Tchaikovsky is one of the most beloved composers in history. An inspired craftsman of melody, orchestration and evocative tonal color, he wrote in an astonishing variety of musical forms, from symphonies to ballet scores to concertos. His life and work are the stuff of legend, and his personal struggles are almost as well-documented today as the methods by which he created his music.
Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia in 1840, and was initially trained in music by a French governess. At ten, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he studied the law and enrolled in jurisprudence school. After his graduation in 1859, Tchaikovsky briefly held a job as a government clerk, but soon threw this career over in favor of musical pursuits. He entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1861 and studied composition with Anton Rubinstein, then the most exalted pianist and composer in Russia. Graduating in 1865, Tchaikovsky found a post as a teacher of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory and began to write a slew of minor overtures, quartets and one larger symphonic work.
In 1876, Tchaikovsky entered into a relationship which would dominate - and facilitate - most of his career as a composer. A wealthy widow, Nedezhda von Meck, had heard that Tchaikovsky was in financial straits (he wasn't the only one by any means), and, without meeting the young musician, commissioned several works from him with princely fees attached. Soon, she put Tchaikovsky on a fixed allowance which covered his basic living expenses, and this arrangement lasted for the next thirteen years, without the two ever meeting. By Madame von Meck's generosity, Tchaikovsky was able to devote his energies to composition without worrying about the pressures of economic hardship. Accordingly, Madame von Meck deserves the gratitude of every music lover who cherishes the work of this great composer.
In 1877, Tchaikovsky was married to Antonia Milyukova, a student at the conservatory. Their brief liaison was a complete disaster; within a year, Tchaikovsky had attempted suicide by jumping into the Moscow River, and the marriage was quickly broken off. At the same time, Tchaikovsky was coming into his own as a composer, writing his Fourth Symphony (1877) and other seminal works. He was also starting to experience chronic depression; many music historians chalk up his problems to the stress of hiding his homosexuality, while others point to a clinical condition which was only exacerbated by his chaotic personal life. Tchaikovsky wrote the magnificent Violin Concerto in D in 1878 - and endured its rejection by the pedagogue Leopold Auer, who deemed the work unplayable - and followed with the Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique) and other legendary works. Throughout the 1880s, his fame spread to Europe and America, and his financial position improved. It was just as well; in 1889, for reasons still unclear today, Madame von Meck cut off her financial support - a blow from which Tchaikovsky never fully recovered.
The same year - 1889 - saw the premiere of Sleeping Beauty, a work which brought even higher accolades to the now-famous composer. In 1891-92 Tchaikovsky toured Europe and the United States, conducting concerts of his music and winning the praises of critics and public alike. Never a robust person, in constant strain from mental disorder and physical malady, Tchaikovsky died in 1893 under mysterious circumstances. Some believe that he contracted cholera during a trip to St. Petersburg; others maintain that he was the victim of murder or suicide.
Tchaikovsky is best known for his last three symphonies, the concertos for piano and violin, the three ballets (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty), and the tone poems Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini - and, of course, the celebrated 1812 Overture. He also wrote a superlative opera, Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades) which is experiencing a minor renaissance in recent years. Tchaikovsky tended to follow traditional architecture in his symphonies and larger works, but it is not for his mastery of structure that he is so revered; rather, it is his unequalled gift for aching melody and lush instrumental textures that places him in the pantheon of the greatest composers in history.