Extracted from Michael Steen’s book The Lives and Times of the Great Composers, these concise guides, selected by The Independent’s editorial team, explore the lives of composers as diverse as Mozart and Puccini, reaching from Bach to Brahms, set against the social, historical and political forces which affected them, to give a rounded portrait of what it was like to be alive and working as a musician at that time.
Unlike many of the composers in this series, Tchaikovsky showed no indication of genius as a child and he spent several years as a clerk in the Ministry of Justice before entering the St Petersburg Conservatoire. His composing career only really took off in his mid-30s. Late starter he may have been but, in the nearly twenty years left to him (he died at 53), he created some of the undisputed masterpieces of the repertoire: the operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and in ballet, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. The Fourth Symphony, with its fate motif, and the Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, along with his First Piano Concerto, make constant appearances on the concert platform.
Behind these achievements, as Michael Steen's gripping narrative shows, lay a life of anguish and sexual crisis as Tchaikovsky tried alternatively to accommodate and repress his homosexuality (then punishable by death in Russia). It led him to make a disastrous marriage at 37, which caused him much distress, and after only a few months, they arranged to live apart. In many ways his most successful relationship with a woman as an adult was with his patroness Nadezhda von Meck, which lasted fourteen years, during which time they never spoke to each other in person. Even today, the true cause of his death remains open to question, with competing theories jostling for acceptance.
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