Sum up Tchaikovsky’s life and musical legacy in just one word? Exquisite. This was a composer whose rich and tormented inner life touched every part of his composition. A composer whose work was, and still is, agonisingly beautiful. In Edvard Grieg’s words: “He is melancholic almost to the point of madness. He is a beautiful and good person, but an unhappy person.”
We thought we’d try to get to know this sensitive soul more intimately—through the euphoric highs and the crushing lows …
1) The young Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a musical prodigy destined to become a civil servant. The young Piotr Ilitch started piano lessons at the tender age of 5 and composed his first “song” aged 4. Despite his early passion for music, the 10-year-old Tchaikovsky was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a boarding school in St. Petersburg. Upon graduation, he reluctantly took up a position as bureau clerk post in the Ministry of Justice.
2) Sensitive and highly-strung since childhood, Tchaikovsky was prone to bouts of depression. Tchaikovsky’s premature separation from his beloved mother Alexandra and her sudden death whilst he was away likely coloured Tchaikovsky’s turbulent inner life from an early age. Perhaps because he was no stranger to climactic surges of emotion, Tchaikovsky was able to compose music with a unique restlessness and utterly unfeigned intensity of feeling.
3) Tchaikovsky married just once. Within 6 weeks he had a nervous breakdown. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was at odds with the society in which he lived. Bowing under societal and familial pressure, he hastily went ahead with a marriage to one of his former pupils, Antonia Miliukova, who had expressed her undying infatuation with him. Within just six weeks of taking his vows, however, Tchaikovsky fled the marriage and the country. He wrote to his brother Anatoly from Florence:
“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.”
Many critics have suggested parallels between Tchaikovsky and the eponymous character of his opera Eugene Onegin. A Bayerische Staatsoper production works unswervingly from the premise that Onegin is gay. Not a universally popular interpretation, but not altogether so far-fetched…
4) Tchaikovsky was an avid letter writer, notably composing over 1200 to a certain Nadezhda von Meck. In 1876 Tchaikovsky began an extraordinary correspondence with the widow of a wealthy rail tycoon. Nadezhda von Meck introduced herself as a “fervent admirer” and became his patroness. As well as financial support, she proved a bastion of emotional support to Tchaikovsky, both before and after his disastrous marriage, and in the wake of a number of significant knockdowns…
5) Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had a brutal first reception. Christmas Eve 1874, and Tchaikovsky played the first movement of his latest composition to his friend and mentor Nikolay Rubinstein. But Rubinstein was having none of it:
“How do you expect me, my dear friend, to pay attention to details, when your music repels me in its very essence?”
Tchaikovsky’s concerto had no value, was vulgar, unplayable, two or three pages could be saved at most; the rest, Rubinstein concluded, should be discarded.
6) His Violin Concerto had no takers. Tchaikovsky’s close friend Iosef Kotek, one of the foremost violinists of the day, turned it down, believing it far too difficult. Leopold Auer too said thank you but no thank you. When Adolph Brodsky finally premiered the piece, the critics were merciless. Tchaikovsky bitterly quoted one of the harshest reviews for the rest of his life:
“Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be compositions whose stink one can hear.”
7) Tchaikovsky composed the commemorative 1812 Overture “without warmth and without love.” It was premiered in a tent. The Grand Overture was intended to make up part of the festivities celebrating Russian defence against Napoleon’s invading Grande Armée in 1812. There were grand plans to perform the overture in the square in front of Tsar Alexander I’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, complete with pealing bells, marauding brass fanfares, and switchboard canons — but these plans never materialised.
8) Tchaikovsky and the Russian ballet master Marius Petipa were a force to be reckoned with. The first mythical encounter between Tchaikovsky and Petipa of the Mariinsky Theater is often quoted:
“Oh, if only the greatest Russian composer would compose for our theater!”
However, Tchaikovsky’s three iconic ballets were not born equal. The 1877 premiere of his Swan Lake was a flop, whilst The Sleeping Beauty was an instant success. The Nutcracker was a hit, but the composer himself was less convinced. Tchaikovsky experienced a “crisis” upon hearing Pepita’s proposition for a synopsis combining ETA Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker and The Mouse King with elements of pantomime and burlesque.
9) Contrary to his suspicions, Tchaikovsky’s head did not fall off whilst he conducted the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall 1891. Instead, his performance was a smash hit and the Americans adored him. He wrote home to his beloved nephew Vladimir Davidov (“Bob”): “Here I am a “big shot!” Isn’t that curious?!!” Indeed, Tchaikovsky was not always so assured on stage. A friend and eyewitness to one of Tchaikovsky’s concerts recounted:
“He was a nervous wreck … He forgot every note of his own piece, was blind to the notes in his own score, and failed to give the players their cues at all the most crucial moments. Luckily, the orchestra knew the piece so well that they took no notice of their inept conductor and all his incorrect instructions. They performed the piece perfectly well, occasionally looking up at the composer with big grins on their faces.”
10) Tchaikovsky died from cholera in 1893. Or did he? The official report signed off his death as cholera, contracted soon after a visit to Leiner’s Restaurant where he (knowingly?!) drank a glass of unboiled water. Other theories range from suicide by arsenic, a decree of extermination over a homosexual scandal, or some private affair closer to the Tsar… In any case, Tchaikovsky’s heart-rending Pathétique seems to preempt an imminent end. Just exquisite.
On a happier note, the 16th International Tchaikovsky Competition is just around the corner! The very best young musicians from all around the world will take the stage, hoping to impress not only the distinguised jury, but also YOU! The entire competition will be broadcast live and on replay via our dedicated #TCH16 website. Make sure you’re there. It’s (probably) what Tchaikovsky would have wanted.