SEVERAL COMPOSERS have been notoriously active letter-writers and have left us their voluminous correspondence, either directly or indirectly in print. Tchaikovsky was a record-setter in this respect. In addition to his regular correspondence with friends, colleagues and members of his large family, he conducted one of the most important relationships of his life entirely by letter, with a woman he never met, his benefactor for 13 years, Nadezhda von Meck.

While Madame von Meck severed Tchaikovsky's allowance and their pen-pal relationship three years before his death, many of his letters to members of his own family wound up in her family's possession, and his niece Anna Davidova married Madame von Meck's son Nikolai. It was their daughter, Galina von Meck, who collected and translated these letters -- to her grandparents, grand-uncles and great-grandfather -- and provided a bit of explanatory commentary.

One wonders how Tchaikovsky found any time for composing, with his heavy epistolary activity and, for much of his life, almost constant travel. Indeed, at the age of 21, before he began his musical studies in earnest, he wrote home daily from a trip that took him as far west as London by way of Berlin and Paris. Once he embraced his vocation he did not think about a home of his own till he was well into his forties.

The obvious value of the 681 letters gathered here, which ranged from two months before his 21st birthday in 1861 to six weeks before his death in 1893, is ther intimacy. Tchaikovsky does not appear as a world figure here, but is relaxed, unself-conscious, detailed in his impressions of his visits to foreign places.

The character portrait that emerges is one of a good-humored, moody, but frequently playful man, rather shy, warm-hearted and enormously fond of his father, siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews. Every relative is given two or three affectionate nicknames; nearly every letter ends "I kiss you hard." "I kiss you to suffocation," "A million kisses," etc.

But this collection hardly amounts to "an autobiography," because major events in both his personal and professional life go unmentioned. Except for a single oblique reference in the form of an apology to his sister for having caused her to worry about him, there is no mention in any of the letters of Tchaikovsky's marriage, its pathetic consequences, or even the name of his bridge. Only in the translator's notes do we learn of this event, and hardly in detail.

There is no mention at all of his excitement over being able to introduce the then new celesta in his symphonic ballad The Voyevoda. There is, moreover, an error on the translator's part in stating that the premiere of that work was conducted by Alexander Siloti; it was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself in one of Siloti's concerts.

Readers stimulated by the recent recirculated rumors of Tchaikovsky's alleged suicide to hope for a clue to the "mystery" of his death will seek here in vain. The letters, as already noted, cut off six weeks before his death, and contain no reference to or hint of his homosexuality. There is, in fact, a letter at the end of 1868 indicating he was seriously considering marrying the singer Desiree Artot -- who, however, married someone else before the time they had set to "decide our fate."

From Utica, New York, in May 1891 Tchaikovsky offered an insight into his quirky, roller-coaster moods regarding himself and his works by describing his vacillation in approaching his final opera: "I stopped loving Yolanta, so as to be able to love her passionately again later on. As soon as I had made my decision I loved Yolanta again. You will see: I shall write an opera to make everyone cry -- but only for the 1892-93 season."

From Hamburg and Hanover, in March 1889, he writes to complain that his success in Germany goes unnoted in the Russian press, while the success of Wagner's music in Russia is well documented in Germany, "I praise Wagner's genius very highly," he adds, "but I hate Wagnerism and cannot stop myself from having an aversion to his present manner."

In December 1880 he writes of attending the rehearsal of his Capriccio italien, noting that Borodin, whose Second Symphony was to be performed at the same concert, "came specially to Moscow for the occasion and appeared at the rehearsal in his general's uniform with the Cross of St. Vladimir round his neck."

A letter to his brother Modest, in July 1880, is quoted frequently for its enthusiastic reference to Bizet's Carmen; this seldom quoted portion gives a rather surprising self-portrait of the mild-mannered, affable Tchaikovsky:

"Don't you know my relationship with Victor Hugo? I will tell you how it ended. In Oussovo I once started to read Les travailleurs de la mer. As I read and read I got angrier every minute at all the affectation and grimacing! At last one night after having read a whole row of meaningless noisy phrases which consisted of exclamations, antitheses, omissions etc. I became furious and started spitting on the book, tore it to shreds, stamped on it with my feet, and finally threw it out the window."

Entertaining, and even endearing, as such vignettes may be, in terms of comprehensive biography ("auto" or otherwise) this not inexpensive book cannot match what Modest himself offered in his own two-volume Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, recirculated here in a Vienna House paperback edition in 1973. While the new book provides some charming and intimate asides, Modest, with his broader selections (letters to Piotr Ilyich and excepts from his diary as well as letters to Madame von Meck and others) and his detailed and authoritive "on the scene" narrative, gives us an incomparably fuller picture of his celebrated and eminently lovable brother. In this new book there are, however, in addition to a very thorough biographical index, an unusually helpful glossary of all the various nicknames used in the letters and even a separate index of all the places mentioned.