Was his life full of pathos, or only his Sixth (“Pathétique”) Symphony? In reality, everything started out quite “normally”: the son of a steelwork engineer, he studies law and becomes a civil servant. Only after singing in a private choir and later taking piano lessons, during his period of civil service training, is the adolescent “truly” drawn to music. Surprisingly, it is his unmusical father who recognizes his son’s talent and encourages him to study seriously. But things continue undramatically: after composition studies he initially becomes a music theory teacher. But the deep wellspring within him eventually finds its way to the surface.
Tchaikovsky plays a part in the remarkable awakening of Russian culture - as a contemporary of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and also of the “Mighty Five” that included Mussorgsky and Borodin. For them he is too Western, while in Western Europe he is criticized for his Russian wildness (for example in his Fourth Symphony). He was restless, and thus probably also unstable, often travelling throughout Europe while running away from himself and his home country, paying musical homage to Italy with a Capriccio and the Souvenirs de Florence.
The latter, however, is a very melancholy piece, its somber D minor only giving way to brighter spheres in a “wild” Russian Finale. At times he probably also stood in his own way, like when he once canceled a concert in Vienna with the justification that he was certain to be “insulted.” Perhaps it was not that his life was full of pathos, but that he himself had a vulnerable nature, like one of the characters in a Dosteyevsky novel?
© Johannes Leopold Mayer, ORF - Radio Österreich 1


  • Born April 25, 1840 in Votkinsk

  • 1854-63 civil servant at the Ministry of Justice

  • From 1863 lessons in music theory, flute, and - unusually for Russia - organ in St. Petersburg

  • From 1866 teaches at the Moscow Conservatory

  • 1876 physical breakdown due to overwork. Spa treatment in Vichy, France, followed by visit to the first Bayreuth Festival

  • 1877 marries his student Antonina Miliukova - separation a few weeks later

  • Dies on October 25, 1893 in St. Petersburg, of cholera - or perhaps after poisoning himself, under pressure due to his homosexuality?

Did you know?

  • Tchaikovsky’s first publicly performed orchestral work, the Dance of the Hay Girls from his opera The Voyevoda, took place in 1865 in Pavlovsk, St. Petersburg. The conductor was Johann Strauss, Jr.

  • He received artistic and material support from Nadezhda von Meck, with whom he had an active letter correspondence - but they both carefully avoided meeting in person.

  • His Violin Concerto was intended for the famous Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer, who rejected it as unplayable. It was premiered by Vienna-trained Russian violinist Adolph Brodsky in December 1881 at Vienna’s Musikverein, with Hans Richter and the Vienna Philharmonic.

  • Like Tolstoy, he had reservations about Beethoven and Wagner. He found Bach’s fugues “entertaining”, and felt that Verdi, in spite of his great talent, “committed many sins against art.”

  • He corresponded with a friend from Vienna in a very Austrian German, but wrote to his Hamburg acquaintances in French.