Tchaikovsky was born to a fairly wealthy middle class family. His father, Ilya Petrovich (a two time divorcee) married Alexandra and the two had two sons, Pyotr and Modest. Tchaikovsky was a precocious child having learned to read French and German by the age of six. A year later, he was writing French verses. The family hired a governess to keep watch over the children, and she often referred to Tchaikovsky as the “porcelain child.” Tchaikovsky, was ultra sensitive to music and was placed into piano lessons at a young age. He would complain at night that the music in his head would not let him sleep.
Tchaikovsky’s Teenage Years:
When Pyotr was 10 years old, his family enrolled him into the School of Jurisprudence for a career in civil service, not fully comprehending his remarkable musical talent. Because the minimum acceptance age was 12, Pyotr was sent to boarding school. After turning 12, he entered into the senior classes at the school. Apart from singing in choir, he did not seriously study music. It wasn’t until after he graduated in 1859, that he began to study music. In 1862, Pyotr began taking classes with Nikolai Zaremba at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. In 1863, Pyotr quit his day job as clerk at the Ministry of Justice.
Tchaikovksy’s Early Adult Life:
After quitting his day job, Tchaikovsky devoted his life to music. Under the mentorship of Anton Rubenstein (director of the conservatory), Tchaikovsky went through the conservatory’s curriculum. Aside from musical studies, he also studied conducting. Tchaikovsky had an immense fear of it, and would often hold his chin with his left hand while conducting after once imagining his head falling off his shoulders. Though he was not the best conductor, he was one of the best music students. In 1866, Tchaikovsky took a job as a harmonyteacher for the Moscow Conservatory with Rubenstein’s recommendation.
Tchaikovsky’s Mid Adult Life, pt. 1:
In 1868, he had a brief flirtation with soprano Desiree Artot, but she later married a Spanish baritone. Though his personal life may have been unsuccessful, Tchaikovsky was steadily completing composition after composition. In 1875, Tchaikovsky’s world premiere of his third symphony was given in Boston on October 25, and was conducted by Hans von Bulow. Despite there being pockets of opposition towards his music, his works and reputation began to spread across Europe. In 1877, he married a beautiful young woman named Anotonina Miliukova, but divorced her 9 weeks later because she “possessed little intelligence.”
Tchaikovsky’s Mid Adult Life, pt. 2:
During the same year of his disastorous marriage, Tchaikovsky also entered into another relationship – only instead of meeting face to face, they communicated through letters. This worked out very well for him given his extreme shyness, and also in part, he did not have to consummate the relationship. The woman was Nadeshda von Meck. Though it is unclear why she did not want to meet him, she sent him money as she greatly admired his work. Despite what it seemed on the outside, inside Tchaikovsky was emotionally troubled, weeping and doubting himself very often, and took to alcohol as a form of relief.
Tchaikovsky’s Late Adult Life:
After enjoying numerous successes and frequent travels, Pyotr’s money and letters from Meck came to a halt. In 1890, she claimed to be broke, though that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t the loss of the money that had greatly upset him, it was the sudden termination of his emotional companion of 13 years. This was a low blow for the already emotionally sensitive composer. In 1891, he fled to the US after receiving an invitation to the opening week of New York’s Music Hall (which was renamed Carnegie Hall a few years later). He visited Niagara Falls and conducted in Philadelphia and Baltimore before returning to Russia.
The Death of Tchaikovsky:
Though there are many rumors about Tchaikovsky’s cause of death, the most widely accepted explanation is that he died of cholera after drinking a glass of water that wasn’t boiled. He died less than one week after premiering what is considered to be his greatest work, Symphony Pathetique.