Summary for the Busy Executive: A good intro for non-specialists.
Most composers lead dull outward lives. What makes them interesting goes into their music. Tchaikovsky isn't really an exception. We don't want to read about Tchaikovsky because he fought in wars, romanced hundreds of conquests, solved seemingly intractable political questions, or explored the Amazon. A truthful movie about Tchaikovsky's life would show him at a table, writing, much of the time. A biographer therefore has a tough road to hoe.
David Brown has produced probably the definitive Tchaikovsky bio, in four large volumes (Tchaikovsky: The Early Years, The Crisis Years, The Years of Wandering, The Final Years). Few other than a Tchaikovsky fanatic or a scholar actually need it. This shorter volume will serve. Although Brown does provide valuable insight into Tchaikovsky's working methods (he usually sketched major scores fairly quickly, and he worked according to a daily routine), he knows that we read about Tchaikovsky because we want to know his music better.
Accordingly, Brown provides non-technical guides for the general listener of major pieces. Inevitably, some of these are better than others. All, however, require that the reader "follow along" with a recording of the work. That may hinder those readers who don't want to invest in a lot of CDs. Incidentally, he rates these works with a star system. Fortunately, he doesn't expect you to agree with him. Good thing, too. Brown underrates one of my favorites, the First Symphony, to me a masterpiece of invention and one of the best symphonic openings he ever came up with.
I would have appreciated more analysis directed toward elucidating how astonishingly original Tchaikovsky was. Brown appreciates this and compares the composer to Tolstoy (so did Tchaikovsky's contemporaries) as an artistic force, but he lacks specifics, perhaps because he doesn't want to scare away the amateur reader. Well, hell, I'm one amateur who felt the lack. Despite accurate descriptions of the music, Brown doesn't bring us any closer to its essence.
It's an important point, because even today Tchaikovsky gets condescension from writers who apparently have no idea what he was about and whose ears seem stuffed with wax. Stravinsky's enthusiasm helped remove the taint from this music, but you still find writers who feel they have to boil their ears after listening to Romeo and Juliet. Furthermore – and Brown alludes to this, but fails to explore the depth of the problem – we very rarely hear Tchaikovsky's most popular scores as he wrote them. Editors have silently messed with his orchestration, as well as excised passages or rearranged major sections. For example, the first recording of the honest-to-Pyotr version of Variations on a Rococo Theme appeared in 1992 – Wallfisch and Simon on Chandos. This sort of mucking about from people who knew better also plagued the second piano concerto, heard for over a hundred years in a bowdlerized version, and undoubtedly hindered its acceptance.
For me, the book's major strength lay in bringing attention to major works not all that well known. For example, Tchaikovsky composed fewer symphonies than operas, yet only two of these get performed with any regularity: Yevgeny Onegin and Pique Dame. Brown clearly loves the operas, although he loves them with his eyes wide open to their flaws. He makes me want to hear all of them. He talks about Tchaikovsky's sacred music, all too seldom performed in the West. The Nine Sacred Pieces especially deserve better. I wish he would have talked more of Tchaikovsky's secular choral works, because one can find here also gems of composition.
If you don't know much about Tchaikovsky, this book provides a decent starting point. If you know the music but want to explore further, try to find something else.
Copyright © 2007 by Steve Schwartz.