Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; often "Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky" in English. (7 May 1840 – 6 November 1893), was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, chamber music, and a choral setting of the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Some of these are among the most popular theatrical music in the classical repertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States. One of these appearances was at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884 by Emperor Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.

Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time, and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the emerging Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from which he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of "The Five", with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky's training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal but unmistakably Russian style—a task that did not prove easy. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music; this seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or from forming a composite style, and it caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky's self-confidence. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great, and this resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia of the country's national identity.

Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his leaving his mother for boarding school, his mother's early death, as well as that of his close friend and colleague Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera; there is an ongoing debate as to whether it was accidental or self-inflicted.

While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it was sufficiently representative of native musical values and were suspicious that Europeans accepted it for its Western elements. In apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music more substantive than base exoticism, and thus transcending stereotypes of Russian classical music. Tchaikovsky's music was dismissed as "lacking in elevated thought," according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and its formal workings were derided as deficient for not stringently following Western principles.



Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, a small town in Vyatka Governorate (present-day Udmurtia) in the Russian Empire. His family had a long line of military service. His father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, was an engineer who served as a lieutenant colonel in the Department of Mines,[1] and manager of the Kamsko-Votkinsk Ironworks. His grandfather, Petro Fedorovych Chaika, received medical training in Saint Petersburg and served as a physician's assistant in the army before becoming city governor of Glazov in Viatka. His great-grandfather, a Cossack named Fyodor Chaika, distinguished himself under Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava in 1709.[2] His mother, Alexandra Andreyevna née d'Assier, the second of Ilya's three wives, was 18 years her husband's junior and of French ancestry on her father's side.[3] Both of Tchaikovsky's parents were trained in the arts, including music. This was considered a necessity as a posting to a remote area of Russia was always possible, bringing with it a need for entertainment, both private and at social gatherings.[4]

Tchaikovsky had four brothers (Nikolai, Ippolit, and twins Anatoly and Modest), a sister, Alexandra and a half-sister Zinaida from his father's first marriage.[5] He was particularly close to Alexandra and the twins. Anatoly later had a prominent legal career, while Modest became a dramatist, librettist, and translator.[6] Alexandra married Lev Davydov[7] and had seven children, one of whom, Vladimir Davydov, became very close to the composer, who nicknamed him 'Bob'.[8] The Davydovs provided the only real family life Tchaikovsky knew as an adult,[9] and their estate in Kamenka (now Kamianka, Cherkasy Oblast, part of Ukraine) became a welcome refuge for him during his years of wandering.[9]

In 1843 the family hired Fanny Dürbach, a 22-year-old French governess, to look after the children and teach Tchaikovsky's older brother Nikolai and a niece of the family.[10] While Tchaikovsky, at four and a half, was initially considered too young to begin studies, his insistence convinced Dürbach otherwise.[11] Dürbach proved an excellent teacher, teaching Pyotr Tchaikovsky to be fluent in French and German by the age of six.[4] Tchaikovsky became attached to the young woman and her affection for him is said to have provided a counter to Tchaikovsky's mother, who has been described as a cold, unhappy, distant parent,[12] although others assert that the mother doted on her son.[13] Dürbach saved much of Tchaikovsky's work from this period, which includes his earliest known compositions. She was also the source of several anecdotes about his childhood.[14]

Tchaikovsky took piano lessons from the age of five. A precocious pupil, he could read music as adeptly as his teacher within three years. His parents were initially supportive, hiring a tutor, buying an orchestrion (a form of barrel organ that could imitate elaborate orchestral effects), and encouraging his study of the piano for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Nevertheless, the family decided in 1850 to send Tchaikovsky to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg. This decision may have been rooted in practicality. It is not certain whether Tchaikovsky's parents had grown insensitive toward his musical gift.[4] However, regardless of talent, the only avenues for a musical career in Russia at that time – except for the affluent aristocracy – were as a teacher in an academy or an instrumentalist in one of the Imperial Theaters. Both were considered on the lowest rung of the social ladder, with no more rights than peasants.[15] Also, because of the growing uncertainty of his father's income, both parents may have wanted Tchaikovsky to become independent as soon as possible.[16]

Since both parents had graduated from institutes in Saint Petersburg, they decided to educate him as they had themselves been educated.[17] The School of Jurisprudence mainly served the lesser nobility and would prepare Tchaikovsky for a career as a civil servant. As the minimum age for acceptance was 12 and Tchaikovsky was only 10 at the time, he was required to spend two years boarding at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence's preparatory school, 800 miles (1,300 km) from his family.[18] Once those two years had passed, Tchaikovsky transferred to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to begin a seven-year course of studies.[19]

Emotional life

Discussion of Tchaikovsky's personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer of his time.[20] It has also at times caused considerable confusion, from Soviet efforts to expunge all references to same-sex attraction and portray him as a heterosexual, to efforts at armchair analysis by Western biographers.[21]

Tchaikovsky lived as a bachelor most of his life. In 1877, at the age of 37, he wed a former student, Antonina Miliukova. The marriage was a disaster. Mismatched psychologically and sexually, the couple lived together for only two and a half months before Tchaikovsky left, overwrought emotionally and suffering from an acute writer's block. Tchaikovsky's family remained supportive of him during this crisis and throughout his life.[22] He was also aided by Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a railway magnate who had begun contact with him not long before the marriage. As well as an important friend and emotional support, she also became his patroness for the next 13 years, which allowed him to focus exclusively on composition.


Tchaikovsky was homosexual, and some of the composer's closest relationships were with men.[23] He sought out the company of other same-sex attracted men in his circle for extended periods, "associating openly and establishing professional connections with them."[24] Relevant portions of his brother Modest's autobiography, where he tells of the composer's sexual orientation, have been published, as have letters previously suppressed by Soviet censors in which Tchaikovsky openly writes of it.[25]

More debatable is how comfortable the composer felt with his sexual nature. There are currently two schools of thought. Musicologists such as David Brown have maintained that Tchaikovsky "felt tainted within himself, defiled by something from which he finally realized he could never escape."[26] Another group of scholars, which includes Alexander Poznansky and Roland John Wiley, have more recently suggested that the composer experienced "no unbearable guilt" over his sexual nature[24] and "eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage."[27]

Both groups have drawn the conclusion that Tchaikovsky remained aware of the negative consequences should knowledge of his orientation become public, especially of the ramifications for his family. While his father continued to hope Tchaikovsky would marry, other members of his loving and supportive family remained more open-minded. Modest shared his sexual orientation and became his literary collaborator, biographer and closest confidant. Tchaikovsky was eventually surrounded by an adoring group of male relatives and friends, which may have aided him in achieving some sort of psychological balance and inner acceptance of his sexual nature.[28]

The level of official tolerance Tchaikovsky may have experienced, which could fluctuate depending on the broad-mindedness of the ruling Tsar, is also open to question. One argument is that general intolerance of same-sex orientation was the rule in 19th century Russia, punishable by imprisonment, loss of all rights, banishment to the provinces or exile from Russia altogether; therefore, Tchaikovsky's fear of social rejection was grounded in some justification.[29] Musicologist Solomon Volkov mentions state documents that indicate men attracted to the same sex "were under tight police surveillance" and maintains that public life in Russia was "based not on laws but on 'understandings.' That means that formally existing laws are applied or ignored based on the position and wishes of the authorities.... No one could feel confident of the future in those conditions (which is one of the goals of a society built on 'understandings')."[30] The other argument is that the Imperial bureaucracy was considerably less draconian in Tchaikovsky's lifetime than previously imagined. Russian society, with its surface veneer of Victorian propriety, may have been no less tolerant than the government.[31] In the introduction to a French edition of her biography of Tchaikovsky (first published in Russian in 1936 and reissued in French in 1987) Nina Berberova cites many circumstances that confirm social visibility and impunity of homosexual men in 1890s Russia.[32]

In any case, Tchaikovsky chose not to neglect social convention and stayed conservative by nature.[33] His love life remained complicated. A combination of upbringing, timidity and deep commitment to relatives precluded his living openly with a male lover.[34] A similar blend of personal inclination and period decorum kept him from having sexual relations with those in his social circle.[35] He regularly sought out anonymous encounters, many of which he reported to Modest; at times, these brought feelings of remorse.[36] He also attempted to be discreet and adjust his tastes to the conventions of Russian society.[37] Nevertheless, many of his colleagues, especially those closest to him, may have either known or guessed his true sexual nature.[38] Tchaikovsky's decision to enter into a heterosexual union and try to lead a double life was prompted by several factors—the possibility of exposure, the willingness to please his father, his own desire for a permanent home and his love of children and family. There is no reason however to suppose that these personal travails impacted negatively on the quality of his musical inspiration or capacity.[24] An upcoming Russian film, Tchaikovsky,[39] has attracted controversy due to the fact that Tchaikovsky's sexuality, mentioned in early drafts, has been written out of the film in order to secure funding from the Russian government.[40]

Unsuccessful marriage

In 1868, Tchaikovsky met Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, then touring Russia with an Italian opera company and causing a sensation with her performances in Moscow.[41] Artôt, according to Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden, was "one of the most lustrous opera stars of her day," with a "beguiling voice".[42] The composer's friend, music critic Hermann Laroche, called her "dramatic singing personified, an opera goddess fusing numerous gifts which would normally be shared among several different artists."[43] Tchaikovsky and Artôt became infatuated and engaged to be married.[44] Even so, Artôt told Tchaikovsky that she would not give up the stage or settle in Russia.[45] Nikolai Rubinstein, fearful that living in a famous singer's shadow would stifle Tchaikovsky's creativity, warned against the union.[46] Undeterred, and while still privately preferring a homosexual lifestyle, the composer discussed wedding plans at length with his father.[33] However, on September 15, 1869, without any communication with Tchaikovsky, Artôt married a Spanish baritone in her company, Mariano Padilla y Ramos.[a 1] Although it is generally thought that Tchaikovsky swiftly got over the affair, it has been suggested that he coded Désirée's name into the Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor and the tone-poem Fatum.[47] They met on a handful of later occasions and, in October 1888, he wrote Six French Songs, Op. 65, for her, in response to her request for a single song. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved,[48] although Holden and other biographers have surmised that it may have been "the glamorous yet talented diva, rather than the real woman behind the top billing, with whom he had fallen in love."[49]

By the end of 1876, Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with Iosif Kotek, a former student from the Moscow Conservatory. Though he wrote to Modest that Kotek reciprocated his feelings, the composer distanced himself a few months later when Kotek proved to be unfaithful.[50] At roughly the same time another friend, Vladimir Shilovsky, suddenly married. Tchaikovsky did not take the news well. He and Shilovsky, who may have also been homosexual, had shared a mutual bond of affection for just over a decade.[51] Tchaikovsky had previously mentioned to Modest the possibility of marriage, out of concern that public knowledge of his sexuality might scandalize his family.[52] Modest and their sister Sasha, in turn, had warned against such a step.[53] However, Shilovsky's wedding may have spurred him to action.[54] In doing so, he did not consider several factors. One was that his feelings on the matter may have been conflicted. While he wrote to his brother Anatoly about using marriage as a means of securing sexual freedom through leading a "double life," in the same letter he disparaged his homosexual acquaintances who had actually done so.[55] Another factor was that, at 37, Tchaikovsky might have been more set in his bachelor's ways than he would have admitted.


On 28 October/9 November 1893 Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony,[56] the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, Tchaikovsky died there, aged 53. He was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, near the graves of fellow-composers Alexander Borodin, Mikhail Glinka, and Modest Mussorgsky; later, Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev were also buried nearby.[57]

While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier from the local river,[58] some have theorized that his death was a suicide.[59] Opinion has been summarized as follows: "The polemics over [Tchaikovsky's] death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ....."[60]


  1. The marriage may have been instigated by Artôt's mother, who accompanied the soprano on tour and may have learned of Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation. (Poznansky, Eyes, 79.) She may, in fact, have been told this by Nikolai Rubinstein, in an effort to protect the composer from a potential disaster (Holden, 67–8).


  1. Holden, 4.
  2. Brown, Early, 19; Poznansky, Eyes, 1.
  3. Poznansky, Eyes, 1; Holden, 5.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Wiley, Tchaikovsky, 6.
  5. Holden, 6, 13; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 18.
  6. Poznansky, Eyes, 2.
  7. Holden, 31.
  8. Holden, 202.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Holden, 43.
  10. Brown, Early, 22; Holden, 7.
  11. Holden, 7.
  12. Brown, Early, 27; Holden, 6–8
  13. Poznansky, Quest, 5.
  14. Brown, Early, 25–26; Wiley, Tchaikovsky, 7.
  15. Maes, 33.
  16. Wiley, Tchaikovsky, 8.
  17. Brown, Early, 31; Wiley, Tchaikovsky, 8.
  18. Holden, 14; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 26.
  19. Holden, 20.
  20. Wiley, Tchaikovsky, xvi.
  21. Maes, 133–4; Wiley, Tchaikovsky, xvii.
  22. Wiley, New Grove (2001), 25:147.
  23. Poznansky, Quest, all.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Wiley, New Grove (2001), 25:147.
  25. Poznansky, Eyes, 8, 24, 77, 82, 103–5, 165–8. Also see P.I. Chaikovskii. Al'manakh, vypusk 1, (Moscow, 1995).
  26. Brown, Early, 50.
  27. Poznansky, as quoted in Holden, 394.
  28. Holden, 82, 162; Poznansky, Eyes, 168; Taruskin, Grove Opera, 4:664; Wiley, New Grove (2001), 25:147.
  29. Brown, Early, 50; Hanson, 123; Karlinsky, 350.
  30. Volkov, Tsars, 184–5.
  31. Maes, 134; Poznansky, Eyes, 77; Simon Karlinsky, History of Homosexuality in Europe and America, 169, 170.
  32. Simon Karlinsky, History of Homosexuality in Europe and America, 169, 170.
  33. 33.0 33.1 Poznansky, Eyes, 78.
  34. Poznansky, Quest, 362.
  35. Poznansky, Quest, 466.
  36. Hanson and Hanson, 165–6; Poznansky, Eyes, 185–8, Quest, 362, 421–2, 469–70; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 88.
  37. Poznansky, Eyes, 165.
  38. Poznansky, Quest, 176.
  39. "Я не подпишусь под фильмом, который рекламирует гомосексуализм" Читайте далее:
  40. Tchaikovsky's sexuality 'downplayed' in biopic under Russia's anti-gay law. Guardian.
  41. Brown, Early, 156; Poznansky, Eyes, 88.
  42. Holden, 66.
  43. As quoted in Holden, 66–7 and Poznansky, Quest, 110.
  44. Brown, Early Years, 156–7; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 53.
  45. Brown, Early, 158.
  46. Brown, Early, 158; Poznansky, Eyes, 78.
  47. Brown, Early, 197–200.
  48. Artôt, Désirée (1835–1907). Schubertiade music.
  49. Holden, 67; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 54.
  50. Poznansky, Eyes, 103, 105; Wiley, Tchaikovsky, 102–3.
  51. Brown, Crisis, 138; Poznansky, Eyes, 76–7, Quest, 95, 126, 204.
  52. Holden, 113; Poznansky, Quest, 186; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 88.
  53. Poznansky, Quest, 184; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 88–9.
  54. Poznansky, Quest, 204.
  55. Poznansky, Quest, 185.
  56. [1]
  57. Brown, Final, 487.
  58. Brown, Man and Music, 430–2; Holden, 371; Warrack, Tchaikovsky, 269–70.
  59. Brown, Man and Music, 431–5; Holden, 373–400.
  60. Wiley, New Grove (2001), 25:169.


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