles together in a way no one had before, and made the sound entirely personal, and entirely his own. He paved the way for a new generation of Russian composers, such as Stravinsky. And though his sound blended elements of Western music, it still maintained a Russian identity.
What we know of Tchaikovsky is that he was fairly introverted and didn’t love social situations, but endured them pleasantly enough. Apparently he wrote in his diary that he could carry on animated conversations with people, but would rather “flee from them to the ends of the world”.
He had a few close friends that he held on to for his entire life, including his brother Modest. This shows a fiercely loyal and devoted side of his personality.
Tchaikovsky was also a bit of a perfectionist, and was known to literally tear apart his own compositions if he found them unsatisfactory. He believed in his own value as a composer, but was sensitive to the criticism he received throughout most of his life.
If you ever want to hear the sound of Tchaikovsky’s voice, there’s a short little clip of him in conversation on Wikipedia. Apparently he didn’t want to be recorded, though. When asked if he wanted to play piano or say something to the recorder, Tchaikovsky replied, “I am a bad pianist and my voice is raspy. Why should one eternalize it?”
One of Tchaikovsky’s greatest musical influences was Mozart. He apparently once referred to Mozart as “the musical Christ”.
In general, I don’t subscribe to the notion that Tchaikovsky was this two-dimensional reclusive and depressed character. It’s easy to say that he was tormented by his sexuality, but I think that’s too simple of a picture. Sure he struggled – a broken engagement and marriage are proof of that.
Ultimately I think Tchaikovsky came to be quite comfortable with who he was. His music and his writings suggest a well-rounded character who experienced big highs and big lows in life. The majority of his music is very dramatic and very alive – just a tiny portion of it was tragic, like the sixth symphony.
The truth is that Tchaikovsky was likely just like all of the other composers we’ve looked at – a human being, with many shades and shadows.