horizontal line

This latest volume in Reaktion’s Critical Lives series is concise, comprehensive, clear-sighted and thought-provoking. Far too much received opinion clouds our appreciation of Tchaikovsky’s music, while Alexandra Orlova’s theory about his death (Music and Letters, 1981), is unsupported. Yet, as the author writes, ‘rumours achieved the status of supposed fact’ … ‘Many Western scholars have wanted to find Orlova’s claims convincing’. Obviously this story is so much more colourful than the standard, death-from-cholera version.

In view of these hindrances, it is refreshing to find an eminently fair and perceptive assessment of Tchaikovsky’s life and works. For instance, ‘[Nutcracker’s] canonization as a fairy-tale work piously performed each Christmas for generations of young balletomanes has perhaps numbed our sense of its captivating strangeness’. I also like the attention given to neglected compositions – String Quartets 2 and 3, the third symphony, the orchestral suites (‘a creative laboratory for the works of his maturity’), many operas, 18 Pieces for Piano, Op 72 and Six Romances, Op 73. These last two groups contribute to the ‘impression of creative renewal’ which the author finds in Tchaikovsky’s final year.

The sixth symphony is widely regarded as a kind of requiem, as though Tchaikovsky knew his death was imminent. Yet, as outlined on p180, 1893 was ‘a year of considerable inspiration and productivity’, while Tchaikovsky’s letters reveal ‘a busy round of practical engagements’ – ‘decidedly not a portrait of a composer putting his affairs in order; it is a professional artist actively occupying himself with the future.’ The 53-year-old Tchaikovsky’s death was sudden and unexpected. It was mere chance that the sixth symphony – a tremendously original and influential work – proved to be one of his last compositions.

The use of recent scholarship is illustrated on p135. Entries in Tchaikovsky’s diary referring to feelings ‘X’ and ‘Z’ were thought to allude to his homosexuality but ‘are now believed to indicate the dissatisfaction he felt at his excessive gambling, as well as his lack of gratitude for his family’s hospitality.’ There are 28 illustrations, but please could we have an index in future?

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

   Read full review   

To continue reading, please upgrade to a premium account. You will have immediate full access.

Read more classical music reviews online here:

Classical Music, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing