LETTERS TO HIS FAMILY: An Autobiography by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky


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Calling this large, unrevealing collection of letters an ""autobiography"" is a bad joke--and perhaps a new low in publishing misrepresentation. Moreover, many of these letters (including most of the musically and personally interesting ones) have been available since 1906 in a still-in-print translation of Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky by Piotr's brother Modest. And, worst of all, letters of an embarrassing nature have been expurgated, while the spotty annotations (though sporadically helpful) are discreet to the point of obfuscation. Thus, this is an ""autobiography"" which never refers to Tchaikovsky's homosexuality or (except in one brief annotation) his catastrophic marriage and suicide attempt; translator von Meek (granddaughter of the composer's famous patroness and great-niece of the composer) wants to portray Piotr only as ""kind, considerate, very charming and humane. . ."" So the bulk of the correspondence here--addressed primarily to brothers, sister-in-law, and nephews--consists of weather reports, travel notes, expressions of familial affection and concern, and day-to-day domestic detail. Much of this is likable and lively; much is tediously repetitious (the same news often sent to both brothers). True, there are occasional indications of Piotr's depressions--his nerves, fears, and doubts. There are curious glimpses of his tastes: the familiar sarcasms about Wagner; two utterly contrasting views of Anna Karenina (from ""vulgar nonsense"" in 1877 to ""fanatical enthusiasm"" in 1882); praise for Berlioz, Bizet, Dostoevsky, and Dickens, scorn for Moussorgsky (""vile parody on music""); loathing for most of the foreign cities he wound up in on his ceaseless travels. And there are notes on works-in-progress--of real interest when debating opera revisions with playwright brother Modest (who wrote the libretto for Queen of Spades, the subject of detailed discussions). But on religion and politics, there are barely a handful of references in the 681 letters here; there's little illumination of Tchaikovsky's friendships (though the tone heats up a bit in hate/love comments on the Rubinstein brothers). And though one certainly gets a fair (if incomplete) idea of how Tchaikovsky wanted his family to see him, one gets only an inkling of the tortured personality presented by most biographers (who draw on all of Tchaikovsky's largely untranslated, multi-volumed correspondence). Thanks to a solid index, some readers will find this a minor but useful complement to the Life and Letters, the Diaries, and the Mme. von Meck letters (Beloved Friend). But it is neither good reading nor good scholarship--and holds few surprises even for casual students of Tchaikovskiana.

Pub Date: June 19th, 1981
Publisher: Stein & Day