Tchaikovsky grew up in a family both upper class and unmusical. His father was a government mining official in St Petersburg, where the family moved when Tchaikovsky was eight. He developt a love of music largely by improvising at the piano, but he was sent to school to prepare for a training in law. At the age of 19 he obtained a position in the Ministry of Justice in St Petersburg, continuing musical studies in his spare time at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. Its director, Anton Rubinstein, commented that Tchaikovsky, though careless, was "definitely talented". With this encouragement Tchaikovsky gave up his job in order to study full time, and in 1865 he was appointed professor of harmony at the new Moscow Conservatoire.
In 1866 he suffered his first nervous breakdown, brought on by the stress of the overwork on his First Symphony. Tchaikovsky's "abnormally neurotic tendency" (in his brother's words) and lifelong unhappiness apparently stemmed in large part from feelings of guilt about his homosexuality and his attempts to repress it.
About this time he met Balakirev - one of the group of Russian composers known as "The Five" - and out of their friendship came the suggestion for Tchaikovsky's fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky's attitude to The Five later soured as he grew to dislike their use of exotic oriental folk music melodies (which he parodied in the dances of his ballet The Nutcracker in 1892) in the name of a Russianist style.
In 1877 he began to recieve love letters from a woman he had never met, Antonina Milyukova. She threatened suicide unless he would meet her. At the time Tchaikovsky was working on his opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin's poem, in which the hero rebuffs the love letter sent to him by the heroine, Tatiana. Tchaikovsky had no wish to stoop to such behaviour and was trapped into marrying Antonina, with disastrous consequences. She turned out to be mentally unstable and, far from "curing" his homosexuality, the experience drove him to attempt suicide. He fled to St Petersburg in a state of nervous collapse. He never saw her again, and she eventually died in an asylum.
By this time Tchaikovsky had begun corresponding with a wealthy widow, Nadezhda von Meck, who confessed to an admiration for his music and gave him an annual pension of 6,000 roubles. It was enough to allow him to compose and tour freely in Europe, and he resigned from his Moscow professorship in 1878. Their letters were intense and passionate but, although they actually met on her estate once by chance, they never exchanged a spoken word. The relationship continued for 13 years until she broke it off suddenly without any explanation.
He completed Eugene Onegin in 1878, together with the Fourth Symphony (dedicated to his "best friend", Nadezhda von Meck) and the Violin Concerto. His credentials as a master of melodic invention were already established; but never before in such overtly Romantic material as these two orchestral works were lyrical themes tautly organized into a framework of such sustained dramatic impact.
Tchaikovsky had travelled in Europe almost every year since 1870, but toured as a conductor for the first time in 1888, and again in 1889. He met Brahms, Dvorzak, Grieg and others, visited London, and completed his Fifth Symphony and his great ballet score, The Sleeping Beauty. In his last year he travelled again to England, this time to recieve an honorary doctorate in music at Cambridge University in the distinguished company of Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saëns and Grieg.
He returned to complete the Pathetique Symphony, of which he wrote, "I love it as I have never loved any one of my musical offspring". Its many innovative features include a 'waltz' movement in 5/4 time and a slow, sorrowful finale. It stands as a fitting end to the career of a tragic man who displayed his deepest feelings in music, often with tremendous emotional power. He died of cholera after drinking contaminated water - possibly deliberately, according to recent research - just nine days after the premiere.