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21 November 2018


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The Controversial Composer
 

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Controversial Composer

by Richard Taruskin

Of Tchaikowsky's symphony apart from its performance I need only say that it is highly characteristic of him. In the first movement, the only one with a distinctly poetic basis, he is, as ever, "le Byron de nos jours"; and in the later ones, where he is confessedly the orchestral voluptuary, he is Byronic in that too. The most notable merit of the symphony is its freedom from the frightful effeminacy of most modern works of the romantic school.

While some of its thematic material is engaging and well presented and the orchestration is interesting throughout, there is no trace of development in the symphonic sense, but merely a succession of repetitions and a sequence of climactic runs that often become hysterical.

These comically contrasting opinions pertain to the same symphony, Tchaikovsky's Fourth. The first is from a review of the English premiere, which took place under the composer's baton at a London Philharmonic concert on June 1, 1893. (Tchaikovsky was passing through on his way to Cambridge, where he was to receive an honorary doctorate alongside Boito, Bruch, Saint-Saens and Grieg, certifying his status in the company of the contemporary great.) The review appeared six days later in The World, over the byline of its regular critic, one Corno di Bassetto, who had just started writing plays under his given name, George Bernard Shaw. The other extract is from a venerable textbook, Paul Henry Lang's Music in Western Civilization (1941), a work that for at least a quarter-century played a controlling role in defining and defending canonical musical values for the English-speaking peoples. ("Tchaikovsky," it took care to inform its readers, "does not belong in the company of the great of music.")

Tchaikovsky's decline in critical standing (though never in popularity) has to be read partly against the background of the general academization of taste that reached its midcentury – no, let's face it, its cold war – culmination in New Critical formalism. This obvious difference, however, should not obscure the equally important affinity between Shaw's appraisal and Lang's. Manliness is a cardinal issue for them both. But where one critic ensconces Tchaikovsky as a bulwark against creeping sissification, the other grants him an honorary uterus. Both views were typical in their day.

How did that change come about? To begin with, scarcely five months after Shaw's review appeared, Tchaikovsky died suddenly under bewildering circumstances. His death was attributed to cholera, a disease that was transmitted mainly by contaminated feces, and by the 1890s was considered a disease of the underclass. That year's epidemic in St. Petersburg, a city built on bogs where contagions flourished (and where Tchaikovsky, who lived near Moscow, was visiting his younger brother Modest), had mainly passed. At the funeral the body was displayed, in violation of familiar but in fact obsolete quarantine regulations, and the very punctilious Rimsky-Korsakov was aghast to see the cellist Verzhbilovich, dead drunk, plant a slobbering kiss upon the corpse. He wrote about it in his memoirs. Tongues wagged all over Russia. Tolstoy, who wept (to his daughter's astonishment) at the news of Tchaikovsky's death, mused that "there was something not quite clear" about him, "more as a man than as a musician."

Could there be anyone by now who does not know what Tolstoy was hinting at? As Tchaikovsky gained fame as a composer, eventually becoming the most famous composer Russia had ever produced, his private life became increasingly the object of lewd speculation. To forestall it (and to please his proud but artless father) Tchaikovsky had taken it into his head to marry, despite what Nina Berberova, his most mondaine biographer, liked to call his "complex sexuality." The great fiasco that ensued (physical revulsion, "neurasthenia," flight, messy separation) left him a wedded bachelor for the rest of his life (and a social cripple for a while), and made his secret--one that he had in common with Musorgsky, Balakirev and sundry lesser fry, to confine matters only to Russian composers--everybody's property.

That being the case, the wonder at first blush is that his life was virtually free of scandal. Only once within his lifetime, and obliquely, was Tchaikovsky's sexual irregularity ever broached in print. This happened in the aftermath of the marriage attempt, as part of a "dirty, base, vile, slander- filled philippic" (as Tchaikovsky called it) that appeared in the newspaper Novoye vremya (New Times) on August 26, 1878. Its subject was the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky was then a professor, and which is now named for him. After describing the usual backbiting and the everyday skirt-chasing, the anonymous author hinted at "amours of a different kind, but about them, for a very obvious reason, I shall not speak." In an anguished letter to Modest, Tchaikovsky confided that he read this as evidence that "my reputation falls upon the whole conservatory." It made him more desperate than ever to give up his teaching post, which the providential advent of his eccentric benefactress Madame von Meck, a colossally wealthy widow whose mysteres and complexities dovetailed nicely with his own, allowed him to do that very year.

By the mid-1880s Tchaikovsky enjoyed an unprecedented public prestige for a Russian musician, not only as a world celebrity but also as a court familiar under Tsar Alexander III (from whom he received the Vladimir Cross, the equivalent of our Presidential Medal of Freedom). He became his country's uncrowned composer laureate, the beneficiary of numerous official commissions. A complete professional, he had the whole Imperial theatrical and musical establishment in both capitals at his virtual beck and call, and kept his colleagues and his rivals in a state of despairing awe. The power of his presence on the scene was such that it literally paralyzed Rimsky-Korsakov, to whom news of Tchaikovsky's death brought deliverance from a prolonged creative block. Rimsky immediately set about exorcising Tchaikovsky's ghost with an opera, Christmas Eve, on the same subject from Gogol that had previously served Tchaikovsky as the source for a libretto.

Blessed with disciplined work habits, unencumbered by family or occupational distractions, Tchaikovsky developed a Mozartean technical facility; and he was one of very few nineteenth-century composers of whom that can be said. In 1890 he pulled off "an unbelievable trick," as he wrote early in February, with suitable bravado, to his publisher Jurgenson: "I want to write an opera for the coming season," only months away. He hied off with his brother's manservant Nazar to Florence, and by March 15 the opera was finished in vocal score, the product of forty-four days of furious brainstorming. By mid-June the orchestration was complete, four months and twenty days after the first sketches were put on paper, and the work was dispatched to the theater and to the publisher. The premiere took place on December 7, a little more than ten months after Tchaikovsky had written to Jurgenson of the plan.

The work in question, no potboiler, was The Queen of Spades, one of the mere half-dozen or so Russian operas to have breached the language barrier to world repertory status, a feat not merely of supreme craftsmanship, but also of an imaginative quality unmatched in its way in all of Russian opera. Along with The Sleeping Beauty, the greatest of all nineteenth-century ballets, The Queen of Spades exerted a tremendous and gratefully acknowledged influence on Alexandre Benois and the other prime movers of Russian aestheticism during the 1890s, marking Tchaikovsky as the guiding genius of the so-called Silver Age of Russian culture--or as one destined, had he lasted out a normal span of years, for such a stature. That efflorescence was a renaissance of aristocratic culture, and it was in large part animated, as everyone acknowledged, by what we would now call a gay sensibility. That did not brand it, however, as unhealthy or aberrant, or unmanly. The aristocratic and the gay so overlapped and intermixed in those days that they were apt to be regarded as virtually interchangeable categories.

One could hardly say that Tchaikovsky's existence was in any way frustrated or unfulfilled. His contemporaries, certainly, never said any such thing. He lived sumptuously--like a barin, as the Russians say, in lordly fashion--at crown expense. Madame von Meck's lavish subventions, which continued until 1890, gave him absolute freedom to travel. At the age of 51, already snow- capped, he impressed the 31-year-old Gustav Mahler, directing the German premiere of Eugene Onegin, as "an elderly gentleman, very likable, with elegant manners, who seems quite rich." On his visits to St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky was surrounded by a horde of dapper, adoring youths, some of them titled, some his relations, some both--"Modest's gang," as Berberova called them, who "more or less lived off him and enjoyed pleasing him," and who, since Uncle Petya had written three then-popular suites for orchestra, called themselves his "Fourth Suite." The 10-year-old Stravinsky caught sight of him from afar in the foyer of the Mariyinsky Theater, and forever afterward recalled "white hair, large shoulders, a corpulent back." This was a man of substance, of weight, a man who radiated worldly success. Above all, this was a self-made man, and that meant a manly man.

Never before had a Russian musician brought such glory to his sovereign and his nation, or represented them so impressively abroad. His state funeral (and burial in the capital, by order of his friend the Tsar) was a public event that filled the streets of St. Petersburg. The papers reported in amazement that the turnout for Tchaikovsky dwarfed those for Dostoyevsky and Turgenev. By 1893, the year of that outpouring of public adoration, not to mention the Cambridge doctorate and Shaw's review, an article like the one in Novoye vremya would have brought ridicule not on Tchaikovsky but on its author and its publisher.

There is no reason to suppose that Shaw did not know what thousands of Russians knew about Tchaikovsky, and no reason to suppose that he cared about it, by 1893, any more than they did. Homosexuality, in those days, simply did not, as today's critics say, "essentialize" a person. It did not typecast, or stereotype, or render one's nature darkly and irrevocably Other. It was a taste, a preference leading to a mode of behavior that neither predicted other aspects of one's behavior nor marked one's emotional life as alien or abnormal. At worst it was regarded as a debauchery, a vicious practice. Though homosexuality was prohibited by law in many countries, including Russia, it was a virtually unprosecuted crime for anyone possessing rank, respectability or money. For such practitioners it was regarded, and indulged, as a form of libertinage. (It has even been argued that tolerance for homosexual relations was greater in Russia than anywhere else in Europe during the nineteenth century--at least when, as usually happened, the active partner socially outranked the passive one--because Russia was a feudal society until 1861, and "gentlemanly games" were a traditional droite du seigneur.)

Thus, in the same letter to his wife in which Count Tolstoy made reference to something-not-quite-clear, he also wrote that "I feel very sorry about Tchaikovsky,... because it seemed to me that we had something in common." When Berberova interviewed Tchaikovsky's long-surviving sister-in-law Panya (that is, Praskovya Vladimirovna, nee Konshina, a millionaire heiress who married the composer's brother Anatoly in 1882 and died, at the age of 92, in 1956), the old lady was far more concerned with how the biographer would report Tchaikovsky's drinking than his sex life. She boasted gaily about her various adulterous affairs, including one with an officer named Verinovsky, who was accompanying her brother-in-law. "I stole a lover from him [Tchaikovsky] in Tiflis," she gloated, clapping her hands. "He never forgave me." When Berberova, to make sure, put the question to her straight out ("In that society where she shone as a star, what did people think of the taste for young boys?"), Panya chirped, "No one wondered at anything in our milieu."

Even (or especially) in that milieu, however, people wondered at the abrupt circumstances of Tchaikovsky's death, and the social stigma they seemed to imply. Cholera was incompatible with Tchaikovsky's exalted public image-- "simply insulting," wrote a later editor of Novoye vremya--and alternative causes were sought. It was an ideal incubator for rumors. Suicide theories were much stimulated by the Sixth Symphony, which was first performed under the composer's baton only nine days before his demise, with its lugubrious finale (ending morendo, "dying away"), its brief but conspicuous allusion to the Orthodox requiem liturgy in the first movement and above all its easily misread subtitle.

Pateticheskaya simfoniya means roughly the same thing Beethoven meant when he called his Sonata in F minor, op. 57, the Appassionata--impassioned. The Russian title does not have the connotations of its better-known French translation--Symphonie Pathetique, "a symphony of suffering." Nobody paid much attention to the piece at the first performance (sans subtitle, it should be noted). The composer complained at the disappointingly apathique reception: it was "not disliked," he wrote his publisher, "but has caused some bewilderment." And this may have prompted him to spell things out just a little. (The P-word was Modest's idea, according to Modest.) When the symphony was done again a couple of weeks later, in memoriam and with subtitle in place, everyone listened hard for portents, and that is how the symphony became a transparent suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. "Homosexual tragedy" came later.

For the great essentializer in Tchaikovsky's day was not sexuality, it was nationality. It was something of which every Russian had to be acutely aware, whether he gloried in it, or whether, like Tchaikovsky (or his early mentor Anton Rubinstein, a converted Jew who faced a double stigma) he tried to fight it. "If you only knew the insulting tone of condescension with which they address a Russian musician!" Tchaikovsky wrote to Madame von Meck from Vienna in 1877.

You can read it in their eyes: "You're just a Russian, but I am so kind and indulgent that I favor you with my attention." The hell with them! Last year I found myself against my will at Liszt's. He was nauseatingly deferential, but a smile that never left his lips spoke the sentence I underlined above with perfect clarity.

Over this, too, Tchaikovsky triumphed. His European fame eclipsed even that of Rubinstein, who was not only a composer but a world-class virtuoso. As the Cambridge degree demonstrated, but even more conclusively the invitation to come to New York and preside over the inauguration of Carnegie Hall, Tchaikovsky was accepted by the end of his fairly short life as a world figure, not a national composer but a "universal" one. The Carnegie Hall program book proclaimed him, with Brahms and Saint- Saens, one of the three greatest living musicians, and some of the New York papers huckstered him up into unchallenged supremacy.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, however, the essentialist curse had begun to reclaim him. Not at all coincidentally, it happened first in England, where Tchaikovsky had been particularly honored before. Very characteristically, too, the essentializing discourses of nationality and sexuality reappeared in tandem--as when Edwin Evans, an early English biographer (writing in 1906), equated Tchaikovsky's "racial" endowment as a Slav with "an emotional temperament, fringing hysteria," thus finally nudging him over that heavily patrolled line separating the virile from the effeminate.

Tchaikovsky's music has never been stigmatized in Russia by the composer's sexuality. In fact, the young Soviet Union was the one place where Tchaikovsky's sexuality was treated, for a while, in a frank and adult fashion--before, that is, the country lapsed into its high-Stalinist meshchanstvo, to use the Russian word for petit-bourgeois narrowmindedness.

"Tchaikovsky was homosexual," the editors of the first edition of the composer's correspondence with Madame von Meck stated in 1934, in their commentary to the letters concerning his marriage, and "here are the documents." What followed was the first publication anywhere of excerpts from letters written in 1876 to Modest, his future biographer (who had suppressed them), in which the composer referred candidly and in detail to the "inclination" and the "habits" that the two brothers shared. The Soviet editors prefaced these citations with a statement of exemplary good sense: "Tchaikovsky belongs to history; his life is the object of serious study, and we are obliged to disclose all the facts to scholarship, without undue concern as to the prurient curiosity of the casual reader."

But that openness did not last long. By 1940, the year of Tchaikovsky's centennial and his official investiture by the Bolsheviks as the best and most talented of Russian composers, printing the facts about his sexuality had become a punishable offense in his homeland. A new edition of his family correspondence, including the same letters to Modest, was confiscated in that year (it is now a great bibliographical rarity), and the editors--the same editors--were fired from their professional posts.

If Tchaikovsky was essentialized during the early Soviet period, it was not along sexual lines, but, in good Marxian fashion, along lines of class. He was viewed in the earliest Red years as the hymnifier of the Tsarist order--a fair enough assessment of his aims, actually--and during the heyday of the proletkult his music was looked upon somewhat askance, though it was never banned. (Draconian arts policies did not emerge until the 1930s.) When it became apparent that workers and peasants were not going to give him up just because the theory of the class struggle predicted that they would, a new tack was tried. He became not the proponent of the old order but the prophetic singer of its doom.

This view centered, once again, on the ever-dependable Pathetique. The very doctrinaire Marxist musicologist Boles-law Przybyszewski (the son of Stanislaw Przybyszewski, the Polish symbolist writer), who had served for a time as the director of the Moscow Conservatory, signaled the change in 1933 in an exceptionally interesting article, "Tchaikovsky: the Composer and His Age," which was reprinted the next year as the introduction to the Tchaikovsky-von Meck correspondence. Identifying Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy, the two greatest artists of late-aristocratic Russia, as a logical pair--"representatives of a dying class, who fight for their way of life but at the same time recognize that it is a doomed existence"--Przybyszewski notes a fundamental difference between them:

Whereas Tolstoy seeks a way out of the impasse by renouncing his class and hopes to find salvation in his reactionary utopia of feudal socialism, Tchaikovsky, albeit not without an internal struggle, not without resistance, and not without attempts (as in the finale of the Fourth Symphony) to lose himself in the merriment of a peasant festival, still and all has the manliness [!] to pronounce and accept the verdict--horrible for himself and for his class, but dictated by the laws of historical development--of death. He had the manliness to look historical truth in the eye and sing himself and his class a shattering requiem--the Pathetic Symphony. In this lie his strength and his originality in comparison with other ideologues of the dying aristocracy, clinging to their old estate and hoping to save it by means of a cheap seigneurial show of liberalism.

For this reason Tchaikovsky's art is not merely elegiac, but tragic--and inspiring. What is so very striking is that this paean to Tchaikovsky's manly courage (muzhestvo) and strength is found in the same volume that first revealed in print the long-rumored details of his homosexuality.

Of all the "sensational gossips about Tchaikovsky's being involved in an unsavory statutory offense in the autumn of 1893," as Nicolas Slonimsky put it as early as 1938 in a forlorn effort to scotch them, one has achieved something like canonical status in the past fifteen years. This is the tale that was brought out of the Soviet Union by Alexandra Orlova, an emigre musicologist with excellent credentials, who had worked for a time in the Tchaikovsky archive, still housed in his former residence at Klin, and had published fine documentary chronicles on the lives of the Russian composers Glinka, Musorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky himself. According to this suicide story, an "honor court" of old boys from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, Tchaikovsky's alma mater, convened at the order of Nikolai Borisovich Yakobi, the senior procurator of the Senate (not a legislative but a judicial body in Tsarist Russia). As the tale went, Yakoby had intercepted a letter from Count Stenbock-Fermor, Equerry to Tsar Alexander III, which alleged Tchaikovsky's seduction of Stenbock-Fermor's nephew. The honor court considered the "facts" and ordered the composer to commit suicide. The means of execution was said to be a poison that reproduced the symptoms of cholera.

Orlova must have heard this story, or others like it, many times over the years. In 1966, however, she heard it from the lips of a very late graduate of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, who claimed to have heard it in 1913 from Yakobi's widow Ekaterina, who had heard it from her husband himself on his deathbed in 1902. Orlova accepted this version, carried from second to third to fourth hand over a period longer than Tchaikovsky's lifetime, as eyewitness testimony, and set out, against all scholarly method, not to test it but to confirm it. Already an expert on Tchaikovsky's daily movements, she located a span of several hours otherwise unaccounted for a week or so before the composer's death, decided that that was when the "honor court" convened, and declared the story proven.

But the story could have passed no tests. Alexander Poznansky, an emigre historian who has since published the one worthwhile biography of Tchaikovsky, had no trouble at all demonstrating its implausibility on many counts-- forensic, medical, toxological, historical--in an article that appeared in 1988 in the journal Nineteenth-Century Music. The most obvious weakness in the story, beyond its opportunistic replay of the facts of Britain's Oscar Wilde affair, is the assumption that the mature Tchaikovsky would have been vulnerable to such a denunciation (let alone willing to accept a death sentence from what amounted to a bunch of forgotten high-school classmates, no matter how highly placed), and the corollary assumption that Russian aristocratic and even royal circles would have pounced with puritanical vengeance on a report of misdemeanors that were widely and openly practiced by Grand Dukes, major diplomats and powerful politicians. Poznansky has great fun listing them and their racy escapades, which were much more entertaining than anything the straitlaced Tchaikovsky could ever be accused of.

Orlova can be forgiven. Her uncritical acceptance of venerable hearsay must be ascribed to delusion engendered in a scholar who has lived her life in an atmosphere of public mendacity and repression of fact, where anything secret or forbidden was granted an automatic presumption of veracity. But there can be no forgiving the British writers who have spread Orlova's rumors, and who continue to defend them. Their credulity is founded on the most be-nighted sexual essentialism, and their innocence of method has discredited musicology in the eyes of serious scholarship. The leader of the British suicide squadron has been David Brown, lately of the music faculty at the University of Southampton, who recently completed a monumental, much acclaimed four-volume biography of the composer.

It was Brown who translated Orlova's account for publication in a British musicological journal in 1981. Brown also persuaded the editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians to allow him to end his article on Tchaikovsky in the sixth edition of that august work of reference, published in 1980, with two categorical assertions: first, "that he committed suicide cannot be doubted"; and second, "the story that he died of cholera from drinking unboiled water is fabrication." This is cagily phrased. The part about the fatal glass of water, which exists in conflicting versions, has long been suspected, and its relationship to the onset of the disease is easily challenged and ultimately immaterial; but the basic fact of cholera, unwelcome and distasteful though it always has been, was attested to at the time not only by Modest but also by a team of four top physicians with professional reputations at stake, who never recanted. Their official word, as reported by the papers at the time, was that the composer had been cured of cholera but died of the complications, namely blood poisoning from uremia caused by kidney failure. (The most recent theory, put forth by a British doctor named Thomas Stuttaford, is that it may have been unsafe homosexual sex that brought Tchaikovsky into contact with the plebeian vibrio cholerae.)

What all of these historians are looking for is the proper artistic genre in which to cast the life of music's token gay: a tragic finale in which the hero perishes in consequence of his flaw, or a parable of redemption in which, by accepting the verdict of the honor court, the pervert shows himself upstanding in the end. Either way, the appeal of the suicide story is not that it happened, but that it ought to have happened. It is the foreordained culmination of a stereotyped existence.

The issues at stake here are not confined to sexual stereotyping or subscholarly credulity. The treatment of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is only a facet of a much larger assumption--the assumption, as Stanley Hoffmann delightfully put, that "there are universal values, and they happen to be mine." This was Hoffmann's definition of ethnocentrism; but it applies, as we see, to all kinds of centrisms. At bottom it comes down to the old colonialist worldview.

Biographers such as David Brown and Edward Garden place a high premium on Tchaikovsky's Russianness--a far higher one than Tchaikovsky ever placed on it. Turning national character into a grading criterion, their first question about a piece of music is apt to be, How Russian is it? And it is a question that they have no hesitation answering in absurd comparative terms. "The Nightingale is the finest of his shorter choral pieces on secular texts," Brown writes, "and the most Russian." Dubrovin's leitmotif in the early opera Voyevoda is a "very Russian phrase," and Bastryukov's farewell in the Act I finale is "one of the most Russian passages in the whole of [the opera]." Eugene Onegin is "not only perhaps Tchaikovsky's masterpiece, but also the most deeply Russian of all his works."

Russianness, as a rule, is located in a peasant style. Its presence is vouchsafed by quoting or imitating folk tunes. Thus The Nightingale is Tchaikovsky's "most Russian" chorus because of "its solo-choral opening, irregular metres and phrasing, its modality and dynamic contrasts"--all (save the arbitrarily asserted last one) being qualities observable in published anthologies of Russian folk songs, which, by and large, is where the thoroughly urbanized and Europeanized Tchaikovsky observed them. The composer's environment, taste and education notwithstanding, Brown works hard to deduce the essentials of Tchaikovsky's musical style from "pure folksong," the unmediated musical mirror of "the Russian mind." Tchaikovsky, it is categorically asserted, was "endowed with a mind of this nature." His musical style was innate, biologically determined, and there was nothing the poor man could do about it. Brown dramatically posits the existence of an unbridgeable gap between "Russian instinct" and "Western method," the latter as categorically and reductively conceived as the former.

Viewing the Russian style and the Russian mind in this essentialized way leads to an obsession with purity. When such an obsession is voiced from the Russian side, of course, we call it "nationalism." It is something of which Brown and Garden energetically approve, and the "higher" the nationalism, the better; and this remains the conventional wisdom of musicology, strange to say. But when the obsession with Russian purity is voiced from the Western side, what shall we call it? What shall we make of the frequent chiding Tchaikovsky receives from his British biographers for not being Russian enough?

In the finale of the Fourth Symphony, Garden declares, the pure folksong is "dragged in most inappropriately, squared off with two extra beats and ruined in the process." (Balakirev, Brown adds, had used the tune "more correctly" in his Overture on Three Russian Themes.) Tchaikovsky gratuitously "mars" an aria in one of his operas, Brown announces, and "turns traitor to its essential Russianness by extending it with vocal sequence and operatic cadenza." There are even passages where the British biographer presumes to instruct his Russian subject in the ways of Russianness. They read like the words of a fatherly bwana, celebrating the picturesqueness of the quaint aboriginal world that he patronizes, ever watchful lest the natives, forsaking their essential natures, lose their exotic charm and start acting like his equals.

But Brown has his own agenda, his own mystique to construct. Preternatural, essential Russianness is not only Tchaikovsky's chief glory and distinction; it is also what defines his limitations and his secondary, subcanonical status. "His was a Russian mind forced to find its expression through techniques and forms that had been evolved by generations of alien Western creators," Brown writes, "and, this being so, it would be unreasonable to expect stylistic consistency or uniform quality."

To Brown and others, Tchaikovsky's incurable Russianness made him an abject outsider to the "universal" traditions in which he sought to establish an international career. But this analysis is as flawed as it is bigoted. Whether invoked in praise or in blame, the arbitrarily defined or proclaimed Russianess of Russian music is a normative creation, and ineluctably an invidious one. If "How Russian is it?" is your critical question, then however the question is answered, and however the question is valued, you have consigned Russian composers to a ghetto.

It has become canonical to read apochryphal meaning into Tchaikovsky's final work. "I find it very difficult to believe that a man who produced something like the Sixth Symphony was totally at ease," says Brown. "You only have to listen to the Sixth Symphony to hear a man in torment," says John Purdie, the director of the BBC's movie, Who Killed Tchaikovsky? "The finality of the testament of the Sixth Symphony almost makes it superfluous for us to indulge in any sort of speculation," says Alan Kendall, an especially fatuous pop biographer, who proceeds to speculate that "the music is the man." Alas, even Poznansky shows himself gullible here, suddenly uncritical of Tchaikovsky family traditions, when he writes pleonastically that "the Sixth Symphony was intentionally conceived by its author as autobiographical," the result of "an irresistible desire to retell in music the story of his life and his soul and to dedicate it to Bob so that his beloved nephew might be able to share and appreciate all that he himself had gone through."

Yet Poznansky's own work should free us from these simplistic views, for it explodes the idle notion of a direct parallel between the composer's life experience and the undoubtedly tragic mood of the symphony. For that we can be grateful. Biographical fallacies only cheapen aesthetic response. Art is, well, artful; and of no art is that truer than the romantic art of confession, of which the Pathetique is perhaps the outstanding example. "Always be sincere," Flanders and Swann used to say, "whether you mean it or not." That might have been Tchaikovsky's motto. His practically unparalleled ability to live up to it made him, in Poznansky's apt phrase, a "genius of the emotions"--not a genius at having emotions (we're all geniuses at that), but a genius at representing them, yours and mine as well as his.

A year after reviewing the Fourth Symphony, Corno di Bassetto covered "the late Tchaikowsky's last symphony, which was very interesting." Once again, Byron came to mind. "Like Childe Harold," the critic wrote, "who was more tragic when there was nothing whatever the matter with him than an ordinary Englishman is when he is going to be executed, Tchaikowsky could set the fateful drum rolling and make the trombones utter the sepulchral voice of destiny without any conceivable provocation." It could be said that Shaw didn't hear much of anything in the Pathetique, and that's too bad; but among the things he didn't hear was a man in torment.

What was Tchaikovsky feeling while composing his Sixth Symphony? As Shaw surmised, there was nothing whatever the matter with him. Quite the contrary. The act of producing the symphony filled his last summer with bliss. "I have never felt such self-satisfaction, such pride, such happiness," he wrote to his publisher, "as in the consciousness that I am really the creator of this beautiful work." After the first performance he spent a cheerful week, his last, in St. Petersburg with Bob and Modest. During intermission at the theater one evening he went backstage to greet one of the leading actors, a friend of his brother's. Conversation turned to spiritualism, thence to death itself. The composer of the Pathetic Symphony waved the subject aside. "There is plenty of time before we need reckon with this horror; it will not come to snatch us off just yet!" he remarked to Modest. Then he added, "I feel I shall live a long time."


Originally appeared in the July/Aug issue of Russian Life