10 Things You Didn't Know About Tchaikovsky

Sculpture of Tchaikovsky in Klin
Sculpture of Tchaikovsky in Klin | © Wikimedia Commons
Anastasiia Ilina

Tchaikovsky’s name makes the top of any list of famous composers. His music, ballets and operas are staples of any respectable theatre. Although his name is well known, his life path and his death remain mysterious. His music career was not always successful, nor was his personal life happy. Read on to find out more.

He was a lawyer by trade

Tchaikovsky’s parents dreamed that their son would pursue the career of a lawyer, and so he did. For nine years, the young Tchaikovsky studied at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, graduating as a titular counsellor at the age of 19. He worked for the government for several years but soon became disappointed with his choice of career and returned to his true passion – music. Only six years later did he complete his musical education at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music.

Tchaikovsky’s Class at the College of Jurisprudence

He was likely a homosexual

Despite there being no documented evidence of Tchaikovsky’s relations with other men, rumours about his unusual sexual behaviour reached even the emperor of Russia. The most concrete evidence are Tchaikovsky’s letters to his brother, who was also likely a homosexual, discussing his passions with him. Tchaikovsky married at the age of 37; however, the marriage lasted only two-and-a-half months.

His music was not always successful

Although Tchaikovsky’s genius is now well recognised all over the world, he was not always successful in his musical career. In the beginning, his teachers thought he had no particular talent for music. Further down the line, the renowned ballet Swan Lake was not met well after the première. Critics were dissatisfied both with the music and the choreography. It only gained recognition after the death of the composer, becoming one of the world’s most popular ballets.

A scene from the ballet Swan Lake

He worked as a journalist

It is no secret that Tchaikovsky often had a need for money. Especially at the start of his career, when he gave up his government job to study music. To help make ends meet, Tchaikovsky worked as a journalist, publishing under a pseudonym. Among the publications he had worked for were Russkie Vedomosti and Sovremennaya Letopis. After his death, his articles on music were published as a compilation.

He skipped his final exam

When the end of his studies at the St Petersburg Conservatory neared, Tchaikovsky bailed on his final exam. The exam consisted of a performance of a piece of music that he composed, but the composer just didn’t show up. The director of the Conservatory was very angry and decided not to allow Tchaikovsky to graduate. Luckily, for the young composer, the director was replaced five years later and only then Tchaikovsky was granted his diploma.

The St Petersburg Conservatory

He participated in the opening of Carnegie Hall

Pyotr Tchaikovsky was invited to the opening of Carnegie Hall in New York. In May of 1981, he travelled to the U.S. to conduct the New York Symphony orchestra at the opening ceremony. The orchestra performed a march written for the coronation of Russian Emperor Alexander III. Tchaikovsky also participated in other concerts in the States in Baltimore and in Philadelphia.

He destroyed two operas

Over the course of his career, Tchaikovsky composed 10 operas, but only eight of them survived into the modern the day. The remaining two were destroyed. One of them was the opera The Voyevoda, which was staged in 1868 but destroyed by the composer two years later whilst recycling some of the music. The second opera, Undina, was even less lucky. It was never performed in its entirety since Tchaikovsky preserved only a few parts when destroying it.

Portrait of Tchaikovsky by N. Kuznetsov

He was planning to write an opera with Chekhov

Anton Chekhov was a Russian master of the short story but also a friend of Tchaikovsky. He even had a collection of short stories dedicated to the composer. It was found in the writer’s letters that Tchaikovsky and Chekhov planned to write a libretto together. Despite the good intentions, the idea never came to fruition because Chekhov moved to a different part of Russia; Tchaikovsky died four years later.

He died from drinking water

The composer’s death was an unfortunate accident. On the evening of the 20th October, 1983, Tchaikovsky visited a restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt. While he was there, he ordered a glass of water which was just out of the tap and not boiled. The next day, he suddenly felt ill, despite being in good health in the days before. A doctor was called, and the diagnosis was cholera. A few days later, on the 25th October, Tchaikovsky died in his apartment on Malay Morskaya street.

Tchaikovsky’s Tombstone in Saint Petersburg

His cholera might have been fake

Some historians still argue that cholera was an unlikely cause of the composer’s death. Firstly St Petersburg was going through an epidemic of cholera and serving unboiled water during an outbreak would have been very risky. Also, Tchaikovsky was suffering from constant indigestion; he was very particular about his diet and wouldn’t have let such a mistake slip. Cholera is a highly contagious disease, so it was odd that his funeral was open casket. All the above leads people to suspect that he ended his life by committing suicide after his alleged sexual relations with men surfaced.

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