Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Two films by Christopher Nupen:
Part One: Tchaikovsky’s Women [70:15]
Part Two: Fate [85:35]
The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor and solo pianist)
with - Cynthia Harvey as Katerina, Juliet and Odette;
Mark Silver as Prince Siegfried, Helen Field as Tatyana and Clarry Bartha as Donna Anna
Tchaikovsky's Women was made in 1988; Fate was made in 1989. Both were broadcast only once in the United Kingdom, in 1989.
ALLEGRO FILMS A10CND [2 DVDs: 70:15 + 85:35]

I believe many, like myself, might have returned to Tchaikovsky in later life to rediscover and appreciate his music that much more after first encountering him in our youth. Those first experiences were when his melodies appealed immediately to our relatively untrained ears and when the passions of the music seemed to relate to our more raw, more immature emotions. Afterwards we moved on to discover what we may have thought, then, to be more sophisticated, more challenging material. Christopher Nupen says something similar, in his introductory notes to his films: “… in my infinite stupidity I looked down my nose at the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, thus alienating myself from his magic ... it was fashionable at the time … to be superior about Tchaikovsky’s music … The pendulum, thank heavens, has begun to swing again …”

Nupen’s films encourage us to look afresh at Tchaikovsky’s tormented life. Through an unerringly apposite selection of readings from Tchaikovsky’s letters and other writings his commentary sharply focuses on the composer’s tormented life, his loneliness, guilt and anguish and his feelings of alienation due to his homosexuality. In the first film, Tchaikovsky’s Women, Nupen covers Tchaikovsky’s heightened sensitivity and his fraught relationships with women beginning with his close, obsessive attachment to his mother. This includes the famous story of how, when he was a small boy, he clung to the wheels of his mother’s carriage when she left him at his boarding school. Nupen, aided by Ashkenazy’s sympathetic, emotionally-charged performances of well chosen excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s The Storm, Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini, demonstrate how the composer so closely empathized with the plight and anguish of his heroines: Katerina, Juliet and Francesca respectively. Cynthia Harvey, in dance, exquisitely expresses the anguish of Katerina, Juliet and Swan Lake’s Odette. Clara Bartha sings Donna Anna, another suffering female, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a work that had a profound influence on Tchaikovsky. The visuals in this first film are appropriately close and darkly lit.

Tchaikovsky’s Women, climaxes with the composer’s ill-fated marriage to Antonia Milyukova - how it was precipitated by the strange coincidence of Milyukova’s pleading love letters with the simultaneous composition of his opera Eugene Onegin and most particularly ‘Tatiana’s Letter Scene’ in which the young heroine confesses her love for Onegin. Soprano, Helen Field, nicely demonstrates Tatiana’s shy passion yet inescapable compulsion.

The second film, Fate, begins where Tchaikovsky’s Women ends. After the trauma of his marriage, another woman entered his life. Nupen shows how Nadezhda von Meck became, in effect, a surrogate mother. Strangely, they never met but shared a growing intimacy in their correspondence. Her patronage relieved him from financial worries and allowed him to concentrate on composition. Interestingly Nupen illuminates something of von Meck’s background in that she felt guilty about an affair she had had; an affair which she felt contributed to her husband’s death. The visuals in this second film are more restrictive concentrating on portraits of the composer ageing through to 1893, the year of his death, manuscripts and scores. There’s also extensive film of Ashkenazy conducting excerpts from Symphonies 4, ‘Manfred’, 5 and 6. Nupen underlines how Tchaikovsky became increasingly preoccupied with the idea of a malignant fate stalking his life. More positively he thought much of his 4th Symphony, about Fate, declaring it to be for himself and von Meck. But then he disparaged his 5th Symphony, claiming it to be far inferior to his 4th. Nupen suggests, quite reasonably, that Tchaikovsky was drawn to the concept of Byron’s Manfred because of its connotations of forbidden love: incest in Byron’s case and homosexuality in Tchaikovsky’s. Manfred is epitomized by a dark and anguished theme and it is interesting that, once again, Tchaikovsky reserves his most sympathetic and appealing music for Byron’s misused heroine, Astarte. Most anguished of all is the story of the difficult development of the 6th ‘Pathétique’ Symphony which at length Tchaikovsky recognized to be his masterpiece. It was to contain the frankest of his self-portraits and it was not a little to do with an acceptance of his fate and the imminence of death - a fate that was awaiting him just around the corner.

Revelatory films focusing exclusively on torment with no relief to include coverage of the lighter works such as Capriccio Italien, Souvenir de Florence, Mozartiana or the Rococo Variations.

A frank and harrowing portrait of a misunderstood and, still, a too little appreciated genius.

Ian Lace