Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky started piano studies at five and soon showed remarkable gifts. At ten he was sent to the School of Jurisprudence at St. Petersburg, where the family lived for some time. At 19 he took a post at the Ministry of Justice, where he remained for four years despite a long journey to western Europe and increasing involvement in music. In 1863 he entered the Conservatory, also undertaking private teaching. Three years later he moved to Moscow with a professorship of harmony at the new conservatory. Little of his music so far had pleased the conservative musical establishment or the more nationalist group, but his First Symphony had a good public reception when heard in Moscow in 1868.

Rather less successful was his first opera, The Voyevoda, given at the Bol'shoy in Moscow in 1869. Tchaikovsky later abandoned it and re-used material from it in his next,  The  Oprichnik.  The  Oprichnik won some success at St. Petersburg in 1874, by when Tchaikovsky had won acclaim with his Second Symphony. During this time  he also composed two string quartets, most of his next opera, Vakula the Smith, and of his First Piano Concerto. Originally intended for Nikolay Rubinstein, the head of the Moscow Conservatory, who had much encouraged Tchaikovsky, it was dedicated to Hans von Bí¼low when Rubinstein rejected it as ill-composed and unplayable. In 1875 came the carefully written Third Symphony and Swan Lake, commissioned by Moscow Opera. In 1876 he was contacted by a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who admired his music and was eager to give him financial security; they corresponded intimately for 14 years but never met.

The period 1878-84, however, represents a creative trough. He resigned from the conservatory and, tortured by his sexuality, could produce no music of real emotional force. He spent some time abroad. But in 1884, he produced his "Manfred" symphony, after Byron. In 1888 the Fifth Symphony, similar in plan to the Fourth, was finished - a note of hysteria in the finale was recognized by Tchaikovsky himself. The next three years saw the composition of two ballets, the finely characterized Sleeping Beauty and the more decorative Nutcracker, and the opera The Queen of Spades, with its ingenious atmospheric use of Rococo music within a work of high emotional tension. Its theatrical qualities ensured its success when given at St. Petersburg in late 1890.

The next year Tchaikovsky visited the USA; in 1892 he heard Mahler conduct Eugene Onegin at Hamburg. In 1893 he worked on his Sixth Symphony, to a plan -- the first movement was to be concerned with activity and passion; the second, love; the third, disappointment; and the finale, death. It is a profoundly pessimistic work, formally unorthodox, with the finale haunted by descending melodic ideas clothed in anguished harmonies. It was performed on 28 October. He died nine days later: traditionally, and officially, of cholera, but it is speculated that he may have commit suicide.