An introduction to the REVEALING TCHAIKOVSKY Festival

at London's South Bank - November 2008




It is good that Tchaikovsky is at last being ‘revealed’, rather than repeatedly and relentlessly over exposed. In common with fellow Russians, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov, a fraction of his output is overplayed, while much of value and interest rarely gets a live performance. Since his own inadvertent epitaph, the Pathétique Symphony, with its nihilistic, slow, dying finale, trumped by Tchaikovsky’s unexpected death just days after he conducted its first performance, a sensational rumour-mill has been operational which has clouded perception of who Tchaikovsky the man really was, and more fundamentally, the astonishing emotional variety and technical consistency of his music. This range is apparent even if ones knowledge is confined to his greatest hits. What greater contrast could there be between the Adagio of the Pathétique symphony, and the Chinese Dance from The Nutcracker? Yet he is recognizably himself in both guises. His most abandoned emotional utterances are always disciplined by firm structure and concision, and his sense of humour, colour and poise are unerring.


Mind you, aspects of his life have made particularly good copy, his disastrous marriage, failed suicide attempt, and the tangled thicket of rumour that surrounds his precipitous death. This thicket, unlike that in The Sleeping Beauty, is taking more than one hundred years to cut through, despite much detailed and sober academic research. Encouraged by a superficial perception of his music as slapped onto paper in an out-of-body fever, its intense subjectivity and emotional identification defying analysis, novelists and film-makers like Klaus Mann in Symphonie Pathétique (1935) and Ken Russell in The Music Lovers (1970) have gleefully added fuel to the flames. Even a recent commentator, no doubt miffed by the collapse of the theory that Tchaikovsky was forced to commit suicide by a jury of law school chums because of an imminent homosexual denunciation to the Tsar, and bored by the fact that the cholera story due to drinking an unboiled glass of water in a St. Petersburg restaurant theory (risky, even today) is possibly true, has rather irresponsibly, yet entertainingly surmised that Tchaikovsky must have picked up something nasty while cruising the St. Petersburg streets for young male flesh! 


If only he had had the time! Tchaikovsky’s facility and fecundity were incredible – his Fourth symphony was written in two weeks, and The Queen of Spades in forty-four days. Technique and industry are required for such feats, not just inspiration. Tchaikovsky’s scores are technically impeccable; both Mahler and Sibelius were in awe of his skill, and the latter would use Tchaikovsky’s scores as exemplars to pupils.  To this end, Tchaikovsky’s life was one of iron clad routine, of methodical daily output, closer to J.S Bach, or Haydn, than to the Hollywood stereotype of a tortured romantic.  He was righteously contemptuous of his contemporaries, those dilettantish geniuses Mussorgsky and Borodin, for squandering their extraordinary talents with their chaotic lack of professional routine, resulting in pitifully small outputs that left much unfinished. 


Tchaikovsky, as seen by colleagues and friends, is revealed to be a modest, shy, dapper, approachable and charming man. An account, written by Mrs Brodsky, wife of Adolf Brodsky who in 1881 premiered the Violin Concerto, of a chance meeting on New Year’s Day 1887 between Tchaikovsky, Edvard and Nina Grieg and Brahms, is endearing indeed, particularly as a rehearsal of the latter’s C minor Piano Trio was in progress, and Tchaikovsky detested Brahms’s music. A celebrated diary entry reveals ‘Today I played through some music by that scoundrel, Brahms. What a talentless bastard’; the feeling was mutual. Instead, Tchaikovsky quickly disarmed the prickly Brahms and a jolly tea party was had by all. The composer and Rimsky-Korsakov protégé, Glazunov, relates a potentially sticky situation at one of Balakirev’s soirees in 1884. Balakirev was the leader of the St. Petersburg group of composers known as the Mighty Handful, and there had been much press polemic between Balakirev’s nationalist ideals, and Tchaikovsky’s more cosmopolitan style. Glazunov wrote:


Piotr Ilyich  brought a breath of freshness into our somewhat dusty atmosphere, and talked without constraint about subjects on which we kept quiet, partly out of a feeling of admiration (combined with a certain fear) for the authority of Balakirev. ….Many of the younger musicians….left….enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s personality. 


However, Balakirev proved himself invaluable to Tchaikovsky by suggesting programmes for his first bona-fide masterpiece, the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet, and the Manfred symphony. 



This festival will highlight both Tchaikovsky’s musical sources and his considerable influence. Maybe his most significant legacy to musical history and progress is his emancipation of ballet – his three scores are rightly regarded as pinnacles of his output. Yet, when he wrote Swan Lake in 1876, ballet music was held in low esteem, and his colleagues thought he was wasting his time. He was a connoisseur of ballet, and though fond of earlier ballet scores,  it seems that Delibes Coppélia,  provided the spur for him to try his hand at the genre. It will be instructive to compare the final acts of the Hamlet of classical ballet - Adam’s Giselle - and Swan Lake, both with their watery apotheoses.


It is Tchaikovsky’s acute rhythmic invention that emancipated both the genre of ballet music and symphonic form – as distinguished contemporary composer Robin Holloway puts it:  ‘Tchaikovsky of course is always utterly physical. The whole body, not just the feet, want to move…..Tchaikovsky’s range is huge – The Sleeping Beauty in particular is a compendium of gestural and rhythmic models’. 


The composers essential to his make-up were unexpected. Despite his romantic rhetoric, he regarded the flashiest and splashiest of the early romantics, Berlioz and Liszt with much suspicion. Instead, Mozart was his lodestone, and a subject of substantial homage in significant works.  Stravinsky certainly picked up on Tchaikovsky’s re-composing of Mozart’s ideas in the masque of The Queen of Spades and the 4th suite, Mozartiana as a source for his neo-classical style, and indeed re-composed Tchaikovsky in The Fairy’s Kiss  - an astonishing amalgam of two unmistakable compositional styles. Tchaikovsky, like all Russian composers revered Glinka, and endorsed the latter’s 1848 orchestral fantasy Kamarinskaya as the core of all Russian symphonic music “just as the whole oak is in the acorn”, as he put it in a diary entry in 1888. Both shared a youthful predilection for Italian opera, and certainly sources for Tchaikovsky’s melodic ease can be found in the bel-canto repertoire of Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. However he applauded Glinka’s assimilation of Russian folk music inflexions into concert music, and though was of a more cosmopolitan bent than the Russian Nationalists, could write music within traditional Russian genres, most surprisingly a corpus of little heard Orthodox Russian choral music, that will be featured.

Another essential source is Robert Schumann, whose Manfred Overture is juxtaposed with Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in concert. Vladimir Jurowski, curator of this festival, has pointed out great structural similarities between the song-cycle Frauenliebe und Leben and Tchaikovsky’s ‘confessional’ opera, Eugene Onegin. Robin Holloway has taken this one step further and suggested a continuity from Schumann to the piecemeal mosaic structures of the full length ballets. Schumann’s concentration, elliptical qualities, concision and infinitely nuanced harmonic language ground Tchaikovsky’s style, as much as they do Massenet’s, the French opera composer Tchaikovsky so admired. It is the French connection that is the most apparent in Tchaikovsky’s music and his emotional affinities, as a child. His French governess Fanny Dürbach was the warm, emotional presence that his mother was incapable of being and he recalled traditional French songs sung to him as a child in later works. Not only was French ballet influential, but certain French operas had a huge effect on him, notably Massenet’s Le roi de Lahore and, above all, Bizet’s Carmen. 

Of his Russian contemporaries, he had time only for Rimsky-Korsakov, who overcame his early dilettantish years by stringent self-education and professionalism, and who drilled into his pupil Stravinsky the same work ethic. Rimsky seems to have been uneasy with Tchaikovsky. It is not too fanciful to suggest that he was intimidated by Tchaikovsky’s inexorable rise in the public’s favour, and patronage of Tsar Alexander III from 1885 onwards, not to mention the sheer quality and quantity of music produced by Tchaikovky in his last decade. For Rimsky, the 1880’s were dominated by editorial work on the legacies of his dead comrades, Mussorgsky and Borodin, the death of two infant children, deep depression and a few oases of fitful creativity. Maybe, not surprisingly, Tchaikovsky’s death unleashed a period of manic creativity that lasted until his own death fifteen years later. Tellingly, Rimsky’s first project in this period of renewal was a Gogol opera, Christmas Eve (1894), based on the same tale that Tchaikovsky had used for his opera Vakula the Smith (1874), revised as Cherevichky (The Slippers) in the mid 1880’s. Though Rimsky stylistically was very much his own man, echoes of Tchaikovsky can be heard in his later music, notably in his attempts to forge a more expressive melodic style emancipated from the contours of Russian folk-melody, manifested overtly in The Three Wonders, the final movement of the suite from the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan


Because of this unspoken rivalry, Rimsky’s attitude to Tchaikovsky’s music could be snide and one-sided, - his put down of Tchaikovsky’s last opera Iolanta was harsh and unjustified, especially as Tchaikovsky had been so enthralled by Rimsky’s ‘total mastery’ in his opera The Snow Maiden, and the extravagant orchestral invention of the Spanish Caprice, which resulted in a systematic exploration of the potential of the late romantic orchestra, as evinced in several transitional works in the 1880’s, notably the series of Orchestral Suites  and the concertante works, notably the Piano Concerto no. 2. Through these works Tchaikovsky’s orchestral style undergoes a sea-change from the simply and directly scored masterpieces of the 1870’s to the late works, which abound in filigree textures and a fascination with colour used for its own sake.


To younger composers, Tchaikovsky could be extremely generous. He recognized Rachmaninov’s extraordinary preciosity at nineteen with his graduate opera Aleko (1892), and suggested it shared a double bill with his recently completed Iolanta, thus kick-starting a glorious career. He also influenced a host of slightly younger composers, notably Glazunov, Kalinnikov and Sergei Taneyev. He was in fact rather intimidated by this former pupil’s total mastery of contrapuntal techniques, and even though Tchaikovsky was notoriously sensitive to adverse criticism, took the blunt but honest opinions of this ‘Russian Brahms’ very seriously. Taneyev’s  Fourth Symphony will get a rare outing in concert, and his completion/conflation of Tchaikovsky’s abandoned sketches for a 7th symphony, later reworked as a piano concerto will be heard. Incidentally, this posthumous 3rd piano concerto can serve as further proof to explode the popular misconception that Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, the Pathétique was intended as a tear-soaked suicide note. In his last weeks, Tchaikovsky was negotiating full-scale revisions of Swan Lake and an early historical opera, The Oprichnik (1872), as well as considering other operatic projects on sources as diverse as George Eliot and Indian mythology. 

His posthumous influence was enormous. Both the Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of his creativity have produced rich pickings for future geniuses: his use of symphonic form as subjective confessional transmitted directly to Mahler, who conducted Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, Iolanta and the Pathétique – the latter often – and by extension to Shostakovich, yet his emancipation of the ballet genre, his mastery of miniature forms and his rhythmic invention, informs much of Stravinsky’s cooler, more objective aesthetic. 


Tchaikovsky revealed – in the words of an earlier writer, who had best remain nameless – not as ‘part hysteric, part invert’ (!) but as a more protean composer than his detractors could ever give him credit for; one of the greats, whose range and skill entitle him to a place at the top table of great composers.