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Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilich (1840-1893)  
 
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Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky was the leading composer of late nineteenth-century Russia, beloved for his ballet scores, symphonic poems, symphonies, operas, songs, piano music, and chamber works. He became one of the most popular composers in the world, inspiring a cult of gay admirers who detected in his work themes of forbidden love.

Until recently knowledge of Tchaikovsky's life as a homosexual was far less accessible than his music. Although some of his letters and diaries survive, many of his personal papers were suppressed, destroyed, or altered, especially during the Soviet period of Russian history.

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Today most musicologists acknowledge the composer's homosexuality, but opinion concerning its importance and its relationship to his musical life varies widely.

Early Life

Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 to Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky and his second wife Aleksandra in Votinsk in the Ural Mountains. Sensitive and deeply devoted to his mother and family, Tchaikovsky was no musical prodigy as a child, despite his family's love of music and his own obvious talent. He was a high-strung but charming and attractive child.

A career in civil service was planned for him, so in 1850 Tchaikovsky entered the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, where he received both his secondary and higher education. Departing home for school was very difficult for him because of his extreme attachment to his mother. Her death from cholera in 1854 affected him deeply.

At school Tchaikovsky formed several close relationships with other male students, some of which may have been sexual or at least romantic. Numerous memoirs depict him as an angelic beauty surrounded by ardent admirers.

Tchaikovsky left the School of Jurisprudence in 1859. He accepted a position with the Department of Justice in St. Petersburg, but his civil service career ended abruptly in 1862 when he was passed over for a promotion.

Musical Education and Early Compositions

In September of 1862, Tchaikovsky matriculated at the new St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he matured as a composer astonishingly quickly. Upon completing his course of study in 1866, he began teaching at the new Moscow Conservatory, directed by Nikolay Rubinstein.

Tchaikovsky had the first of several nervous breakdowns in July 1866, brought on by the strain of teaching while working on his first critical success, the First Symphony in G Minor, Winter Dreams. In his earliest major composition, Tchaikovsky's originality and inventiveness are already apparent.

Scholars disagree as to what to make of the young composer's sexuality during this early period. He certainly took seriously the negative social implications of being a known homosexual and he may have worried about the rumors of his homosexuality that flourished in the musical circles of St. Petersburg and Moscow, but such concerns did not stop him from moving in homosexual circles.

It has been suggested that in 1867 Tchaikovsky began a relationship with his private pupil Vladimir Shilovsky (who would later marry in 1877), a rich and temperamental young man, but he was also briefly involved with the Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt. The relationship with Artôt ended abruptly, perhaps terminated by the soprano's mother, who may have heard rumors of the composer's unorthodox sexual practices.

In 1871, Tchaikovsky took on a twelve-year-old servant Aleksey Sofronov, who became his traveling companion and eventually his lover. Sofronov, affectionately called "Aloysha," remained Tchaikovsky's servant, even after his own marriage, until his master's death.

Throughout this early and productive period of his career, Tchaikovsky lived in Moscow and produced many works: two more symphonies, three string quartets, various tone poems such as Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest (both 1873), and Francesca da Rimini (1876); piano music, songs, and early operas, and the incidental music for The Snow Maiden (1873) and the ballet Swan Lake (1875-1876).

Two Women

At this point two women figure prominently in Tchaikovshy's adult life: his patron Nadezhda von Meck and his wife Antonina Mulykova.

He received an admiring letter from the rich widow von Meck in 1877, which began a deep personal relationship conducted entirely by correspondence. In fact, the two agreed never to meet. Von Meck proved an invaluable ally to him in the years ahead.

Also in 1877, Tchaikovsky entered into a disastrous marriage with Mulykova, a conservatory student who also wrote him admiring letters. He apparently hoped that his marriage would "cure" his homosexuality or at least dispel the rumors of his homosexuality. No doubt, the fact that Mulykova was wealthy also contributed to his decision to marry, for he was unhappy having to support himself by teaching.

The marriage was not successful. Tchaikovsky found his pretty bride utterly unattractive and he was unable to consummate the union. Wracked with guilt over his deception of his wife, he began drinking heavily and may have attempted suicide. He suffered another nervous breakdown.

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