In 1996 Dante, the now defunct French CD label, issued five volumes of the complete Columbia (EMI) recordings of the Polish pianist and composer André Tchaikowsky. I was fortunate enough to get them; they are now virtually unobtainable. They engendered an interest in this pianist who seemed, at the time, to have gone off the radar. Whilst I enjoyed all of these recordings, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the selection of Chopin’s Mazurkas, 15 in all, struck me as exceptional. Later I managed to obtain his 1958 recording of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C major K503, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner, but the scarcity of his recordings necessitated me ordering this one from Japan. Gleaning odd snippets about his life from various diverse sources, the most startling revelation was that, in his will, he had bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company, hoping that it would be used as a prop on stage as the skull of Yorick in productions of Hamlet
. After his death from colon cancer in 1982, at the premature age of only 46, this wish was carried out.
The book’s editor/author, Dr. Anastasia Belina-Johnson, is Principal Lecturer in Music and Classical Pathway Leader at Leeds College of Music. As well as having a Ph.D. for her dissertation on Taneyev’s opera Oresteia
, she has a degree in piano performance. Having several publications to her name, this latest one from Toccata Press is very welcome indeed. The author sets out her aim at the beginning, to detail the life and work of Tchaikowsky through his own writings; these include his diaries, letters and a testimony he wrote after the Second World War. Many of his friends and colleagues have also been interviewed, and share their memories of this enigmatic personality who was both a pianist and composer.
Conveniently laid out in four sections, first comes a biographical outline by the author, followed by a testimony set down by Tchaikowsky himself in 1947, at the age of eleven or twelve. This was written at the request of the Jewish Historical Institute who wanted the Jews, who had inhabited the Warsaw Ghettos and had survived the war, to record their experiences for posterity. The main bulk of the book is taken up with Part III, an edited version of the diaries that Tchaikowsky kept between 1974-1982. There follows a survey (Part IV) of the musical compositions of Tchaikowsky. Two very useful and detailed appendices end the book, tabulating both the recordings of Tchaikowsky’s compositions and the recorded performances of the pianist, from a chronological perspective.
What emerges from this ‘biography’ is a prickly character, prone to outbursts and self-destructive behaviour. Shunning convention, he never really fitted in with the social mores of the concert-giving circuit. One can almost say he burned his boats, alienating concert managers and record producers with his sometimes outrageous and churlish behavior. The pianist Peter Frankl relates an amusing story which illustrates Tchaikowsky’s desire to shock at a dinner party given at the home of the Dallas socialite Mildred Foster. When asked to speak, Tchaikowsky explained to the startled throng that he was ‘a communist, I eat with my fingers, I never take a bath, I’m Jewish, I pick my nose, I believe in equal rights of whites and blacks, and, finally, I’m a homosexual’
. This was during a tour of the States 1957-58. His erratic and sometimes insulting behaviour definitely impacted on his career and probably held him back, especially in the USA. The paucity (in quantity) of his commercially recorded output - he made a combined total of ten records for RCA Victor and Columbia Records - was undoubtedly the result of his abrasive and uncooperative personality.
In his 1947 testimony, he recounts his experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto. For a period he lived in a wardrobe, hidden there by his grandmother. Much of the account is harrowing. It was here that his grandmother gave him the name Tchaikowsky to dupe the Nazis: he was born Andrzej Krauthammer. The anxiety, depression, lack of self-esteem, irritability, disturbing thoughts and inappropriate behaviour all seem to stem from the traumatic childhood events of his life in the Ghetto. The author suggests that they are negative traits common to other Holocaust survivors.
Despite his personal short-comings he had several close friends, yet he compartmentalized his personal life in such a way that many of these did not know each other. At times he showed great generosity. One touching story relates how a friend asked him to play the Beethoven Op. 109 as a twenty-first birthday gift, and although Tchaikowsky hadn’t played it for two years, he hadn’t the heart to refuse him. Yet, on the other side of the coin, he could also sever relationships uncompromisingly. His lovers came and went, and these relationships ultimately remained unfulfilled; sexual frustration became the norm. The constant reliance on prescription medication, Tuinal and Valium, helped deaden the pain somewhat, but he eventually became conscious of their deleterious effects. He documents his perceived mental deterioration, some memory loss and general depletion of his thought processes. All attempts to discontinue them were in vain due probably to lack of will-power and an over-riding fear of not being able to sleep at night.
It may be news to many that Tchaikowsky was a composer as well as a concert pianist. Indeed, what is evident from his diaries is that he regarded his principal calling as that of a composer, and his concert-giving almost as a means to financially support that end. Debt was a constant worry throughout his life, even more so when he incurred medical expenses in Germany in his last year when he had to undergo emergency surgery for a life-threatening event. Throughout, one almost senses a deep underlying resentment at the time spent in practice and the travel involved in the life of a piano virtuoso. He seemed to be only truly fulfilled in the act of composition - creation rather than recreation. He truly was ‘a musician divided’. An excellent survey of Tchaikowsky’s compositions concludes the book.
A CD is included entitled ‘André Tchaikowsky in Recital’. It is an amateur recording of a private concert given for students, interspersed with commentary by the pianist. It took place in Currie Hall, University of Western Australia, Perth on 2 June 1975, whilst Tchaikowsky was artist-in-residence there. It is good to hear his strongly Polish-accented English. What is striking is the warm rapport he had with his audience, and the relaxed, informal, humorous and light-hearted atmosphere he created with those around him. What I found particularly of interest was his take on the Schumann Fantasy in C major, Op.17, a work he never recorded and here performs complete. He explains his desire to give it a run-through, before he plays it in concert the following week. A Bach Prelude and Fugue, and the ubiquitous ’Moonlight Sonata’ are thrown in, for good measure. Frustratingly, the final movement of Chopin’s third Sonata - the only movement he plays on this occasion - comes to an abrupt end half-way through when the tape runs out. The concert takes place in a common room on an old upright piano. The sound quality is at times less than ideal but, as far as I know, this is the only instance available where we have the opportunity to hear the pianist speak. I have searched, in vain, on Youtube and elsewhere to find some film of Tchaikowsky, but regrettably there seems to be nothing.
All told, this is a very well-researched ‘biography’. The edited diaries, which account for over half the book, I found especially revealing, and I came away from them feeling I had really got under the skin of this fascinating character. Clearly this has been a labour of love for the author, and if her intentions were to reawaken an interest in this almost forgotten musician, she has truly succeeded.
Dear Mr. Greenbank,
It was with delight that I read your review. You have captured the very essence of the book and accompanying CD.
As for a film of Andre Tchaikowsky, which you could not find on YouTube (or anywhere for that matter), there is one YouTube video as "unlisted" (that's why it didn't show up on a search) with Andre playing the Prokofiev 3 (but a link exists on the Andre website):
A documentary about Andre that is in preparation does appear on YouTube and this has a few snippets of video as well.
Finally, a website in tribute to Andre exists with all his recordings, many performances, notes, programs and even a full biography, all free.
Once again, wonderful to read your review and I will be ordering a book through your website to be sent to one of Andre's friends, now living in Brazil.