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Pyotr Tchaikovsky

When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died of cholera in 1893, he was without a doubt Russia’s most celebrated composer. Drawing extensively on Tchaikovsky’s uncensored letters and diaries, this richly documented biography explores the composer’s life and works, as well as the larger and richly robust artistic culture of nineteenth-century Russian society, which would propel Tchaikovsky into international spotlight.
            Setting aside clichés of Tchaikovsky as a tortured homosexual and naively confessional artist, Philip Ross Bullock paints a new and vivid portrait of the composer that weaves together insights into his music with a sensitive account of his inner emotional life. He looks at Tchaikovsky’s appeal to wealthy and influential patrons such as Nadezhda von Meck and Tsar Alexander III, and he examines Russia’s growing hunger at the time for serious classical music. Following Tchaikovsky through his celebrity up until his 1891 performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall and his honorary doctorate at the University of Cambridge, Bullock offers an accessible but deeply informed window onto Tchaikovsky’s life and works.          

224 pages | 40 halftones | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2016

Critical Lives

Biography and Letters

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“This latest volume in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series is concise, comprehensive, clear-sighted, and thought-provoking. . . . It is refreshing to find an eminently fair and perceptive assessment of Tchaikovsky’s life and works.”

Classical Music

“Bullock distils a great deal of thought and breadth of knowledge into this slim volume, conjuring up a clear picture of its subject and written in a way that is both stimulating and illuminating.”


“Short introductory lives of the great composers are getting thin on the ground these days, so it’s good to welcome one on Tchaikovsky which can be relied on to get its facts right. Philip Ross Bullock knows his Russian sources and takes advantage of freedom from censorship to paint a more vivid picture of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality which clarifies how much he was, despite his disastrous marriage, happy in his own skin. . . . The illustrations are piquant and well selected.”

BBC Music Magazine

“In his concise but pithy study of the composer, blending biography with a perceptive account of the music itself, Bullock explores the individual characteristics of each of the stage works. . . . The account of the life into which the discussion of the works is so skillfully woven is no less considered and thoughtful . . . Bullock looks at the various possibilities, as he does everything else in this surprisingly comprehensive account, with complete expertise as well as fair-mindedness.”

Opera Magazine

“Following Jonathan Cross’s Stravinsky, another Oxford scholar, Philip Ross Bullock, has produced a no less fine study Pyotr Tchaikovsky to grace the Reaktion Books series of Critical Lives. Indeed, I realized all the more the value of the strict discipline posed by this brief format—succinct and concentrated as it is, penetrating to the essence of its subject.”

Musical Times

“Bullock’s biography of Tchaikovsky is a welcome addition to Reaktion’s reputable Critical Lives series. Although brief, it is . . . packed with diverse factual material. . . . A scholar of both music and literature, Bullock expertly handles Tchaikovsky’s nearly equal musical and verbal dexterousness. This is perhaps his most distinctive contribution here, making the book a fascinating read not only for the musically literate but also for everyone interested in Tchaikovsky, Russia, or the affective constitution of self.”

Russian Review

“Bullock’s lucid and factually reliable account of both Tchaikovsky’s personal and artistic lives is written with style and elegance. It contains a wealth of historical and musical detail and will surely prompt many of its readers to hear the composer’s music afresh.”

Journal of European Studies

“This is an engaging read, a good length, and light enough to travel with. As an account of Chaikovskii’s life unencumbered by technical language, it is ideal. There are judicious reevaluations of works: Queen of Spades receives an insightful discussion, the First and Sixth Symphonies are well situated (deciding to write the First was an ‘audacious choice’), and Eugene Onegin is read in terms of Chaikovskii’s personal foibles and occasional confusion between life and art. One of the book’s best features is its extensive use of Chaikovskii’s correspondence.”

Slavic and Eastern European Review

“This small study may have been written for interested music-lovers, but it is based on the most recent research. It also avoids bias. Life, work, sexuality, and the context of the composer’s life are presented in such a way that no one aspect dominates and distorts the picture. As a Slavist, cultural historian, literary scholar, and musicologist Bullock possesses a wide-ranging command of the material and illuminates the theme of his study from various perspectives, which allows him to deal appropriately with the context. The interconnections between all of these aspects and the avoidance of biographical speculation allows us to understand Tchaikovsky’s creativity.”

Die Tonkunst

“A refreshingly clear-eyed portrait of Tchaikovsky which is both lucid and perceptive.”

Rosamund Bartlett, author of "Tolstoy: A Russian Life and Wagner and Russia"

Table of Contents

Editorial Note
Introduction: ‘The Intimate World of My Feelings and Thoughts’
  1. ‘I Will Make Something of Myself’
  2. ‘The Only Hope for Our Musical Future’
  3. For the Sake of Qu’en-dira-t-on’
  4. ‘I am a Free Man’
  5. ‘Where is My Home to Be?’
Conclusion: ‘Some Kind of Banal, Stupid Joke’
Select Bibliography
Select Discography
Photo Acknowledgements

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