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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Tchaikovsky as a legal student
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on April 25, 1840 (Julian calendar) or May 7 (Gregorian calendar) in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia (at the time the Vyatka Guberniya under Imperial Russia). He was the son of Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a mining engineer in the government mines, and the second of his three wives, Alexandra Andreyevna Assier, a Russian woman of French ancestry. He was the older brother (by some ten years) of the dramatist, librettist, and translator Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Pyotr began piano lessons at the age of five, and in a few months he was already proficient at Friedrich Kalkbrenner's composition Le Fou. In 1850, his father was appointed director of the St Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the young Tchaikovsky obtained an excellent general education at the School of Jurisprudence, and furthered his instruction on the piano with the director of the music library.
Also during this time, he made the acquaintance of the Italian master Luigi Piccioli, who influenced the young man away from German music, and encouraged the love of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti. His father indulged Tchaikovsky's interest in music by funding studies with Rudolph K?ndinger, a well-known piano teacher from Nuremberg. Under K?ndinger, Tchaikovsky's aversion to German music was overcome, and a lifelong affinity with the music of Mozart was seeded. When his mother died of cholera in 1854, the 14-year-old composed a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky left school in 1858 and received employment as an under-secretary in the Ministry of Justice, where he soon joined the Ministry's choral group. In 1861, he befriended a fellow civil servant who had studied with Nikolai Zaremba, who urged him to resign his position and pursue his studies further. Not ready to give up employment, Tchaikovsky agreed to begin lessons in musical theory with Zaremba.
The following year, when Zaremba joined the faculty of the new St Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher and enrolled, but still did not give up his post at the ministry, until his father consented to support him. From 1862 to 1865, Tchaikovsky studied harmony, counterpoint and the fugue with Zaremba, and instrumentation and composition under the director and founder of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, who was both impressed by and envious of Tchaikovsky's talent.
Tchaikovsky as professor of composition
After graduating, Tchaikovsky was approached by Anton Rubinstein's younger brother Nikolai to become professor of harmony, composition, and the history of music. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position, as his father had retired and lost his property. The next ten years were spent teaching and composing. Teaching was taxing, and in 1877 he suffered a breakdown. After a year off, he attempted to return to teaching, but retired his post soon after. He spent some time in Switzerland, but eventually took residence with his sister, who had an estate just outside Kiev.
Tchaikovsky took to orchestral conducting after filling in at a performance in Moscow of his opera The Enchantress (Russian: Чародейка) (1885-7). Overcoming a life-long stage fright, his confidence gradually increased to the extent that he regularly took to conducting his pieces.
Tchaikovsky visited America in 1891 in a triumphant tour to conduct performances of his works. On May 5, he conducted the New York Music Society's orchestra in a performance of Marche Solennelle on the opening night of New York's Carnegie Hall. That evening was followed by subsequent performances of his Third Suite on May 7, and the a cappella choruses Pater Noster and Legend on May 8. The U.S. tour also included performances of his First Piano Concerto and Serenade for Strings.
Just nine days after the first performance of his Sixth Symphony, Path?tique, in 1893, in St Petersburg, Tchaikovsky died (see section below).
Some musicologists (e.g., Milton Cross, David Ewen) believe that he consciously wrote his Sixth Symphony as his own Requiem. In the development section of the first movement, the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly "shifts into neutral" in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears absolutely no relation to the music that preceded it, and none to the music which follows it. It appears to be a musical "non sequitur", an anomaly - but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: "And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints." Tchaikovsky was interred in Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St Petersburg.
His music included some of the most renowned pieces of the romantic period. Many of his works were inspired by events in his life.
Tchaikovsky in 1874
Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, as well as its importance to his life and music, has long been recognized, though any proof of it was suppressed during the Soviet era. Although some historians continue to view him as heterosexual, many others - such as Rictor Norton and Alexander Poznansky - conclude that some of Tchaikovsky's closest relationships were homosexual (citing his servant Aleksei Sofronov and his nephew, Vladimir "Bob" Davydov). Evidence that Tchaikovsky was homosexual is drawn from his letters and diaries, as well as the letters of his brother, Modest, who was also homosexual.
During his education at the School of Jurisprudence, he was infatuated with French soprano D?sir?e Art?t, but she married another man. One of his conservatory students, Antonina Miliukova, began writing him passionate letters around the time that he had made up his mind to "marry whoever will have me." He did not even remember her from his classes, but her letters were very persistent. Ironically, the composer had been studying Pushkin's poem Eugene Onegin and was considering making it into an opera. A crucial scene is when the heroine, Tatiana, receives a letter from Onegin, rebuffing her romantic advances. Now truth seemed to imitate fiction. Was he to play Onegin to this Tatiana? Would he, like Onegin, live a lifetime of regret if he followed a similar course?
Tchaikovsky could have tactfully attempted to dissuade Antonina. Instead, he replied that he could offer only gratitude and sympathy in reply to her love. He retained enough sense to have discreet inquiries made about Antonina from a friend. That friend returned with a highly unfavorable account of her. Even with this information in hand, Tchaikovsky allowed his feeling for drama and Fate to outweigh his common sense, and he hastily married her on July 18, 1877.
The composer at age 37 with his wife, Antonina Miliukova (1877)
Within days, while still on their honeymoon,Tchaikovsky deeply regretted his decision. By the time the couple returned to Moscow on July 26, he was a state of near-collapse. The strain in his appearance became obvious to his friends as the days passed, but they may not have truly realized how far Tchaikovsky was sliding into disaster. Two weeks after the wedding the composer supposedly attempted suicide by wading waist-high into the freezing Moscow River. He stood there until he could bear the cold no longer, certain he would contract a fatal case of pneumonia. His robust physical constitution defeated that plan, and his mental state grew even worse. Tchaikovsky fled to St Petersburg, his mind verging on a nervous breakdown.
Tchaikovsky's brother Anatoly met him at the railroad station when he arrived, but did not initially recognize his brother's changed face. Anatoly rushed him to a hotel where, after a violent outburst, Tchaikovsky lapsed into a two-day coma. Anatoly never told the specifics of what happened during that time. However, he must have explained at least some, if not all, of the truth to the mental specialist who was the only other person apart from his brothers and father to see the composer. The specialist prescribed a complete life change. He recommended Tchaikovsky make no attempt to renew his marriage, nor try to see his wife again. The composer never returned to his wife but did send her a regular allowance through the years. They remained legally married until his death.
Tchaikovsky lived for years in the fear that Antonina would reveal publically the true reason for their separation. Anatoly tried talking her into accepting a divorce. She would not, however, consent to the necessary fiction, needed for grounds of divorce, that Tchaikovsky had committed adultery. Tchaikovsky's publisher, Pyotr I. J?rgenson, tried his best to intercede in the matter on the composer's behalf. Eventually in the summer of 1880 J?rgenson discovered that Antonina had taken a lover the previous winter and had a child by him. She continued to have children at regular intervals and to deposit them all in a foundlings' home. By 1896 she was herself in a home, certified insane. She died in 1917.
Tchaikovsky himself never laid any blame upon Antonina. He considered his falling in with her, at a time when he had grown to be married for the sake of being married, as something to simply attribute to Fate. Regardless of whether a more tactful and intelligent woman could have come to terms with his homosexuality and provided him with the affection and care for which he longed both to receive and to give, Tchaikovsky never lost his personal ideal of marriage. When Anatoly became engaged, the composer wrote him a warm letter of congratulations. There he confessed, "Sometimes I am overcome with an insane craving for the cares of a woman's touch. Sometimes I see a sympathetic woman in whose lap I could lay my head, whose hands I would gladly kiss...." Biographer John Warrack maintains that the terms of this letter reveal Tchaikovsky was actually far from the realization of a true relationship with a wife, and that what Tchaikovsky describes may be a vision of his lost mother.