A Brief Chronology (ii) 1877-1893

Now events move much more quickly, so it will be necessary to be very precise about dates.  1877 is often said to be his year of crisis where two women enter his life…

1877  He begins work on the Fourth Symphony in F minor, after a successful premier of Francesca da Rimini.  The Slavonic March (also known as Marche Slave) also receives an overwhelming ovation.

7 April  He receives his first letter from Antonina Milyukova, a former student of his at the Comservatory (whom Tchaikovsky cannot remember), expressing her love for him.

May  He begins to write what will become his most famous opera, Yevgeny Onegin (often spelled as Eugene Onegin.)

1 June  He meets Antonina for the first time.

4 June  Without telling his closest friends, he proposes marriage to Antonina.  He informs his brother Modest and his close friends of the news as a fait accompli.

18 July  He marries Antonina in Moscow.


July The ‘happy couple’ spend their honeymoon in St Petersburg.

July 26  They return to live in Moscow but Tchaikovsky attempts suicide.

August  Tchaikovsky visits his sister’s family in Kamenka without his new wife.  He returns in September.

October  He leaves Antonina and is taken off to Europe to recover by his brother Anatoly.

He is granted a leave of absence by the Conservatory and starts to receive a monthly allowance from Nadezhda von Meck, a rich widow to whom he has been writing ever more intimately.  The money gives him some stability but is only given on the condition that the two never meet.


December  The Rococo Variations receives its premier in Moscow by the cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen, under the baton of Nicholay Rubinstein.

1878  In January, he retreats to San Remo to finish the Fourth Symphony and Yevgeny Onegin.

March-April sees him in Clarens with Iosef Kotek to write the Violin Concerto.

September  He returns to Moscow to resume his teaching duties but is forced to resign two months later because of ill health.

December  He goes to Florence, Italy, to begin work on a new opera, The Maid of Orleans.

1879  In March he returns to Moscow for the triumphant opening night of Yevgeny Onegin.

During the summer he takes a break from composition but starts his Second Piano Concerto in October.  December sees the premier of his First Suite and another revision of his Second Symphony.

1880  He composes the Serenade for Strings largely at Kamenka and von Meck’s estate at Brailov.  In complete contrast to the delicate and lovely serenade, he also writes his now infamous 1812 Overture.  In December he attends the first performance of his Capriccio Italien.

1881  In February, the final version of the Second Symphony in St Petersburg, followed by the premier of The Maid of Orleans.  He learns of the death of Nicholay Rubinstein in Paris, and travels there for the funeral.

In December the Violin Concerto finally wins its first performance in Vienna by his friend the concerto’s dedicate, Adolph Brodsky.  The critic Hanslick delivers a devastating review.

In honour of Nicholay Rubinstien, Tchaikovsky begins to sketch the Piano Trio.  He is offered the now vacant post of Head of the Moscow Conservatory (such was his esteem by this time in Russia) but Tchaikovsky turns the offer down.

1882  In June the Second Piano Concerto is premiered in Moscow by his great friend and fellow composer, Sergey Taneyev.

In September and back at Kamenka, he completes a new opera, Mazepa.  In August the 1812 Overture receives its first extended ovation and in October the Piano Trio is premièred.


1883  Between January and May, Tchaikovsky takes care of his niece, Tatyana, in Paris.  She has become pregnant illegitimately.  He is able to work on the final revision of his First Symphony, of which he continues to be very fond:  “A sin of my sweet youth!”  A performance of this early work is a great success.

In Kamenka during the summer months, he works on his Second Suite.

1884  February sees the premier of Mazepa.  While in Paris, he receives a summons to see the Tzar and to receive a prize from him.  Tchaikovsky sees this the as final word on his acceptance back to Russian society after the scandal of his marriage.  He is awarded the Order of St Vladimir.

In April he begins work on the Third Suite, keeping a fascinating diary of his daily work and social life.

Yevgeny Onegin is revived in St Petersburg with enormous public and critical success.


1885  In January, Tchaikovsky is overwhelmed by the public response to the Third Suite.  In March comes the premier of the Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra on which he had worked virtually in tandem with the Third Suite.  

In February/March he is busy revising the opera in which he has so much faith, Vakula the Smith, now reborn as Cherevikchki.

Between April and September he composes the Manfred Symphony, another piece, like Romeo and Juliet, suggested by Balakirev.

Still keen to work, he starts another new opera, The Enchantress.  

1886  Manfred  is premiered in Moscow.

In Paris he meets, and is delighted by, Gabrile Faure.

The summer is spent with his brother Anatole in Tiflis.  In August the sketches for The Enchantress are completed.

1887  Tchaikovsky finally overcomes his stage fright to conduct the first performance of Cherevichki.  This will start his career as a composer/conductor.

He completes the opera The Enchantress and conducts the premier in November.  By the end of the year he has completed and conducted his Fourth Suite in premiers both in St Peterburg and Moscow and is now ready to embark on his first tour as a conductor.

1888  His tour begins in Leipzig where he is delighted to meet Greig and also meets Brahms.  In Prague he enjoys the company of Dvorak, whom he invites to conduct in Russia.

Buoyed by the success of the tour and seeing how well known he is Europe, he returns to Russia and in May, begins to write the Fifth Symphony.  

He conducts in Britain for the first time at St James Hall.

In October he begins to sketch The Sleeping Beauty and returns to Prague in December to conduct Yevgeny Onegin.

Tchaikovsky again takes his increasingly confident baton to give the first performance of the Fifth Symphony in Moscow.

1889  In February he embarks on another European tour, becoming a great ambassador for Russian music wherever he goes.  He receives another boost to his finances when the Tzar settles a generous annuity on him.

In August he completes the score of The Sleeping Beauty.

In September he conducts another revival of Yevegny Onegin in Moscow with riotous success.

1890  In January, The Sleeping Beauty is premiered in St Petersburg.

T hands in pockets ca 1885

He starts to sketch a new opera, The Queen of Spades, which he will conduct with great success before the end of the year.

Nadezhda von Meck, after 13 years of continuous and intimate contact with the composer, suddenly withdraws her allowance and says that, although she loves him dearly, would write to him no more.  Tchaikovsky can live without the money but, despite his entreaties to her, he will never hear from her again.

In September he visits his brother, Anatoly, who now works permanently in Tiflis. Tchaikovsky is fond of his brother and his wife and he gives a concert of his own music there.

1891  In February, Tchaikovsky starts work on his last ballet, The Nutcracker,  a world away from his other two, being only two acts; the second set in the kingdom of sweets.

A concert in Paris is a success but while he waits there to set off on his first trip to the USA, he learns from  a Russian language paper that his sister, Sasha, is dead.  He contacts Modest immediately, who already knew but didn’t want to scupper Tchaikovsky’s tour.  He is devastated but, having already spent a large part of the advance, decided to see it through.

He is on conducting duties for the opening night of Carnegie Hall but also gives concerts in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.  He is amazed by how well known he is over there and how often his pieces are performed.  “I’m better known here than in Russia,” he teases Modest.  “I’m a celebrity here!”  The press and the public are unanimous in their praise but many are surprised by his elegant manners and conservative attire.  “He looks like a Wall Street banker” wrote one.  And all of them guessed his age wrong;  “A man of about 60,” said one critic.  He was 52.

Back to Russia by June and starts to work on the companion piece for The Nutcracker, a similarly short opera called Iolanta.

In November comes the Moscow opening of The Queen of Spades, like Yevgeny Onegin, based on a story by Pushkin.

After conducting the premier of another orchestral ballad, The Voyevoda, he tries to destroy the score.

1892  January brings an early success with an all Tchaikovsky concert in Warsaw.  In Hamburg, he is impressed by a performance of Yevegny Onegin, conducted by Gustav Mahler.  Mahler described him as an elderly man, but very nice.

With work now completed on the Nutcracker, he compiles a suite of dances which Tchaikovsky himself premiers in St Petersburg in March.  Almost all the dances are encored.

In May, he settles into his last (and only real) home at Klin, about sixty miles north of Moscow.  Here he develops a meticulous attention to habits, like walking for exactly one hour every day.  He routinely walks much more and falls in love with the area.

There he begins sketching a Symphony in E flat major, which will never see the light of day in that form.

In December, Iolante and The Nutcracker are presented as a double bill.

He ends the year with a warm but unsentimental trip to see his old governess, Fanny Durbach. He promises to return. He never will.

1893  The year starts again with an all Tchaikovsky concert in Brussels.  He has his portrait painted by Nicholay Kuznyetsov.


In February, he starts to work on his final symphony, the Sixth Symphony in B minor.

June 1  He conducts the 4th Symphony in London.  Struggling with his English and trying to exhort the players to be less staid, he shouts, “More vodka!  More vodka!” at them.

June 12  He conducts Francesca da Rimini in Cambridge.

June 13  He receives an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University.  Among his fellows are the composer Saint Saëns, whom he is pleased to see again, but Grieg is too ill to attend.


July 30  sees him back at Klin, trying to work the now abandoned E flat symphony into a third piano concerto.

After travelling to Hamburg to see a production of Iolante, he returns to St Petersburg to stay with his brother Modest.

October 28  He conducts the first performance of the Sixth Symphony (Pathetique)  which is warmly but not overwhelmingly received.

November 1  Tchaikovsky dines out with friends at Leiners Restaurant.

The events of the next few days are hotly disputed,  Modest recalls that at breakfast the next morning Tchaikovsky drinks a glass of unboiled water during an epidemic of cholera.  Yuri Davidov, present at Leiners the night before, insists that the glass of unboiled water was drunk there.

November 6 (5?)  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky dies, apparently from cholera.  His death certificate will confirm that he died of renal failure, brought on by cholera.

November 9  Tchaikovsky’s funeral takes place at Kazan catherdral St, Petersburg.  There is room for 6000 people;  60,000 apply for seats.


Thousands more turn out and line the streets.

A few days later, Eduard Napravnik. a close friend of Tchaikovsky’s, is seen to weep as he gives the Moscow premier of the last symphony.


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