- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 23, 2009

By Roland John Wiley
Oxford University Press, $39.95, 545 pages, illus.

Music is the most abstract of the arts — listeners will find different messages in the same piece of music — and no composer has had more “read” into his music than 19th-century Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky has long been a favorite of the concert-going public, even as some critics found his music amateurish and banal. The composer is now the subject of a massive, perhaps definitive biography by Roland John Wiley, a Tchaikovsky scholar and professor of music at the University of Michigan.

Tchaikovsky was born into a middle-class family that was able to provide him with music lessons at an early age. But his family decided on a civil service career for young Pyotr, and in 1850, he enrolled in the School of Jurisprudence in St. Petersburg. Upon graduating, Tchaikovsky put in several years as a junior official in the Ministry of Justice. But his interest in music could not be suppressed, and in 1863, he abandoned the civil service to study music at the recently founded St. Petersburg Conservatory.

Tchaikovsky was soon appointed to a teaching position, but his main interest was composition. Some of his most popular works — including the famous First Piano Concerto and the music for “Swan Lake” — date from this early period. He was highly sensitive to the views of his peers, as shown by this complaint after his performance of one early piece: “I played the first movement. Not a word, not a single remark! If only you knew how stupid and unbearable it is when a person presents his friend a dish of his own devising, and the latter eats and remains silent!”

His conservatory years appear to have been a lonely period for the young composer, who discovered his homosexuality at a time when gays were very much in the closet. Mr. Wiley writes, “We know little about his sexual awakening; no evidence survives of a loving, mutual, sustained relationship with anyone.” He was not a happy camper. A colleague would later write, “Pyotr Ilyich drank a lot of vodka and wine. … He smoked without restraint from the age of 14, especially when he was working.”

“Romeo and Juliet,” a fantasy-overture first composed in 1870, was Tchaikovsky’s first piece to be played outside Russia. The young composer continued to struggle financially until, in 1876, he met a wealthy patron, Nadezhda von Meck. The result was a unique contract: She undertook to look after the composer’s material needs on condition that he never saw her and maintained contact only by mail. The resulting correspondence would provide a remarkable window into Tchaikovsky’s life and work.

In 1877, Tchaikovsky entered into a disastrous marriage with a one-time student, Antonina Miliukova. Why he took such a step is unclear, but Mr. Wiley believes that after a few weeks of marriage, the sexually insecure composer longed for his previous life. Pyotr’s brief time as a bridegroom triggered an emotional crisis that required a rest cure in Switzerland. Tchaikovsky and his wife remained married but never lived together again.

Despite his emotional instability, Tchaikovsky was maturing as a composer. Many of his early works were operas, of which only “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades” are remembered today. Gradually, however, works for full orchestra became his specialty, and Tchaikovsky’s skill in orchestration has rarely been equaled.

Tchaikovsky is often criticized for excessive sentimentality. While this is a subjective judgment, Tchaikovsky sometimes appears to reveal himself in his music, and to embody the preoccupation with fate that is so much a part of the Russian character. His Sixth Symphony, known as the “Pathetique,” can be heard as an expression of the composer’s own struggle against fate. In any case, it was Tchaikovsky who made the symphony a vibrant part of Russia’s musical heritage.

Tchaikovsky died in 1893, at the age of 53, and almost immediately rumors circulated concerning the circumstances of his death. Officially, he died of cholera, which was prevalent at the time. But some speculated that he had committed suicide by poison to avoid exposure as a homosexual. The author concludes, “We do not and probably never will know beyond doubt the cause of Tchaikovsky’s death.”

Mr. Wiley has full confidence in history’s judgment on his subject as a composer. “Snobbishness and personal taste excepted,” he writes, “all but the most prejudiced observer now [recognize] the boldness of his thinking in symphonic writing, concertante, and the theater.”

Mr. Wiley’s book is creatively organized. In an apparent effort to reach both the general and the specialized reader, a biographical chapter covering certain years is followed by a chapter analyzing in depth his music of that period. One of the appendixes is a chronology of Tchaikovsky’s life alongside key events of his time, including nonmusical highlights such as the Battle of Little Bighorn. Mr. Wiley’s work is a fine book for the specialist, but not necessarily the best choice for your next air flight.

Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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