Tchaikovsky. Roland John Wiley.
Oxford University Press (The Master Musicians Series), 2009. 546 pages.
Publication date: August 6, 2009
Wiley, who previously published a study of Tchaikovsky's Ballets, now
offers a scholarly study of this composer's life and works. Fact-based,
it is neither theory-driven nor psychologizing and is of considerable
reference value. About equally divided between Tchaikovsky's biography
and his music, and strictly chronological rather than organized by theme
or kinds of musical work, it has the strengths and limitations of such
an approach. Twenty chapters, alternating between life and works, focus
on as short a period as a single year or as long as seven years; each
year of his life story is noted in boldface and the chapter following
discusses the works written in that timeframe, in order of composition.
A final chapter discusses the controversial circumstances of Tchaikovsky's
The events of Tchaikovsky's life are related in enough detail as
occasionally to seem like accounts from his day-books. Very many of
the people he had personal or professional dealings appear, some better
introduced than others. (Happily, Wiley includes an appendix of names
where the reader can look them up. Unhappily, the index and bibliography
use a different transliteration of names than the one he generally uses
in the main text.) Among them are Tchaikovsky's siblings other than
Modeste, the best-known, and some of their children. So are the names
of some of Tchailovsky's lovers or those he might have wanted to be
lovers; Wiley is quite matter of fact about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality.
There is a full account of Tchaikovsky's failed marriage and his later
dealings with his former spouse. One learns that his brothers had a
hand in separating the couple, and Tchaikovsky supported her for many
years even after she entered another relationship.
Professional associates most frequently mentioned are his publishers
and fellow composers, including Mahler and Brahms. The account of his
acquaintance with Brahms shows that each composer had more respect for
the other than some accounts might suggest.
Tchaikovsky traveled widely, within the Russian Empire and to Prague,
Germany, France, Italy and the United States. Occasionally the means
of transport and accommodations are mentioned but generally the travels
are given only a cursory mention. The biography primarily focuses on
Tchaikovsky the composer, as no doubt it should, but it would have been
a welcome addition to the text if we had been given a fuller account
of the places the composer visited, especially in the earlier years.
The final chapter, as mentioned, discusses the death of Tchaikovsky at
age 53. The circumstances raised questions even at the time and more
recently have been the focus of various conspiracy theories. About all
this Wiley is judicious, perhaps to a fault, and in any case to the
degree that it helps to read this chapter more than once.
Wiley does not find the case for suicide or murder by poison well
supported by evidence: 'the conspiracy theories are worthless in an
evidentiary sense,' even though according to one version a physician
'supposedly admitted in old age' that he administered poison. Supposedly?
Referenced but not explained. But Wiley also finds the simple explanation
of death by cholera suspicious for reasons he relates, and he concludes
that 'we do not know and probably never will know beyond doubt the cause
of Tchaikovsky's death.' Some of Wiley's own statements are obscure or
questionable: he finds it suspicious that Tchaikovsky's chief physicians,
neither very familiar with cholera, did not remain with their patient
until his end. The short paragraph at the bottom of page 444 beginning
with 'that Tchaikovsky could not have died of cholera...' [and ending]
'leaves open the possibility that he died of cholera, but refutes
conspiracy' is desperately in need of rewriting.
One benefit of the chronological discussion of musical works, rather
than a grouping by form (a difficult choice for the author) is that
the circumstances of their composition in the context of the composer's
life and the ebbing and flowing of his creativity, are followed almost
immediately by a discussion of them in musical and dramatic terms. Even
better is the fact that musical similarities among works of different
genres can be seen as the works followed one another. For instance,
there are musical connections between The Sleeping Beauty, Manfred, and
the Fifth Symphony, as well as between the Fifth Symphony and The Queen
of Spades, all composed within a five year period.
It appears that from Op. 1 on, all of Tchaikovsky's works are discussed,
many at considerable and surprising length. Plots of the operas are
summarized and several song cycles are described song by song even to
their verbal content. The Queen of Spades is given eleven pages and the
Pathetique Symphony 10 pages. The orchestral suites are given interesting
treatment, partly in terms of a Russian term 'prelist', indicating 'sheer
attractiveness and enticing sound,' applicable to much of this composer's
music. Wiley is much more inclined to show how pieces were put together
and where they came from than to discuss them in terms of their musical
merits, though he often gives the opinions of Tchaikovsky's contemporaries
about them, as well as some of Tchaikovsky's own second thoughts about
them. The composer was proud of the Pathetique, not so much of the Fifth
Symphony or Manfred. Really hostile - and pretentious--modern criticism
of the Fifth is mentioned: 'Resuscitated in the concert hall by German
conductors after Tchaikovsky's death, the Fifth has since been scorned
by German thinkers, including Adorno, for whom the Andante is kitch, the
return of its principal melody 'the depraved reflection of that epiphany
which is vouchsafed only to the greatest works of art.' Karl Dahlhous
spoke of the same movement in terms of the 'trivial' 'the simple' and
kitch coming 'through the transfiguration of the trivial.'
On balance this is an outstandingly good study, though one might wish
that it had been more assertively edited in places. Although its intended
audience is probably not the general reader, it is generally readable
enough, despite occasional infelicities of phrasing. There are some
musical examples and considerable mention of key relationships and the
like which the untrained reader can easily pass over. A minor annoyance
is the social science style of references embedded in the main text and
it is essential to read the couple of pages explaining spelling, citations
and dates at the beginning, if one wishes to consult the citations.
Copyright 2009 by R. James Tobin
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