Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky ( /ˈpiːtər ˈɪlɨtʃ tʃaɪˈkɒfski/); (Russian: Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский;[a 1] tr. Pyotr Ilyich Chaykovsky) (May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893[a 2]) was a Russian composer whose works included symphonies, concertos, operas, ballets, and chamber music. Some of these are among the most popular concert and theatrical music in the classicalrepertoire. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, which he bolstered with appearances as a guest conductor later in his career in Europe and the United States. One of these appearances was at the inaugural concert of Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1891. Tchaikovsky was honored in 1884 by Tsar Alexander III, and awarded a lifetime pension in the late 1880s.
Although musically precocious, Tchaikovsky was educated for a career as a civil servant. There was scant opportunity for a musical career in Russia at that time, and no system of public music education. When an opportunity for such an education arose, he entered the nascent Saint Petersburg Conservatory, from where he graduated in 1865. The formal Western-oriented teaching he received there set him apart from composers of the contemporary nationalist movement embodied by the Russian composers of The Five, with whom his professional relationship was mixed. Tchaikovsky’s training set him on a path to reconcile what he had learned with the native musical practices to which he had been exposed from childhood. From this reconciliation, he forged a personal, independent but unmistakably Russian style—a task that did not prove easy. The principles that governed melody, harmony and other fundamentals of Russian music ran completely counter to those that governed Western European music; this seemed to defeat the potential for using Russian music in large-scale Western composition or from forming a composite style. Russian culture exhibited a split personality, with its native and adopted elements having drifted apart increasingly since the time of Peter the Great, and this resulted in uncertainty among the intelligentsia of the country’s national identity. The principles of Russian nationalist artists were fundamentally at odds with those supporting European traditions, and this caused personal antipathies that dented Tchaikovsky’s self-confidence.
Despite his many popular successes, Tchaikovsky’s life was punctuated by personal crises and depression. Contributory factors included his leaving his mother for boarding school, his mother’s early death and the collapse of the one enduring relationship of his adult life, his 13-year association with the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck. His same-sex orientation, which he kept private, has traditionally also been considered a major factor, but musicologists now play down its importance. His sudden death at the age of 53 is generally ascribed tocholera, although suicide has been suggested as a possibility.
While his music has remained popular among audiences, critical opinions were initially mixed. Some Russians did not feel it sufficiently representative of native musical values and were suspicious that Europeans accepted it for its Western elements. In apparent reinforcement of the latter claim, some Europeans lauded Tchaikovsky for offering music more substantive than base exoticism, and thus transcending stereotypes of Russian classical music. Tchaikovsky’s music was dismissed as “lacking in elevated thought,” according to longtime New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and its formal workings were derided as deficient for not following Western principles stringently. Vestiges of this last claim still remain in some critical circles, but by the end of the 20th century, Tchaikovsky’s status as a significant composer had become secure, with increasing numbers responding positively to its tunefulness and innovation.