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Pyotr Ilyich

Tchaikovsky

1840-1893

Tchaikovsky's life seems to have been, even more than most lives, a curious mixture of success and failures, the failures mostly due to his morbid subjection to moods and his tendency to leap before he looked, the successes due to his sincerity, intelligence, modesty, and candour. It is a fashion nowadays to point his faults almost more than life-size. We are told, for instance, that his style is eclectic, at its worst miscellaneous. He wrote, it is pointed out, in such a jest of impulse that whole works give the impression of being accidentally what they are-the Second Symphony so "folk," for example, and the Third so facile and cosmopolitan. Already we have mentioned the almost department-store-like jumble of styles in the variation of the Trio. The piano music is much of it only higher salon music; parts of the Sextet are pretty-pretty Italianism; even so fine a work as the Fifth Symphony breaks into a waltz rather too easily-and so on.

One answer to this criticism is that Tchaikovsky has the merits of his defects, and that this uncritical jest of emotions often produced the loveliest melodies. There are more haunting tunes in his pages than we can count: the folk-tune in the Andante Cantabile, the song Nur Wer die Sehnsucht kent, the noble horn-theme in the slow movement of the Fifth Symphony, the swaying love-song from Romeo and Juliet and the delicious moment for muted strings that follows it. Of course tunes are not favoured by the sophisticated who take so severely a view of Tchaikovsky, but he plain man like them, and most candid musician not led astray by theories will agree with the plain man.

A variant of the criticism of facile eclecticism that perhaps deserves more attention is the change of careless development of ideas, acceptance of rubber-stamps, and in particular the obvious use of sequences. Here again we must distinguish the element of justice in the criticism from finical fault-finding. Some of the sequences, it must be confessed, in their over-obviousness are distressingly banal: such, for instance, as the perfectly self-satisfied evolution of platitude that makes up a good deal of the opening theme of the Piano Sonata in G Major. But compare those tragic sequences, inevitable the good taste, big with fate, that carry the opening of the final in the "Pathetic" down to the lowest depths. Evidently there are sequences and sequences. He who abuses them, as Tchaikovsky does in his lazy moods, vulgarizes his music; but he who avoids them altogether becomes merely unintelligible. So with the much-decried Tchaikovskyan climaxes. There is something a little trying in the foregone way he piles in the brass, "swearing a theme," as someone said, "through a stone wall." But where are there greater moments, in dramatic orchestral music, than some of his terrifying pedal points?

And after all he was, as psychologists say, "a sensitive," though a sensitive of high intellectual endowment, and his virtues as well as his faults are those we must expect. "It would be vain to try to put into words," he writes to Mme. Von Meck, in the famous letter about the Fourth Symphony, "that immeasurable sense of bliss which comes over me directly a new idea awakens in me and begins to assume a definite form. I forget everything and behave like a madman. Everything within me starts pulsing and quivering; hardly have I begun the sketch ere one thought follows another. In the midst of this magic process. . . some interruption wakes me from my somnambulistic state. Dreadful are such interruptions." And he goes on to say regretfully how even in the greatest masters we find moments of such interruption, when "the organic sequence fails, and a skilful [sic] join has to be made." Elsewhere with his usual delightful candour he confesses: "Such hindrances are inevitable: hence the joins, patches, inequalities, and discrepancies. I cannot complain of lack of inventive power, but I have always suffered from want of skill in the management form."

Such a thing of shreds and patches (even if splendid ones) as the opening movements of the Fifth Symphony shows that here he has keenly diagnosed his own weakness. But how many perfect movements are there in modern symphonies? Has even Brahms written anything else so all-of-a-piece s the finale of his Third Symphony? And who in the Nineteenth Century has ever imagined a more magnificent opening than the fanfare of brass with which the Tchaikovsky Forth begins, even if it is not quite kept up through the rest of the movement? Who has made a nobler tragic end to a piece of music than those solemn drum-haunted final pages of Romeo and Juliet? The wonder about this composer is, in fact, not that his work is full of imperfections and that h can seldom sustain a whole movement at the height of his greatest passages, but that being, as he was, a "sensitive," and as he himself said, "no Beethoven" (when someone compared his Fourth to Beethoven's Fifth), he yet frequently touches the heights. But he cannot dwell there; and there is something winning about the very weakness, so human, as that brings with it so many blemishes, especially as he is so honest, so modest, about them all. "I confess," he writes in a letter towards the end of his life, "that the post-Beethoven music offers many examples of prolixity. . . . Is not Brahms a caricature of Beethoven? Is not this pretension to profundity and power detestable, because the content which is poured into Beethoven mould is not really of any value? Even in the case of Wagner (who certainly has genius) wherever he oversteps the limits it is the spirit of Beethoven which prompts him." (It does not matter we agree with Tchaikovsky's judgments: in any case his sincerity is lovable.) "as regards your humble servant," he concludes, "I have suffered all my life from my incapacity to grasp form in general. I have fought against this innate weakness, not-I am proud to say-without good results; yet I shall go to my grave without having produced anything really perfect in form."

But how "human, all too human," are these weaknesses, after all-and what beauty and power we find in spite of them in all his greatest works! Our winnowing is, no doubt, severe. Of operas we have to discard nearly all but Eugene Oniegin and perhaps Pique Dame. The choral music is comparatively unimportant. Of the chamber music the quartets contain single attractive movements, but on the whole are just neglected; and the Trio, despite the nobility of its opening, the charm of the variation theme and the haunting beauty of one variation(in C Sharp Minor with piano arpeggios) is over-pretentious, melodramatic, almost orchestral in style (Frederick Stock has orchestrated it) and as we have seen eclectic to the point of miscellaneousness. The piano music is mostly light and merely petty or sentimental, or else, like the G Major Sonata, pompous and inflated in the manner of Liszt. The songs we remember for a few especially fine examples: Nur Wer die Sehnsucht kent, Don Juan's Serenade, Invocation to Sleep, and the magnificent, unjustly neglected Pilgrim's Song.

That leaves the orchestral music and the concertos; and even here, while there are many splendid things, there are few perfect ones. Here, to be sure, the conventionality of conductors has narrowed the field unjustly. The war-horses, such as the last two symphonies, the "1812" Overture and the Casse-Noisette Suite, are played to death, while many fine works are neglected. (One might mention particularly the orchestral suites, all of which contain fine movements. The variation in the Third Suite have been justly compared to the Elgar "Enigma" Variations.) But even in the works kept in the repertory, what unevenness we find! They all rise to nobility, some to sublimity, and-even the early Romeo and Juliet, one of his most inspired works-they all sink to banality, glibness, and rubber-stamp. But they will not be forgotten for a while yet-there is too much beauty in them, too rare a sincerity.

And it is comforting to remember that Tchaikovsky himself knew that and drew solace from it, for all the sufferings of his too personal temperament. Always he escaped from the sadness of merely personal into the joy of impersonal art. It is well to remember that in spite of all the sentimental nonsense that has been written about his pessimism, inspite his own morbid fears-his constant cry that he was growing old and losing his powers, that he must stop composing, that he was "homme fini," his powers went on ripening to the end. The over-personal little boy who had kissed the map of Russia died murmuring the name of the benefactress he thought had deserted him-Nadejda Filaretovna [Nadezdha von Meck]. But he who had "covered France with his hand"-the free mind open to criticism, the modest and impartial intelligence, the good workman, knew that his last work had been his best. As he left he hall after conducting that initial, not much acclaimed performance of the "Pathetic" Symphony, Oct. 28, 1893, nine days before his death, he told his friend Glazounoff [also spelled Glazunov] that for the first time in his career he had come away from hearing one of his compositions "with a feeling of complete content." So, after all, he was a happy man.

Credit: Written by Daniel Gregory Mason for the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians