Who does not know Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? How many times have you listened to the tunes from the Nutcracker over the festive period? One of the most known Russian composers remains always topical and loved by all the generations. However, there might be something you did not know about him. Check yourself with our 15 facts about Piotr Tchaikovsky.

A photo of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky taken in 1863 when he was approximately 23 years old. (Photo: From ‘The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’ [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

  1. One of his quotes: “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” –Tchaikovsky. He definitely lived by this philosophy. From his early piano training (at age five), until his death, this man was driven to work and excel.
  2. Tchaikovsky trained for, and became a civil servant in Russia. At the time, a musical profession didn’t convey the sort of social status that was acceptable to his family’s respected position. His great-grandfather had distinguished himself in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, under Peter the Great, and Tchaikovsky’s grandfather server as city governor of Glazov in Viatka. Music instructors and chamber musicians were looked down upon, so in 1859 he embarked on his public service career and spent three years in the Ministry of Justice, rapidly advancing to senior assistant.
  3. As a young man, Tchaikovsky was enamored of Belgian soprano, Desiree Artot, and they actually became engaged in 1968. A difference of opinion concerning her career led to the couples’ break up. He later asserted that she was the only woman he ever truly loved.
  4. His marriage to former student, Antonina Miliukova, in 1877 lasted only a few short weeks and led to a severe nervous breakdown. Later, he would ascribe the disaster to his own faults, not hers.
  5. Tchaikovsky suffered from depression throughout his life and was a notorious hypochondriac.
  6. Tchaikovsky suffered from severe anti-social behavior and irrational stage fright.
  7. He thought his head was going to fall off while he was conducting. Literally – he even held his head up with one hand while in font of the orchestra!
  8. He carried on a correspondence relationship with his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, for 13 years. Widow of a railway baron who built a multi-million dollar transportation monopoly in central Russia, von Meck supported Tchaikovsky emotionally and financially, before and after his brief marriage to former student Antonina Miliukova. They exchanged over 1200 letters during that time, but only met briefly once, in 1879.
  9. Throughout his career he received harsh criticisms concerning his works. Many critics felt that Tchaikovsky’s music pandered to audiences, and therefore was contemptible. Because of the unique time period in which he composed, and his unique ability to merge Western music concepts with traditional Russian ones, it was difficult for him to receive unanimous praise. In fact, it wasn’t until very late in his career that his genius began to be appreciated, however, nothing like it is now.
  10. Tchaikovsky went from being the cream of music elite in Russia and basking in critical acclaim to six feet under in just nine days.
  11. Tzar Alexander III bestowed upon him the Order of St. Vladimir in 1884. This hereditary title of nobility solidified his social standing in Russia. From that point on, he was less introverted and his popularity soared.
  12. Tchaikovsky conducted the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall in 1891. He led the New York Music Society’s orchestra.
  13. He described his 1812 Overture as “very loud and noisy” and said that he wrote it “with no warm feeling of love.” Although it was scheduled to be performed with real cannons and bells from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (which was built to commemorate Russia’s victory over the Napoleonic army) the plan was too ambitious, and never performed there.
  14. Tchaikovsky NEVER EVER drank unbottled water. Probably a good decision, given the cholera outbreak in Russia at the time…
  15. Tchaikovsky was actually diagnosed with cholera on November 5, 1893, and died the next day. However, there were rumors that the composer committed suicide by poisoning himself with arsenic, which mimics the symptoms of cholera. This theory has never been proven.