Who is Tchaikovsky?

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840. A bright child, Tchaikovsky could read Russian, French, and German by the time he was six years old. He loved music so much that it made his governess worry. If he couldn’t find a piano to try out the music he made up, he would tap out his tunes on the windowpanes. One time, while he was doing this, he tapped so hard that he broke the window glass, cutting himself badly.

Tchaikovsky began taking piano lessons when he was six years old. After attending boarding school, he studied law and mathematics and got a job as a clerk working in the Ministry of Justice. But after four years, he quit to go to music school full-time and study composition. He was soon invited to teach classes.

SF Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

All his life, Tchaikovsky was a nervous, unhappy man, yet his beautiful music made him one of the most popular of all the Russian composers. He wrote the music for the three most famous ballets of all time: Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty. During his lifetime he also wrote nine operas, six symphonies, four concertos, three string quartets, and numerous songs, suites, and overtures.

SF Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake // © Erik Tomasson

The famous score for Nutcracker was composed over a period of about four to five months in 1891 and was orchestrated from January to March of the following year. Busy traveling at this time, Tchaikovsky ended up composing bits and pieces of the ballet while on his journey. He was a fan of the Nutcracker story originally penned by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but not as enthusiastic about the Candyland setting of the ballet that Marius Petipa choreographed, which, he felt, made it hard for him to compose around. While working on the score, he also received the sad news of his sister’s passing. Still, Tchaikovsky worked through any setbacks and the final Nutcracker score is a masterpiece that continues to be appreciated by audiences today, just as enthusiastically as when it was first introduced.

Tchaikovsky was only 53 when he died in St. Petersburg in 1893. He had just completed his sixth symphony, which he felt was the best piece of music he ever created.