10 Facts You Didn't Know About Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

10 Facts You Didn

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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is undoubtedly the best-known Russian composer worldwide. His fame mainly stems from his connection with classical ballet, for which he wrote the immensely popular Swan Lake and Nutcracker suites, both staples of the theatrical repertoire. Even if you are not familiar with his music, it is likely that you will have heard one or more of his pieces at some point of your life – perhaps even in movies and cartoons! Are you curious to learn more about the man behind the name? Here are ten facts to help you get to know him.

  1. The origins
    Born in 1840, he was the third of seven children of Ilya Tchaikovsky, a Russian metal works manager, and Aleksandra Andreevna d'Assier, a Russian-born descendant of French émigrés. Pyotr made his first-ever attempt at composition with his dearest sister, Aleksandra: he was just four years old, and the fascination with music would accompany him for the rest of his life.
  2. The formative years
    Music education was not contemplated in mid-19th-century Russia, so at the age of ten, he was enrolled at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, where he proved to be a brilliant student. During the nine years he spent there, Pyotr formed relationships that would strongly affect his personality and began to attend plays and ballets, experiences that would prove to be formative and inspirational for his future career as a composer.
  3. His passion for Mozart
    He was left speechless upon first hearing Mozart's opera Don Giovanni at the age of 16, a work which heavily influenced him. Mozart’s unfinished masterpiece, the Requiem, also made a long-lasting impression on him – so much so, in fact, that Tchaikovsky once referred to the Austrian composer as his “musical Christ”.
  4. The choice of music as a career
    When the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1861 Tchaikovsky, aged 21, abandoned his Law studies once and for all to dedicate himself to harmony, counterpoint and composition. Among his first productions is The Storm, which represents his approach to program music and his heading towards a more mature style of composition.
  5. Teaching and the first successful works
    As soon as he graduated, he became a professor of music theory at the Moscow Conservatory, but his relationship with teaching was never easy. In the meantime, he also began to devote himself more continuously to composition. His main works from that period include Symphony No. 1 in G minor, Op. 13 and his first completed opera, The Voyevoda, which was favourably received. Inspired by the Shakespearean production, he also composed the Romeo and Juliet overture, which he reworked several times until 1880. Notable are also The Guard (Opričnik), another operatic work, his chamber music (appreciated by none other than writer Leo Tolstoy) and the Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23, still among the his most loved works.

  6. The fiasco of Swan Lake
    Swan Lake, the first ballet in what was to become an incredibly popular trilogy, premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877 but turned out to be a complete fiasco. The orchestra was unable to correctly perform the score, reputed too complex and unusual, the scene staging was done poorly and the choreography was trivial. The critics went as far as to call the ballet’s music "boring"!

  7. Marriage
    Tchaikovsky married Antonina Milyukova, a former Conservatory student of his, but the marriage was extremely short-lived: Pyotr knew he was homosexual, and the couple separated after just six weeks. However, the laws of Imperial Russia only contemplated divorce in the case of adultery, so the two formally remained husband and wife until Pyotr's death.
  8. Correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck
    Tchaikovsky maintained an extensive correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railway engineer. The woman offered to be his patron and a very close relationship developed between the two: they exchanged letters for fourteen years, discussing topics that ranged from politics and philosophy to religious faith and even the nature of love. Despite the intense bond between them, the two never met.
  9. The successful tours in Europe and the United States
    Now at the height of his fame, during the last years of his life, the composer managed to overcome his fear of conducting (extremely hypochondriac, he was terrified of the idea that his head might fall off and held it in one hand.) He gave highly acclaimed concerts in Europe and even in the United States, where he was invited to attend the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York in 1891.
  10. Death and main works
    Tchaikovsky died in 1893 at the age of 53, probably due to a cholera epidemic that had hit St. Petersburg. There has long been speculation about his possible suicide, a rumour that began to circulate after his death, but there is no evidence to support it. Among his most important works are the Serenade for string orchestra in C major, Op. 48, the Italian Capriccio and the Overture 1812 (which included the firing of cannons), the collection of twelve piano pieces The Seasons, the ballet The Sleeping Beauty, the opera The Queen of Spades, the Symphony No. 6 in B minor “Pathetique” and the third ballet of his famous trilogy, The Nutcracker.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has left an indelible and invaluable mark in music history, winning the hearts of millions of people around the world, and earning himself a seat among the Greats.
After having retraced the main stages of his life, we wholeheartedly recommend losing yourselves to the extraordinary vitality of his music! Where to find it? Ask no more! We have collected some of his most popular works in the playlist “The Best of Tchaikovsky,” which you can find on our YouTube channel. Happy listening!