Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s fatalism, melancholy and sexuality were conveniently overlooked in Soviet Russia, whose cultural officials urged the composers of their era to follow his musical example. Western musicologists of the same period saw him as lacking elevated thought, suspicious of the brilliant surfaces and abundant charm of his ballet scores. Audiences have always known better. Tchaikovsky’s patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, felt that his Fourth Symphony spoke to her soul and nobody else’s. Yet, as composer Robin Holloway has pointed out, this ‘intimate singling-out’ in his music applies to every sympathetic listener. Born to middle-class parents, the second of six children, Tchaikovsky was expected to pursue a civil service career. This was before he became one of the first pupils at the newly constituted St Petersburg conservatoire. He matured quickly, developing a style that combined the Russian musical language of Glinka with the German musical language of Beethoven and Schumann. His teacher, Anton Rubinstein, disapproved of his first orchestral work, a flashily scored concert overture closely based on Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s play The Storm. Rubinstein’s brother Nikolay nonetheless invited the young composer to teach harmony at the recently opened conservatory in Moscow. Tchaikovsky composed his First Symphony, ‘Winter Daydreams’ (1866, revised 1874) in Moscow. Later he encountered Mily Balakirev, leading light of the Russian Nationalist school, who provided the structural plan for the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture (1869–70, revised 1880). Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto had its premiere in 1875, the year his first ballet score, Swan Lake, was commissioned. By now Tchaikovsky was a celebrity and althought the ballet was not an immediate success it was in theatre music that he excelled initially. According to his brother, Modest, Tchaikovsky was fond of imitating the dancers and could do so proficiently. As late as 1875, when Camille Saint-Saëns was making his Moscow debut, the two composers were reportedly to be found larking about on the conservatoire stage performing a little ‘Galatea and Pygmalion’ ballet together with Nikolay Rubinstein at the piano. Swan Lake’s early spectators felt puzzled by its unprecedented symphonic proportions and sheer depth of feeling. Even The Sleeping Beauty (1888–89), one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest masterpieces, staged with the resources of the Imperial Ballet in St Petersburg, enjoyed only critical success during his lifetime. His last work in the form, the two-act Nutcracker (1891–92), secured its popular reputation through the pre-release of a suite showcasing its glittering themes. Politically conservative as he was, Tchaikovsky was a cosmopolitan socialite with friends and lovers of both sexes. It is unclear why in 1877 he agreed to marry Antonina Milyukova, a troublesome conservatory student who had threatened suicide if rejected. In a situation reminiscent of the scenario of his fifth opera, Eugene Onegin (1877–78), on which he was then working, the liaison had disastrous consequences for both parties. Tchaikovsky suffered a nervous breakdown and Antonina spent her last two decades in a mental hospital. Help came in the form of an unlikely platonic liaison with von Meck, a rich widow who initiated a 13-year friendship, by correspondence only, which came with a pension. Her reasons for breaking with Tchaikovsky in 1891 remain mysterious, and the loss of her friendship affected him more deeply than any financial shortfall. Historians have long debated the question of how biographical the composer’s music is. When Tchaikovsky described the opening theme of the Fourth Symphony as ‘Fate (…) that force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal’ it may be that he was trying to flatter von Meck as much as expose his own secret heart. The finale of the Fourth Symphony is based on a Russian folksong, In the Field a Little Birch Tree Stood, but some of the first movement’s melodic material, key and rhetorical openness appear indebted to Bizet’s Carmen. The Violin Concerto (1878), Capriccio italien, Serenade for Strings and 1812 Overture (all 1880) typify a period of sunny relaxation before storm clouds gather again for the ‘Manfred’ Symphony (1885), based on Byron’s dramatic poem. The Fifth Symphony (1888) has been seen by some as an instance of Tchaikovsky retreating to a more contained brand of expression. Others hear instead a dangerous rollercoaster ride, its invention equivocal, the insistent jollity of its ending a template for the forced rejoicing that would characterise the conclusion of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, a work written under intolerable political pressure. The Fifth was greeted with enthusiasm at its premiere but Tchaikovsky was characteristically plagued by self-doubt. His supreme symphonic masterpiece, the Sixth Symphony (1893), dubbed ‘Pathétique’ in the sense of pathos rather than feebleness by his brother, had its first performance only nine days before Tchaikovsky’s sudden death, most likely of cholera. The Sixth Symphony has been dubbed a tour de force of absolute music and a musical suicide note. Whatever its biographical context, the work is also the ultimate demonstration of the composer’s willingness to overturn time-honoured musical structures to create an expressive arc of unprecedented power. The two central movements are no mere side entertainment: the first is an undanceable waltz in 5/4, and is followed by the miraculous dazzle of the march movement. The slow finale, ending in unmistakable defeat, is a triumph of original thinking. Never before had a substantial work ended in such despair, though many were to follow in the coming century.