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Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893)

Pyotr Tchaikovsky There is no doubt that practically every person in the entire world knows Tchaikovsky. At least his name. He is one of the most famous composers of all time. He is a real genius and ranked among such unsurpassable masters as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. He is the most well-known and popular Russian composer. And yet, he didn't have an easy life. Few people know about his searches, failures and successes, his delight and his despair. Here is a perfect chance for you to get to know this wonderful composer's biography in more detail, because when you are here in Russia you'll probably be visiting one of his beautiful and striking ballets or operas - Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Sleeping beauty, Eugene Onegin, or Queen of Spades. Or perhaps you'll choose to go to the Philharmonic Hall and listen to his Fourth or Sixth (Pathetic) Symphony… One thing is certain - you are going to take great pleasure in Tchaikovsky's music and it will be your experience of a lifetime.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born at Votkinsk, Vyatka region, on May 7, 1840, second in a family of five sons. His father Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky was a chief inspector of mines. From early childhood the future composer loved nature and folk music. As a youth he reluctantly studied law at School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg and even became a petty clerk in the Ministry of Justice. But in his early twenties he rebelled and against his family wishes had the courage to throw himself into the study of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was a ready improviser, playing well for dancing and had a naturally rich sense of harmony, but was so little schooled as to be astonished when a cousin told him it was possible to modulate from any key to another. He went frequently to the Italian operas which at that time almost monopolized the Russian stage.

He was an ardent worker, and once, when Anton Rubinstein, his teacher of composition, asked for variations, he sat up all night and brought in two hundred. In 1863 Tchaikovsky resigned his post at the Ministry of Justice in order to devote all his time to music study (theory under Zaremba, orchestration under Anton Rubinstein). Early in 1866 he removed permanently to Moscow with which all his later musical fortunes are associated, having accepted a teaching post of a professor of composition in the newly founded Conservatory of music established by A. Rubinstein's brother Nicholas. Tchaikovsky joined the circles of Moscow intelligentsia. He got acquainted with V. Odoevsky, A. Ostrovsky, L. Tolstoy. He started to compose. His early attempts at composition, largely because of that same fatal facility, had displeased himself as well as his friends; on one of them, with that same impersonal candor always flashing out from him, he had scribbled the words: "dreadful muck". Yet now he had the courage to attempt his first symphony Winter Dreams.

On vacations Tchaikovsky went abroad, and visited his friends in Ukraine and Tambov government. Very often these trips became the source of creative inspiration. The first decade of Tchaikovsky's life in Moscow was one of much struggle, intensified by several attacks of the nervous depression and morbid self-disgust always dogging him; of first meeting with some of his contemporaries, such as Turgenev, Tolstoy, Berlioz, Liszt, Saint-Saens and Wagner; of an abortive love-affair with opera singer Desiree Artot; and above all of a varied production of many kinds of music from operas to string quartets, which laid the foundation of his skill and fame. Most of the operas, written hastily, uncritically and sometimes on wretched librettos were failures, the scores of which in a number of cases he himself destroyed.

In 1876 Tchaikovsky begins correspondence with Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck. The widow of a wealthy railway engineer fell under the spell of Tchaikovsky's music. As one of the richest women in Moscow N. von Meck was a well-educated person with the delicate feeling for music. She rendered him not only a financial but also moral support. The long correspondence with him reveals for us so much of his inner life.

On February, 20, 1777 in the Moscow Bolshoi Theater the premiere of the ballet Swan Lake took place. It was a success though not everybody understood its innovative ideas. But those who did were carried away by the music. One of the musical critics wrote: "As far as music is concerned, Swan Lake is the best ballet I've ever heard. The music is plastic, melodious and breath-taking. The waltz rhythm which is dominant among the dancing performances is embodied in such diverse explicit outlines that never has the melodic image of a gifted and versatile composer been put to a more brilliant test…" The Swan Lake is very unusual and different from all Tchaikovsky's previous works. Some said that this music was even too good for a ballet!

In 1877 Pyotr Tchaikovsky decided to marry Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova who hurled herself at his head, declaring in a letter her love for him. Within a month he discovered their utter incompatibility and was driven to despair by an irresistible aversion to his wife. In a state of mind bordering on madness Tchaikovsky moved abroad. He leaves for Switzerland, settling at Clarens, a quiet village on Lake Geneva, where he later did some of his best works. Nadezhda von Meck offers him an annuity of 6,000 rubles.

In 1878 Tchaikovsky finds his duties at the Conservatory quite unbearable and resigns his professorship. From now he works much in Clarens, Paris, Rome, Florence and other European places. Sometimes he visits Moscow, working and attending the performances of his works. In the end he became tired of all his journeys and in 1885 he rents a house in Maidanovo near Klin and commences there his Manfred Symphony on a scheme by Balakirev. In 1887 Tchaikovsky makes his first appearance as a concert conductor in St. Petersburg in a program of his own works and in 1888 makes a highly successful international concert tour. In early May of 1892 he returns to his country house in Klin and there in 1893 begins the Sixth Symphony.

The Symphony was performed under his direction in St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893. Tchaikovsky himself characterized this work as his most sincere creation. "I can say without any exaggeration that I put my whole soul into this work", - he said. A famous Russian critic V. Stasov wrote afterwards: "This symphony is the supreme work of Tchaikovsky; it's also the most unsurpassable of all his works. The suffering of a human soul, still despair, a wretched, gnawing feeling of losing everything that had made the meaning of a person's life till this very moment, are expressed here with an astonishing force and shrillness. It seems that never before in music was there anything alike and that never before were such deep scenes of spiritual life expressed with such striking a talent".

Tchaikovsky gained fame and popularity not only in Russia but also abroad. With astounding success he performed in Paris, in Prague, in different cities of England and America. He was invited to New York in 1891 to take part in the opening ceremony of the largest concert hall - the Carnegie Hall.

Some time later he allegedly drank a glass of unboiled water out of the tap and on October, 25 died of cholera. He was buried in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra in St. Petersburg.

Tchaikovsky's creative heritage is very large. Just below you may see some of his most popular works. They are operas: Eugene Onegin after the poetic novel by A.Pushkin (1878), Mazepa after Pushkin's poem Poltava (1883), Sorceress (1887), Cherevichki after a work by N. Gogol (1885), Queen of Spades after the story by A. Pushkin (1890), Iolanta (1891); ballets: Swan Lake (1876-1877), Sleeping Beauty (1889), The Nutcracker after a fairy-tale by T. A. Hoffman in A. Dumas's adaptation (1892). Such works as the Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet, Italian Capriccio, Symphonic Fantasia Francesca da Rimini, Variations on a Rococo Theme for cello and orchestra are the famous masterpieces by P.I.Tchaikovsky.