Timeline: Pyotr Llyich Tchiakovsky

Jul 4, 2016

Although he wasn’t part of the so called “Russian Five” circle of composers, Pyotr Llyich Tchiakovsky stands as one of the most beloved and most talented Russian composers of all time.

Tchaikovsky started taking piano lessons at the age of 4 and quickly surpassed the skills of his teacher. Unlike many other prodigies, Tchaikovsky didn’t come from a musical family. His father was a metal works engineer but supportive of his son’s musical development. Tchaikovsky, however, was deeply attached to his mother; so it was devastating when his mother left the family when he was 10 and died when he was 14. Music was his only comfort.

Tchaikovsky studied in St. Petersburg and was offered a position to teach in Moscow before he even graduated. During these early years he was desperate for the approval of “The Russian Five” a circle of composers in St. Petersburg dedicated to bringing a Russian identity to their music. He developed a rocky but beneficial relationship with Mily Balakirev. They both admired each other’s talents but Balakirev was highly skeptical of anyone with a conservatory background. Tchaikovsky did his best to incorporate the older composer’s suggestions. Obviously something worked, because Tchaikovsky’s first masterpiece Romeo and Juliet was completed after several rounds of critique and revision with Balakirev.

After 1870 Tchaikovsky all but abandoned his quest for “High Nationalism”, writing such masterworks as Swan Lake. This was also a period of deep personal trouble. Tchaikovsky was coming to terms with his own sexuality and an absolutely disastrous marriage that threatened his entire career. These events had a profound influence on his opera Eugene Onegin and his Fourth Symphony. His music floundered for a few years.

The next decade saw a renewal of Tchaikovsky’s creative output and some international attention. He composed The Nutcracker and received a high profile appointment in Moscow from the Tsar. However, Tchaikovsky struggled more and more with his own identity and a severe nervous condition. His final work, his Sixth Symphony, laid out the darkness of his personal turmoil. The four movements of this Programme Symphony are based on life, love, disappointment and death. Tchaikovsky died nine days after finishing this work. Most believe that it was a suicide in response to a horrible accusation which could have destroyed his reputation.

The last photo taken of Tchiakovsky before his death in 1893.
Credit US-PD

Tchaikovsky’s music became even more popular after his death. His works walk a fine line between western tradition and 19th century nationalism. The end result is a catalogue of pieces that display the man, his passion and his pain for the entire world to see.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.