The Composer Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Russia, 1840-1893) was a romantic composer and the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally. Many of his compositions are the most popular in the classical music repertoire. His Piano Concerto No. 1 is most probably the best known of all piano concertos. His Violin Concerto in D major is one of the technically most difficult works for the violin.
The Life of Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was born in a small town in the Russian Empire. When he was 4.5 years old, his parents hired the 22-year old French governess Fanny Duerbach as teacher for him and his siblings. At the age of 6, Tchaikovsky was already fluent in French and German. At the age of 5, he took piano lessons and within 3 years, he was able to read notes just like his teacher. His musical talent was very obvious, but musical careers at that time were limited to becoming a teacher or an instrumentalist at a theatre which both was considered on a low rung of the social ladder. Consequently, his parents decided to enroll him at the age of 10 at a boarding school in St. Petersburg that would prepare him to become a civil servant.
At the age of 14, his mother died from cholera which he later called the crucial event that ultimately shaped his life. The loss prompted him to make his first serious attempt in composition, a waltz in her memory. Together with fellow students who became lifelong friends, he started to regularly attend opera. After his studies, he worked as civil servant for 3 years just until a public music education was developed at the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he enrolled. The teachings were Western-oriented and set him apart from Russian composers like Modest Mussorgsky and Mily Balakirev who had formed The Five or The Mighty Handful to produce a specifically Russian kind of high art music.
Tchaikovsky's life was punctuated by isolation, personal crisis and depression. He had an unhappy marriage with a former fellow student and kept his homosexuality private. The family of his sister was the only family he had in adult life. Financially, he was supported for 13 years by Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who believed in him and admired his talent. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed to cholera and there is an ongoing debate as to whether it was accidental or self-inflicted.
The Compositions of Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky was determined to reconcile the Western-oriented teachings and his love for the Western music that he experienced in the theatre with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed to since childhood. Since the harmonies, melodies and other principles ran completely opposite between Russian music and Western European music, forming a composite style was extremely difficult to nearly impossible. His efforts isolated him and damaged his self-confidence. While his music was 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 Europe, Tchaikovsky's music was said to be lacking in elevated thought, and its formal workings were regarded as deficient for not stringently following Western principles.
However, Tchaikovsky indeed developed a most personal and unmistakably Russian style. In the late 1880s, he was honored and awarded a lifetime pension by Emperor Alexander III. By the West, he was honored to be the guest conductor in many occasions, one of which was the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky's symphonies, concertos, operas, chamber music and ballets like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are among the most valued and most popular compositions in the classical repertoire.