The Tchaikovsky Problem

Any Tchaikovsky scholar is bound to know the work of British musicologist Dr David Brown.  He wrote a 4-volume study of the life and work of Tchaikovsky which took him sixteen years to complete.  It was seminal and nobody had ever undertaken anything like it before;  even the Russians said, “We have nothing like it.”

So, Dr Brown must have been a big Tchaikovsky fan?  Well, actually no – not at first.  David had been asked to write a single volume study of the composer before but had turned it down.  Then he was asked to write the Tchaikovsky entry in the prestigious Grove’s Dictionary of Music, and the temptation was too great.  So Dr Brown, who previously had thought of Tchaikovsky as only a gifted tune-smith with a talent for orchestral colour, set about researching his subject and his music.  And the most remarkable thing happened – the more he knew about the composer himself and the more he came to understand just how great a craftsman Tchaikovsky really was, Dr Brown became intrigued.  So much so that when he next spoke to his publisher, he said he would write a single volume after all.  Well, that single volume became four, and the two years he had asked to write it became sixteen.  The work is still unsurpassed in detail and ambition.  I think it superb.

I have gone into some detail in this story (perhaps too much so) to press home a point:  That Dr Brown’s initial view on Tchaikovsky was, and in some cases still is, the dominant view of high academia.  When I was growing up it was perfectly possible to say you liked Tchaikovsky but only in the sense of a guilty pleasure – the way one might admit to enjoying the music of ABBA.

I recently wrote a review of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto which I had seen on YouTube.  In it, I used the expression, ‘this much underrated concerto’ and as soon as I had posted it the YouTube brigade shot me down.  ‘It’s one of the most popular in the world!’ one person yelled at me.  Similar comments followed.  But the point I was making wasn’t that it wasn’t popular, but that it was underrated, still, by many performers and musicians alike.  ‘It’s just a string of pretty tunes’, some might say.  It is but it’s so much more than that.  It is an artfully crafted piece just as much as it is tuneful.  I will write about it at length in time but for anyone impatient to hear this marvellous music, you won’t find better advocates than Janine Jansen and Paavo Jarvi on this YouTube clip.  If you don’t fall in love with this, then you and I could never be friends…!

More to follow on this topic…

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Tchaikovsky Problem

  1. Gary Good

    Dear Michael,
    Love your site, and have subscribed from the beginning! Please continue the great work.
    I shall be attending the Philadelphia Orchestra’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto on Friday Jan. 8 at the Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall, Christian Tetzlaff soloist, Fabio Luisi conducting. They are also doing his Symphony #6. I confess that I’m “growing weak in the knees” in anticipation of the event!
    Question: Where can we find your recent review of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto?
    A loyal fan of yours and the composer,
    Gary Good

    • Gary, you are so kind to write to me in such generous terms. I can’t thank you enough. To answer your last question first, I shall be doing my review of the violin concerto this week so please look out for that. I would be growing weak at the knees if I were going to see Symphony #6 too. It completely overwhelms me and I haven’t dared to hear it in concert since 1980, when members of the audience thought I had fallen ill…!

      Again, thank you for your generosity in taking time to write and I wish you a very happy holiday and all the best for 2016 – at least it will begin well!

      • Gary Good

        Michael,
        Many thanks for the kind wishes and quick response. I too feel the same emotions on hearing Tchaikovsky Symphony 6! Although being basically untrained as a musician, I have enjoyed classical music for more than 55 years. However, Tchaikovsky in the ONLY composer whose music can bring me to tears–and I do not consider myself an emotional or “weepy” individual.
        Here is my claim as a musical layman (to which others may of course disagree): If one agrees that Shakespeare was the great genius of the written word of tragedy, then I believe Tchaikovsky occupies the same place in the world of music.
        All the best to you and yours,
        Gary

  2. Dr. Mark Andrews

    I believe that “The Tchaikovsky Problem” is largely a delusion of the past; one mainly created by now fossilised academics 0f the 1950s and 60s. There has been a sea change in attitude in the last 20 or so years. Pierre Boulez once said of Tchaikovsky: “Every Tchaikovsky- lover at a Tchaikovsky concert is celebrating the cult of himself.” Yet here he is at a Russian Night which opened with Tchaikovsky’s op.18 “The Tempest” (conductor, Claudio Abbado):https://youtu.be/GeKHVjbZOU8
    Contemporaries such as Thomas Ades, and the pianist Peter Donohoe have spoken of Tchaikovsky’s unquestionable greatness, and in a BBC documentary the conductor Charles Hazlewood posed the question as to what the musical world would be like if Tchaikovsky had never been born. To ballet companies around the world, it would be as inconceivable as if Beethoven had never written any symphonies, Chopin piano music or Verdi any operas.
    In other words, he is indispensable. Interestingly, in Dr. David Brown’s first volume he speaks of Tchaikovsky being “No Beethoven”, yet over 20 years and another 3 volumes later he turned the statement round by adding that you could also say that “Beethoven was no Tchaikovsky.”

    Here is the foundational point upon which former misconceptions of Tchaikovsky hinged; he was being judged by the merits of another man, yet no one judged Beethoven on Tchaikovsky’s strengths. Why? Because on Tchaikovsky’s terms, he would rank as a second rate melodist and orchestrator!

    Fortunately, there is no longer a need to sound the praises of his best known works, but in my view, some of the finest are also the least known; moreover they reveal his versatility as a composer. I could speak of the marvels of orchestral ingenuity that created The Third Orchestral Suite, or conceived the Second Movement of “Manfred”; but I will offer this sublime example of a religious side to him often not sufficiently credited. It is the “Hymn Of The Cherubim” from his Liturgy Of St. John Chrysostom:

    I also take issue with Dr. David Brown’s claim that his opus 37 G major piano sonata is “The dullest piece that Tchaikovsky ever wrote.”
    As a pianist, I have found it a highly engaging and powerful work (even if Tchaikovsky himself [characteristically] spoke negatively of it). The “problem” is not the piece, but the uninspiring interpretations that have sometimes been given it.
    A key to playing Tchaikovsky’s solo piano music well is to realise that you shouldn’t try to play it like Chopin, but like Tchaikovsky! That is to say, to seek to impart an “orchestral” feel to it (because Tchaikovsky THOUGHT orchestrally). The music itself bears internal testimony to this fact: while Chopin’s piano writing (superb as it is) is predominantly right handed melody with the back drop of an ingenious left handed accompaniment, in Tchaikovsky you find that both hands share in the melodic interest more equally (because he is thinking of a bassoon melody here, or a cello/bass melody there). Nevertheless, as a consequence, it lacks the normal fluidity that one associates with a Chopinesque style of writing. Another example of the error of weighing up one composer against another with prejudiced terms of reference.

    • Thank you, Mark, for such a trenchant and comprehensive response to my article. Your thoughts are welcomed.

      With regard to your suggestion that the Tchaikovsky piano sonata should be played like Tchaikovsky and not like Chopin, I send three hearty cheers. As I have written elsewhere, I don’t think it can be regarded as one of Tchaikovsky’s very best works but it does contain much music of great power, beauty and charm.

      But this is true of all Tchaikovsky, surely? The problem of the Finale of the Fifth Symphony is not solved by reining it in, but by going ‘in like Tchaikovsky’. Nor, of course, can you perform Tchaikovsky like Brahms, as so many conductors are prone to do. In fact, Tchaikovsky was the first person ever to compose a successful symphony who had not studied in Germany – thank whomever you like for that. He once said, “I am Russian, Russian, Russian!” and even two future composers who were to agree on almost nothing, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, were equally sure that Tchaikovsky was the most Russian of composers. Stravinsky even had his Sixth Symphony on his gramophone shortly before he died.

      As for your central point (or as I understand it) that the Tchaikovsky problem no longer exists, I simply cannot agree. Rehearsal time given over to a Tchaikovsky symphony is often woeful. New works are often given in a Tchaikovsky sandwich, where the musicians spend all the rehearsal time on the new work, while just ‘topping and tailing’ the Tchaikovsky. He suffers as a result of the frequency of his performances.

      But I do agree with you about the piano music. It is shamefully neglected, as is most Russian piano music. Tchaikovsky wrote piano music all his life and your central argument that it should be played like Tchaikovsky and not like Chopin (or Brahms!) is surely self-evident.

      Thank you for taking the time to write and, if you think I have not addressed the central points you make, please don’t hesitate to get back to me.

      With warmest good wishes,

      Michael

      • Dr. Mark Andrews

        Dear Michael,

        First of all, my warmest good wishes reciprocated!

        I agree with you that rehearsal times of POPULAR Tchaikovsky works are often inadequate, although I think this malaise, is not limited solely to the treatment of Tchaikovsky.

        However, there are beacons such as Russian Maestro Valerie Gergiev and the orchestra of Mariinsky Theatre: Did you see a few years ago the Sky Arts Documentary “Tchaikovsky on the road”? Gergiev was certainly putting them through their paces. Other luminaries include Vladimir Jurowski and Vladimir Ashkenazy.. Let also look at emerging talents in Venezuela; their commitment to Tchaikovsky is astonishing, and one of the most electric performances of Francesca Da Rimini was delivered by a YOUTH orchestra under Manuel Lopez Gomez:.https://youtu.be/1rwBUuZgmAc

        Also, what is happening in Asia is very exciting, as you know, because you have posted illuminating comments about the KBS orchestra (conductor Mikhail Pletnev) performing Tchaikovsky’s 3rd Orchestral Suite. Among Asian conductors Xiang Zhang is very much a champion of Tchaikovsky, and I see a larger picture emerging in which a cultural tradition that Europe and the West exported to the Far East has been returned to us revitalised.

    • I should have added that David Brown’s view of the place of Tchaikovsky in music altered significantly from the time he completed his four-volume study to the time he brought out a much shorter and more accessible book, Tchaikovsky, The Man and his Music (Gollantz, 2006). In the latter he says that the Sixth Symphony is surely the greatest symphonic score of the C19 after Beethoven’s 9th. Again, he clearly felt the Tchaikovsky problem when writing the longer work when he said that he made no claim for a place for Tchaikovsky among the very greatest composers of the C19.

      Academic study of the music is still lacking – I am making my own modest contribution here, still in its early days – while chatter about his sex life and death continues unabated. Both are related to his music, I am sure of that. But his music is being failed by a concentration on private matters.

      Mark, I would welcome an article from you for the site on any topic you choose – perhaps the piano music. Please let me know if you might be interested…

    • I should have added that David Brown’s view of the place of Tchaikovsky in music altered significantly from the time he completed his four-volume study to the time he brought out a much shorter and more accessible book, Tchaikovsky, The Man and his Music (Gollantz, 2006). In the latter he says that the Sixth Symphony is surely the greatest symphonic score of the C19 after Beethoven’s 9th. Again, he clearly felt the Tchaikovsky problem when writing the longer work when he said that he made no claim for a place for Tchaikovsky among the very greatest composers of the C19.

      Academic study of the music is still lacking – I am making my own modest contribution here, still in its early days – while chatter about his sex life and death continues unabated. Both are related to his music, I am sure of that. But his music is being failed by a concentration on private matters.

      Mark, I would welcome an article from you for the site on any topic you choose – perhaps the piano music. Please let me know if you might be interested…

    • My dear Mark,

      Thank you again for your most interesting response. I hope we are at the stage now where, even if I find myself still in disagreement with you, I do have very deep respect for what you say.

      First of all, I think some of it does come down to age – I just turned 61 so I studied music in the ’70s, when Tchaikovsky was the last word in chocolate-box sentimentality and grotesque over-statement. Although I do say in the article that things have improved, I do still think that much of this attitude still remains. He has always been popular with audiences but less so with academics and musicologists, who choose to judge him by German standards and remark on his lack of organic growth. His melodies are too strong, too exceptional to be truly symphonic, What they fail to grasp is that, although he was the most Western of The Kutchka, he was still Russian, Russian, Russian.

      I did see the documentary on Valery Georgiev and I have a very high admiration for him. But the fact that you can name him, along with only two other conductors, Jurovsky and Ashkenazy, rather makes my point – that most conductors don’t give him the time or expertise he deserves. (I don’t think Georgiev quite has the 6th right at the moment but I’m prepared to give him time!)

      But Pletnev’s recording – or YouTube perfomance – of the Third Suite is quite exceptional and one I would recommend above all others. He conducts with such precision that he is able to change tempo, as he would as a pianist, carrying this army of forces with him. Although in that great Finale, he doesn’t decellerando when the main theme appears, as is clearly written in the score.

      As for the enthusiasm in Venezuela and that scintillating performance of Francesca you drew my attention to, then we are in complete agreement. When I first heard it, it was like listening to a new piece and not since Mravinsky have I been so excited and thrilled by the ending – again, so terribly rushed and ruined in so many other performances.

      It is always such a pleasure to hear from you, Mark. I hope, as the site expands, we will not only be able to continue these discussions but perhaps you would consider writing an article for the site, as a Tchaikovsky fan who clearly knows what he’s talking about.

      Again, my warmest wishes,

      Michael

  3. Gary Good

    Dear Mark and Michael,
    Your comments are incredibly interesting! Especially Mark’s comment (“because Tchaikovsky THOUGHT orchestrally”)! One of the great musicians of our day obviously agreed, when Leopold Stokowski transcribed Tchaikovsky’s last song from the Six Romances Op. 73 , No.6, “Again, As Before, Alone” for orchestra. Please listen on YouTube to Stokowski’s incredible orchestral version which he entitled “Solitude”.

    Tchaikovsky-Stokowski, “Solitude”, (‘Again, as before, alone’)

  4. I didn’t quite understand. What is “The Tchaikovsky Problem”? That he is, for all his popularity, still underrated? If so, I agree.

    • Yes, Alexander. That’s exactly the point at issue here. Pieces like The Tempest are rarely performed and even the violin concerto isn’t given the same status a Brahms’. Thank you for your comment. I really appreciate it.

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