Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk in the Vyatka province of Russia on 7 May 1840, Tchaikovsky’s father was a mining engineer, his mother of French extraction. He began to study the piano at five, benefiting also from the musical instruction of his elder brother’s French governess. In 1848 the family moved to the imperial capital, St Petersburg, where Pyotr was enrolled at the School of Jurisprudence. He overcame his grief at his mother’s death in 1854 by composing and performing, although music was to remain a diversion from his job – as a clerk at the Ministry of Justice – until he enrolled as a full-time student at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1863. His First Symphony was warmly received at its St Petersburg premiere in 1868 and he completed an opera on a melodrama by Ostrovsky, which he later destroyed. Swan Lake
, the first of Tchaikovsky’s three great ballet scores, was written in 1876 for Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Between 1869 and the year of his death Tchaikovsky composed over 100 songs, cast mainly in the impassioned Romance style and textually preoccupied with the frustration and despair associated with love – conditions that characterised his personal relationships.
Tchaikovsky’s hasty decision to marry an almost unknown admirer in 1877 proved a disaster, his homosexuality combining strongly with his sense of entrapment. By now he had completed his Fourth Symphony, was about to finish his opera Eugene Onegin, and had attracted the considerable financial and moral support of Nadezhda von Meck, an affluent widow. She helped him through his personal crisis and in 1878 he returned to composition with the Violin Concerto, although his work remained inhibited until the completion in 1885 of the Byron-inspired Manfred Symphony. Tchaikovsky claimed that his Sixth Symphony represented his best work; the mood of crushing despair heard in all but the work’s third movement reflected the composer’s troubled state of mind. He committed suicide nine days after its premiere on 6 November 1893.
from notes by Andrew Stewart © 2011