Born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, the 7th of May 1840, Tchaikovsky was the second eldest of six children. At the age of six he could read French and German and at seven wrote verses in French and began piano lessons. In 1850, Tchaikovsky began attending the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence, becoming a clerk in the Ministry of Justice in 1859. He studied with Nicolai Zaremba until the opening of the new St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, to which he transferred. The next year, Tchaikovsky left his job in the Ministry of Justice to study full time at the Conservatory.
Graduating after four years, he went on to teach for twelve years at the Moscow Conservatory. In his first two years there he wrote his first symphony and the opera Voyevoda. In 1868, he met with the famous group of young Russian composers "The Five" - Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. Although he greatly admired them and wrote his second symphony in response to their fervor, he never joined the group.
From 1869 to 1875, he wrote three more operas, and became music critic for Russkiye Vedomosti in 1872. In 1877, Tchaikovsky composed Eugene Onegin and had a short-lived marriage with Antonina Milyukova, one of his pupils. The marriage lasted only nine weeks, with Tchaikovsky fleeing and suffering a nervous breakdown. It was at this time that Tchaikovsky came under the patronage of Madame Nadezhda von Meck who gave him a yearly allowance permitting him to give up teaching and devote his time to composition. They never met each other, but their correspondence was extensive and frank. He wrote his fourth symphony in dedication to Madame von Meck.
Tchaikovsky became well regarded in Russia, Britain and the United States. In 1885 he moved to a country house in Klin where he lived in virtual isolation and wrote Manfred. 1888 and 1889 brought tours as a conductor to Germany, France and England. After the production of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Tchaikovsky went to Florence to work on his opera The Queen of Spades, which was produced in St. Petersburg later that year. This was also the time when his sponsorship by Mme. von Meck ended, and although he no longer relied on her financial support, this was a dreadful blow to Tchaikovsky’s self esteem from which he never recovered.
1891 brought the very successful tour of the United States and Tchaikovsky's appearance at the opening of the Music Hall (renamed Carnegie Hall), followed the next year with the premiere of The Nutcracker. In 1893, he received an honorary doctorate of music from CambridgeUniversity. His sixth symphony was completed in 1893, and while Tchaikovsky believed it to be his best work, the critics were not too kind. A few days later after its inaugural performance, Tchaikovsky died of cholera.