Seven Things You (Probably) Didn't Know About Tchaikovsky
Say “Tchaikovsky,” and the name immediately conjures images of the ballets Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. But what else do you know about this Russian composer? Here are some facts about the musical genius that you might find surprising.
1. He was multilingual.
He was well-versed in several languages and spoke French and Italian fluently.
2. He was a bibliophile and smuggled a book out of Italy.
Tchaikovsky’s personal library numbered more than 1,200 books. Among them was an Italian-language tome including the works of Euripides. It was marked with the following text, written by the composer himself: “Stolen from the library of Palazzo Ducale in Venice on 3 December 1877 by Petr Tch., court counsellor and professor of the Conservatory.”
3. Music was his second career.
Unlike his favorite composer, Mozart, Tchaikovsky was no child prodigy. Even though his house was filled with music growing up, and he took piano lessons from the age of five, he only started his music studies in earnest at the age of 21, following a short career in the Ministry of Justice.
4. His childhood piano teacher thought he was untalented.
When his father consulted with Tchaikovsky’s one-time piano teacher regarding his prospects as a musician, she told him Tchaikovsky had no talent and was not suited for a musical career. That piano teacher later wrote: “If I could foresee what that law school student would become, I would have kept a diary of our lessons.”
5. He struggled financially and had a secret patron.
Even at the height of his artistic career, Tchaikovsky wasn’t rich. Fortunately he had a patron, Nadezhda von Meck, the wife of a railroad tycoon. She supported Tchaikovsky for 13 years so that he could concentrate on writing music, under the stipulation that they never meet in person. They never did.
6. Swan Lake was a flop.
Swan Lake, now recognized as one of Tchaikovsky’s finest masterpieces, flopped when it premiered in 1877. The musicians complained that the score was too difficult to perform, and the public disliked Julius Reisinger’s choreography (Reisinger was then the Bolshoi Ballet company’s director). It wasn’t until 1895, after Tchaikovsky’s death, that the ballet was choreographed by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. Their version became an instant classic.
7. He was friends with legendary composers.
Tchaikovsky regularly traveled throughout Europe, both for pleasure and for work. His tours, conducting orchestral performances of his works, helped him establish friendships and creative relationships with contemporary composers including Antonín Dvořák, Edvard Grieg, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustav Mahler, and Hans Guido von Bülow.
Less a “fact” and more a “mystery” is the controversy that surrounds the great composer’s death.
Some have suggested he was killed by a glass of water, citing the fact that on November 1, 1893, the perfectly healthy Tchaikovsky was at one of St. Petersburg’s elite restaurants, where he requested a glass of cold water. Even though cholera was raging in the city, he was served a glass of water that had not been boiled. The next morning, he felt sick and summoned a doctor, who diagnosed him with cholera. On November 6, Tchaikovsky died, “suddenly and in an untimely manner.”
Some have stipulated, however, that Tchaikovsky’s death was a suicide of sorts, and that he drank unboiled water in cholera-striken St. Petersburg fully aware of the potential consequences.
Yet others point out that the composer drank and smoked entirely too much throughout his life, and that his generally unhealthy lifestyle could have been the real culprit.
The truth is that, more than a hundred years after the fact, we don’t know exactly how Tchaikovsky died and probably never will.