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The Way Tchaikovsky's Mind Worked

I wonder if any contributor to the forum with sharper psychological insights than mine could suggest a possible motivation for Tchaikovsky's two-faced attitude towards so many of his musical contemporaries, praising them to the skies in one breath, and rubbishing their entire output in the next?.He often did this publicly. His inconsistent responses to Saint-Saëns and to Verdi are perhaps the most extreme examples of this tendency of his. I hardly think he could have felt himself inferior to them in any way, or that he resented their success. He achieved world fame himself, and from the very outset of his career he had known his own worth, as when he wrote on the title page of the autograph score of his Overture in C minor; "Overture, written in Moscow in January 1866 and played nowhere (a frightful abomination!)"

Could this early humiliation have damaged him psychologically, do any of you think?

(Incidentally, for anyone who doesn't know the remarkable overture, it can be found on Amazon, performed by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergei Skripka and priced at £6.99. This might seem quite a lot to pay for a single track lasting just 13 ninutes, but the recording is high quality, and if you download it, I can assure you that for the price of a cheap bottle of wine you'll have bought youself a treasure to delight you for the rest of your life.)

Michael Porter

Firstly I would challenge the premise that Tchaikovsky's was psychologiclly "damaged" to any greater extent than the rest of us! He was, contrary to popular fiction, a well-rounded individual with a good sense of humour and plenty of tolerance for other people's foibles (contrast and compare with Wagner, Brahms, etc.). I think the the articles and letters published on this website demonstrate this, but they need to be taken in context as well.

So bear in mind that his praise for Verdi came some 20 years after his initial criticism, and his attitude to Saint-Saëns was coloured by disappointment over a failure by the Frenchman to uphold his promise to promote Tchaikovsky's works in Paris. And the comment on the Overture in C minor (probably written decades after he'd been a student) seems to me a good demonstration of Tchaikovsky's self-deprecating sense of humour, looking back over an immature work which quite justly hadn't been considered worthy of performance. The overture does have a lovely theme in its middle section (which he salvaged for the opera The Oprichnik a few years later), and it's a much better piece than the student Overture in F major written around the same time.

Brett Langston

Thank you, Brett! I'm happy to stand corrected, because I like the idea of Tchaikovsky's having been a confident well-adjusted individual who enjoyed life. I've been listening to his music since the 1940's, and reading everything I could find about him, so you can well imagine how often it has been drummed into me that he was a man of sorrows, an outcast, a neurotic tormented by self-loathing and so on. "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will start to believe it." (Joseph Goebbels} I never bought that LUDICROUS story about a court of honour ordering him to shoot himself, though. And it always puzzled me that the 'Man of Sorrows' had written works like the Second Piano Concerto. the Violin Concerto, the Concert Fantasia, the Second Symphony and the Souvenir de Florence, none of which could possibly be interpreted as a howl of anguish.

I'm learning more about the real Tchaikovsky every day on this remarkable site, and I'm loving it. Sorry for having posted an ill-informed topic on the forum - but no harm done, I don't think.

(I don't care what you say, I LIKE that overture!)


Michael Porter

I agree with Mr. Langston, but I understand and agree with Michael Porter (as elsewhere in the Forum, Al Gaspar) what he wrote on the subject.

Tchaikovsky was a serious musician capable of making judgments objectives. Unfortunately it was also a man of a thousand passions. And as such, in life and his art-often-oscillating between opposites.

As written by Michael Hofmann:

"We call on his life and his works to explain."

(Hofmann, Michel-Rotislav, Tchaikovsky, Edition du Seuil, Paris, 1959, p.9)

Antonio Garganese

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This page was last updated on 05 November 2013