By David Brown. Faber and Faber. 460 pp. £25. ISBN: 0 571 23194 2 


David Brown is a long respected writer whose substantial biographies of Glinka and Tchaikovsky were notable for treating nineteenth century Russian music with gravitas long before a new wave of scholarly writers (Richard Taruskin, Carolyn Abbate, Caryl Emerson, Francis Maes) made it fashionable to do so. Brown’s previous book on Tchaikovsky, a monumental four volume study that has yet to be surpassed in girth or detail, even in Russia, contained substantial excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s correspondence, available in English for the very first time. Since its publication (the final volume appeared in 1991), archives of material have opened up in post-glasnost Russia making a franker appraisal of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality possible, as well as more mystifying and conflicting evidence about Tchaikovsky’s death, which one imagines now will never be conclusively resolved. Brown updates the formidable research from his earlier book and condenses it expertly; and it is here that the value of this book lies. A complete picture of Tchaikovsky the man emerges: his philanthropy, humour, desperation and modesty in the face of increasing celebrity. Our perception of the man has been broadened and deepened considerably, as has general scholarly perception of the variety, depth and sheer quality of so much of his music. It is now simply impossible to dismiss Tchaikovsky as a neurotic; nor can one imply that his music is a reflection of subjective hysteria unfit for squeamish listeners. For this sea change, we are in David Brown's debt. 


Brown’s stated contention in his new book is that the education system has failed many music lovers, with most basic technical knowledge inappropriately taken for granted. To remedy the shortcoming, he provides the reader with three short appendixes in which he endeavours to describe musical forms (Sonata form, Rondo and Fugue), convey key structure and modulation and, in a short glossary, summarize technical and non-English musical terms in common usage. He also imposes composition star rating (***** are ‘top priority pieces‘) and some helpful and diverse ’menus’ for further and varied listening. This system is useful, particularly for this composer, where so many works are over-exposed and many more of comparable quality are relatively unplayed. 


The operas are dealt with thoroughly and fairly, with the musical qualities of The Opritchnik, Mazeppa, Cherevichky and The Enchantress given positive appraisals as well as explanations of dramatic or other issues that have led to their rarity in opera houses,  compared to the two repertoire pieces Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Full synopses are given, followed by a verbal traversal of the musical highlights which painstakingly avoids anything too musically technical. All the symphonic, major chamber works and ballets are dealt with in this manner, though, it is a shame the best of the songs and piano pieces do not receive similar treatment.


Unfortunately, these verbal guides to pieces tie themselves in knots trying to explain technical processes without recourse to musical terms. To confirm my impression, I tried selected passages out on various untrained enthusiasts who also found them dense and indigestible. The glossaries are useful, but do not go far enough. Why assume that "readers of all ages who may claim little or no musical competence" either know how a 19th century symphony orchestra is configured or would be familiar with many of the ballet or opera terms that crop up through the text. Personalias and a historical timeline, to be found in the only slightly more scholarly ‘Master Musicians’ series, would have been most appreciated features in Brown's book, as well; and wouldn't a discography be useful? Considering that the author rightfully advocates that "utterly committed listeners to Tchaikovsky’s music" should hear such neglected pieces as The Enchantress, how about aiming the reader in the right direction when there is no modern recording currently available? What about DVD’s of operas and ballets? Most baffling of all--and shame on Faber for this--how is it possible to publish such a book without a bibliography?  Such lacunae are at odds with the author's avowed intent in writing this book. 


There are more mixed signals put forth by Brown. A novice listener is instructed "not try to complete its examination at one sitting….classical music is so rich in varied details that it may require several hearings….don’t worry if getting your head around this proves formidable - ….there may already be bits that have struck you…"; yet, would a novice be reading a detailed scholarly biography in the first place? Surely, the contents of this book dictate that only someone already exposed to and excited by the music will get stuck into it and not the other way round. In stark contrast to the generally well written and researched biographical sections, there are baffling moments of mock populism: "Putting it rather crudely: Julie Andrews has become Shirley Bassey." Such a remark, describing an abrupt compositional change of tone in Swan Lake, is neither informative nor timely. Brown’s time warp is also revealed in other quirky pronouncements. In prefacing a very interesting account of Tchaikovsky’s complex professional relationship and friendship with his former teacher, Anton Rubinstein, he writes: "Relationships among Russians can often appear very volatile, and sometimes irrational, when compared with the more solid (though not necessarily superior) ways in which we conduct ourselves (mostly)." Surely, such cliché, redolent of our empire, is unacceptable and, more importantly, wide of the mark, in 2006. 


Brown’s account of the Pathétique is hijacked by a valedictory declaring that this will be his last book; and he proceeds to justify his well-intentioned approach to guiding listeners for over fifty years by stating that: "Some would say that you simply cannot define the substance of music in words, that any description of what a piece of music ‘is about’ is simply a fiction, a subjective indulgence that may tell the reader much about the author, but little about the music itself." He then proceeds to take his "own ego trip" to describe the music in frankly clotted and self-justificatory terms; in essence, he self destructs by exploding his very own raison d’etre and then refuses to lie down. A firm editorial hand and consistent forethought by the author could have made the avowed idealism of this book work. As it now reads, the book fights with itself, leaving the reader as bystander--hardly the self-avowed intent of its author.

© Julian Grant 2006