In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Catalogues and Databases
  • Biographies
  • Life and Legacy
  • Letters, Diaries, Memoirs, Interviews, and Pedagogical Writings
  • Essay Collections
  • Analytical Studies
  • Aesthetics

Music Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Simon Morrison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0132


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (also spelled Tchaikovski, Chaykovsky, Čajkovskij; b. 1840–d. 1893) flourished as an international composer, but through much of the 20th century, research into his career tended inaccurately to emphasize his nationalism. More-recent research at the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin and other archives exposes the myths surrounding his music and corrects the record of his life to reveal how this supposedly most Russian of Russian composers was in fact a stylistically polyglot, cosmopolitan musician. His expressive range is manifest in his most enduring popular scores (including the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, along with his later symphonies), as well as in his supposed creative misfires (e.g., the opera The Enchantress), works that were left incomplete at the time of his death (the opera Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story), and those published posthumously (the Third Piano Concerto). Research into Tchaikovsky’s life has been mostly based on his own diaries and the personal letters that he wrote to his long-time patroness Nadezhda von Mekk, his brother Modest, Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, Eduard Napravnik, and others involved in his musical activities. Some of these materials are newly available in unexpurgated guise; others are just discovered. A case can be made for broadening the selection of sources to include overlooked official documents from, for example, the intendant of the Imperial Theaters, the Imperial Chapel, and the rectors of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories, along with a broader selection of memoirs, reviews, and critical pieces. But the scholarship generally lags behind the sources. Following his graduation from the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and employment as a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, Tchaikovsky became an independent composer. Support for his midcareer activities came from Nadezhda von Mekk, who provided Tchaikovsky with ample funds (6,000 rubles a year) to travel and compose wherever he wished. Von Mekk’s decision in 1890 to terminate her support came as a surprise but did not compromise Tchaikovsky’s activities, since he had been granted a state pension from Tsar Alexander III and had his choice of commissions at home and abroad. Tchaikovsky’s sound world was not that of his peers, the five nationalist composers known as the “Mighty Handful”: Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Musorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Unlike them, Tchaikovsky avoided stylized folklore and clichéd exoticisms in his works, preferring instead to define his nation through imperial pageant. His later works transform older and newer European idioms, pushing forward stylistically and syntactically into a realm later defined as surrealism.

General Overviews

Three publications are recommended: Campbell 1994 for eyewitness descriptions of 19th-century Russian musical life, Frolova-Walker 2007 for a reevaluation of Russian musical nationalism, and Maes 2006 for a gloss on Tchaikovsky’s career.

  • Campbell, Stuart, ed. and trans. Russians on Russian Music, 1830–1880: An Anthology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511597282

    Covers Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre along with the music of the moguchaya kuchka and considers the establishment of the 19th-century Russian musical canon.

  • Frolova-Walker, Marina. Russian Music and Nationalism: From Glinka to Stalin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    Tchaikovsky’s operatic and orchestral repertoire is considered within the context of the moguchaya kuchka and their fellow travelers. Frolova-Walker sets Tchaikovsky’s Three Cherubic Songs and, briefly, his Liturgy in the context of nationalist initiatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in the later 19th century. The author’s discussion of the musical exotica in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture strongly critiques Taruskin 1997, cited under Orchestral Music, Excluding Concertos.

  • Maes, Francis. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

    A straightforward overview of Russian music from the 18th century to the collapse of the Soviet Union, relying considerably on Richard Taruskin’s scholarship and placing strong emphasis on the intersection of music and politics.

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