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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

A life in song

Created date

February 23rd, 2015

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a composer ahead of his time—a master of melodies. He was born in 1840 in a small town in the Russian Empire.

His parents were trained musicians, and Tchaikovsky was, himself, exceptionally bright. 

By the age of six, he was studying piano and spoke fluently in French, German, and his native Russian—the latter accomplishments indicative of his remarkable ear. Those who knew him said that he could read music as well as, if not better than, his teacher. 

Pushed onto a different path

Yet, similar to composers the likes of Hector Berlioz, Tchaikovsky had parents who ignored his innate abilities. Rather than continuing his lessons, which had proceeded with great success, they chose instead to send him off to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg. 

Perhaps they had the best of intentions. After all, musicians in Russia were destined for two professions—academy instructors or theatrical instrumentalists; both were of lower character within the Russian caste system.

While Peter wouldn’t emerge a nobleman from the School of Jurisprudence, he could at least hope for a respectable career as a civil servant.

Be that as it may, the 10-year-old prodigy was utterly miserable away from home. The curriculum entailed two years at a preparatory institution plus seven more at the School of Jurisprudence.

He struggled with depression related to the separation anxiety he experienced when apart from his family. To make things worse, in 1854, his mother died of cholera. 

The crucial event’

For Tchaikovsky, the loss was devastating. Her death was, in his words, “the crucial event” that shaped the rest of his life.

Upon his graduation, Peter served three years as a low-level civil servant in the Ministry of Justice. During this time, he began taking courses in music theory through the Russian Musical Society and eventually enrolled in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory.

Under the tutelage of composers Nikolai Zaremba and Anton Rubinstein, he studied counterpoint, harmony, composition, and instrumentation. Meanwhile, he kept his post at the Ministry of Justice, at least until he was sure music was his calling.

By 1863, he had decided. Peter quit his job at the ministry and devoted his efforts to music full-time. 

Right away, he showed incredible talent not only in his grasp of theory but in his mastery of orchestration. As one of his teachers, Anton Rubinstein, put it, he was “a composer of genius.” 

Tchaikovsky was quite progressive in his emphasis on melodies in particular. Still, for all of their admiration, Rubinstein and Zaremba deemed the up-and-coming composer’s style out of step with conventional practice.

At first, successes were hard won and slow to come for the young maestro. In the years following his graduation from the conservatory, he divided his time between teaching music theory in Moscow and composing symphonies and operas. 

Finally, recognition

By the late 1860s, Tchaikovsky was finally an artist of considerable renown thanks to a change in popular tastes. 

Whereas Russian audiences had once wanted dazzling performances by instrumental virtuosos, they now had more of an appreciation for the music itself. Given Tchaikovsky’s prowess for melodic composition—complex orchestrations made accessible to the lay listener—his works soon gained notoriety, not to mention widespread publication.

Yet throughout his life, Tchaikovsky battled depression and anxiety, which many believe was the combined result of his mother’s death and the strain caused by his known homosexuality.

Despite his marriage to a former student, the composer’s sexual orientation was a constant albatross and certainly a contributing factor to the melancholy that plagued him. In its wake, Tchaikovsky faced several periods of writer’s block, but he had managed to compose four symphonies and a host of concertos and orchestral suites by the time he was in his late 30s.

As for the public’s opinion of his music, he had his critics. This is true even after his death.

A search of negative opinions turns up words like “superficial,” “trite,” and “trivial.” Some musicologists argue that his symphonies lack the depth and sophistication required of great composers. 

Such critiques aside, there are droves of listeners who recognize and appreciate the man’s brilliance.

Tchaikovsky was capable of inspirational work, as were so many of his contemporaries. He stands out, however, for his romantic sensibility and his ear for deceptively simple melodies that remain with us today.