Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the great composers of the Romantic era. Born in Russia in 1840, he died 53 years later. He wrote six symphonies, a handful of operas and three ballets, the latter of which, "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty" are his most famous works. He also wrote "Peter and the Wolf," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The 1812 Overture." Tchaikovsky's music is melodic enough to catch and keep the attention of children. When they're old enough to want to learn more, his biography is full of interesting facts, too.
Tchaikovsky started taking piano lessons as a young child, but nobody noted any special talent or proficiency with his music at that time. Instead, he studied to become a civil servant. Denied a promotion, he entered the music conservatory in St. Petersburg at age 22 and began his serious musical studies. He graduated and accepted a post teaching at the music conservatory in Moscow, where his career as a professional composer truly began.
The score for Tchaikovsky's second ballet, "Sleeping Beauty," was written in 1889 and premiered in 1890 in St. Petersburg, Russia. It has since become one of the most famous pieces in the standard ballet repertoire. Tchaikovsky managed to write the longest ballet score of his career in a little mover a month.
In 1877, he married Antonina Ivanovna Milyukova despite professing to her during his proposal that he did not love her. They had met at the music conservatory in Moscow, where Milyukova had studied for a time and Tchaikovsky taught. They lived together for only six weeks before the composer's friends, fearing for his mental health, arranged a permanent separation. The pair never formally divorced, however.
The "1812 Overture," written in 1880, commemorates the Russian victory against the invading armies of Napoleon. The original score was set to be performed outdoors at the dedication of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and calls for 16 genuine cannon shots, although most performances substitute recorded cannon shots or sometimes a bass drum or similar substitution -- on the Fourth of July, fireworks often serve the role. The score also calls for a carillon of church bells, also often substituted for with tubular bells or recordings.
As evidenced by the "1812 Overture," Tchaikovsky liked experimenting with new instrumentation for his compositions. In the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," he uses the celesta, an instrument that resembles a small upright piano in looks and produces a distinctive tinkling sound. The celesta was invented in 1886 and Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to write music for it.
For many years, Tchaikovsky was supported monetarily with a monthly stipend by a patron named Nadezhda von Meck. Von Meck was a wealthy widow who supported other artists as well, but none more fervently than Tchaikovsky. They carried on an intense correspondence for 14 years but von Meck insisted that they never meet in person. Instead, he dedicated his "Fourth Symphony" to her.
At the end of October, 1893, Tchaikovsky debuted his "Sixth Symphony," the "Pathetique," in St. Petersburg, personally conducting the orchestra himself. It was his last public appearance -- nine days later he would be dead, most likely of cholera, an infection usually contracted from drinking tainted water. His mother also died of cholera. However, rumors still fly that he committed suicide, although there appears to be little hard evidence to support -- or refute -- this theory.
- Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images