A broad survey of the Russian composer’s life in the context of his major works, and vice versa.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky (1840–93) wrote musical works that remain current today, some having been appropriated for commercials (such as the 1812 Overture) and made into seasonal standards (such as the Nutcracker Ballet). As Brown (Musicology/Southampton Univ.; Tchaikovsky, 1992, etc.) shows, listeners owe those works to some good luck and chance encouragement, for Tchaikovsky trained as a lawyer and seemed destined for a career somewhere along the long corridors of the tsarist Ministry of Justice. Desperate to escape suffocation there, he enrolled in classes taught at the Russian Music Society and quickly impressed his teachers and fellow students with works that would in some instances reemerge in maturity, such as “an orchestral piece, Characteristic Dances, which Tchaikovsky would later rehabilitate into his first opera, The Voyevoda.” The budding composer also grappled with questions of sexual identity, and Brown offers a cautious view on that confusion, which Tchaikovsky apparently hoped to remedy by marrying. His union was unhappy, the increasingly famous composer depressive; Brown traces moods and moments throughout the major works, identifying the circumstances of composition and offering suggested listening alongside a given life episode, which begs for a bundled CD. Brown also offers measured and quite learned musical criticism, arguing, for instance, the relative merits of certain pieces, as with The Sleeping Beauty, which is “as focused as can be, with a far smaller proportion of purely decorative dancing such as dilutes Swan Lake, with a scenario that is consistently as ‘dramatic’ as possible, and with a composer who now had all the insight and skill demanded by such a challenge.”
Sometimes arid, but useful for Tchaikovsky completists, as well as patient listeners hoping to expand their knowledge of the great composer’s work.