Everyone in the world knows the name of Russia’s most popular composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), yet only few of us know that he used to be a heavy smoker, loved alcohol, used to extinguish fires in Russia, collected plants for herbariums, and had a real passion for travel. Here are a few interesting facts from the life of the greatest Russian composer.

Tchaikovsky began taking piano lessons when he was 5 years old. Along with his love for music, the boy adored poetry: he used to compose poems since early childhood. However, his parents hoped that he would grow up to work in the civil service. At the age of 10, they sent their son to the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, a boarding school in St. Petersburg.

In 1859, Tchaikovsky honored his parents’ wishes by taking up a bureau clerk post with the Ministry of Justice—a post he would hold for four years, during which time he became increasingly fascinated with music, and finally, at the age of 21 (in 1861), he enrolled at the newly founded St. Petersburg Conservatory. While studying, he gave private lessons to other students. Despite being really good at composing music, he demonstrated weaker results in orchestrating and conducting.

Young Peter Tc, 1863haikovsky

On the day of his graduation concert, Tchaikovsky was so nervous that he did not come to the exam, so his composition was performed in his absence. This made the conservatory rector Anton Rubinshtein really angry, he refused to give Tchaikovsky his graduation diploma. Only five years later, the new rector Nikolay Zaremba allowed Tchaikovsky to pick up the diploma from the conservatory.

Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his early separation from his mother for boarding school followed by his mother’s early death, the death of his close friend Nikolai Rubinstein, and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, which was his 13-year association with a wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His homosexuality, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, though some musicologists now downplay its importance.

Discussion of Tchaikovsky’s personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer of his time. In fact, Tchaikovsky lived as a bachelor for most of his life. In 1868 he met Belgian soprano Desire Artot, they felt strong affection for each other and were engaged to be married, but due to Artot’s refusal to give up the stage or settle in Russia, the relationship ended. Tchaikovsky later claimed she was the only woman he ever loved.


In 1877, at the age of 37, he wed a former student, Antonina Miliukova. Very soon, however, both of them realized that they mismatched psychologically and sexually. The marriage was a disaster, they only lived together for a few weeks before Tchaikovsky left. During a nervous breakdown, he unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide, and eventually fled abroad. Some sources say that, due to some reasons, Tchaikovsky never divorced Antonina, so they remained officially married, though lived separately and never met after the separation.


Tchaikovsky could afford to resign from the Moscow Conservatory in 1878, thanks to the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck. She provided him with a monthly allowance until 1890; oddly, their arrangement stipulated that they would never meet. Again, this relationship keeps a mystery, which will probably never be cleared up.


In the 1870s, Tchaikovsky destroyed his previously written opera “Voevoda”, which had successfully debuted in the Bolshoy Theater in 1869. The same thing happened to his “Undina”, an opera written in 1969, Tchaikovsky destroyed and threw it away in 1873. Luckily, the other eight operas which he wrote during his life, survived.

During the terrible summer fires of 1885, Tchaikovsky happened to stay in Klin, where he witnessed a fire that ruined dozens of houses and stores. Some locals stated that they saw the great composer among those who helped extinguish the fire.


There is another interesting fact of Tchaikovsky’s life, which few of us know: the composer was one of the honorable guests invited to the opening of Karnegie Hall in the spring of 1891. Besides New York, he visited and orchestrated the performances of his works in Baltimore and Philadelphia.


Tchaikovsky died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. Some sources claim that he died of a glass of water. In a Moscow restaurant, he was served a glass of unboiled water and became infected with cholera. While the cause of his death was officially declared as cholera, some of his biographers believe that he committed suicide after the humiliation of a sex scandal trial. However, only oral (no written) documentation exists to support this theory. We will probably never know the truth about his death.

Tchaikocsky’s collective body of work constitutes 169 pieces, including symphonies, operas, ballets, concertos, cantatas and songs. Among his most famed late works are the ballets The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and The Nutcracker (1892).


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