1. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (the traditional Western spelling) was born in 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia. He began taking piano lessons in 1845; however, formal music education was not available in Russian schools at this time so his parents never considered that he might pursue a career in music. Instead, they prepared him for a life of civil service; he began his formal education at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in 1850, which he attended for nine years.
2. When Tchaikovsky was 17, his father finally recognized his son’s affinity for music and allowed him to take lessons with a professional pianist. When the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in the fall of 1862, Tchaikovsky was one of its first students. Starting his formal music education at the age of 22, he could be considered a late bloomer compared to his German contemporaries.
3. The first public performance of his works took place in August 1865 when Johann Strauss, Jr. conducted Tchaikovsky’s Characteristic Dances.
4. Tchaikovsky graduated from the Conservatory in December of 1865 and moved to Moscow to teach at the newly established Moscow Conservatory. He was not a fan of teaching. In the first decade after graduation, he composed his first three symphonies, his operas The Voyevoda, The Oprichinik, and Vakula the Smith, his ever-popular Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, his String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor.
5. By 1876, Tchaikovsky’s music was gaining popularity both in and outside of Russia. He caught the interest of Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow of a railroad tycoon who decided to become Tchaikovsky’s patroness and provided him with a regular monthly allowance. This allowed him to resign from teaching in 1878 and devote his life to composing. The relationship lasted for 14 years until she claimed she was close to ruin and abruptly cut off payments and communication.
6. As Tchaikovsky gained fame, his personal life was thrust into the public spotlight. He had been aware of his feelings for men since he was at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, where he had developed strong emotional bonds with some of his classmates. Homosexuality was technically illegal in Russia, although authorities ignored it among the upper classes. However, Tchaikovsky succumbed to social and familial pressures and entered into marriage with a young music student Antonina Milyukova, in 1877. At once, Tchaikovsky realized his mistake. In a letter to his brother Anatoly he wrote, “Only now, especially after the tale of my marriage, have I finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.”
7. Tchaikovsky was the first widely celebrated Russian composer. However, he faced criticism from the Russian group known as the Mighty Handful or The Five. This group of Russian composers, consisting of Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin, were not professionally trained in composition. They believed that Russian music should incorporate elements from folk music and reject traditional Western styles. Tchaikovsky, and other conservatory trained musicians, were highly scrutinized.
8. Tchaikovsky also became well-known as a conductor. He visited America in 1891, where he conducted his Festival Coronation March at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall.
9. The holiday classic ballet, The Nutcracker, was not a success when it first premiered the week before Christmas in 1892. Critiques of the dancers were mediocre and varied, although the music was better received. While today The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition, it didn’t become so until several decades after its premier. It was first performed outside of Russia in England in 1934. In the United States, the San Francisco Ballet performed it first in 1944. However, it did not gain wide popularity until 1954, after it became a hit in New York City.
10. Tchaikovsky died 9 days after the premier of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathetique, in 1893 at the age of 53. The cause of death was cholera, likely contracted from drinking contaminated water. However, some historians theorize that it was suicide and he intentionally drank the infected water. The last 15 or so years of his life were fraught with depression. It is during this time that his greatest compositions were born, including the last three symphonies, his ballets Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker, the Serenade for Strings in C Major, Capriccio italien, 1812 Overture, the Violin Concerto in D Major and his opera Eugene Onegin.
Jacy Burroughs is the Assistant E-Commerce Marketing Manager at Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in Horn Performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area.