Born in Votkinsk, a small town in present-day Udmurtia (at the time the Vyatka Guberniya of Imperial Russia), Tchaikovsky was the son of a government mining engineer and the second of his three wives, Alexandra, a Russian woman of French ancestry. He was the older brother (by some ten years) of the dramatist, librettist, and translator Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Musically precocious, Pyotr began piano lessons at age of five with the local woman, Mariya Palchikova, and within three years could read music as well as his teacher. In 1850, his father was appointed director of the St Petersburg Technological Institute. There, the young Tchaikovsky obtained an education at the School of Jurisprudence. Though music was not considered a high priority on the curriculum, Tchaikovsky was taken with classmates on regular visits to the theater and the opera. He was very taken with the works of Rossini, Bellini, Verdi and Mozart. The only music instruction he received at school was some piano tuition from Franz Becker, a piano manufacturer who made occasional visits as a token music teacher.
Tchaikovsky's mother died of cholera in 1854. The 14-year-old Tchaikovsky took the news hard; for two years, he could not write about his loss. He reacted by turning to music. Within a month of her death, he was making his first serious efforts at composition, a waltz in her memory.
Tchaikovsky's father indulged his interest in music, funding studies with Rudolph Kuendinger, a well-known piano teacher from Germany, beginning in 1855. But when Tchaikovsky's father consulted Kuendinger about prospects for a musical career for his son, Kuendinger wrote that nothing suggested a potential composer or even a fine performer. Tchaikovsky was told to finish his course work and try for a post in the Ministry of Justice.
Tchaikovsky graduated on May 25, 1859 with the rank of titular counselor, the lowest rung of the civil service ladder. On June 15, he was appointed to the Ministry of Justice. Six months later the Ministry made him a junior assistant to his department and a senior assistant two months after that, where he remained.
In 1861, Tchaikovsky learned of music classes being held by the Russian Musical Society (RMS) by accident. According to Tchaikovsky's friend Nikolay Kashkin, Tchaikovsky enjoyed a friendly rivalry with a music-loving cousin, an officer in the Horse Grenadiers. This cousin boasted one day that he could make the transition from one key to any other in no more than three chords. Tchaikovsky took up this challenge and lost, then learned his cousin had learned it from Nikolai Zaremba's RMS class in music theory.
Tchaikovsky promptly began studies with Zaremba. The following year, when Zaremba joined the faculty of the new St Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky followed his teacher and enrolled, but still did not give up his post at the ministry, until his father consented to support him. From 1862 to 1865, Tchaikovsky studied harmony, counterpoint and fugue with Zaremba, instrumentation and composition under the director and founder of the Conservatory, Anton Rubinstein, who was impressed by Tchaikovsky's talent.
After graduating, Tchaikovsky was approached by Anton Rubinstein's younger brother Nikolai to become professor of harmony, composition, and the history of music. Tchaikovsky gladly accepted the position, as his father had retired and lost his property.
As Tchaikovsky studied with Zaremba, the critic Vladimir Stasov and the composer Mily Balakirev formed a nationalistic school of music, recruiting what would be known as The Mighty Handful (better known in English as "The Five") in St. Petersburg. As he became Anton Rubinstein's best known student, Tchaikovsky was associated by The Five with the conservative opposition. However, when Rubinstein exited the St. Petersburg musical scene in 1867, Tchaikovsky entered into a working relationship with Balakirev, resulting in the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet.
Tchaikovsky remained ambivalent about The Five's music and goals, and his relationship with its members was cordial but never close. Tchaikovsky enjoyed close relations with Alexander Glazunov, Anatol Lyadov and, at least on the surface, the elder Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Tchaikovsky's homosexuality, as well as its importance to his life and music, has been known to the West for at least 75 years. Suppressed in Russia by the Soviets, it has only recently become widely known in post-Soviet Russia. Evidence that Tchaikovsky was homosexual is drawn from his letters and diaries, as well as the letters of his brother, Modest, who was also a homosexual. Some historians still consider evidence to this effect scant or non-existent.
More controversial is how comfortable Tchaikovsky might have been with his sexual nature. Poznansky surmises that the composer "eventually came to see his sexual peculiarities as an insurmountable and even natural part of his personality ... without experiencing any serious psychological damage." Richard Taruskin writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, "Professional success brought with it entrée to aristocratic circles where Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was more readily tolerated; this, plus a loving and protective family (including a worshipping younger brother, Modest, who, sharing his sexual orientation, became his literary collaborator and personal confidant, later his biographer), seems to have helped the composer towards self-acceptance in his later years."
Russian musician Alexandra Orlova asserts that the composer's letters and diary entries over the years confirm he never reconciled himself to his sexuality. All he could do was resign himself "to the impossibility of reforming himself."
As biographer Edward Garden suggests, "All the frustrations of his endemic homosexuality and bottled-up emotions, further engendered rather than released by the fiasco of his marriage, are let loose in the Fourth Symphony —the first and perhaps least important in a line of masterpieces or near-masterpieces in this vein which included the Manfred Symphony and the last two symphonies, the symphonic ballad The Voyevoda and The Queen of Spades."
Tchaikovsky's marriage began as a classic case of life imitating art. One of his conservatory students, Antonina Miliukova, began writing him passionate letters as he worked on the "Letter Scene" in his opera Eugene Onegin — a time, ironically, that he had made up his mind to "marry whoever will ask." He hastily married Antonina on July 18, 1877. Within days, while still on their honeymoon, he deeply regretted his decision. Two weeks after the wedding the composer supposedly attempted suicide by putting himself into the freezing Moscow River. Once recovered from the effects of that, he fled to St Petersburg, his mind verging on a nervous breakdown.
Tchaikovsky's marital debacle forced him to face the truth concerning his sexuality. He wrote to his brother Anatoly that there was "nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature."
Moreover, the mental and emotional strain the composer suffered from his abortive marriage may have enhanced rather than endangered his creativity. Despite some interruptions, the six months between Tchaikovsky's engagement to Antonina and his "rest cure" in Clarens, Switzerland, following his marriage saw him complete two of his finest works, the Fourth Symphony and the opera Eugene Onegin.
Beginning with the Fourth, Tchaikovsky's younger contemporaries equated his symphonies with Dostoyevsky's psychological novels. This was because they heard, for the first time in Russian music, an ambivalent, suffering personality at the heart of these works. They felt that like Dostoyevsky's characters, Tchaikovsky's hero persisted in exploring the meaning of life while trapped in a fatal love-death-faith triangle in the Dostoyevskian fashion.
One who was especially taken with Tchaikovsky's music was Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a Russian railway tycoon. Von Meck had commissioned some minor works from Tchaikovsky and begun an ongoing correspondence just before his marital episode. Tchaikovsky in turn had asked her for loans to cover his marital and living expenses. Now von Meck suggested paying Tchaikovsky an annual subsidy of 6,000 rubles, in monthly installments, to avoid any embarrassment of asking for future loans. This would also allow Tchaikovsky to resign from the Moscow Conservatory in October 1878 and concentrate primarily on composition. (Compared to average wages of the time, 6,000 rubles a year was a small fortune. A minor government official had to support his family on 300-400 rubles a year.)
Von Meck and Tchaikovsky's correspondence would grow to over 1,200 letters between 1877 and 1890. The details of these letters are extraordinary for two people who would never even meet, let alone become lovers. Tchaikovsky was also prepared to be more openly and abundantly confiding to his patroness about some of his attitudes to life and about his creative processes than to any other person.
However, after 13 years she ended the relationship unexpectedly, claiming bankruptcy. During this period, Tchaikovsky had already achieved success throughout Europe and the United States by 1891. Von Meck's claim of financial ruin is disregarded by some who believe that she ended her patronage of Tchaikovsky because she supposedly discovered the composer's homosexuality. The two later became related by marriage — one of her sons, Nikolay, married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova.
After a year away from his post following his marriage and its aftermath, Tchaikovsky returned to Moscow Conservatory in the fall of 1879. Shortly into that term, however, he resigned. Tchaikovsky eventually settled at his sister's estate in Kamenka, just outside Kiev. Even with this base, he travelled incessantly. With the assurance of a regular income from von Meck, he took advantage of open-ended wandering around Europe and rural Russia. He did not stay long in any one place, lived mainly solitary and avoided social contact whenever possible. During these rootless years, Tchaikovsky's reputation as a composer grew rapidly outside Russia.
In 1880, during the commemoration of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, Dostoyevsky gave a famous speech on Pushkin, in which he called for the Russian "to become brother to all men”. The benefit of the “One man” speech for Tchaikovsky was overwhelming. Before it, Alexandre Benois writes in his memoirs, "it was considered obligatory to treat Tchaikovsky as a renegade, a master overly dependent on the West." After Dostoyevsky's speech, this disdain for Tchaikovsky's music dissipated. The composer also drew a cult following among the young intelligentsia of St. Petersburg, including Benois, Leon Bakst and Sergei Diaghilev.
In 1885 Tsar Alexander III conferred upon Tchaikovsky the Order of St. Vladimir. This gave the composer the right of hereditary nobility. That year, Tchaikovsky resettled in Russia — at first in Maidanovo, near Klin; then Frolovskoye, also near Klin, in 1888; and finally in Klin itself in 1891. After Tchaikovsky's death, Modest and "Bob" Davydov converted this house into a museum in the composer's honor.
Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, on November 6, 1893. Most biographers of Tchaikovsky's life have considered his death to have been caused by cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. In recent decades, however, theories have been advanced that his death was a suicide. According to one variation of the theory, a sentence of suicide was imposed in a "court of honor" by Tchaikovsky's fellow alumni of the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, as a censure of the composer's homosexuality.
Tchaikovsky is well known for his ballets, although it was only in his last years, with his last two ballets, that his contemporaries came to really appreciate his finer qualities as ballet music composer. His final ballet, The Nutcracker, has become among the most popular ballets performed, primarily around Christmas time. He also completed ten operas, although one of these is mostly lost and another exists in two significantly different versions. In the West his most famous operas are Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades.