Home Backstage Tchaikovsky

Return to BalletNotes Home Page

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 - 1893), composer


(Compiled October, 1998)


Short list of choreographed compositions, not composed for ballet
Selected list of works


We assume that Tchaikovsky was always destined to be a great musician, but in fact his respected piano teacher, Rudolf Kundinger, tried hard to dissuade him from a musical career. Fortunately for us all, Kundinger’s advice was ignored.

Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, the 7th of May 1840, Tchaikovsky was the second eldest of six children. At the age of six he could read French and German and at seven wrote verses in French and began piano lessons. He spent the first eight years of his life comparatively settled, but in 1848 his father, a mining engineer, resigned his government post which brought about a difficult period of constant moves. In 1850 Tchaikovsky began attending the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, becoming a clerk in the Ministry of Justice in 1859. He studied with Nicolai Zaremba until the opening of the new St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, to which he transferred. The next year Tchaikovsky left his job in the Ministry of Justice to study full time at the Conservatory.

Anton Rubenstein, the director of the conservatory, took an interest in Tchaikovsky and had him study everything including conducting. He was always terrified of facing an orchestra (even when in great demand as a conductor), fearing his head would fall from his shoulders. For that reason he conducted with his left hand under his chin to keep it attached.

Graduating after four years he went on to teach for twelve years at the Moscow Conservatory, where he began to compose. In his first two years there he had already written his first symphony and the opera Voyevoda. In 1868 he met with the famous group of young Russian composers "The Five" - Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Although he greatly admired them and wrote his second symphony in response to their fervor, he never joined the group and in the end thought of them as more internationalists than true Russians.

From 1869 to 1875 he wrote three more operas and became music critic for Russkiye Vedomosti in 1872.

In 1877 one of his pupils, Antonina Milyokova, declared her love for Tchaikovsky and hinted at suicide unless he would marry her. So involved was he in the composition of Eugene Onegin that he could not find it in himself to callously reject her as had Onegin rejected Tatiana. In a bid for conventionality he married her, but after a disastrous nine weeks they separated. Tchaikovsky attempted suicide by drowning but was saved by his brother, Modeste, only to suffer a nervous breakdown. Tchaikovsky moved to Switzerland to recover and later to Italy. He continued his financial support of Antonina until his death. For her part, she took on a series of lovers and finally died in an asylum in 1917.

It was at this time that Tchaikosky came under the patronage of Madame Nadezhda von Meck who gave him a yearly allowance permitting him to give up teaching and devote his time to composition. They never met each other, but their correspondence was extensive and frank. He wrote his fourth symphony in dedication to Mme. von Meck.

Tchaikovsky became well regarded in Russia and also in Britain and the United States. In 1885 he moved to a country house in Klin where he lived in virtual isolation and wrote Manfred. 1888 and 1889 brought tours as a conductor to Germany, France and England. After the production of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Tchaikovsky went to Florence to work on his opera The Queen of Spades which was produced in St. Petersburg later that year. This was also the time when his sponsorship by Mme. von Meck ended, due either to her illness or pressure from her family. Although he no longer relied on her financial support, this was a dreadful blow to Tchaikovsky’s self esteem from which he never recovered.

1891 brought the very successful tour of the United States and Tchaikovsky's appearance at the opening of the Music Hall (renamed Carnegie Hall), followed the next year with the premiere of The Nutcracker. In 1893 he received an honorary doctorate of music from Cambridge University. The sixth symphony, having been begun in 1891 but abandoned, was completed in 1893. Tchaikovsky believed it to be his best work. The critics were not too kind. A few days later, November 6, 1893, Tchaikovsky died of cholera, probably the result of drinking a glass of unboiled water.

It has often been proposed that since Tchaikovsky's contacts with people were often unsatisfactory, his music became the expression of his emotions. While it is often pervaded by melancholy, there are times when the composer could shake off his gloom and write some of the most buoyant and brightest music ever heard. This he was able to achieve in The Nutcracker which came at a very low ebb in his affairs.

Tchaikovsky raised the status of ballet music to previously unknown distinction. Such a revolution, however, did not happen instantly. In his lifetime his ballet music was considered too symphonic, much as some of today's critics claim his symphonies are too balletic. It is difficult to understand why either should be considered a flaw.

Tchaikovsky loved danceable music, particularly that of Mozart who was one of his favorite composers. Tchaikovsky’s music, imbued with its sweeping lyricism, richness, and danceable qualities is a frequent choice of inspiration for choreographers.




A short list of Tchaikovsky’s compositions that were not written for ballets but have subsequently been choreographed to.


 Serenade for String Orchestra Eros/Fokine (1915)
  Serenade/Balanchine (1934)
 Francesca da Rimini Fokine(1915)
  Lichine (1937)
  Lifar (1958)
Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture Bartholin (1937)
  Harangozo (1939)
  Lifar (1946)
 Variations on a Rococo Theme Reflections/Arpino
 1st Suite for Orchestra Mirror Walkers/Wright
 2nd Suite for Orchestra Tchaikovsky Suite No. 2/ d’Amboise
 3rd Suite for Orchestra Theme and Variations / Balanchine
  Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3 / Balanchine
 4th Suite for Orchestra Mozartiana/Balanchine
 2nd Piano Concerto Ballet Imperial/Balanchine
 3rd Piano Concerto Allegro Brillante/Balanchine
 1st Symphony Snow Maiden/Bourmeister
 3rd Symphony Anastasia/MacMillan
 5th Symphony Les Presages/Massine
   Jewels (Diamonds)/Balanchine
 6th Symphony L’Amour et son destin/Lifar
  Nijinsky - Clown of God/Béjart
 Manfred Symphony Manfred/Nureyev
 Hamlet (Fantasy Overture) Hamlet/Helpmann
 Piano Trio Aleko/Massine
  Designs with Strings/Taras
 Songs Time Past Summer/Harkarvy
 Assorted (Selections arranged by Stolze) Eugene Onegin/Cranko



Selected list of Tchaikovsky's compositions


 1866  Symphony #1, Winter Daydreams
 1868  Fate, symphonic poem
 1869  Romeo and Juliet, fantasy overture (see 1880)
 1871  String Quartet in D major
 1872  Symphony #2, LittleRussian
 1873  The Tempest
 1874-5  Piano Concerto #1
   String quartet in F
 1875  Swan Lake, ballet
   Symphony #3, Polish
   String quartet in Eb
 1876  Variations on a Rococo Theme
   Slavonic March
 1877  Symphony #4
   Francesca da Rimini
   Waltz Scherzo
 1878  Violin concerto in D
   Suite # 1
 1879  Eugene Onegin
  Capriccio Italien
   Piano Concerto #2
 1880  Serenade for Strings
   Romeo and Juliet (final revision)
 1881  Joan of Arc, opera
 1882  1812 Overture
   Piano trio in A minor
 1883  Suite #2Mazeppa, opera
 1884  Suite #3
 1885  Manfred Symphony
 1887  Suite #4, Mozartiana
 1888  The Sleeping Beauty
   Hamlet, overture
   Symphony #5
 1890  The Queen of Spades
1892  Iolanthe
  The Nutcracker
   String Sextet
 1893  Symphony #6, Pathetique
   Piano Concerto #3



Return to BalletNotes Home Page