These DATELINE snippets will address moments in my own life (if you’ll forgive my self indulgence) when my voice seemed lost in the wilderness and other times when I felt encouraged and spurred on. In about 1970, I met a man on a train and we struck up a conversation. It turned out that he was a professional orchestral player.
“I seem to spend my life defending Tchaikovsky,” I said.
“Good for you!” said my travelling companion enthusiastically. “He’s well worth defending.”
So here I am again, doing just that…
In September 1968, a new music teacher was appointed at Firth Park Grammar School in Sheffled. At the time I was fourteen years old and the young teacher, the second in the department, was in his probationary (first) year of teaching.
He asked me early on: “Who is your favourite composer?”
“Tchaikovsky!” I told him, without blinking.
“That’s fine,” said my young teacher, with an uncharacteristic tone of paternalism in his voice, “It’s fine that you like Tchaikovsky now but you will change.”
“No I won’t.”
“All fourteen year old music students love Tchaikovsky but they grow out of it. And so will you. When you’re more mature you’ll appreciate Brahms and Schoenberg much more. Tchaikovsky will be a memory.”
The cheek of it, I thought at the time. But here I am, almost forty-six years later, and if you were to ask me the same question again, I would still, without missing a beat, offer you the same answer.
Could it be that I never grew up? I’m certainly much fonder of Brahms now than I was then; when I was young, the intensity of my dislike for Brahms was tribal; it was us and them! But, although I studied Schoenberg at great length, I never exactly warmed to him.
Back then, back in 1968, Tchaikovsky’s music, as viewed by the academics and ‘serious’ critics, was at an all time low. In fact, after the composer’s death, his music was widely known for being the work of a sentimental and neurotic man, not even a genius but rather a gifted tune smith who had a flair for orchestration who belonged, maybe alongside Grieg, as a minor but occasionally interesting composer; without depth and any sense of large scale architecture. The seams showed, as Tchaikovsky himself was to admit about some of his early works.
But times change and I am fortunate to live in the same era as John Warrack, an eminent and gifted writer on music whose biography was, I think, the first I ever read. And, of course, the irreplaceable David Brown, whose four volume life and works critical and biographical study is unlikely ever to be surpassed.
It is still the case, though, that among serious musicians, Tchaikovsky’s is still regarded as somehow second rate. “Good old Tchaikovsky,” they seem to say. “We wouldn’t be without him but you can’t take him seriously.”
Well, the mission behind this blog (pretentious and ambitious though it may sound!) is to let you know why, all these years later, I still regard Tchaikovsky as one of the greatest composers of the nineteenth century. This is a personal blog, but one with a mission. And I have made a start…!