Magazine article Gramophone

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Magazine article Gramophone

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

Article excerpt

Pyotr Tchaikovsky

By Philip Ross Bullock

Reaktion Books, PB, 224pp, 11.99 [pounds sterling] ISBN 978-1-78-023654-4

The temptation with any new book on Tchaikovsky these days is to turn to the back and see how it ends. The kerfuffle over his death has tended to exert at least as much fascination as the circumstances of his life. Did he drink unboiled water? Did he do so by accident and thus contract the fatal cholera, or was he driven to it by a court of honour of his peers solemnly passing sentence on account of a homosexual affair with a member of the Russian imperial family? Had the members of Tchaikovsky's social circle begun to fear that his dalliances might be a threat to their own way of life? Short of discovering irrefutable documentary evidence, we can never be sure. Tchaikovsky, so far as we know, remained mute on these last points.

Philip Ross Bullock's verdict is as sane, measured and well-reasoned as the rest of this 'critical life' of Tchaikovsky. He brings context to his arguments and creates a convincing perspective. Tchaikovsky might on occasion have rued the fact that his 'buggermania' (as he called it) isolated and alienated him and made him shy and mistrustful of others, but he was by no means alone in his sexual preferences. There was his brother, Modest, for a start, together with a whole milieu of like-thinking men in Russian cultural society, not to mention others within the royal family and the nobility. Is not Prince Felix Yusupov alleged to have had a fling with Rasputin? The consequence, from Professor Bullock's point of view, is that Tchaikovsky managed to conduct his personal life as he wished and with a degree of discretion, for all that he was quite candid about his infatuations, conquests and emotional and physical pleasures in letters to his brothers Modest and Anatoly. Any misgivings he might have had were centred not so much on his sexual proclivity itself but on how any public revelation of it might affect his reputation as a figure of national standing and of international importance.

How does this square, then, with the sketchy 'programme' that Tchaikovsky envisaged for the opening movement of the Fifth Symphony, the one in which he spoke of 'murmurs, doubts, laments, reproaches against xxx', 'xxx' being generally interpreted as a reference to his homosexuality? …

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