Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Childhood And Early Life
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a little town in a former province of Vyatka in the Russian Empire. His father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, was an engineer by profession and was posted as a lieutenant colonel in the Department of Mines. His mother, ‘Alexandra Andreyevna née d'Assier’, the second of Ilya's three wives, was 18 years younger than her husband and belonged to French lineage. Tchaikovsky had four brothers, a sister, and a half-sister from his father's first marriage. Fanny Dürbach, a 22-year old French governess employed in this family taught Pyotr Tchaikovsky to be fluent in French and German by the age of six. In fact, she also saved much of Tchaikovsky's musical works from this period, which forms his earliest known compositions. Tchaikovsky started taking piano lessons from the gentle age of five. Though his parents were initially supportive, nevertheless, the family decided to send Tchaikovsky to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg in 1850 for a more promising livelihood.
However, Tchaikovsky's parting from his mother to attend boarding school and her untimely death from cholera in 1854 caused a severe emotional trauma that beleaguered him most of his life. Tchaikovsky's father, who was lucky enough to fully recover from cholera, immediately, sent Tchaikovsky back to school, so that his studies will keep him engaged. Music became a panacea for Tchaikovsky! Fond of the works by Verdi, Rossini, Mozart, and Bellini, Tchaikovsky would work on the themes for his friends that they sang during choir practice at the school's harmonium.
Pursuing Music During Civil Service
On June 10, 1859, the 19-year-old Tchaikovsky graduated with the rank of titular counselor, becoming a junior assistant within six months and a senior assistant two months after appointed to the Ministry of Justice. He remained a senior assistant for the rest of his meager three-year civil service career. Tchaikovsky joined the budding Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which opened in 1862. The director and founder of the Conservatory, Rubinstein taught instrumentation and composition at the Conservatory. It was at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky learned how to compose music like those of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Ludwig van Beethoven from Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Zaremba.
Tchaikovsky And The Group Of ‘The Five’
‘The Five’, also known as ‘The Mighty Handful’ was a group of composers who met in Saint Petersburg between the years 1856–1870. The five (Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) were inclined towards creating Russian kind of art music, instead of the older European music. In 1869, Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with Balakirev; that provided an avenue for Tchaikovsky's first recognized work of genius, the fantasy-overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The finale of his Second Symphony, also called ‘The Little Russian’, was also received sincerely by the group on its first performance in 1872. Though Tchaikovsky had amicable relations with the Five, he made sure his musical independence and exclusivity from the rest of the group.
Growing Fame For The Nascent Opera Composer
Favorably for Tchaikovsky, many reputed artists were willing to perform on the music composed by him, including Sergei Taneyev, Max Erdmannsdörfer, Adele Aus der Ohe, Eduard Nápravník, etc. Tchaikovsky began to compose operas. His first opera, ‘The Voyevoda’, based on a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, was premiered in 1869 and Undina in 1870. Between these projects, he started to compile an opera called ‘Mandragora’, to a libretto by Sergei Rachinskii. The first Tchaikovsky opera to survive in one piece, ‘The Oprichnik’, was premiered in 1874. In the second half of 1874, ‘Vakula the Smith’ (Opus 14) was also composed.
Tchaikovsky’s personal life and especially his sexuality are one of the most debating topics for any Russian composer! Tchaikovsky had apparent same-sex inclinations as some of the composer's closest relationships were with men. Factors like his family reputation, natural coyness or a social stigma in those days, refrained him from having an open relationship with a male lover.
In 1868, Tchaikovsky came in contact with Belgian soprano ‘Désirée Artôt’, one of the most gleaming opera stars of her day, with a charming voice. Tchaikovsky and Artôt became emotionally attached and even got engaged to be married. But on 15 September 1869, Artôt married a Spanish baritone in her company, without informing anything to Tchaikovsky. By the end of 1876, his another love affair was with ‘Losif Kotek’, a former student from the Moscow Conservatory. Alas, Kotek proved to be unfaithful and he parted himself from her a few months later!
In July 1877, at the age of 37, Tchaikovsky married another former student, Antonina Miliukova. Almost when the wedding was over, Tchaikovsky realized his blunder when he found that he and Antonina were incompatible psychologically and sexually. The couple lived together for only for two and a half months, though he and Antonina remained legally married but never lived together again nor had any children. With passage of time, Antonina had three children by another man.
Another personal crisis included his friendship with ‘Nadezhda von Meck’, the widow of a railway magnate who aided him for his musical compositions. She became a close friend, supporting him emotionally and financially, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition. But she suddenly ended the relationship in 1890 leaving Tchaikovsky emotionally devastated!
Joining The Belyayev Circle!
As a conductor, Tchaikovsky extensively promoted Russian music. In November 1887, Tchaikovsky visited Saint Petersburg to hear several of the Russian Symphony Concerts, devoted solely to the music of Russian composers. Such concerts included the first complete performance of Tchaikovsky’s revised First Symphony and also Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s final version of third Symphony, with whose circle Tchaikovsky was already involved. A group known as ‘Belyayev Circle’ was founded by Rimsky-Korsakov, with Alexander Glazunov, Anatoly Lyadov and several other similar minded musicians and composers. Tchaikovsky started spending considerable time in this circle. Tchaikovsky’s easiness with this group (in contrast with all of the Five) elevated his confidence in illustrating his music alongside theirs.
Tchaikovsky was voted a member of the ‘Académie des Beaux-Arts’ in France in 1892, the only second Russian to be honored so after the first being the famous sculptor ‘Mark Antokolski’. Next year, the University of Cambridge in Britain also presented an honorary Doctor of Music degree to Tchaikovsky.
Death and legacy
The premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the ‘Pathétique’ was performed on October 30, 1893. Peculiarly, nine days later, in Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky expired there at the age of 53. Speculations had been made whether he died due to cholera or whether his death was a suicide. He was buried in ‘Tikhvin’ Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Tchaikovsky has left an impressive legacy behind! He made an impact not only in symphonies and operas but also in program music. He converted Liszt's and Berlioz's achievements into themes of Shakespearean elevation! His approach to Western harmonies, helped in spreading the music not only in Russia but also to the world at large. As a Russian composer, he pioneered in familiarizing foreign audiences with his own works, as well as those of other Russian composers!