One of the most-maligned wives in classical music history is Antonina Miliukova. She married Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1877, and their union was a disaster from the beginning. She has often been portrayed as a madwoman intent on ruining her husband’s life, but the truth is much more complicated.
Antonina was born in 1848 near Moscow to a family that was part of the hereditary gentry. Her childhood was far from idyllic. Despite their pedigree, the family did not have a lot of money, and her parents separated when she was three.
Music was important to the household. In fact, Antonina’s father actually kept an orchestra of peasant players. Antonina herself enjoyed singing and playing piano. In 1873 she studied at the Moscow Conservatory. Afterward, she began teaching privately on an intermittent basis.
The Meeting with Tchaikovsky
When she was 24, the year before she started attending the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina went to a fateful dinner party thrown by her older brother’s apartment. Her brother’s wife had invited an old friend named Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Antonina was immediately starstruck. She claimed later that she knew nothing of his music or creative life, and that she fell in love with his appearance and personality alone. For the next four years, she kept her secret passion private.
Daniel Lozakovich Plays Tchaikovsky: Six Romances, Op.6, TH 93: VI.None but the Lonely Heart
In 1876, an opportunity arose. Antonina received a small inheritance that she knew could be used as a dowry, and she felt this might make her attractive as a bridal prospect. So in the early spring of 1877, she sent Tchaikovsky a letter, and they began a correspondence. By early May, she offered her “hand and heart.”
She also threatened suicide in a letter if they could not be together. To modern ears, this sounds unhinged, but recent scholarship has suggested that she may just have been writing in an overwrought style or perhaps copying phrases from the books of love letter templates that were very popular at the time.
It appears that Tchaikovsky himself initiated their next meeting, which occurred in the house Antonina was staying in Moscow. On their next date, Tchaikovsky proposed. He was very aware of his homosexuality, so all he offered her was his “brotherly love.” It seems unlikely that Antonina understood the implications of what he meant.
They were married in July 1877 after only seeing each other a handful of times. Almost immediately Tchaikovsky recognized that marrying Antonina was one of the biggest mistakes of his life. The marriage remained unconsummated and he kept finding excuses to flee his adoring wife.
This was an especially sensitive time for Tchaikovsky. He’d been embroiled in a romance with violinist Josef Kotek just a few months earlier, writing that “passion rages with me with unimaginable force.” However, by the spring, when Antonina wrote to him declaring her love, he’d cooled on Kotek, writing to his brother, “You ask about my love? It is once again subdued almost to the point of absolute calm.” Nevertheless, he asked Kotek to be a witness at the wedding, and, perhaps predictably, their intense emotional connection resumed during Tchaikovsky’s marriage.
Janine Jansen performs Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto
Antonina’s Children and Post-Marriage Life
By 1878, Tchaikovsky was trying to put his marriage with Antonina behind him, but divorces were difficult to come by, and Antonina clung to the idea that they might be reconciled. Three years of limbo passed, but finally in 1881, Tchaikovsky stopped pressing the idea of divorce.
In the meantime, Antonina had found a lover of her own: a lawyer named Aleksandr Shlykov. They moved in together in May 1880, three years after she’d offered her heart to Tchaikovsky. She had three children with Shlykov, in 1881, 1882, and 1884.
Both she and her lover suffered from ill health. In addition, Tchaikovsky’s name would be implicated in the children’s birth. So to protect her health and Tchaikovsky’s reputation, she surrendered the children at a foundling hospital in Moscow.
Leaving her children in such a situation may have weighed on Antonina because in 1886 she wrote to Tchaikovsky asking for money, as well as asking him to adopt her now two-year-old daughter. He didn’t even honor the adoption request with a reply, but he did start sending money regularly. He was disgusted that his wife had chosen not to raise her children herself.
Pining for Reconciliation
Antonina’s lover died in 1888. She contacted Tchaikovsky yet again, raising the prospect of their reconciliation. By this time Tchaikovsky had truly come to peace with his queerness, and the idea of returning to his wife struck him as repellant.
Although he was sending her between 50 and 150 rubles a month, she also wanted to take up teaching. Tchaikovsky was horrified, feeling it would reflect poorly on him and his ability to provide.
Tchaikovsky died in November 1893. He left a monthly pension of 100 rubles to his widow. She moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg and settled near her husband’s burial place.
Whether because of the stress of his death or the loss of her children or for other reasons, Antonina’s mental health deteriorated. By 1896 she was being treated at the St. Petersburg Hospital of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker for the emotionally disturbed. She bounced from mental health facility to mental health facility. At one point, Tchaikovsky’s brother Anatoly intervened to ensure she was living in a more comfortable location. The 100 monthly rubles from Tchaikovsky went toward her treatment and boarding.
She never lived on her own again, and she died of pneumonia in 1917.
The story of Antonina Milyukova is deeply tragic. For many years she was dismissed as nothing more than a delusional madwoman who manipulated Tchaikovsky and interfered with his genius. But looking at her story through another lens suggests there’s more nuance to be found here. In addition to being a woman kept from making her own way financially, she was also an indirect victim of a society that forbade gay people to be with who they loved. She remains one of the more tragic figures in Tchaikovsky’s life.
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