TCHAIKOVSKY: The Crisis Years, 1874-1878 by David Brown

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Crisis Years, 1874-1878

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Volume II in Brown's impressive biographical/critical/musicological study--with richly documented treatment of Tchaikovsky's psychosexual miseries, persuasive links between personal traumas and musical output, and detailed (if not terribly graceful or eloquent) technical analysis of each 1874-78 composition. Musicology dominates this volume's first 100 pages, as Brown evaluates the First Piano Concerto, the ""inconsistent"" Third Symphony (with its conflict between ""lyric force"" and ""natural inner compulsion"" on the one hand, a yen for ""highly intentioned"" musical respectability on the other), and Swan Lake. But the narrative soon centers, more or less, on Tchaikovsky's guilt over his homosexuality (the music of Francesca da Rimini reflects this ""agony"")--and his ""appalling determination"" to marry anyway: the brief, largely epistolary courtship of Antonina (with its connections to Tchaikovsky's interest in setting Eugene Onegin to music, especially the Tatyana letter-scene); the inevitable disaster; the need to escape after three months of marriage, feeling that ""fate had sealed his condition,"" turning more and more for help to Nadezhda von Meek--the ""lonely, disturbed"" pen-pal/patroness who soon made it possible for Tchaikovsky to quit his teaching job and retreat to a travel/composing life. And Brown, emphasizing Tchaikovsky's musical discipline, then lavishly studies the Fourth Symphony (""a true piece of emotional autobiography""), the Violin Concerto (its lyricism related, thinks Brown, to a lingering homosexual passion for violinist Iosif Kotek), and, above all, Eugene Onegin--in the biography's most successful intertwining of technical and emotional interpretation. Brown does occasionally run into problems with his life/work parallels: an 1875 ballad is ""a powerful rejoinder to any who would assert that Tchaikovsky was incapable of music that was truly masculine""--yet the disappointing Onegin finale indicates that ""Tchaikovsky's own nature stultified his capacity for creating music of truly masculine sexual declaration."" And the psychological portrait here, fragmented by the long musicological sequences, is diligent rather than probing or dramatic. Still, if this intense study is only sporadically involving as a narrative, with limited appeal for general readers, it is an essential source for specialists--painstaking in its scholarship (printing long-suppressed letters in full), balanced in its viewpoint, and often convincing in its ambitious life/music interplay.

Pub Date: April 11th, 1983
Publisher: Norton