Peter (or Pyotr) Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a composer whose music has made an indellible impression on the world, yet many things seemed to be stacked against him. His mother died from Cholera when Tchaikovsky was only 14 years old and this great loss affected the boy deeply. As a boy and also in later life, he suffered from various neuroses and experienced periods of deep depression. Although he learned the piano as a boy, Tchaikovsky was initially to study law and his first profession was as a clerk performing administrative functions. It was only at the age of 23 that he made a career change and decided to study composition at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory. His success there led to a post at the (also new) Moscow Conservatory with Nicholas Rubenstein (the brother of Anton Rubenstein who had established the St. Petersburg Conservatory). Although Tchaikovsky's music is now universally admired across the world, he wasn't always to receive a warm reception in his native Russia and a poor critical reception to his works understandably contributed to his periods of depression. For example, his first Piano Concerto which is now instantly recognisable and a firm favourite with concert goers was initially dedicated to Nicholas Rubenstein. He didn't like the work and Tchaikovsky felt devastated. The dedication was changed but years later Rubenstein changed his mind and was to play the work regularly.
The image that history has left us of Tchaikovsky is of a solitary figure who often worked in isolation. When in later life he accepted invitations to conduct, he felt homesick and longed to return home. For a while Tchaikovsky struck up a curious relationship with a woman called Nadezhda van Meck who became his benefactor, and her regular funding and letters of encouragement allowed him to compose without the constant worry of earning a living and he resigned from the Moscow Conservatory to concentrate on composition. The relationship was curious because the two never met. Undoubtedly a major contributor to the composer's bouts of depression was his homosexuality. This is not surprising since at that time in Russia, the state considered certain acts to be crimes carrying the death penalty! At one stage Tchaikovsky married a female admirer, perhaps to conceal his true nature, but the marriage was a disaster. It broke up within a short period of time, and Tchaikovsky suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide. It is not surprising that some of Tchaikovsky's music is full of sadness and despair. What is surprising perhaps is that much of his music is bright and happy.
Tchaikovsky was never a total recluse. He met many other composers and musicians of the day. In his native Russia he certainly knew several members of the Russian Nationalist School and for a while was inspired by their musical thinking. The core of this group consisted of five composers often referred to as the "kuchka" or "mighty handful" - Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin and Cesar Cui. These composers sought to compose and promote music which emphasised its Russian origins using folk music and other traditions, and largely shunning the music being composed in other parts of the world. Tchaikovsky's music might seem very Russian to modern ears, but his fellow countrymen detected traces of European influence. It is true that his music has a broader appeal, characterised by beautiful melodies, inventive orchestration, and a "heart on sleeve" emotional warmth and engagement. Indeed his music was more popular abroad than in his native country, and perhaps this was the cause of some initial resentment back home.
In time Tchaikovsky's music became more accepted in Russia. When his former benefactor stopped his allowance after 13 years, he was soon the beneficiary of funding from the Russian government. He even overcame his previous reluctance both to travel and to conduct. He travelled abroad to conduct his own music in European cities and in the US to great success. However his life was to end in tragedy. The official story is that he contacted Cholera (the same disease which had struck his mother years before) by carelessly drinking a glass of unboiled water, though a later story suggested that he committed suicide. Shortly before he died, Tchaikovsky had completed his 6th Symphony. The premier was not a great critical success, but the piece's mood of deepest despair seems prophetic.
Tchaikovsky has left us a wealth of great music including Symphonies and Concertos, some Operas and many shorter works. He is particularly remembered for his story-telling music, including the "Romeo and Juliet" overture and the evocative free-flowing ballet music for "Swan Lake", "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty". Among the many familiar pieces from The Nutcracker is the Sugar Plum Fairy and you can download the Sheet Music or Midi File of this work. Alternatively for pianists we have this Piano arrangement of the Sugar Plum Fairy. We also have sheet music for some shorter piano pieces by Tchaikocsky, and you will find these below:
Tchaikovsky also wrote a large number of shorter works for the piano, and here are two examples which can both be played by piano students with a few year's experience:
Here are some CD recordings which will introduce you to key music by Tchaikovsky.