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Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music by David Brown
© 2007. Pegasus Books, New York.
ISBN-10: 1-933648-30-9
ISBN-13 978-1-933648-30-9.
512pp.
24 b/w illustrations.
Appendices 3.
Glossary.
Index.
9-1/4 x 6-1/8 x 1-3/4 inches.
USD28.95
[Also available in the UK as Tchaikovsky. © 2006 Faber and Faber ISBN-10: 0-05712319-40-2 ISBN-13: 978-0-571231-94-2. 400 pp UKP25.00]



David Brown’s four volume work on Tchaikovsky containing an extensive detailed analysis of all the music represents one of the most extensive essays on any composer ever written. Alan Walker covered Franz Liszt’s 75 years in three volumes, Stephen Walsh covered Stravinsky’s 89 years in two volumes. Brown took four volumes (600,000 words) to relate and analyze Tchaikovsky’s 53 years.

This one volume essay is not intended as a summary of that longer work, but as a new and different work intended for the general reader. Also the author has taken advantage of material not available to him at the time of the earlier work and has updated some of the story. In a writing class, both Mr. Walsh and Mr. Walker would likely get a higher grade than Mr. Brown, but that is an unfair comparison. Mr. Brown is a perfectly good writer and if at times I had trouble knowing what year it was, or keeping track of who is who, it’s mostly because of the amount of material to cover, the complexity of events, and the perennial Russian nick-name problem.

Much of the book consists of detailed descriptions and analyses of the music, lists of "what to listen for," intended for those not familiar with classical music. I am critical of all such essays, and in fact I skipped them when reading the book, since I have been listening to the music of Tchaikovsky for 65 years. I don’t mean to say I have nothing to learn from Mr. Brown, only that I feel it is understandable to feel irritated at being lectured on a very emotional matter which you already feel in control of. I don’t deny that some may find such essays valuable, but someone who knows a great deal about classical music may not really know what it sounds like to someone who has little experience with it.

I have made my own stab at being a high priest of music and preaching the gospel. One friend knew exactly what classical music is and what it does, and patiently explained that he doesn’t want that in his life. Another artist friend dismisses all classical music as "cathedral music" and, again, doesn’t want that in his life. Classical music, or perhaps more accurately "fine art" music, argues its own case without assistance. The problems with classical music in our society are not that the subject is arcane, but that there are people who dislike and oppose classical music and actively work against it in schools, institutions, and government. They don’t want it in their lives, they defend others who might or might not want it in their lives by denying them the choice. Or they expend vast amounts of money and effort to attempt to resuscitate the dead body of "jazz" as the "authentic American music" and keep its rotting corpse on display before the public, in place of classical concerts at schools and auditoriums. I know this sounds like the prevailing fashion in conspiracy theories, so I suggest that you make your own investigations to see whether or not I’m right. All the public needs is the right of access, and the music will make its own case. If you want to help the "cause," give classical CDs to your local public library and watch to make sure they are allowed to circulate and are not discarded or sold off at 50 cents apiece to the trustees because there is "no room" or "no one wants them".

It doesn’t take much listening to his music to appreciate that Tchaikovsky was a very emotional man, a man whose passions often got the best of him. He suffered from bi-polar disease, with highs and lows following upon one another with bewildering rapidity. This book relates episodes of depression, panic attacks that often result in flight, many tearful reactions to events, impulses to overwhelming generosity and kindness, also a few rare bursts of angry temper. The result of all this emotional stress and struggle was that in 1890 when Tchaikovsky was in America, some commentators took him to be in his sixties, ten years older than his actual age, and this had the effect of depressing him even further.

Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is extensively described, a difficult task because many of the letters and documents were censored by his champions who attempted to protect his reputation. He apparently believed that only in heterosexual love could a man find a lifetime of complete affectionate happiness with someone his own age, and throughout his life he pursued sexually mostly his servants and young men he met casually. Apparently being gay in Paris in 1870 was just about exactly what it was in 1950. It is hard to believe that Tchaikovsky, who moved in the artistic circles of all the nations of Europe, knew of no adult men living together as lovers — such as Britten/Pears, Barber/Menotti — for they must certainly have been there for him to see — as they have been in all cultures in all times — if he cared to notice. But he preferred to feel sorry for himself and bemoan his great loss. I was amazed to read of his many years’ "affair" with French opera singer Désirée Artôt which came to an end when she attempted to use her influence with him to gain a favor for another man. Also I didn’t know that Tchaikovsky’s wife Antonina, whom he never divorced and continued to support (even through her affairs), continued to protest her love for him and survived him to lay the largest wreath on his coffin.

Unfortunately Mr. Brown is unable to resolve one way or the other the controversy over the "court of honor" story of Tchaikovsky’s death, but it is apparently well documented that Tchaikovsky did drink knowingly and publicly a glass of unboiled water in the midst of a cholera epidemic in Moscow. There is no word for that but suicide. But I think Mr. Brown makes too much of the "inconsistencies" in the accounts of Tchaikovsky’s last days. In time of severe stress people do forget what day it is. Also in Russia, persons of Tchaikovsky’s eminence — he was revered almost as a saint by his friends and the public — are held in religious awe, to be physically incorruptible, hence it is not surprising that someone would want to embrace and kiss his body after he had died of a contagious disease, or that regulations concerning disposal of the bodies of epidemic victims would be deferred in the case of his funeral. The greatest irony is that if he had caught cholera unintentionally, we now know that all he would have to do is drink plenty of clean salty water while ill and he could easily have survived.

If the "court of honor" story is true, it makes a sad point. The story concerns a letter to the Tsar bearing a complaint by a nobleman against Tchaikovsky for paying sexual attention to the nobleman’s son. So long as Tchaikovsky confined his sexual attentions to servants, students, and young men of the common classes, no one would attack him. But when, like Oscar Wilde, he paid attention to a young man from the aristocracy, his social superior, that was different. Even though the Tsar on occasion chatted with Tchaikovsky as a cousin, the latter must never forget his place. As the son of a mining engineer, Tchaikovsky was forever a commoner no matter if he was the most beloved artist in Russia, and one of the world’s greatest living composers. Tchaikovsky could probably have fled to exile in Paris, but Brown makes it clear that Tchaikovsky would rather die than be exiled from his beloved native land, so suicide was his only honorable course. However this whole story hinges on the testimony of a single elderly individual relating events of many decades before. There is no direct evidence, no physical letter to the Tsar, no positive identification of the nobleman involved, no record of a witness to Tchaikovsky’s alleged infractions.

In his many works Tchaikovsky embraces such a variety of forms and textures that Mr. Brown makes no attempt to speculate what sort of music Tchaikovsky would have written had he lived. But I will be more bold; had he lived to be 73, it would have been Tchaikovsky and not Stravinsky who would have written Firebird, Petrouchka and Sacre du Printemps and I think Stravinsky would have agreed with me.

Paul Shoemaker

 


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