Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: 10 Interesting Facts You Might Not Know

Written by Dan Farrant
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Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian classical music composer born in 1840 who composed some of the most notable pieces from the Romantic era. His music features catchy melodies, powerful harmonies, and colorful compositions. He is best known for his ballets, symphonies, and overtures.

Today, his most recognized works include “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker,” the “1812 Overture” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” His music is still celebrated and performed around the world today.

While many classical music fans know Tchaikovsky for his influential works, there is far more to him beyond his musicality. To learn more about this famous classical composer, here are 10 interesting facts about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

1. He conducted Carnegie Hall’s inaugural concert

On May 5, 1891, Carnegie Hall, known as Andrew Carnegie’s new Music Hall, opened its doors for performances to the public.

Due to his notoriety and talent, Tchaikovsky was selected as the best choice for conducting its first-ever concert.

He conducted one of his own pieces, “Marche Solennelle,” on the first night and led the orchestra three more times during the Opening Week Festival.

He received celebrity treatment upon his arrival, in which he noted, “I had a royal welcome. All of today’s papers carry an account of my arrival, complete with a portrait. America knows me better than Europe.”

While his performances were well-received by audiences and critics, he was overwhelmed by the stress of the event.

2. He suffered from stage fright

Despite being successful, Tchaikovsky was never emotionally secure with himself.

He was a sensitive individual and suffered from many neuroses, including bouts of depression, severe anti-social behavior, and life-long debilitating, irrational stage fright.

For instance, he had the tendency to use one hand for conducting, while the other hand is holding his chin awkwardly. This was because he was afraid his head would become detached from his body. Because of this, he hated conducting.

Despite his disabilities, he worked hard to overcome his fear and picked up his baton to begin conducting again in 1886.

However, after he conducted Carnegie Hall’s inaugural concert in 1891, he swore off conducting forever due to the overwhelming experience.

3. The Tsar was one of his biggest fans

Tsar Alexander III

Tsar Alexander III was an admirer of Tchaikovsky’s work and made sure he was awarded for his talents.

Alexander III and the Imperial family often attended Tchaikovsky’s operas and ballets. They also would purchase new releases of his compositions to play at home.

In 1884, the Tsar honored Tchaikovsky with the Order of Saint Vladimir (4th class) and later granted him a lifetime pension in the late 1880s. Tchaikovsky was even gifted an expensive ring from Alexander III.

When Tchaikovsky died, the Tsar was devastated and declared the composer to be given a state funeral to properly honor him.

4. He hated the “1812 Overture”

In 1880, Tchaikovsky wrote the “1812 Overture” as a commemoration of the Battle of Borodino, a key battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

The piece made him a household name and has become a symbol of patriotism. One of the unique characteristics of the “1812 Overture” is its use of real cannons as part of the instrumentation.

Despite its critical acclaim, Tchaikovsky despised how it sounded. Interestingly, the real cannons were his idea.

He described the composition as lacking artistic merit “written without warmth or love” and thought it was “very loud” and “noisy.”

5. His cause of death is disputed

Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893. His death was about nine days after the premiere of his sixth symphony, the “Pathétique.”

It was concluded he died from cholera, a bacterial infection of the intestines. His consumption of an unboiled glass of water is the suspected culprit.

However, many of his contemporaries believed Tchaikovsky died of suicide by arsenic poisoning. He was tormented by his homosexuality his entire life, as he feared it being publicized, and for a time, many thought this inner turmoil led to suicide.

It has since been proven that he fell victim to the cholera epidemic of St. Petersburg and not suicide. There hasn’t been any evidence to prove the suicide theory.

6. He was a civil servant

Tchaikovsky wanted a backup plan in place in case his music career didn’t pan out.

In 1859, at 19 years old, he attended law school, graduated with honors, and trained to become a civil servant, also known as a public servant, in the Ministry of Justice in St. Petersburg.

He began as a junior assistant in six months and then a senior assistant two months later.

During his tenure as a civil servant, Tchaikovsky practiced on his piano regularly.

He resigned from his civil servant position two years later, in 1861, to focus on composing his music.

7. He started composing at 4 years old

Tchaikovsky became fascinated with music at an early age, beginning with an orchestrina (a group of small keyboard instruments) in his family home.

He began improvising on the piano and wrote his first attempt at a recorded composition in 1844 at age 4, a song he collaborated on with his younger sister Alexandra.

His parents supported his musical curiosity, and he would go on to begin piano lessons in 1845, at age 5. However, his father would not realize his true musical talents until a few years later.

8. His childhood piano teacher thought he didn’t have talent

Rudolph Kündinger

At nine years old, toward Tchaikovsky’s final years at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg, his father realized how musically precocious his son was.

To encourage his aptitude, his father enrolled him in private piano lessons with Rudolph Kündinger in 1855.

His father consulted Kündinger on Tchaikovsky’s future in music. Kündinger was not impressed with the boy’s musical skills and felt nothing stood out that would make him a professional performer or composer.

However, this did not discourage Tchaikovsky, as he later enrolled in music theory classes at age 21 as part of his career path.

9. He enjoyed foraging for mushrooms

Mushroom collecting was a favorite pastime of many Russians, Tchaikovsky included.

During his final years, he resided in a country home in the town of Klin and spent every day walking the property to collect mushrooms. The woods and fields near his country home had bountiful mushrooms, making an idyllic setting for his hobby.

In addition to the fungi-filled woods and fields, his country home’s lush gardens brought him peace. The look and feel of his country home helped inspire many of his most famous works, including “The Nutcracker.”

10. He was multilingual

In addition to his native Russian language, Tchaikovsky knew multiple languages.

He was fluent in French and German, and he could read, write, and converse in both European languages.

He also had a basic understanding of English and Italian. He used his Italian language skills to translate mussic compositions.

In 1880, he tried to learn English to be able to read Charles Dickens’s original works. However, he was never able to master the language.

While on his American tour, he spoke only French or German. At the time, this was easily understood by his hosts since many of them were European migrants.

Wrapping Up Our List Of Facts About Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky lived a unique yet tumultuous life.

Despite his struggles and tragic death, we are left with his legacy—a catalog of beautiful, emotional instrumental works that has inspired other great composers, such as Igor Stravinsky and Richard Strauss, and will continue to influence music artists for years to come.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.