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Modest Ilyich was born in Alapayevsk, Verkhotursky Uyezd, Perm Governorate, the younger brother of the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He graduated from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence with a degree in law. In 1876, Modest became the tutor to a deaf-mute boy Nikolai ("Kolya") Hermanovich Konradi (1868–1922) and, using a special teaching method, helped him to talk, write, and read. In his still unpublished Autobiography, broadly quoted by Alexander Poznansky, Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky mentions his homosexuality, as well as his brother Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's homosexuality.
Modest chose to dedicate his entire life to literature and music. He wrote plays, translated sonnets by Shakespeare into Russian and wrote librettos for operas by his brother Pyotr, as well as for other composers such as Eduard Nápravník, Arseny Koreshchenko, Anton Arensky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Being the nearest friend of his brother, he became his first biographer, and also the founder of the Tchaikovsky Museum in Klin.
- Predrassudki (Предрассудки – Prejudices)
- Simfoniya (Симфония – Symphony)
- Den' v Peterburge (День в Петербурге – A Day in St Petersburg)
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама - Pikovaya dama), Op. 68, 1890. Premiered: 19 December [O.S. 7 December] 1890, St Petersburg
- Tchaikovsky: Iolanta (Иоланта – Iolanta), Op. 69, 1891, based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René’s Daughter) by Henrik Hertz, translated by Fyodor Miller and adapted by Vladimir Rafailovich Zotov. Premiered: 1892, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.
- Eduard Nápravník: Dubrovsky (Дубровский). Premiered: 15 January [O.S. 3 January] 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg.
- Arseny Koreshchenko: Ledyanoy dom (Ледяной дом). Premiered: 20 November [O.S. 7 November] 1900, Moscow.
- Anton Arensky: Nal' i Damayanty (Наль и Дамаянти), after the epos Mahabharata. Premiered: 22 January [O.S. 9 January] 1904, Moscow.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff: Francesca da Rimini (Франческа да Римини), Op. 25, 1904, after the story of the heroine Francesca da Rimini from the fifth canto of Dante's epic poem The Inferno (the first part of The Divine Comedy). Premiered: 24 January [O.S. 11 January] 1906, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow.
- Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky Through Others' Eyes. Indiana University Press, 1999, p. 8