Music History

Who was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky?

By Claire Robertson
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s History: Where & when he was born, famous compositions

…And how do you say his name? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (click for pronunciation)  was a composer from Russia who was famous for writing ballets, piano concertos, symphonies, and operas.

Even though he passed away in 1893, Tchaikovsky’s pieces remain popular today for their beauty and depth. His music spills over with deep emotions and elegant melodies. In total, he wrote 7 symphonies, 3 ballets, 3 piano concertos, 11 operas, a violin concerto–and also more than 100 pieces for piano and songs. Tchaikovsky even wrote a piece that includes an actual cannon –The 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky’s music remains beloved around the world for its inspirational qualities and beauty. He composed in a style that music historians call Romanticism, which relates to the literary period of the time (and not romantic relationships like we might think)! His operas, symphonies, ballets and works for piano share heightened emotions and draw from Western Europe’s musical traditions as well as Russian folk melodies. Young dancers and audiences everywhere especially enjoy the music of his ballets, which are performed around the world. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s piece The Nutcracker is now a Christmas classic! To hear why, let’s listen and compare these two pieces from The Nutcracker, the delicate Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the elegant and beautiful Pas De Deux – what do you hear?

Mr. Hoffman also has a special connection to Tchaikovsky’s piano music. As a young pianist, Mr. Hoffman had started to lose interest in the piano. He was ready to give up on playing. Then, he heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no 1 while he was driving in the car, listening to the classical station on the radio, and was inspired to begin again. Isn’t that lucky for all of us?! So, let’s celebrate Tchaikovsky’s birthday by learning more about him and discovering more ways to appreciate his music. 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Childhood and Early Education

When and where was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky born? Tchaikovsky was born on May 7th in 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia. Neither of his parents had musical careers, though his family did enjoy listening to music. His mother was Alessandra Alessier and came from a French family, and his father, Ilya Tchaikovsky, worked as a manager at a metal factory. Ilya’s grandfather was Fyodor Chaika, a Zaporozhian Cossack from central Ukraine who fought in the Battle of Poltava for Russia. After moving to Russia, the name Chaika was changed to Tchaikovsky.  

By age 4, Tchaikovsky was writing his first pieces of music with some help from his siblings. His sister Alexandra wrote the words and he composed the melodies! Seeing his passion for music, his parents arranged for him to start studying piano at age 5. However, higher music education didn’t exist yet in Russia and earning a living working as a composer did not seem like an achievable goal. At only ten years old, Tchaikovsky was sent away to boarding school to prepare for a career in the civil service and a future working for the Russian government. Although he was an excellent student, it was clear that Tchaikovsky was meant to be a musician. During his last years at boarding school, he began studying privately with piano and voice teachers from Germany and Italy. 

After his graduation from the Imperial Academy, Tchaikovsky worked as a clerk at the Ministry of Justice, though he still had hope for his musical dreams. Soon, he had the opportunity to devote himself fully to music when he became a member of the first class at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862. This conservatory was the first music school in Russia–and with European teachers in composition, he began incorporating the sounds of his home into his music. 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Fame and Fortune

Although Tchaikovsky had his first compositions published while he was studying at the conservatory, like many musicians, he needed to supplement his income. He went to Moscow and taught music theory at the brand-new Moscow Conservatory. However, teaching was most definitely not his passion. A shy young man, he found sharing music taxing in other ways, too. His reserved nature also meant that, unlike other composers of his time, he did not concertize or perform on the piano in public. 

A great friend and protector of Tchaikovsky was the wealthy widow Nadezhda Von Meck. She sent money to support his compositions–but under one condition only–they could never meet in person! Nadezhda empowered Tchaikovsky to become the first Russian to compose for a living, supporting him as his successes grew. 

Tchaikovsky achieved a great deal of fame by the 1880’s. He traveled widely, conducting his works in Europe. He even went on a tour of North America and toured cities in the United States. In Europe and the United States, his music was seen as a bridge between Russian folk music and the Western European traditions of symphonic music. 

Through composition and music, Tchaikovsky found self-expression and comfort despite many personal difficulties. While historians infer from letters that Tchaikovsky might have identified as homosexual today, he did try to conform to Russian society’s expectations by forming relationships with women. With one failed engagement to a singer from Belgium and a marriage to a former student that lasted 6 weeks, Tchaikovsky lived out his life unmarried. 

Listening and Reflection Activities for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s compositions

Now that you’ve learned a little more about Tchaikovsky’s music and life, here are some fun pieces of music to listen to while practicing our musical skills. Like Mr Hoffman, we can all be inspired by Tchaikovsky’s commitment to music!

  1. Since May is Tchaikovsky’s birth month, let’s listen to this piece and watch the score– May (White Nights) – from his piano cycle The Seasons. After your first listen, can you identify the form of this piece and the key signature? Does this song remind you of springtime? 
  2. Let’s practice listening and reading an orchestral score! This is Tchaikovsky – The Storm, Op. 76 (Sheet Music) –try and follow along. See if by listening and watching the music you can identify which instruments are playing when! This was the first piece of music he ever had performed by an orchestra while he was a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. 
  3. Listen to the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – 1812 Overture (Full with Cannons) –on low! Take a moment to write down all the dynamic levels you hear in the piece. Poor Tchaikovsky– he hated this piece after he finished it! He wrote that it was too theatrical.
  4. Write your own music in the Romantic Style! Romantic-era music covered topics like nature, storms, and historical events–not just people falling in love! Visit this page to find out ways to start composing. 

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