His times: Russia and Russian music were alive with nationalism in the mid 1800s when Tchaikovsky was born in a small town in present-day Udmurtia. But while Tchaikovsky’s music irrefutably grew from Russian soil – and often sounds like it too – the composer wasn’t interested in traditional notions of musical nationalism. More significant for Tchaikovsky was the Romantic concept of personal expression and description in music, and he scored his first major success with the his orchestral fantasy Romeo and Juliet (1869) in which he manipulated the rules of ‘sonata form’ in an acute depiction of Shakespeare’s characters. Tchaikovsky’s time was one of custom and adherence; his disastrous marriage to a woman he hardly knew and his forbidden homosexuality tortured him and probably drove him to suicide.
His music: That sense of entrapment, desperation and pain made its way into Tchaikovsky’s music which became increasingly emotionally torturous as his life proceeded. But right from his more carefree first works, the composer’s remarkable abilities to characterize people, cultures and the world around him were established. That, and Tchaikovsky had a hugely significant technical ability to let a work’s every musical phrase become part of the whole story – whether in the grand opera Eugene Onegin in which much of the musical material comes from a germ motif in the orchestral prelude, or the Fifth Symphony in which a ‘fate’ motif appears to control all the musical development.
Himself: Tchaikovsky the man is umbilically tied to his music. He claimed his Sixth Symphony was his best work, and the hopeless despair with which that symphony is saturated illustrates much about a man racked with self-doubt and haunted by poor decisions.