The Life of Peter Tchaikovsky
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, also spelled Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, was born in Votkinsk, in the city of Vyatka, Russia, May 7, 1840. Second in a family of five sons and one daughter, to whom he was extremely devoted. Once in his early teens when he was in school at St. Petersburg and his mother started to drive to another city, he had to be held back while she got into the carriage, and the moment he was free ran and tried to hold the wheels.
There is an anecdote of Tchaikovsky’s earliest years that gives us a clue to the paradox of his personality. Passionately kissing the map of Russia and then, one regrets to state, spitting on the other countries, he was reminded by his nurse that she herself was French. “Yes,” he said, accepting her criticism with perfect sweetness and affectionate docility, “I covered France with my hand.” The child is father of the man; here we have already Tchaikovsky’s strange two-sidedness: on one hand his intense emotionality in all personal matters, his headstrong impetuosity, leaping first and looking afterwards; on the other his candor and modesty, his intelligent acceptance of criticism, even his carefulness and good workmanship-he had covered France with his hand”! If he had only been able to reconcile that lifelong feud between his over-personal heart and his magnanimous mind, he would have been saved endless suffering. But he was not: in his music his self-criticism, as on of his best biographers, Edwin Evans, has remarked, “came after and not during composition”-he destroyed score after score. And in daily life he never learned to apply the advice of a wit tot he victim of a temperament like his: “less remorse and more reform.”
As a youth he reluctantly studied law, as much bore by it as Schumann had been, and even became a petty clerk in the Ministry of Justice. But in his early twenties he rebelled, and against his family’s wishes had the courage to throw himself into the study of music at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. He was a ready improviser, playing well for dancing and had a naturally rich sense of harmony, but was so little schooled as to be astonished when a cousin told him it was possible to modulate form any key to another. He went frequently to the Italian operas which at that time almost monopolized the Russian stage, and laid t…
… influence of all this sunshine he partially forgot, or put aside, his shyness, and took up the baton again, at first with many qualms, but gradually with so much assurance that in 1888 he made an international conducting tour, appearing in Leipzig, Hamburg, Prague, Paris, and London. Three years later he even ventured to come across the Atlantic and conduct his own works in New York at the ceremonies of the opening Carnegie Hall, as may be read in his letters in amusing details of his triumph and homesickness. And for the summers there were a series of modest but comfortable country houses in Russia where he could compose in peace, from Maidanova, with which he began to Klin, near Moscow. Only at the end of 1890, three years before his death, came the inevitable rupture with Madame von Meck, and by that time he was financially independent, so the break affected his spirits more than his music. In 1893 he wrote at Klin his most famous work, the “Pathetic” Symphony, and conducted it at St. Petersburg on Oct. 28. It was coolly received, and he did not live to witness its success. Only a few days later he drank a glass of unfiltered water, and died of cholera, Nov. 6, 1893.