Peter Iliych Chaikovsky (1840-1893), Russian composer, the foremost of the 19th century. Chaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, in the western Ural area of the country. He studied law in Saint Petersburg and took music classes at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. There his teachers included Russian composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein, from whom Chaikovsky subsequently took advanced instruction in orchestration. In 1866 composer-pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, Anton's brother, obtained for Chaikovsky the post of teacher of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. There the young composer met dramatist Alexander Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, who wrote the libretto for Chaikovsky's first opera, The Voyevoda (1868). From this period also date his operas Undine (1869) and The Oprichnik (1872); the Piano Concerto no. 1 in B-flat Minor (1875); the symphonies no. 1 (called "Winter Dreams," 1868), no. 2 (1873; subsequently revised and titled "Little Russian"), and no. 3 (1875); and the overture Romeo and Juliet (1870; revised in 1870 and 1880). The B-flat piano concerto was dedicated originally to Nikolai Rubinstein, who pronounced it unplayable. Deeply injured, Chaikovsky made extensive alterations in the work and reinscribed it to German pianist Hans Guido von Blow, who rewarded the courtesy by performing the concerto on the occasion of his first concert tour of the United States (1875-1876). Rubinstein later acknowledged the merit of the revised composition and made it a part of his own repertoire. Well known for its dramatic first movement and skillful use of folklike melodies, it subsequently became one of the most frequently played of all piano concertos. In 1876 Chaikovsky became acquainted with Madam Nadejda von Meck, a wealthy widow, whose enthusiasm for the composer's music led her to give him an annual allowance. Fourteen years later, however, Madame von Meck, believing herself financially ruined, abruptly terminated the subsidy. Although Chaikovsky's other sources of income were by then adequate to sustain him, he was wounded by the sudden defection of his patron without apparent cause, and he never forgave her. The period of his connection with Madame von Meck was one of rich productivity for Chaikovsky. To this time belong the operas Eugene Onegin (1878), The Maid of Orleans (1879), Mazeppa (1883), and The Sorceress (1887); the ballets Swan Lake (1876) and The Sleeping Beauty (1889); the Rococo Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1876) and the Violin Concerto in D Major (1878); the orchestral works Marche Slave (1876), Francesca da Rimini (1876), Symphony no. 4 in F Minor (1877), the overture The Year 1812 (1880), Capriccio Italien (1880), Serenade (1880), Manfred symphony (1885), Symphony no. 5 in E Minor (1888), the fantasy overture Hamlet (1885); and numerous songs. Meanwhile, in 1877, Chaikovsky had married Antonina Milyukova, a music student at the Moscow Conservatory who had written to the composer declaring her love for him. The marriage was unhappy from the outset, and the couple soon separated. From 1887 to 1891 Chaikovsky made several highly successful concert tours, conducting his own works before large, enthusiastic audiences in the major cities of Europe and the United States. He composed one of his finest operas, The Queen of Spades, in 1890. Early in 1893 the composer began work on his Symphony no. 6 in B Minor, subsequently titled Pathetique by his brother Modeste. The first performance of the work, given at St. Petersburg on October 28, 1893, under the composer's direction, was indifferently received. Chaikovsky died nine days later.
Many Chaikovsky compositions-among them The Nutcracker (ballet and suite, 1891-1892), the Piano Concerto no. 2 in G Major (1880), the String Quartet no. 3 in E-flat Minor (1876), and the Trio in A Minor for Violin, Cello, and Piano (1882)-have remained popular with concertgoers. His most popular works are characterized by richly melodic passages in which sections suggestive of profound melancholy frequently alternate with dancelike movements derived from folk music. Like his contemporary, Russian composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Chaikovsky was an exceptionally gifted orchestrator; his ballet scores in particular contain many striking effects of orchestral coloration. His symphonic works, popular for their melodic content, are also strong (and often unappreciated) in their abstract thematic development. In his best operas, such as Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, he used highly suggestive melodic passages to depict a dramatic situation concisely and with poignant effect. His ballets, notably Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, have never been surpassed for their melodic intensity and instrumental brilliance. Composed in close collaboration with choreographer Marius Petipa, they represent virtually the first use of serious dramatic music for the dance since the operatic ballet of German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck. Chaikovsky also extended the range of the symphonic poem, and his works in this genre, including Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, are notable for their richly melodic evocation of the moods of the literary works on which they are based.