Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky is a bit of a cataloguing nightmare, to be honest!

Let’s start factually: his name in Cyrillic is Пётр Ильи́ч Чайко́вский, and that can be deliberatively transliterated as ‘Pyotr Ilich Chaikovski’.

The middle patronymic is not optional, according to the New Grove. However, that tome renders it Il’yich. I’m not sure where the apostrophe comes from: it is perhaps an attempt to indicate that the ‘l’ sound is “soft” (which is what the third character of it in Cyrillic is: a soft sign). In English, it’s quite tricky to spot the difference between a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ l: light v. help is about as close as I can get. In the first case, the tip of the tongue is at the top of the mouth, behind the teeth. In the second, it’s on the back of the teeth. In neither case does the hardness or the softness of the ‘l’ require the insertion of a ‘y’ sound, however. So, I can’t agree with the New Grove orthography on this. It’s Ilich, no apostrophe and no ‘yi’ sound.

The first name is also an issue: Pyotr is the literal transliteration, and is widely used (including in the New Grove). It’s just that it’s very obviously the Russian version of ‘Peter’ (in a way that Dmitri, for example, isn’t obviously a Russian version of any name familiar to English speakers. It’s actually the Russian version of ‘Demeter’, ancient Greek goddess of agriculture and plenty!) As an English-speaking collector of music, therefore, I feel that ‘Peter’ is a more appropriate first name to use for this particular composer. The New Grove disagrees with me; so does Wikipedia; so do 1.2 million listeners to his music on -though I tend to find that particular website not-exactly-persuasive on such matters anyway, on the whole!

Finally, the last name is almost always spelled with an initial ‘T’, though there’s really no reason why that should be case, just looking at the Cyrillic. It turns out, however, that Tchaikovsky himself used the ‘T’ when writing in other languages, which therefore hallows its continued use with a tinge of authenticity. For example:

If there was any doubt about the wisdom of using the ‘T’ for his surname, I think that signature is pretty emphatic proof that it ought to be used! It is technically true that if we’re going to follow his own practice, as illustrated here, we ought really to add an ‘s’ between the ‘T’ and the ‘c’. In former times, his surname was often rendered as ‘Tschaikovsky’, true enough… but hardly anyone does these days, and your catalogue would look very snootily pedantic if you tried it now, I think! English-speaking people would find the combination ‘tsch’ very awkward to pronounce, anyway!

The short version is this, therefore: if you feel Tchaikovsky warrants Russian-inflected cataloguing, then Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky is correct (i.e., definitely no ‘y’ in the middle name, and no need for apostrophes either). If you prefer to catalogue things in a more English fashion, whilst paying due respects to Tchaikovsky’s Russian heritage, then the correct name to use is Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. If this second version seems perverse on my part, I can only claim that the Encyclopedia Britannica agrees with me! The specific quote from them is: “…name in full Anglicized as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, (born April 25 [May 7, New Style], 1840, Votkinsk, Russia—died October 25 [November 6], 1893, St. Petersburg), the most popular Russian composer of all time.” In these pages, therefore, Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky it is…

I’m glad we sorted that mess out!

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(since January 9th 2021)

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