Roland John Wiley
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 2009. 546 pages.
Summary for the Busy Executive: For once, Tchaikovsky the composer as
well as the man.
For several reasons, most books on Tchaikovsky tend to concentrate on
the life, rather than on the music, or at least see the music solely in
terms of the life. Tchaikovsky's neuroses, the rise of so-called "queer
studies," and the mysteries surrounding his death all contribute to this
phenomenon, as if we could understand his music by understanding his
life or his sexual orientation or the "clues" he left behind. I don't
completely buy this, simply because I believe that artists (indeed, human
beings in general) have more than one self and that the lens we choose
through which to examine the data comes down to a matter of current
fashion. An artist may of course suffer the pangs of love, but composing
a decent symphony, painting a good picture, or writing a non-junk poem
demands a bit of distance and attention to too many issues that have
nothing to do with any spur the life may have given. Tchaikovsky
undoubtedly viewed himself as homosexual, but his art as Russian -
nationalism trumping sexual orientation in the nineteenth century as
the more important viewpoint. As Wiley makes clear from the composer's
letters, the Sixth Symphony came about because Tchaikovsky wanted to
write a symphony which outdid all his others, especially in the matter
of form, and which would force non-Russians to take his music as seriously
as they took that of the Germans.
Wiley organizes the book mainly by alternating chapters on phases of the
life and then on the music composed during each phase. He follows this
with his analysis of the various theories of Tchaikovsky's death and an
afterward. As back matter, one also finds a helpful index, parallel
chronologies of Tchaikovsky's life and European events, and a "cast of
characters," just in case you forget someone in the crowd. Tchaikovsky
knew a lot of people.
Wiley, an old Tchaikovsky hand (he also wrote a book on the ballets and
others on Russian ballets generally), doesn't gloss over the hard facts
of Tchaikovsky's life and personality, which comes across as a mixture
of self-indulgence and self-loathing. Wiley has no moral ax to grind
one way or the other. He reserves his criticism for Modest and the rest
of the family, who ruthlessly censored or destroyed Tchaikovsky's letters
in order to avoid posthumous scandal. While mourning the loss to
scholarship, one can't help but think that Tchaikovsky would have sided
with the family. At some level, he was ashamed of his sexual preferences,
and because of this, he married disastrously, thinking to overcome them.
On the other hand, he (and his brother Modest, also gay) viewed homosexuality
as innate. So the marriage had little chance, even as a marriage of
convenience. Antonina, his unlucky wife, tried her best to please him.
Wiley cites many testimonials to her modest character, at least in the
beginning. Tchaikovsky's desertion seems to have undone her. She
descended into harder and meaner circumstances and eventually insanity.
Moreover, she always held the threat of blackmail over him, even as she
seemed to want him back. Her letters always upset him and often cut
into his composing. Nevertheless, he supported her for the rest of his
days and left her a stipend in his will.
His deepest relationship, ironically enough, was with a woman: his patron,
Nadezhda von Meck. I think Wiley a little weak here. There's more to
their connection than he elucidates, although he's very clear as to why
she broke off. Tchaikovsky earned a lot of money, in addition to her
bequests, and yet he was always in some financial hole. He kept touching
her for more. A reversal in her fortunes frightened her, and she
determined to keep the money for herself and her family. Tchaikovsky
saw this as a personal betrayal. He kept insisting to correspondents
that she was still rich as Croesus. He obviously hadn't a clue.
The facts of Tchaikovsky's life (with the exception of his last days)
are pretty well established. To his credit, Wiley also discusses the
music - the reason why Tchaikovsky attracts us in the first place. Until
quite recently, the composer got little respect. Adorno particularly
(and predictably) bashes him as cheap and second-rate. When Stravinsky
- the cachet of his reputation helped - named Tchaikovsky as his favorite
Russian composer, the tide slowly began to turn. Even so, outside of
academic papers, very little has appeared on the music. Wiley tells you
not even close to everything. In a book this length, it would be hard.
However, at least he gets beyond the usual picture of the composer as
a "musical idiot" who occasionally turned out something good, despite
himself. He places Tchaikovsky's music within its time and gives us
a peek at how Tchaikovsky structured his works. The Fourth Symphony,
for example, uses a descending tetrachord for the opening theme of each
movement. It's not exactly the steely logic of Beethoven but more of
a technique of reminiscence, the feeling that "I've heard this before."
He cites many more instances of Tchaikovsky's original approach to
structure. He also offers a pretty convincing rationale for the opening
movement of the first piano concerto - that great striding theme the
composer suddenly drops and never uses again.
Furthermore, Wiley goes into Tchaikovsky's operas, an important part of
his output. Indeed, the composer wrote more operas than symphonies, but
only two are done in the West. I know only those two - Yevgeny Onegin
and Pique Dame. A lot of it comes down merely to summing up the plot,
but Wiley does make musical points and occasionally quotes from the
scores. He speculates very well about Tchaikovsky's theory of drama and
applies it to the late ballets Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker as well.
The argument is too complex to sum up here (you can read the book), but
essentially it comes down to Tchaikovsky's rejection of realism in favor
of the new symbolism. At any rate, Wiley fired me up to listen to Vakula
the Smith (a.k.a. The Slippers, in its revised form), Iolanta, The
Enchantress, and Maid of Orleans.
Wiley subjects the various accounts of Tchaikovsky's death, from brother
Modest on, to severe historic scrutiny. Modest, as we have seen, is
unreliable. Another family member gives another account, but it doesn't
jive with the bulk of testimony and has all the marks of a "good yarn"
to dine out on. The judgment of the Court of Honor which supposedly
condemned Tchaikovsky to death for his sexual activities gained a vogue
some years ago, mainly because it has all the sweet juice of scandal.
However, as Wiley points out, why would Tchaikovsky have committed himself
to future projects (as we know he did) after the Court supposedly met?
Second, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was hardly a deep dark secret. Why
did the Court wait to convene until the man was in his Fifties? Still,
Wiley has questions of his own: why did the doctor leave in the middle
of the composer's death crisis; why did Modest allow him to?
I do have some nits to pick. Wiley's a fairly blah writer, although
what he has to say is interesting. The book could have used some
tightening. Also, there's the thorny matter of Russian-English
transliteration. "Tchaikovsky" is spelled thus on the cover and throughout
the text, "Chaikovsky" in the index and in the cast of characters. This
happens with several names. It's the current academic fad to try to
transliterate character to character. Furthermore, my sister, a big-deal
Russian translator, tells me that the Library of Congress insists on its
own system for indices. However, pick a spelling and stick to it, please.
At any rate, I hope this signals more Tchaikovsky aesthetic studies to
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