Is Tchaikovsky an 18th Century Composer?

From tchaikovsky-research.orgSome comments concerning my rereading of Richard Taruskin’s chapter “Tchaikovsky and the Human” from his book Defining Russia Musically. Taruskin’s contention is that Tchaikovsky’s explicit advocacy of autocratic rule and its social structure, coupled with his determination to provide musical entertainment rather than dragoon a listener into the creator’s private egotistical orbit makes Tchaikovsky’s agenda an 18th century one.

Taruskin’s claim that Tchaikovsky is essentially an 18th century composer needs to be taken seriously; not because of his (neoclassic) pastisches, not because of his adoration of Mozart, and certainly not because of some similarity of technical means or stylistic profile — but because Tchaikovsky’s explicit aims and vision of the prupose of art is so consonent with Mozart and his colleagues’ musical aims.

But what a composer wants to accomplish isn’t necessarily what he does accomplish. Mozart and Tchaikovsky wrote music that pleased contemporary audiences, for sure. But so did Brahms and especially Wagner (which Taruskin explicitly places outside the orbit of the popular or consumer-oriented music). My experience as a classical music teacher for the last 20 years leads me to suspect that among a construable general classical music public Tchaikovsky and Brahms are roughly equivalent in appeal and Wagner ultimately dwarfs them. How many complete DVDs of the Ring are available? How many CDs? I can’t walk across the street without arguing the merits of various Wagner conductors. And I think Taruskin want’s to lay at the doorstep of Brahms, Wagner and their modern heirs a kind of blame for what he perceives to be a disastrous course of 20th century music en generale.

Another thing that bothers me about Taruskin generally is his inability to take seriously the aesthetics of passionate and sincere minority viewpoints. I promise you, as much as I love Tchaikovsky, I love Schoenberg more (and, in fact, for similar reasons). I respond to the feverish hysteria, the fecund melodiousness, the kaleidescopic colors, and even the hysteria which is occasionally present in both composers. Taruskin makes what I think is a crucial and correct point that Tchaikovsky anticipates and probably influences Mahler. If Tchaikovsky anticipates and influences Mahler, he necessarily anticipates and influences composers in Mahler’s wake who exemplify the diastrous 20th century musically.

Also, Taruskin’s fixation with the musicological Teutonic hegemony appears to me to be professionally inspired and I can only sympathize wholeheartedly for the company he keeps in this regard. Right he is about the condescension and annoyingly jingoistic blather that has afflicted musicological discourse. Right he is, too, that the ghettoization of composers outside the Germanic mainstream has been pervasive and most likely carries racist and bullying overtones. Right he is that the so-called universal is a Teutonocentric fantasy.

Absolutely salutory are Taruskin’s perceptive comments on Tchaikovsky’s astounding technical prowess. Nobody needs to appreciate Tchaikovsky: but to deride his superlative competence in almost every meaningful area of musical technique is to reveal oneself as either bigoted or ignorant. And, in fact, the bigoted are nearly always ignorant though I don’t necessarily contentthat the ignorant are always bigoted.

By far, the most powerful and persuasive part of Taruskin’s essay is his brilliant examination of the sociological totems represented by Tchaikovsky’s use of the waltz and polonaise. I’m also quite persuaded by his analogy between Tchaikovsky’s and Mozart’s use of contradanse. Also, I find it totally refreshing that the homosexual element in Tchaikovsky is relegated to the personal sphere and not seen as some overpowering conditioning element of the music itself.

(I’ve never heard a gay note in my life, although, come to think of it, g-sharps are iffy. And Francophilia doesn’t imply a gay agenda. Goodness, it’s iconic that the French are the ménage à trois people!

Taruskin discusses an apparently dismal conference on Tchaikovsky in which the idea of “exemplary 19th century composer” is said to exist. Lemme tell ya about exemplary composers: Grieg is the exemplary composer of the snowflake-motifed, sweater-wearing, cosy domestic amateur tradition in Bergen, Norway. Wagner is the exemplary composer for the lengthy opera on mythological themes. Percy Grainger is the exemplary composer for the “my composer must be a curly-headed Scandinaviophile” audience. There is no such thing as an exemplary composer and it’s embarassing to try to find one.

As an aside I’ve found Tarusking comment that in Fidelio Beethoven had discovered a limitation in himself (i.e. that he was not an opera composer). I agree. But the irony is that Fidelio is a great as any Mozart opera and Mozart’s operas are every bit as great as they are made out to be. But that’s Fidelio.  Underailed by a clumsy theatrical modus operandi, Fidelio shows a dimension beyond the merely practical. As all great music does. Here I find a strain in Taruskin’s writings to be problematical: the exaltation of general (and thereby inevitably visceral) popular appeal as an endorsement of the art in question.

To make an irony I’d like to suggest that Tchaikovsky was no more an 18th century than a 19th century composer. His suites, ballets, and serenades, etc. are hardly negligible in his output in quantity or quality. And his yoking of the Mozartian with the Gothic in The Queen of Spades is a pinnacle of the operatic repertoire. But here, naturally, I’m being impartial. The fact that The Queen of Spades is my favorite Russian opera altogether has no role in my completely objective evaluation.

As for the 19th century, you can hardly discount the influence of Berlioz and Liszt in works such as Francesca da rimini and the Manfred symphony. For that matter, you can find a Mendelssohnian strain in Tchaikovsky — look at the Scherzo of the 1st Symphony. You can find Chopin and Schumann as wall (and not just because they’re specifically invoked) in his Op. 72 piano works. In fact, the spirit of Schumann seems to hover over Tchaikovsky frequently.

Like all truly great artists, Tchaikovsky is ultimately irreducible. Taruskin provides a welcome corrective but he also notices, for instance, an “underrated skill at grotesquerie” in Tchaikovsky (hardly a Mozartian trait) and he is perfectly willing to invoke patent Russianism is the music when it suits his purpose to refute the likes of Cesar Cui and patent Germanisms (i.e. the beginning of the Finale of the 2nd Symphony) to refute the ghettoizing judgments of David Brown, etc.

By the way, David Brown’s Tchaikovsky article in the New Grove may not be a disgrace, but it’ll do till the disgrace gets here. Poznansky’s book Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man is reasonable, meticulous, sober and exceptionally well documented. But I couldn’t possibly justify it as the text for my class because it wholly excludes musical analysis and concentrates for 600 pages on issues related to Tchaikovsky’s sexuality. This is too much. The impression from Poznansky is problematical although perfectly fair. This book is perhaps a necessary refutation of previous biographies of Tchaikovsky but frankly, the overall assessment of Tchaikovsky’s character could be suitably condensed into a much smaller span. An unexpurgated collection of Tchaikovsky’s letters (which I understand Poznansky has been working to achieve) could conceivably replace his biography.

Periodically in my reading of the Poznansky I found it necessary to set the book aside and listen to the waltz from the Serenade for Strings, the final scene of Mazeppa, or Sleeping Beauty to remind me of why I was reading the book in the first place.

Defining Russia Musically

Defining Russia Musically by Richard Taruskin

and more books on Tchaikovsky