Historical and Cultural Timeline
Composer and Librettist
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Votkinsk, Russia, May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia, November 6, 1893
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was the second of five sons and one daughter born to Ilya Petrovitch Tchaikovsky, a government mine inspector, and his second wife, Aleksandra Andreevna d’Assier. Young Pyotr was a very sensitive child, often hurt by criticism that would roll off the backs of his siblings. His nanny described him as “a child of glass”, and this sensitivity continued to be one of the central features of Tchaikovsky’s personality.
The young Tchaikovsky enjoyed a warm family life and was devoted to his mother, from whom he gained the roots of his love for music, and to his younger brother Modest, with whom he would later collaborate. Pyotr ended up in St. Petersburg, first in boarding school, and, starting in 1850, at the School of Jurisprudence. During this time his family recognized and encouraged his musical talents, but he was still expected to become a lawyer.
Perhaps the most pivotal event in Tchaikovsky’s youth occurred on June 13, 1854 when his mother died of cholera. Her death devastated the fourteen-year-old. She had been the primary nurturer of his musical talents, and many think that her death weighed in his ultimate decision to pursue music.
Tchaikovsky continued to attend the School of Jurisprudence, graduating in 1859 and taking a post at the Ministry of Justice. During this period, he continued his musical education through classes at the Russian Musical Society. After three years, he finally decided to pursue a musical career, and entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Upon graduation, he took a job teaching theory and harmony at the Moscow Conservatory, and he began composing in earnest.
During the next decade, roughly 1866-1877, Tchaikovsky produced a large body of operas, symphonic and chamber music, but he was mercilessly critical of his own work, destroying many of his early scores. His natural sensitivity made composition a struggle. The strain of composing wore on his nature and often manifested itself in the form of fevers, depression, and other illnesses.
1877 marked a turning point in Tchaikovsky’s life as a result of two crucial events. The first was a fantastically lucky break: he was given a substantial annuity by Mme. Nadezhda von Meck, a wealthy widow who adored his music. Mme. von Meck’s one stipulation was that they were never to meet in person, but they corresponded extensively.
It was in that same year that, haunted by isolation and worried by surfacing rumors of his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky entered a marriage with Antonina Milyukova, a former pupil. He was miserable from the beginning and fled after less than a month. He returned to Moscow to try again to make the union work, but the doomed marriage finally fell apart for good. Free of the relationship and free of financial obligations, Tchaikovsky resigned from the Conservatory and went abroad to recover his health.
From this point, Tchaikovsky was a full-time composer, once remarking, “I sit down to work each morning at 9 a.m., and the muse has learnt to be on time.” It was a unique position for a composer at that time in Russia’s history. The annuity he received from Mme. von Meck enabled him to travel extensively in Europe and around the Russian countryside in search of a peaceful place to compose.
Over the late 1870’s and 1880’s Tchaikovsky’s reputation grew across Europe, and he was soon considered the greatest Russian composer. Still, despite his outward success, his disposition grew ever gloomier, and he saw himself as an outsider.
After a series of misunderstandings, Mme. von Meck abruptly withdrew her support in the early 1890’s. By then Tchaikovsky had a pension from Tsar Alexander III and no longer needed the money, but he was deeply wounded by the split from his patron of more than a decade. Their relationship had been about much more than money; she had served as a confidante. She was a friend to whom Tchaikovsky could express his fears, doubts, and ideas about music.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky traveled to St. Petersburg to visit his brother Modest and conduct the first performance of his Symphony No. 6 in B Minor. On November 6, 1893 he died. The reported cause was cholera from drinking tainted water, but a great deal of controversy surrounds Tchaikovsky’s death. While the original explanation still holds credence with some scholars, others now contend that it was suicide. His burial, on November 8, was a national event in Russia, drawing thousands of mourners.
Adapted from a biography written by James K. Foster
Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Alapayevsk, Russia, May 13, 1850
d. Moscow, Russia, January 15, 1916
The libretto itself was written by the composer’s younger brother Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who enjoyed a successful career as a dramatist and librettist. After five years in government service Modest resigned to devote himself to literature. In the late 1870’s he worked as an anonymous musical and theatrical reviewer for several newspapers. He made his debut as a playwright in 1881, and over the next twelve years he established himself as a popular fixture of the Moscow and St. Petersburg stages.
Modest already had an adaptation of Pushkin’s novella in hand. It had been, in fact, Modest’s first engagement as a librettist, a commission from the Imperial Theater for composer Nikolai Klenovsky (1857-1915), who at that time was employed by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow as conductor. After Klenovsky turned the project down, it was offered to Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and the brothers worked very closely together to bring The Queen of Spades to the operatic stage.
The new work was immediately celebrated as a theatrical triumph. Rather than abridging and distorting the original short story, the brothers Tchaikovsky expanded the original story into seven scenes in three acts of exceptional variety, both scenic and dramatic. It is truly a masterpiece of the librettist’s art.
Modest and Pyotr’s quest for new subjects continued until Pyotr’s death. Following the dramatic success of The Queen of Spades, the brothers set to work on Iolanta (1892), a one-act adaptation of King René’s Daughter, a popular play by the Danish playwright Henrik Hertz. At one point Modest was asked by a young Sergei Rachmaninoff to create a scenario for an opera. His brother once urged Modest to “find or invent a subject as unfantastic as possible, something along the lines of Carmen or Cavalleria Rusticana.”
After Pyotr’s death, Modest remained active as a librettist. Soon after his brother’s passing Modest was commissioned to create a libretto of Pushkin’s novella Dubrovsky to be set by Edvard Napravnik, the chief conductor of the Maryinsky Theater. His last work as a librettist was on Francesca da Rimini, which was set in one act by Rachmaninoff and first performed in 1906.
Adapted from an article written by James K. Foster and Thomas A. Brown.