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The Hands of Music: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky

Born in Votkinsk, Russia on 7 May 1840, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky would be the first Russian composer whose music would make a lasting impression internationally.

From a young age, Tchaikovsky displayed an extraordinary musical talent, already improvising at the piano and composing his first song in 1844 at age 4. He attended the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1865. It was there that he received formal Western-oriented teaching that differentiated him from other composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by Russian composers.

During his time, Tchaikovsky composed many great works.

In 1880, he composed his arguably most famous piece, the 1812 Overture. By 1887, he was conducting his own music and composing other works like the Sixth Symphony, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and ‘Pathetique’ (written in the year of his death). He was renowned for his symphonies and ballets.

However, despite his successes, his life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. He struggled with societal pressures to repress his homosexuality, at one point even marrying his music student which ended in catastrophe, causing him to attempt suicide. Eventually, he fled abroad where he received a monthly allowance from a wealthy widow. Strangely, his arrangement with this widow stipulated that they would never meet.

Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky passed away in 1893 in St. Petersburg at age 53. While his death is generally ascribed to cholera, there are speculations that it was the result of a decision made by a ‘court of honour’ after it was revealed that he had formed a relationship with a male member of the Russian aristocracy. His biographers also theorise other reasons for his death.

Nevertheless, what remains true is his impact on the musical world. Tchaikovsky has left behind a rich legacy and built the foundation of future ballet works. Furthermore, his emotional compositions also helped shape the Romantic period.


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