Magazine article Musical Times

Public & Private

Magazine article Musical Times

Public & Private

Article excerpt

Public & private Pyotr Tchaikovsky Philip Ross Bullock Reaktion Books (London, 2016); 2i

FOLLOWING Jonathan Cross's Stravinsky (reviewed in MT, Spring 2016), another Oxford scholar, Philip Ross Bullock, Professor of Russian literature and music, has produced a no less fine study Pyotr Tchaikovsky to grace the Reaktion Books series of Critical Lives. Indeed, I realised all the more the value of the strict discipline posed by this brief format - succinct and concentrated as it is, penetrating to the essence of its subject - having previously reviewed the American academic Roland John Wiley's Tchaikovsky (OUP, 2009, in MT, Spring 2010), a veritable Jamesian 'baggy monster'. This explored at excessive length the supposed pathological aspects of the composer's character, above all in connection with his plutocratic patron Nadezhda von Meck - who in her extended correspondence with him revealed a level of emotional selfindulgence almost worthy of Queen Victoria in her widowhood - together with a proliferation of conspiracy theories relating to such essentially private matters as his homosexuality and intense relationships within a circle of male friends and admirers, a doomed marriage to the naively innocent Antonina Milyukova, and the puzzling circumstances of his death. In marked contrast, Professor Bullock strips much of this away to present a refreshing vision of sanity and balanced assessment, portraying Tchaikovsky, for all his passionate nature, as nevertheless being very much in control of his own life, facing up squarely to his complex psychological condition and its resulting moral and social difficulties while remaining to an extent mentally detached from his patron's extreme effusions of love and admiration. Admitting to von Meck that an artist lives a double life, especially in relation to matters of the heart, he succeeded admirably in preserving his public and private lives in separate compartments, all the more necessary with his gradual transformation into a Russian National Treasure.

A particular theme of this study emphasises Tchaikovsky's efforts to integrate the conflicting elements of his own creative persona. His constant search for a balance between expressive freedom and discipline initially reflected the opposing methods and perspectives of his two professors at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. On one hand, his harmony teacher Zaremba laid stress on the formal dimension of music and the respect due to the western classical tradition; his composition teacher Anton Rubinstein, on the other hand, encouraged a more creative and imaginative approach to bring out his pupil's distinct voice. As Bullock points out, Tchaikovsky would achieve his selfrevelatory music by methodical self-control; most interestingly, a telling comparison is made with the contemporary French author Gustav Flaubert who outwardly lived the orderly bourgeois existence which his great realist novels actually undermined. At first, however, the young Russian - himself very well-read, manifest in the wide range of literary sources employed in his programmatic works and operas - found liberation from the constrictions of his intensive Germanic training in association with the members of the Kushka group of nationalist composers, themselves mostly opposed to western academic procedures. With the Shakespearian Romeo and Juliet he achieved a fine synthesis of academicism and their informal eloquence, while his Second Symphony drew on folksong material, primitively treated by repetition against a changing background rather than by formal development. At the same time he preserved his own independence, rejecting the Kushka's extreme realism of text-setting in his own song writing; in his three string quartets, a form which they despised, he began to address the intellectual challenge of long-range structures. His early attempts at opera - The Oprichnik, an historical tragedy, and Vakula, based on Gogol, a favourite author of the Kuchka - presented a new and, for the time being, insoluble problem: his symphonic rather than dramatic attitude to music that impeded the stage action. …

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