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Petr Il'ich Tchaikovsky, the Man not the Myth

Is there any indication of emotional instabilty in Tchaikovsky's music? None whatsoever. The 'meaning' of a piece of music is devilishly difficult to pin down. To most of us it means what we need it to mean. Our response is conditioned by our own life experience.

Why have so many people come to believe that works like the last three symphonies and Francesca da Rimini express a neurotic, tormented sensibility? I can only speak for myself. I was a gay teenager in the 1950's. Everybody said that the Pateticheskaia Simfoniia was a gay symphony. It was inevitable that I saw it as having been written by a despised outcast like myself, and consequently I read into it far more, or far less, than Tchaikovsky intended to express. To three generations of homosexual men Tchaikovsky was a hero, the triumphant proof that they were NOT filthy freaks. I think he would have forgiven them for misunderstanding him. Those hate-filled years are dead, and any abuse we still hear is like the remembered sound of dogs barking. The same applies to Tchaikovsky himself.

Does anything in the written record support our mistaken view? No. The two 'nervous breakdowns' never happened. With regard to the first, this is what Modest Tchaikovsky had to say on the subject:

"While pressing ahead with the (first) symphony, Petr Il’ich's nerves became more and more frayed. As a result of this exceptionally hard work he began to suffer from insomnia, and the sleepless nights paralyzed his creative energies. At the end of July all this erupted into a terrible nervous attack, the like of which he never experienced again during his lifetime... The most distressing symptoms of this illness were dreadful hallucinations, which were so frightening that they resulted in a feeling of complete numbness in all his extremities. The dread of these nervous attacks recurring was such that all his life he abstained from working at night. After this symphony, not a single note from any of his compositions was written at night.”

Unfortunately Modest doesn't specify the nature of these hallucinations. Were they auditory, as were those suffered by Robert Schumann, or were they visual? Visual hallucinations can certainly be symptoms of a psychotic breakdown, but they can just as easily be symptoms of sleep-deprivation. Tchaikovsky recovered from his bad experience far too quickly and completely for there to be any possibilty he had suffered a psychotic breakdown. He was later to explain what he had been through as the consequence of smoking too many cigarettes.

Likewise, the sources prove conclusively that the notorious 'second nervous breakdown' of 1877 simply didn't happen. Just one last little doubt remains about his judgement at that time. When he realised that his mariage blanc wasn't going to work, what on EARTH did he think he stood to gain by putting it about that he had suffered from a nervous breakdown? Surely that fiction was the one thing most likely to set the tongues wagging?

Michael Porter

18/09/2011 12:39

I should have pointed out that all the references I have quoted regarding the First Symphony already exist on the Tchaikovsky Research site. In fact it is here that I first came across them.

They appear in the article about the First Symphony in the 'Works' section. Acknowlegements are due.

Michael Porter

18/09/2011 18:36

Tchaikovsky Forum : Mental State

Hi Michael, we have touched upon this subject before on the Forum...if interested clik on the above to see how the subject of his mental state has been handled on previous occasions....if nothing else he was undoubtedly hypersensitive....

Al Gasparo

19/09/2011 03:52

Hi Al...

I've read the discussion on Tchaikovsky's mental state which you drew my attention to, and I have to say, I incline much more to your view than I do to Mr Langston's. In fact Tchaikovsky himself seems to incline more to your view!

"Thanks to the regularity of my life, to the sometimes tedious but always inviolable calm, and above all, thanks to time which heals all wounds, I have completely recovered from my insanity. There's no doubt that for some months on end I was a bit insane, and only now, when I'm completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on—that man wasn't I, but another Petr Il'ich." (Letter to Anatolii Tchaikovsky dated Feb 19 1878)

I haven't found any reference to this letter on Tchaikovsky Research, but it seems to be genuine, with its underlining of the words insanity and objectively and its slight air of self-deprecation.

With regard to the effect of the crisis of 1877 on Tchaikovsky's output: the short but remarkable cycle of string quartets, in which the composer seems increasingly to be exploring his innermost feelings, suddenly breaks off. There are no more quartets after 1877 - just a touching but essentially light-hearted string sextet written years afterwards.

As for Mr Langston's account of the vilification of Tchaikovsky by homophobic critics and reviewers, it's just horrifying! The foul, almost pathological abuse hurled at the composer, is almost beyond belief. The effect on homosexual men who were being subjected to the same abuse was to make them rally to Tchaikovsky's cause, believing that he was expressing their own tormented life-experience...

But enough. I'm repeating myself.

Kindest regards

Michael Porter

20/09/2011 04:22

One final point, Al. In 1892 Gustav Mahler described Tchaikovsky as "an elderly gentlemen". The photos tell the same story. Tchaikovsky, at the age of 52, looked like a man in his mid-sixties. What had caused this premature ageing?

Michael Porter

20/09/2011 04:42

Thank you Michael.....outside of a genetic predisposition perhaps his penchant for drink and smoking accelerated his aging is true he did seem to age rather rapidly,,,as for the matter of his mental know they say "where there is smoke there is fire"....I for one cannot discount the man and his mental state from the music....they are one and the same....on the other hand there is Stravinsky who said in effect that music means nothing....but if music is not the language of the emotions and ones moods and feelings then what is it?

And did you know that in a interview given I believe in 1892 that Tchaikovsky had said he planned to give up composing by 1896 and devote himself to gardening? Increasingly over the years he complained of lack of inspiration....tho towards the end starting with the Fifth Symphony in 1888 he turned out a series of masterpieces...but the Manfred Symphony of 1885 showed already a return to his old self ....when he made that remark about retiring he had not yet written the ''Pathetique"....which he proclaimed was the best piece he had ever written or ever would write....this work reawakened his faith in himself and perhaps he would postpone retiring as he said for a later time had he lived....

Al Gasparo

21/09/2011 03:08

I am happy to see this theme brought up by Mr. Porter. Tchaikovsky´s music has regrettably much too often been identified with the composer´s apparently neurotic and tragic life - a rather imprecise assumption when in fact the composer mostly lived and worked in accordance with his sound mind and best abilities, which resulted in a massive production of fine music. This music is, I am afraid, also burdened from the point of view, that Tchaikovkovsky´s own suffering is always apparent in his works, thus belittling the qualities of the music itself. Whatever music "means" to one person from another must be a subjective matter, but to generalize Tchaikovsky´s oeuvre to be an expression of heartbreak and perpetual suffering is damaging to the music per se. Personally listening to Schubert´s Forellen quintett I do not vision little fishes splashing happily around, likewise attending a concert with Tchaikovsky´s Pathetique I do not imagine any unhappy infatuation in the nephew or the caretaker´s son, but explore on the contrary the depth and the structure of the music. I think both Tchaikovsky and his music have been victimized by too many conspiracy theories. It´s time to wipe the slate clean and fully appreciate the legacy of Tchaikovsky and as Leopold Stokowsky said, thank him in heaven for all his fine music. Best regards

Erling Eliasson

22/09/2011 22:27

For what its worth I am including several of Stravinsky's thoughts on the meaning of music...the first two selections come from his ''An Autobiography'',

1935 pages 163 and 53....the last selection come from his "Poetics of Music'', 1942, pages 35, 36, 49..

His reaction was in the main due to the excessive amount of reading biographical detail in a composer's music and program music of all sorts that was prevalent during the Romantic era...kind of an antidote to the fervid mind set of that time and place...I hope people will find it apropos to the direction of our discourse..while I personally like to explore the "depth and the structure of the music", I also am not unaware of its emotional pull without reading into it and limiting it to a story, biographical or not...and as a Romantic which is what I suppose I am....Mahler's music is the ultimate in this sphere...who would give up the magnificence of a 100 piece orchestra and its varied colors for a Chamber Symphony and its dried tones....

"Most people like music because it gives them certain emotions such as joy, grief, sadness, and image of nature, a subject for daydreams or – still better – oblivion from “everyday life”. They want a drug – dope -…. Music would not be worth much if it were reduced to such an end. When people have learned to love music for itself, when they listen with other ears, their enjoyment will be of a far higher and more potent order, and they will be able to judge it on a higher plane and realise its intrinsic value...."

"I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence."

"For the phenomenon of music is nothing other than a phenomenon of speculation…..The elements at which this speculation necessarily aims are those of sound and time…..consequently music is a chronologic art……All music is nothing more than a succession of impulses that converge toward a definite point of repose.

….my freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each of my undertakings.

I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles…..The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one s self of the chains that shackle the spirit."

Best Wishes,

AL Gasparo

24/09/2011 20:28

Thank you, Al, for the Stravinsky quotations.

"I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, or psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc….Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence."

So the setting of Psalm 150 in the Symphony of Psalms doesn't express anything at all? In fact the whole symphony is nothing more than sound for sound's sake? I'm not convinced.

Last year I wrote to Kalevi Aho, telling him I couldn't help thinking there was an 'idea' running like a thread through his cycle of symphonies, It was almost as though he was sounding an alarm, warning us of some impending danger. He wrote back: "Yes, I have a message in my works. Without a bigger general idea behind the composition I could not compose."

(I'm not breaching Mr Aho's right to privacy by disclosing this. He has written extensively about the 'meaning' of his music. And I must point out that I'm not a personal friend of his. I met him on facebook.)

Three more very interesting remarks made by composers on this subject

"There is no living composer with so complete a command of the language of music. What a pity he never has anything to sayI" (Gustav Mahler, writing about Richard Strauss):

"Why do you keep on asking us to explain the significance of our immortal compositions? Pick out the thirds and leave us in peace!" (Robert Schumann)

"No! That is totally wrong. I meant no such thing! Can't a man just write a piece of music?' (Ralph Vaughan Williams)

I refuse to believe that Beethoven's 9th symphony is mere noise. Likewise Mozart's 40th, Schumann's 2nd, Bruckner's 9th, Nielsen's 5th and a whole host of others. But their meaning can't be expressed in words. Music reaches beyond language. Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony can speak to your very soul, but there's no way you'd be able to translate what it's telling you into English.

Michael Porter

25/09/2011 07:42

I very much agree with the last post. Just a thought: there probably is no answer book to whether music is expressing actual feelings or whether it is just an expression of noise/sounds in time - and with that in mind it is quiet interesting and funny to read quotations of the different composers here presented in this matter. But when it comes to Pathetique so overwhelmingly full of emotions I am very fascinated with Leonard Bernsteins approach and interpretation, 

in which he tells of figures/lines ascending and even more so descending, thus establishing a feeling of something tragic and sorrowful - interrupted only once with the grand melody of the first movements. The requiem-quote is quite subtle and adds to the feeling of tragedy, but it could be interesting indeed to hear how Stravinsky felt about the symphony! Having read your postings with great interests I wish you all a good Sunday.

Erling Eliasson

25/09/2011 11:45

Hi Michael.....your quote by Mahler regarding Richard Strauss has more than a ring of truth to it....Strauss to me is a composer of immense technical facility yet when you come right down to it..there is a blandness about it all...Strauss himself described it best when he said..."I am a first rate second rate composer" me he comes through as dollops of sugary bon bons...Bernard Shaw as music critic also commented regarding Struass....he has a great technique but I dont care for what he has to say with it...he is like a man who lacks for nothing, just too short aside from the "sturm und drang" which I relish I require a certain amount of "angst" to make a work of art interesting....he is just too comfortable and bourgeois for my taste....something similar can be said for Brahms as well...a highly accomplished technician yet there is a kind of boredom about it all....somehow I need more angst and letting loose of demonic that makes music exciting...I hope I made myself clear...

Best Wishes,

Al Gasparo

26/09/2011 19:11

About "Tchaikovsky the man not the Myth" the fact remains that this master s music communicates with more strength and sincerity than any other known great composer.

Geniuses of course are not normal people.

Beethoven and Mozart were neurotic and so Mussorgsky and Rimsky . Schumann suffered schizophrenia.

Michelangelo, Leonardo,Newton, Kant, Oscar Wilde and Tchaikovsky all had homosexual tendencies.

Seemingly Mendelsohn and Brahms were quite normal , but they were exceptions among real great genuises.

The only important fact about Tchaikovsky s balanced or unbalanced personality is his legacy of great art and beauty.

Genius is beyond discussion.

Profr. Alberto Sáenz Enríquez

26/09/2011 20:29

Dear Professor Enriquez,

I agree with all the points you make, except for your suggestion that Brahms was 'quite normal'.

Brahms was spiteful and vindictive to an almost pathological degree. Would a 'normal' person have treated Hans Rott with such appalling cruelty, having set himself the task of wrecking the careers of all Bruckner's pupils?

With regard to the 'demonic forces' which Bernard Shaw claimed were missing from Brahms' music, they ARE there, but they are repressed by a supreme effort of self-control. They emerge quite openly in the middle section of the ballade 'Eduard', and they dominate the entire opening movement of the First Piano Concerto. They threaten to resurface at the climax of the scherzo of the Second Concerto, and they DO resurface, with quite shattering force, in the finale of the First Symphony. As the development of the main theme is reaching its conclusion, suddenly all hell breaks loose. The music becomes almost frantic, but Brahms responds to the disaster with all the strength of his furious determination to be his own master, and in a passage which is quite sublime he regains control, the tension is broken, and the horn melody which made Clara Schumann cry returns like a shaft of sunlight breaking through the storm clouds. What does Brahms celebrate at the end of the symphony? His triumph over fate!

I think Brahms was a deeply-disturbed and tormented individual, much to be pitied. The outpouring of emotion at the end of the first movement of his Clarinet Quintet is enough to make one weep for him. But nothing excuses his deliberate destruction of Hans Rott's faith in himself.

With kindest regards

Michael Porter

27/09/2011 11:01

Thanks Michael for your astute show a deep knowledge of music....and thanks for bringing to my attention the demonic side of Brahms...what you say may be true and I don't contest it but it seems to me that overall taking his work in toto he shows too much control so that something genuine is missing....I just don't think he is of the caliber of Bach, Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven who did not labor under his constraints...but then who is?....he even said if you want the real thing check out the old masters....on the other hand I do enjoy playing the piano arrangements of his Symphonies and even tried my hand at his Piano Concertos inasmuch as I can...his craftmanship is everywhere manifest...on the other hand Wagner is his own man a true original artist comparable to the masters of old....

As for Richard Strauss even taking his limitations into account he was the foremost German opera composer after Wagner and yes I do enjoy playing his symphonic poems in piano solo format,,,,he is one of the leading composers of his age,,,,

Best Wishes,

Al Gasparo

27/09/2011 18:30

One final comment, Al, and then I think this thread will be well and truly exhausted:

I agree whole-heartedly with your inclusion of Joseph Haydn in the Austro-German pantheon! All that 'Papa Haydn' drivel was a gross insult to the memory of one of the greatest musical innovators, and chroniclers of the human spirit, who ever drew breath. Those who continue to spout such patronising drivel are now seen as being quite ridiculous and musically ignorant. Haydn's true stature is recognised by all true music-lovers the world over. The same thing is happening to a certain Petr Il'ich Tchaikovsky...

Michael Porter

27/09/2011 19:39

A few more words regarding Stravinsky's views on his An Autobiography...1934...he writes...

"This dangerous point of view concerning instrumentation, coupled with the unhealthy greed for orchestral opulence of today, has corrupted the judgement of the public, and they, being impressed by the immediate effect of tone color, can no longer solve the problem of whether it is intrinsic in the music or simply "padding". Orchestration has become a source of enjoyment independent of the music, and the time has surely come to put things in their proper places. We have had enough of this orchestral dappling and these thick sonorities; one is tired of being saturated with timbres, and wants no more of this overfeeding, which deforms the entity of the instrumental element by swelling it out of all proportion and giving it an existence of its own. There is a great deal of reeducation to be accomplished in this field."

All this after he had high praise for Beethoven and noted "It is in the quality of his musical material and not in the nature of his ideas that his true greatness lies."....He also had high praise for his orchestration...noting that "Beethoven's music is intimately locked up with his instrumental language, and finds its most exact and perfect expression in the sobriety of that language." to defend Beethoven against those who think his orchestration to be dry...

This might explain his penchant in his later works for a more "dry" and less opulent tone....but it was the reaction of most of the modernists of that era as well....

Here we are at the 100th anniversary of Mahler's death and most of us still revel in the orchestral opulence of his work....which is not merely rhetorical as it can be with those who have a gift for orchestration but little the hands of a great composer the orchestra becomes an instrument to convey the loftiest of moods and explore the deepest areas of our psyche...and it becomes more than just "padding"...likewise with Tchaikovsky's greatest orchestral works...

Best Wishes,

AL Gasparo

28/10/2011 20:42

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