A brief and selected chronology of the major events in the life of Tchaikovsky from 1840-76
Six year old Pyotr Ilyich is seen on the far left of this photo.
1840 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is born to Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, a prosperous mining engineer, and his second wife, of French extraction, Alexandra Andreyevna (nee Assier) in Votkinsk, some 800 miles east of St. Petersburg (then the country’s capital). He has an older brother, Nicholay, born 1838, and a half sister, Zinaida, from his father’s first marriage, born in 1829.
1842 Birth of his sister Alexandra, known by the whole family as Sasha.
1843 Birth of his second brother, Ippolit.
1844 While their mother is away, Pyotr and Alexandra compose a short song, Our Mama In St Petersburg. The Tchaikovsky family welcome a new governess, Fanny Durbach, who later recalled how warmly and simply she was greeted. Although appointed to teach his brother and his cousin Lydia, young Pyotr, because of his gentle disposition and extreme sensitivity, soon becomes a favourite. She calls him, “a child of glass.”
1845 Begins piano lessons with Mariya Palchikova but her young student soon exceeds her own capabilities.
1848 Because of work, Ilya Petrovich has to take the family to St Petersburg. Fanny Durbach leaves the family, to young Tchaikovsky’s great distress, but Pyotr (known as Petya) continues to write to her and will visit her forty years later.
1849 The Tchaikovsky family are uprooted again when Ilya is appointed as a manager of a metallurgical plant in Alapeyevsk. Tchaikovsky falls ill, probably as a result of his separation from his mother in particular.
1850 Twin brothers Anatoly and Modest are born. Tchaikovsky is destined to be closer to Modest than any other of his brothers; at least in part because of their shared homosexuality.
In September, Tchaikovsky is enrolled as a boarder in the prestigious Imperial School of Jurisprudence. There are dramatic and pathetic scenes as his mother is driven away; Tchaikovsky desperately tries to stop her by holding on to the wheels of the departing carriage.
1852 His family move back to St Petersburg to be closer to him.
1854 Tchaikovsky’s mother dies from cholera in June. He is heartbroken and will remember the date in his diary and in letters to his family for the rest of his life.
Tchaikovsky’s first notated composition, a waltz for piano, is written.
1855 Tchaikovsky takes his first serious piano lessons with Rudolph Kundinger. To his great credit, Kundinger was later to confess that although he thought the young Tchaikovsky to be a gifted student and an excellent sight reader, there were no signs then of the extraordinary talent which was later to make him world famous.
1856 Under the influence of his singing teacher, Luigi Piccioli, Tchaikovsky begins to attend the opera regularly. Rossini was an early favourite but he was soon replaced by Mozart after a performance of Don Giovanni. Tchaikovsky’s love of Mozart was to last all his life, even calling him “The Christ of music!”
Encouraged by Piccioli, Tchaikovsky wrote his first published composition; a song called Mezza Notte.
1858 Tchaikovsky makes his first attempt to conduct the school choir. It does not go well. See what happens later when he first takes command of a full orchestra!
1859 He graduates from the school with an unremarkable grade and begins to earn his living for the first time.
1860 Sister Sasha marries Lev Davidov and she settles into life on his estate in Kamenka in the Ukraine. Tchaikovsky was to write or draft many of his pieces there, in the warmth of the family, but with the isolation the family knew he needed.
By this time, Tchaikovsky is spending all his money on clothes – he was quite the man about town – and tickets to the theatre, concerts and the opera. He was active sexually and one of his lifelong friends, the poet Alexey Apukhtin, was also a sexual partner.
1861 More than happy to get out of town and escape some of the scandal, he acts as a travelling companion and translator to a friend of his father’s. This is his first trip outside Russia and they visit Germany, Belgium, France and England.
Back in Russia by the Autumn, Tchaikovsky enrols in Nicolay Zaremba’s harmony classes at the Russian Musical Society, Russia’s first music school, founded just two years before by Anton Rubinstein and Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna. He works very hard, often late into the night, and produces far more work than is required.
1862 He enrols as a student in the new St Petersburg Conservatory of Music.
1863 In May he finally resigns his job to become a full time student, working with Zaremba and Rubinstein. To boost his income he begins to teach piano.
1864 He spends the summer at a conspicuously wealthy friend’s house and writes his first orchestral piece; The Storm, after the play by Ostrovsky. He meets the composer Serov, whose opera Judith had much impressed him the year before.
1865 Ilya Tchaikovsky remarries. The family, sceptical at first because of the age difference, grow to accept her and are glad to see their father happy.
The first public performance of any of his works, Characteristic Dances, is given by Johann Strauss II, no less. He is now composing constantly and in November he reluctantly conducts the first performance of his Overture in F. He will become a very competent conductor later in life – but not quite yet.
1866 He leaves St Peterburg to become a Professor of Harmony at the newly formed branch of the RMS. By September, this has become Russia’s second music school and becomes the Moscow Conservatory, with Nicolay Rubinstein (Anton’s brother) as its Head. He hears a performance of his revised Overture in F.
During the summer he works extensively on his Symphony No. 1 in G minor, but the strain of its composition costs him dearly. He suffers a nervous collapse and from nightmares that he would die before finishing the piece.
1867 Tchaikovsky conducts a performance of his Characteristic Dances. He amuses the musicians; falling over music stands and completely forgetting his own music. He believes his head might fall off unless he holds on to his beard! This leads to a long absence from the conductor’s podium.
Begins to compose his first opera (of ten completed), The Voyevoda, while on holiday in Hapsal, Finland with his sister’s family. Scherzo a la Russe becomes his Op. 1, No. 1 and the Souvenir de Hapsal is his Op. 2.
Vera Davidov, Lev’s sister, develops a crush on Tchaikovsky.
1868 His First Symphony is performed and is an immediate success. He continues to work on the opera. He is very attracted to Belgian opera singer Desiree Artot and the attraction seems mutual, at least for a time.
He meets Balakirev who for a time will have a significant role in Tchaikovsky’s music.
His summer is spent travelling in Europe with his friend, Vladimir Shilovsky who will, once again, remain a loyal and lifelong friend.
Begins work as a music critic as a way of raising funds.
1869 Despite there having been tentative talk of marriage (if only to silence the rumours of Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation) he learns that Desiree Artot marries an Spanish baritone.
Under Balakirev’s close supervision, he composes the first version of Romeo and Juliet, although it will receive two more revisions before it becomes the piece we know today.
Six Romances, his first set of songs, is published as his Op. 6.
He begins a new opera, Undine, while his first full opera, The Voyevoda is staged in February in Moscow.
He meets and falls passionately in love with student Eduard Zak.
1870 Still awaiting news of the fate of Undine, he sets about his third opera, The Oprichnik. He hears that Undine has been rejected by the management of the Imperial Theatres and destroys the score.
Romeo and Juliet is performed but greeted with apathy.
Again, under close supervision, he reworks Romeo and Juliet. He spends the summer is Paris where Shilovsky is ill.
1871 The first all Tchaikovsky concert is planned. Having no money for an orchestra, Tchaikovsky quickly writes his String Quartet No. 1, although there is no sign of haste in the music and it remains a popular work, with the lovely Andante Cantabile often being performed separately, or sometimes with a full string orchestra. Best to stick to the original.
Continues his work on The Oprichnik.
Spends the summer at Kamenka; most probably it was here, playing with the children, that the idea of Swan Lake occurs to him. This most famous of ballets will only be performed once in his lifetime; it is just too complex and score for the ballet orchestra. It will be revived (and completely restaged) by Marius Pepita after the composer’s death.
1872 He finishes work on The Oprichkik and writes the first version of his Second Symphony in C minor, known as the ‘Little Russian’, because of its use of a Ukranian folk melody in the Finale. A performance of Romeo and Juliet meets with more success but Tchaikovsky will still make another revision. He starts work as a music and theatre critic for the Russian Register, again, mainly because his funds were low.
1873 His Second Symphony is premiered in Moscow and is received with much enthusiasm but the first movement is criticised and he will revise it. He composes music for Ostrovsky’s The Snow Maiden and weeks later it is performed, again in Moscow.
He spends the summer at Kamenka, then on to Nizy, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France; his funds lamentably low (as he keeps telling everyone!).
In November, Eduard Zak commits suicide. It is commonly thought that the love theme from Romeo and Juliet was composed with him in mind and Tchaikovsky is heartbroken.
The Tempest is sketched while in Usovo.
1874 He writes his Second String Quartet and there follows an immediate performance in Moscow. Again on a shoe string, he makes a tour of Italy. In April, The Oprichnik is first performed but is not a success and Tchaikovsky tries to destroy the score.
He starts work on a new opera, Vakula the Smith, which he will revise much later and claim this to be his best opera. It is still performed now, usually under the title The Tzarina’s Slippers.
He composes his First Piano Concerto, the now world famous piece and from this his international reputation will begin to grow.
1875 Tchaikovsky plays the sketches of the piano concerto to Nicolay Rubinstein, seeking advice on the virtuoso piano writing. Instead, Rubinstein turns on the piece, calling it “bad and tawdry” and derivative. No longer a student seeking guidance on composition, Tchaikovsky in naturally upset and declares, “I shall not change a single note!” (Although he did, and Rubinstein later changed his mind about the music and became a strong advocate.)
During the summer, he composes (in great haste) his Third Symphony in D major. Also in Kamenka he begins to start work on Swan Lake.
Hans von Bulow gives the world premier of the First Piano Concerto with great success, in Boston, USA.
1876 While in Paris, he sees a production of Carmen by the now prematurely deceased Bizet. It has a profound effect on Tchaikovsky and his music is to be affected by it for the rest of his life.
In March, the premier of his Third String Quartet takes place in Moscow.
In August, in his role as a music critic, he attends Wagner first ever Ring Cycle in Bayreuth. It does not impress him. He meets Liszt.
Alarmed by the rumours of his homosexuality reaching his family in Kamenka, he decides that the best course of action would be to marry.
Throughout October and November he composes his symphonic fantasy, Francesca da Rimini, clearly influenced by Liszt. And, as if that weren’t enough for one year, in December he writes the Rococo Variations for cello and orchestra.