Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born into a middle-class family in Votkinsk, Russia. He was a complex and emotional child with a brilliant intellect and great musical ability. Despite developing some skill as a pianist and composing some short pieces, family pressure led him to study Law rather than music.
After graduating, he worked for several years as a civil servant, finally enrolling in Anton Rubinstein's new music college (soon to become the St Petersburg Conservatoire) in 1863. He studied there for two years and in 1866 accepted the post of professor of harmony at Anton's brother, Nicolai Rubinstein's rival music conservatoire in Moscow. He found his teaching commitments difficult as they took away from the time he could spend composing. However, during his first two years at the Moscow Conservatoire, he completed his First Symphony Op.13 (Winter Daydreams, 1866) and his first opera, Voyevoda (1867-8).
In 1868 Tchaikovsky made the acquaintance of 'The Five', or 'The Mighty Handful', a group of nationalistic composers lead by Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Their influence showed in his Second Symphony Op.17 (Little Russia, 1872), but he was eventually dismissed by most of the members as too much of a product of the conservatoire, or not suitably Russian. He remained in contact with Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev however, and slowly began to make a name for himself as a composer of operas and orchestral works.
Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet, Swan Lake, in 1875, shortly after the premiere of his now famous First Piano Concerto. At its premiere, the work was not the disaster that is often cited. It was poorly prepared and performed, but did achieve some success, being given a total of 41 performances during the composer's lifetime.
Two years later, Tchaikovsky, married one of his pupils, Antonina Milyukova. She was obsessed with the young composer, but had little appreciation for his music. Needless to say, their marriage was a disaster. It lasted nine weeks and culminated in Tchaikovsky attempting suicide. However this period, one of the most difficult of his life, produced two of his greatest works, the Fourth Symphony Op.36 (1877-78) and the opera Eugene Onegin (1877-78). At roughly the same time, he came into contact with a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck. She admired his music very much and agreed to give him an annual allowance to enable him to give up teaching and concentrate on composing. Her only stipulation was that they were never to meet. He dedicated his Fourth Symphony to her and this arrangement continued for 14 years, until von Meck abruptly cut off all contact with Tchaikovsky because of her own personal and financial problems.
The 1880s were very productive for Tchaikovsky and saw him complete his Serenade for Strings Op.48 (1880), the opera Mazeppa (1881), the Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra Op.56 (1884), and his Fifth Symphony Op.64 (1888). It was not until 1888 that he wrote another ballet. The Sleeping Beauty (1888-89) was written in response to a commission from the Director of Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. Despite the dancers finding Tchaikovsky's music difficult to follow, the work premiered in January 1890. Contrary to the critics' lukewarm reviews, The Sleeping Beauty was an instant hit with the public and remained in the repertory from then on.
Tchaikovsky's next ballet, and possibly his most famous, was written the following year. After the premiere of his next opera, The Queen of Spades, completed in 1890, he was again approached by Vsevolozhsky with an idea for a double bill. The opera from that double bill, Iolanta, is rarely performed, but the ballet that was its companion, The Nutcracker, has become one of the most enduringly popular pieces of music ever written. The ballet was premiered on 18 December 1892 and, despite the usual grumbling in the press, it was, like The Sleeping Beauty, a great success.
Tchaikovsky wrote his last major work, his Sixth Symphony Op.74 (Pathétique) in 1893. Within a week of the premiere, he was very ill and died shortly after, at the age of 53. The official version of his death is that he drank some unboiled water and contracted cholera. However, a more recent theory suggests that he was tried by a court of his peers and sentenced to take his own life with poison, so that a sexual scandal involving the aristocracy could be avoided.