Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th,
1840 into a middle-class family with a long line of military service. He began
piano lessons at the age of five and showed an early propensity for music.
While his parents initially encouraged his musical talents, their attitude
gradually cooled and in 1850 they sent him to the Imperial School of
Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg. Little concerned with music, the Imperial
School of Jurisprudence would prepare Tchaikovsky for a career as a civil
servant. Nevertheless, he remained active in music, regularly attending the
theater and opera and becoming quite fond of works by Rossini, Verdi and
Mozart. A few months after his mother suddenly passed away from cholera in June
1854, he made his first serious efforts at composition.
On June 10th, 1859, Tchaikovsky graduated from
the School of Jurisprudence and entered into a low level civil service
position. Beginning in 1862, he studied harmony and counterpoint with Nikolai
Zaremba and instrumentation and composition with Anton Rubinstein. In 1863, he
abandoned his position in civil service and began attending the Saint
Petersburg Conservatory full-time, graduating a few years later in 1865.
Tchaikovsky's relationship with Rubinstein proved to be advantageous for the
young composer, though it also drew the ire of the nationalistic group of
composers led by Mily Balakirev, known as The Five. Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky
were both criticized by The Five, particularly by César Cui, for their
Western-influenced styles. Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky eventually forged working
relationships with most members of The Five. Balakirev recognized Tchaikovsky's
talents as an artist and collaborated with him on the Romeo and Juliet overture. Rimsky-Korsakov sought advice from him
Between 1867 and 1878, Tchaikovsky composed several of his
most well-known compositions, including the First Piano Concerto, the Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello
and orchestra and the ballet Swan Lake.
During this time he also began teaching at the Moscow Conservatory. Working
alongside Nikolai Rubinstein, Anton's brother, and receiving frequent
performances of his music, Tchaikovsky had his first taste of fame. At the end
of this period, however, Tchaikovsky entered into an ill-fated marriage with
one his former pupils, Antonina Miliukova. The brief time they spent together
caused a great deal of emotional turmoil for Tchaikovsky. However, this
singular event is often attributed for the increased creative activity that
followed and led to such works as the Fourth Symphony, the opera Eugene Onegin and the Violin Concerto.
With his fame continuing to grow throughout Europe,
Tchaikovsky reached a point of relative stability with the patronage of
Nzadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon. Besides the
annual subsidy with which she provided him, Meck was also a source of
encouragement for Tchaikovsky. With the assurance of income from Meck,
Tchaikovsky travelled extensively in the years following 1878, never remaining
in one place for long.
His sojourning years came to end, however, in 1884. In March
of that year, Tsar Alexander III conferred upon him the Order of St. Vladimir,
which brought with it hereditary nobility. He was given an audience with the
Tsar himself and eventually received a lifetime pension. In 1892, he was made a
member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in France, becoming only the second
Russian to receive the honor. A year later, the University of Cambridge awarded
him an honorary Doctor of Music.
On November 6th, 1893, a mere nine days after the
premiere of his Sixth Symphony, Tchaikovsky died in Saint Petersburg. Only fifty-three
years of age, it is generally believed his death was the result of cholera,
though some speculate that his death may have been a
suicide. His posthumous fame as a composer was some unsettled during the first
part of the 20th century. Always popular with audiences, his music
at times has been criticized by other composers and musicians. Today, however,
he is regarded as one of the foremost composers of 19th century
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