Tchaikovsky grew up in a family both upper class and unmusical.
His father was a government mining official in St Petersburg,
where the family moved when Tchaikovsky was eight. He developed a
love of music largely by improvising at the piano, but he was sent
to school to prepare for a training in law.
At the age of 19 he obtained a position in the Ministry of
Justice in St Petersburg, continuing musical studies in his spare
time at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Its director, Anton
Rubinstein, commented that Tchaikovsky, though careless, was
"definitely talented." "With this encouragement Tchaikovsky gave
up his job in order to study full time, and in 1865 he was
appointed professor of harmony at the new Moscow Conservatoire.
In 1866 he suffered his first nervous breakdown, brought on by
the stress of overwork on his First symphony. Tchaikovsky's
"abnormally neurotic tendency" (in his brother's words) and
lifelong unhappiness apparently stemmed in large part from
feelings of guilt about his homosexuality and his attempts to
About this time he met Balakirev - one of the group of Russian
composers known as "The Five" — and out of their friendship came
the suggestion for Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture Romeo and
Juliet. Tchaikovsky's attitude to The Five later soured as he
grew to dislike their use of exotic oriental folk melodies (which
he parodied in the dances of his ballet The nutcracker in
1892) in the name of a Russian nationalist style.
In 1877 he began to receive love letters from a woman he had
never met, Antonina Milyukova. She threatened suicide unless he
would meet her. At the time Tchaikovsky was working on his opera
Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin's poem, in which the hero
rebuffs the love letter sent to him by the heroine.
Tatiana. Tchaikovsky had no wish to stoop to such behaviour and
was trapped into marrying Antonina, with disastrous consequences.
She turned out to be mentally unstable and, far from "curing" his
homosexuality, the experience drove him to attempt suicide. He
fled to St Petersburg in a state of nervous collapse. He never saw
her again, and she eventually died in an asylum.
By this time Tchaikovsky had begun corresponding with a wealthy
widow, Nadezhda von Meek, who confessed to an admiration for his
music and gave him an annual pension of 6,000 roubles. It was
enough to allow him to compose and tour freely in Europe, and he
resigned from his Moscow professorship in 1878. Their letters were
intense and passionate but, although they actually met on her
estate once by chance, they never exchanged a spoken word. The
relationship continued for 13 years until she broke it off
suddenly without any explanation.
He completed Eugene Onegin in 1878, together with the
Fourth symphony (dedicated to his "best friend", Nadezhda von
Meek) and the Violin concerto. His credentials as a master
of melodic invention were already established; but never before in
such overtly Romantic material as these two orchestral works were
lyrical themes tautly organized into a framework of such sustained
Tchaikovsky had travelled in Europe almost every year since
1870, but toured as a conductor for the first time in 1888, and
again in 1889. He met Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg, and others, visited
London, and completed his Fifth symphony and his great
ballet score, The sleeping beauty. In his last year he
travelled again to England, this time to receive an honorary
doctorate in music at Cambridge University in the distinguished
company of Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saens, and Grieg.
He returned to complete the Pathetique symphony, of
which he wrote, "I love it as I have never loved any one of my
musical offspring." Its many innovative features include a "waltz"
movement in 5/4 time and a slow, sorrowful finale. It stands as a
fitting end to the career of a tragic man who displayed his
deepest feelings in music, often with tremendous emotional power.
He died of cholera after drinking contaminated water — possibly
deliberately, according to recent research — just nine days after