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Book Review


Tchaikovsky by Wiley

The Master Musicians Series

Roland John Wiley
Oxford University Press, 2009. 546 pages.
ISBN-10: 0195368924
ISBN-13: 978-0195368925
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Wiley, who previously published a study of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky's Ballets, now offers a scholarly study of this composer's life and works. Fact-based, it is neither theory-driven nor psychologizing and is of considerable reference value. About equally divided between Tchaikovsky's biography and his music, and strictly chronological rather than organized by theme or kinds of musical work, it has the strengths and limitations of such an approach. Twenty chapters, alternating between life and works, focus on as short a period as a single year or as long as seven years; each year of his life story is noted in boldface and the chapter following discusses the works written in that timeframe, in order of composition. A final chapter discusses the controversial circumstances of Tchaikovsky's death.

The events of Tchaikovsky's life are related in enough detail as occasionally to seem like accounts from his day-books. Very many of the people he had personal or professional dealings appear, some better introduced than others. (Happily, Wiley includes an appendix of names where the reader can look them up. Unhappily, the index and bibliography use a different transliteration of names than the one he generally uses in the main text.) Among them are Tchaikovsky's siblings other than Modeste, the best-known, and some of their children. So are the names of some of Tchailovsky's lovers or those he might have wanted to be lovers; Wiley is quite matter of fact about Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. There is a full account of Tchaikovsky's failed marriage and his later dealings with his former spouse. One learns that his brothers had a hand in separating the couple, and Tchaikovsky supported her for many years even after she entered another relationship.

Professional associates most frequently mentioned are his publishers and fellow composers, including Mahler and Brahms. The account of his acquaintance with Brahms shows that each composer had more respect for the other than some accounts might suggest.

Tchaikovsky traveled widely, within the Russian Empire and to Prague, Germany, France, Italy and the United States. Occasionally the means of transport and accommodations are mentioned but generally the travels are given only a cursory mention. The biography primarily focuses on Tchaikovsky the composer, as no doubt it should, but it would have been a welcome addition to the text if we had been given a fuller account of the places the composer visited, especially in the earlier years.

The final chapter, as mentioned, discusses the death of Tchaikovsky at age 53. The circumstances raised questions even at the time and more recently have been the focus of various conspiracy theories. About all this Wiley is judicious, perhaps to a fault, and in any case to the degree that it helps to read this chapter more than once. Wiley does not find the case for suicide or murder by poison well supported by evidence: "the conspiracy theories are worthless in an evidentiary sense," even though according to one version a physician "supposedly admitted in old age" that he administered poison. Supposedly? Referenced but not explained. But Wiley also finds the simple explanation of death by cholera suspicious for reasons he relates, and he concludes that "we do not know and probably never will know beyond doubt the cause of Tchaikovsky's death." Some of Wiley's own statements are obscure or questionable: he finds it suspicious that Tchaikovsky's chief physicians, neither very familiar with cholera, did not remain with their patient until his end. The short paragraph at the bottom of page 444 beginning with "that Tchaikovsky could not have died of cholera…" [and ending] "leaves open the possibility that he died of cholera, but refutes conspiracy" is desperately in need of rewriting.

One benefit of the chronological discussion of musical works, rather than a grouping by form (a difficult choice for the author) is that the circumstances of their composition in the context of the composer's life and the ebbing and flowing of his creativity, are followed almost immediately by a discussion of them in musical and dramatic terms. Even better is the fact that musical similarities among works of different genres can be seen as the works followed one another. For instance, there are musical connections between The Sleeping Beauty, Manfred, and the Fifth Symphony, as well as between the Fifth Symphony and The Queen of Spades, all composed within a five year period.

It appears that from Op. 1 on, all of Tchaikovsky's works are discussed, many at considerable and surprising length. Plots of the operas are summarized and several song cycles are described song by song even to their verbal content. The Queen of Spades is given eleven pages and the Pathetique Symphony 10 pages. The orchestral suites are given interesting treatment, partly in terms of a Russian term prelist, indicating "sheer attractiveness and enticing sound," applicable to much of this composer's music. Wiley is much more inclined to show how pieces were put together and where they came from than to discuss them in terms of their musical merits, though he often gives the opinions of Tchaikovsky's contemporaries about them, as well as some of Tchaikovsky's own second thoughts about them. The composer was proud of the Pathetique, not so much of the Fifth Symphony or Manfred. Really hostile – and pretentious – modern criticism of the Fifth is mentioned: "Resuscitated in the concert hall by German conductors after Tchaikovsky's death, the Fifth has since been scorned by German thinkers, including Adorno, for whom the Andante is kitch, the return of its principal melody the depraved reflection of that epiphany which is vouchsafed only to the greatest works of art." Karl Dahlhous spoke of the same movement in terms of the "trivial," "the simple" and kitch coming "through the transfiguration of the trivial."

On balance this is an outstandingly good study, though one might wish that it had been more assertively edited in places. Although its intended audience is probably not the general reader, it is generally readable enough, despite occasional infelicities of phrasing. There are some musical examples and considerable mention of key relationships and the like which the untrained reader can easily pass over. A minor annoyance is the social science style of references embedded in the main text and it is essential to read the couple of pages explaining spelling, citations and dates at the beginning, if one wishes to consult the citations.

Copyright © 2009, R. James Tobin.