Learn 18 Tchaikovsky facts that’ll help you understand his music and life!
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is one of the most famous Romantic era composers and one of the first popular Russian composers.
In this article, I’ll share 18 facts about Tchaikovsky, from his work as a young composer to the mystery of his death.
While it’s not essential to learn about composers, knowing a few facts about them can help you better understand their music, and enjoy playing it even more! I hope this article helps you get to know Tchaikovsky a bit better.
Tchaikovsky’s Early Life
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko Votkinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840. He enjoyed music from a young age but was pushed in a different direction by his parents.
1. Tchaikovsky learned music very fast
He began taking piano lessons when he was five years old. He was a quick-learning young music student, and it’s said that in only three years, he’d learned music better than his piano teacher!
2. He worked in civil service for four years
Both his parents worked in civil service and sent him to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to prepare for a career. Music careers weren’t popular or well-paying, but working as a civil servant would lead to a good life.
Tchaikovsky began as a titular counselor in 1859, then became a junior assistant, and finally a senior assistant before leaving to pursue classes at the Russian Musical Society, which was a new program to foster Russian musicians.
3. He was in the first class of St Petersburg Conservatory
The famed St Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862, and Tchaikovsky enrolled as soon as he could. At the school, Tchaikovsky learned harmony, counterpoint, and composition. He spent this time at school creating his unique sound which is a mix of both Russian and European styles.
4. Tchaikovsky looked up to Mozart
Tchaikovsky first heard Mozart’s music as a child, and it moved him to tears. From then on, he looked up to the Classical composer, and even referred to him as a “Musical Christ” in his diary!
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the suite above in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The music is an orchestrated arrangement of four piano pieces written by the Classical music master.
Tchaikovsky’s Musical Career
The first public performance of his work was in 1865 when Johan Strauss II conducted Tchaikovsky’s Characteristic Dances. This helped set his composing career into motion.
5. He worked as a Professor of Music Theory at Moscow Conservatory
Tchaikovsky graduated from Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1865 and was offered the role of teaching music theory at the new Moscow Conservatory. Along with this job, some of his music was performed for the first time!
6. Tchaikovsky was a Music Critic
From 1867 to 1878, Tchaikovsky wrote reviews of other composer’s music while he himself continued to write and travel. This helped sustain his income and get his name out into the world.
7. He was friendly with “The Five”
“The Five”, also known as “The Mighty Five” was a group of 19th-century Russian composers who, together, created a national “Russian” sound to the music they composed. They used folk songs, different intervals, and the whole tone scale, among other devices, to create this sound that’s now associated with music from their country.
The composers in The Five were Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Mikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Alexander Borodin.
Tchaikovsky was friendly with The Five, but he didn’t agree with all of their ideas. While Tchaikovsky wanted to write music similar to Western classical music, The Five wanted to compose with more native practices.
Tchaikovsky ended up writing his music in a Western-style but still incorporated Russian folk tunes and harmony that impressed The Five.
8. Tchaikovsky had a wealthy patroness
In 1877, a wealthy widow named Nadezhda von Meck heard of Tchaikovsky, and she commissioned a few violin and piano pieces from the composer.
He and von Meck had a very close relationship, with one stipulation from Tchaikovsky’s patroness: they must never meet in person! They actually ran into each other once but pretended not to know each other.
The two wrote over 1,200 letters throughout their lives, and she gave him an annual allowance of 6,000 rubles. This was a large sum of money which allowed him to quit his teaching job to pursue composing music full-time. Being free to compose and perform helped him gain wide popularity and become one of the first well-known Russian composers.
Today, Tchaikovsky is most known for his ballet music, since it appeals to such a wide audience. Below are samples of his ballets and other very popular music he composed.
9. Ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The ballet Swan Lake was written in 1875-1876 and premiered the next year in Moscow. It was considered a failure at first, but today, it’s one of the most famous ballets performed!
Tchaikovsky’s second ballet is Sleeping Beauty. If you’ve seen Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty film, then you might recognize the music! The film actually uses some of the ballet music as its score, and the main song, “Once Upon A Dream” is based on “Garland Waltz” from the ballet.
His final, and probably most famous ballet is The Nutcracker, which is performed all over the world around Christmas. Enjoy the full performance by the San Francisco Ballet!
If you’d like to learn to play on your violin the easy version of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker, download your copy of the sheet music below and watch my tutorial over here.
Free Violin Sheet Music
Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy – P. I. Tchaikovsky
10. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is a work of art, and is generally considered to be one of the hardest violin concertos to learn! If you’d like to learn about the history of this piece, I invite you to read about it in the article 10 Best Violin Concertos.
11. 1812 Overture
A very popular work by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is the 1812 Overture. It was a commission meant to celebrate Russia’s defense when Napoleon invaded the country in 1812. Tchaikovsky didn’t enjoy writing this type of music and told his patroness that he wrote it without love and that it would be very loud.
It’s now one of his most famous pieces because it’s played at firework shows in the United States on Independence Day.
12. Piano Concerto No. 1 by P. I. Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor in 1874-1875. It’s regarded as one of his best pieces. It was even used as a substitute for Russia’s national anthem for the Olympics in 2021!
13. Symphony No. 6
Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony was dedicated to his nephew and that’s the last piece he composed. The symphony is nicknamed “Pathétique,” but that name is actually a mistranslation of what the Russian composer called himself: the “Passionate Symphony.”
The symphony itself is a long, emotional work. Tchaikovsky had a private program or story he envisioned for the symphony that he never shared. The movements are all quite different: the first movement is bleak, with a lyrical theme; the second movement is a dance in 5/4. The third movement is a brass-heavy march with a triumphant ending; many audiences are tricked into thinking this is the end, even though there’s one more movement left. The fourth and final movement is Adagio which dies out.
Tchaikovsky’s Personal Life
14. Married once
In 1877, Tchaikovsky married a former student named Antonina Miliukova. The marriage wasn’t well-suited and ended after only a few weeks. Tchaikovsky suffered from deep depression and fled the country.
15. His sexuality
It’s very likely that Tchaikovsky was gay his whole life. Due to censorship, this is a relatively new revelation about the Russian composer, but as more and more of his diaries and letters are researched, it’s increasingly likely that he was gay.
This was a source of discomfort and depression for the composer, as he couldn’t publicly live the way he wanted to.
Due to his sexuality, failed marriage, and other personal factors, Tchaikovsky suffered from depression and lived a turbulent life. His sixth symphony has been analyzed through this lens by many music critics to make sense of it.
Facts and Myths about How Tchaikovsky Died
Tchaikovsky’s death is somewhat of a mystery: although there’s an official cause of death, not all of the pieces add up.
17. It’s believed that he died of cholera
Cholera affected mostly the poor, and since Tchaikovsky was upper class, many believe it’s unlikely he would’ve caught cholera. Plus, composer Rimsky-Korsakov brought up suspicions about the open-casket funeral: those who died from cholera were highly contagious, and a funeral of that kind would’ve been unheard of.
18. Other myths surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death
There are two other popular hypotheses as to why he died: the first is suicide, and the second is murder.
The doctor who attended Tchaikovsky at the end of his life said that the composer poisoned himself, explaining why he died so soon after drinking contaminated water.
Others think there may have been an ulterior motive, and someone else may have poisoned the water that the composer drank…
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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote many beloved pieces of the Romantic era and lived a fascinating life. He made a huge impact in music and was the first famous Russian composer, leading the way for future musicians.