Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich

Tchaikovsky, Peter Ilyich ĭlyēch´ chīkôf´skē [key], 1840–93, Russian composer, b. Kamsko-Votkinsk. Variant transliterations of his name include Tschaikovsky and Chaikovsky. He is a towering figure in Russian music and one of the most popular composers in history.

The son of a mining inspector, Tchaikovsky studied music as a child. At 19 he became a government clerk and at 21 entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied composition with Anton Rubinstein. He graduated in 1865 and taught theory and composition at Nicholas Rubinstein's Moscow Conservatory from 1865 to 1878. An annuity from his wealthy patroness, Mme von Meck (whom he never met though he corresponded with her for 14 years and dedicated his Fourth Symphony to her in 1878), made it possible for him to devote himself entirely to composition. Tchaikovsky wrote 11 operas, four concertos, six symphonies, a great number of songs and short piano pieces, three ballets, three string quartets, suites and symphonic poems, and numerous other works.

His compositions sustained him throughout his continuous battle with his own nature. In 1877 Tchaikovsky made a disastrous marriage in order to defeat the torment of his homosexuality and to deny the spreading rumors of it. His work was again his consolation when Mme van Meck terminated her friendship and support without apparent reason. Tchaikovsky was opposed to the aims of the Russian nationalist composers and used Western European forms and idioms, although his work instinctively reflects the Russian temperament. His orchestration is rich, and his music is melodious, intensely emotional, and often melancholy.

The most successful of his compositions are his orchestral works, notably his last three symphonies; the fantasies Romeo and Juliet (1869, rev. 1870 and 1879) and Francesca da Rimini (1876); Marche slave (1876); the Manfred Symphony (1886); the ballets Swan Lake (1877), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892; also arranged as a suite for orchestra); and the Piano Concerto in B Flat Minor (1875) and the Violin Concerto in D (1881). Of his operas, notable are Vakula, the Smith (1876); Eugene Onegin (1879) and The Queen of Spades (1890), both from stories by Pushkin; and The Maid of Orleans (1881). None of the operas, however, achieved the popularity of his symphonies, ballets, and concertos.

Tchaikovsky toured Europe as a conductor, performing his Marche solennelle at the opening concert in Carnegie Hall, New York City, in 1891. A few days after he conducted the première of his Sixth Symphony, or Symphonie pathétique, he died, reportedly of cholera. Some experts believe that the cause was really suicide, possibly precipitated by the threatened revelation of a homosexual relationship. Tchaikovsky's most gifted followers in Russia were Rachmaninoff and Arenski; his influence was great, particularly in England and the United States.


See his life and letters by his brother Modeste, ed. by R. Newmarch (2 vol., 1905, repr. 1970); diaries, ed. by W. Lakond (tr. 1945); biographies by H. Weinstock (1943), L. and E. Hanson (1966), A. Holden (1996), and R. J. Wiley (2009); studies by G. E. H. Abraham, ed. (1946, repr. 1969), J. H. Warrack (1969), E. Garden (1973), and D. Brown (1978).

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