The suggestion that Tchaikovsky should write an overture based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet came from Balakirev, the piece's dedicatee. He even sent Tchaikovsky a few bars of a furious allegro by way of encouragement! However, what we now know and love as the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture went through several revisions before attaining its final form in 1880.
Despite the difficulties surrounding its composition, Tchaikovsky has left us a remarkable orchestral masterpiece. The violence of the allegro, depicting the feuding Montague and Capulets, is wonderfully juxtaposed with a love theme that has become as famous as any in the repertoire! The result is a perfectly organic overture that grows from its chorale-like beginning and sweeps the listener headlong toward the inevitable tragedy.
One of the most popular of composers among concert audiences, Tchaikovsky's unique style successfully combined the Western symphonic traditions of Beethoven and Schumann with a Russian heritage inherited through Glinka.
Born a miner's son in the Vyatka province in 1840, Tchaikovsky's early talent for languages and music was recognised and encouraged. However, between 1852 and 1859 he attended the School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg and, upon graduation, was assigned to the Ministry of Justice.
Although he had regular musical tuition at school and in his free time, nurturing a love of Mozartean opera in particular from his aunt, none of his teachers recognised future greatness. The young Tchaikovsky enjoyed a full social life and in 1861 toured western Europe as a translator.
It was only when he was passed over for promotion in the Ministry that the young civil servant considered serious musical study. The Russian Musical Society, formed in 1859, had been offering theory classes to the general public; Tchaikovsky had already been taking the classes in his spare time from autumn 1861 but in the summer of 1862 he applied to the new body being formed by the society, the St Petersburg Conservatory.
Studying composition under Anton Rubinstein, Tchaikovsky's works matured phenomenally quickly and he left the Conservatory in 1865 as a fully formed composer. Offered a position in the new Moscow Conservatory, he moved to there in 1866 and began a decade of creativity, social inclusiveness, and musical success.
With his music, advocated by Nikolai Rubinstein in particular, frequently heard in concerts, and social engagements with the literary and theatrical elite, Tchaikovsky's life seemed settled. His sexuality, much discussed in biographies, seems to have little impact on his creativity or his life; he openly associated with homosexuals but was always willing to marry to preserve social appearances.
In 1877, however, that resolve was put to the test when he married Antonia Ivanova Milyukova. The union was a disaster; after two months and following the composer's mental breakdown, the couple were permanently separated on doctor's orders.
Recent research indicates that apart from being blackmailed, Tchaikovsky had agreed to marriage for financial reasons and that Antonia was fully aware of his sexuality and made no demands on him. Although history has often painted Antonia as the villain of the piece, it seems she was just as much a victim as the naive composer. The marriage may have broken up because of Tchaikovsky's irrational fears over a loss of creativity.
Having completed the 4th Symphony and Eugene Onegin, started before his marriage, Tchaikovsky embarked on a period of nomadic freedom. He resigned from the Conservatory and gained a wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck. Their correspondence began in December 1876 and lasted 14 years, though they never met.
Meanwhile, the composer's fame was spreading far and wide. Hans von Bülow and Hans Richter promoted his works in Germany, and Paris was introduced to them through the International Exhibtion of 1878.
In 1881, however, Tchaikovsky began to realise his drifting existence could not continue. In 1885 he returned to Moscow as the director of the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, and also began a conducting career.
For much of 1886-7, Tchaikovsky was unwell and thoughts began to dwell on his own demise. His reputation with Meck was cooling and was to eventually end in 1890. Still, the composer's creative impulses flowed unabated in the last years: his opera, The Queen of Spades, was drafted in only 43 days; The Sleeping Beauty in 40; and the final work, the Sixth Symphony, in only 24 days.
The cause of Tchaikovsky's death, nine days after the first performance of the Sixth Symphony, has never been established. Conflicting theories involving enforced suicide are the cause of much conjecture but ultimately fail to provide a conclusive answer. In any case, the music speaks for itself, rendering any such biographical questions largely redundant.