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25 october 2022

Among major composers, Tchaikovsky (or Tchaïkovski, as Jérôme Bastianelli's French-language biography spells him) has some of the same profile problems that beset Puccini. Is his music too lush and gorgeous? Is it too tonal, too conventionally orchestrated? Does he reduce his complicated source material (especially Pushkin, but also the stories of his ballets) to pulpy plot outlines, and then reinflate the plots with sugary filling? Some critics have come strongly to Tchaikovsky's defense (notably the late Richard Taruskin). Others dismiss him as a fan favorite but something of a shallow taste.

If so, I am getting shallower all the time. The more I listen to Tchaikovsky, the more I am intrigued and impressed. Bastianelli addresses the problem head-on. Tchaikovsky often wears his heart on his sleeve, and, as classical composers go, he is undeniably popular. Following Pierre Bourdieu, Bastianelli notes that to express enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky is socially tricky. You can risk being stamped as stupidly middlebrow – unless you come across as so far above it all that your tacky fandoms become an inverse sign of your own superiority (137). I guess, either way I turn, I can't get out of that trap.

Better, perhaps, just to be spontaneous about it and like what you actually like. Spontaneity was why Igor Stravinsky appreciated Tchaikovsky; for Stravinsky, the master "ne craignait jamais de manquer de retenue," was never afraid of lacking restraint (132). Francis Poulenc said that that lack of restraint causes casual observers to think of Tchaikovsky as a minor composer. But for Poulenc, Tchaikovsky was "un très grand musicien" (132) precisely because he was not afraid to risk being considered a bad one.

Tchaikovsky himself loved Mozart, like everybody else; and his favorite opera was Bizet's Carmen, which he predicted would become the world's favorite opera long before it did. Of Wagner's Ring, on the other hand, he wrote "on n'a jamais rien produit de plus assommant et interminable": nobody ever produced anything more endless and crushingly boring (121-22). If he hadn't written the works of Tchaikovsky, Tchaikovsky would have loved them. Maybe he did, even at that. Tchaikovsky seemed emotionally always at fever pitch, and could be flattened by sentimental reactions. Bastianelli recounts a story of Tchaikovsky watching a boa constrictor at the Berlin Zoo eat a rabbit, and taking to his hotel room in helpless grief for the rest of the day (136).

Bastianelli's Tchaïkovski is skillfully constructed. Lives of composers can easily become chronologies of "and then he wrote." To avoid such plodding, Bastianelli starts with Tchaikovsky's death, indeed uses that death as the keynote of the book. His method is associative. Tchaikovsky's death suggests his late symphony, the Pathétique. We backtrack to the composer's early training, then to his Russianness and a survey of those works of his that seem most "Russian." This leads to Tchaikovsky's relations with "the Five," those Ur-Russian composers, ballet, then to Tchaikovsky's more classical mode, his homosexuality, the motif of fate (including The Queen of Spades and the Fifth Symphony), the composer's marriage, Eugene Onegin, his patron the baroness von Meck, programs of hopeless love ("Romeo & Juliet," "Francesca di Rimini," Swan Lake), excess sentimentalism, solo piano works, the inexhaustible gift of melody.

My own enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky is mostly due to his operas, by which I mean the three that one can readily see and hear on the Internet: Eugene Onegin, The Queen of Spades, and Iolanta. All three are lushly melodic, and feature over-the-top emoting. But as operas go – and that is always a necessary qualifier when discussing opera – I think all three are brilliant meldings of libretto and music, with their dramatic situations kept always front and center. The composer worked on the libretto of Onegin; his brother Modest assisted on that one and wrote the other two: that brother team was one of the great collaborations in musical theater.

Eugene Onegin, I think, is incomparable. It is also much derided for conveying almost nothing of the verbal texture of Pushkin's verse novel, despite consisting in large part of Pushkin's language. I cannot be much of a judge of this; Pushkin's Eugene Onegin notoriously resists translation, and I find English versions of it pretty unreadable. I doubt I will learn Russian at my age to get closer to Pushkin; I will just have to enjoy Tchaikovsky. Richard Taruskin points out that a faithful verbal version of the book is impossible anyway, so Tchaikovsky chose to represent the psychological complexities of the characters in his score. He wove continually-varied themes through many changes as his situations mirror one another in endlessly reflected ironies. There are possibly greater opera scores, but none (that I know of) so perfectly concentrated and affecting.

Bastianelli quotes critic Martin Gregor-Dellin on moments in Tchaikovsky's music that "on ne peut qualifier simplement de sentimentales mais qui sont de véritables sanglots de composition": you can't characterize them as just sentimental; they are really a kind of musical sobbing (131-32). My favorite of these is naturally from Eugene Onegin, in Prince Gremin's aria from the third act. After a very quiet, subdued introduction, the Prince sings his first line, "Lyubvi vsye vozrasti pokorni," all ages surrender to love – and suddenly the violins break in with a great cascade, as if they couldn't stay pent up any longer. It is a crucial moment in the drama, and you can't help but feel that this is not the moment to be subtle about things. Tchaikovsky knew precisely when to be blatant.

Bastianelli, Jérôme. Tchaïkovski. Arles: Actes Sud, 2012.