Fwd: Tchaikovsky

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sun 08 Dec 2002 - 16:21:18 GMT

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    Meaning is a process of culture.

    - Wade


    Tchaikovsky By DIRK OLIN

    Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's ''Nutcracker'' will be performed on stages from small towns to the New York City Ballet this month -- and in
    ''literally hundreds of productions around the world,'' according to Jeffrey Milarsky, music director and conductor of the Columbia University Orchestra. That, along with the ''1812 Overture,'' ''Swan Lake'' and certain other works, means that Tchaikovsky, as Milarsky says, ''is played more than any composer.'' Yet where Milarsky and other members of the classical music establishment herald a revival of esteem for Tchaikovsky during recent years, Milton Babbitt, 86, a giant of the serialism movement in modern composing, has a problem with him. ''He said Brahms was an untalented bastard -- that's a quote,'' Babbitt says.
    ''But I've learned a lot from Brahms, whereas I can't say that about Tchaikovsky.'' Richard Einhorn, 50, whose compositions have been performed from Lincoln Center to the Netherlands, makes even less effort to disguise his antipathy: ''Tchaikovsky has as much to do with real classical music as the Three Tenors have to do with real opera. Most contemporary composers I know haven't listened to Tchaikovsky since the third grade, when they were forced to watch 'Fantasia' and gagged.'' Babbitt and Einhorn echo earlier derogations of his work as too sentimental (the Victorians) or insufficiently Russian (a group of composers who were Tchaikovsky's late-19th-century contemporaries), but the emergent issue now is a question that could throw what the critic Terry Teachout calls ''the Tchaikovsky wars'' into Armageddon. Is Tchaikovsky's music gay?

    The man certainly was, and it was an open secret in Russian society, particularly after an unconsummated marriage whose failure was relatively well known. But can we really hear Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation in his composition? ''Of course,'' says Joseph Kraus, professor of music theory at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
    ''There is no completely right or wrong way to listen to any music. And if our interest in his homosexuality forms part of the filter through which we listen, then it would seem that an investigation into this area would be appropriate.'' Kraus has written most pointedly about Tchaikovsky's ''Symphony 'Manfred''' -- which some consider his first significant work after a seven-year creative slump following the disastrous nuptials -- as a kind of musical ''coming out'' process.

    Balderdash, replies Richard Taruskin, professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley. ''That's plumbing some shallows, if you ask me. Tchaikovsky's sexuality may be what interests us, but it mainly distorts if you only look through that lens.'' Although Babbitt doesn't share Taruskin's enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky's work, he certainly agrees on this point. ''I understand that Tchaikovsky suffered terribly and that he was a homosexual, but that doesn't interest me. It would never occur to me to listen to Tchaikovsky in those terms.''

    HISTORIOGRAPHY In his own day, when nationalistic sensibilities were ascendant, many countrymen savaged Tchaikovsky for being too stylistically cosmopolitan,
    ''looking to the West while so many other Russians were turning eastward,'' according to Leon Botstein, a conductor, musicologist and president of Bard College. ''Despite the resistance, though, he would become common ground between the two schools.''

    Not right away. After his death in 1893, Tchaikovsky increasingly came under attack from modernists who found him full of fluff and bombast. Although Igor Stravinsky resuscitated Tchaikovsky's reputation, most modernists still had scant regard for him well into the latter half of the 20th century. ''As late as 25 years ago,'' according to Patrick McCreless, chairman of the Yale University music department, ''virtually no one in the music-scholarly community was interested in Tchaikovsky. But things have changed radically.''

    Walter Frisch, a Columbia music professor, personifies the shift. ''If you'd asked me 20 years ago, I might have joined the bandwagon that said he's just bad Beethoven or bad Verdi, that he's too sentimental or pretty, that he's not complex. But that's applying standards developed for other music. He's just not an adherent of the Beethoven model.''

    COMPOSITION AND APPEAL Tchaikovsky himself copped to a fundamental inability to master some compositional forms. With much of modern composition prizing rigorous formality, even atonality, the whimsy and melodic emphasis of Tchaikovsky was bound to take some hits. As Babbitt puts it: ''It is often said that his music lacks the structure of textbook form. His pieces are mostly studied as orchestral niceties. That's all.''

    But you can't keep a good tunesmith down. Enter postmodernism. ''Today, there is a continuing modernist group that takes issue with him as a composer who they say can't command a grammar of music composition that transcends the imposition of a story line,'' Botstein says. ''But most of this is snobbery. All great art is complex, even when it appears simple.''

    So Tchaikovsky is more than treacly and twee? ''You can make the mistake of mistrusting pleasure,'' Frisch says. ''There's a school that concludes, 'If it's popular, how good can it be?' The postmodern view is more inclusive. It's the same problem as those who value Schoenberg and discount Samuel Barber because his work wasn't on the trajectory of modernism. But today, you don't have to be ashamed of loving Barber's
    'Adagio for Strings.''' The young Einhorn remains unconvinced: ''If Tchaikovsky is the 'new black,' then serious music is in worse trouble than I feared.''

     From 'Tchaikovsky: A Life Reconsidered,' by Alexander Poznansky, included in 'Tchaikovsky and His World' (1998)

    ''For most of our century Tchaikovsky was portrayed as a sort of fictionalized figure, an embodiment of romantic grief and turbid eroticism supposed by many to have committed suicide as a logical end to his sexual lifestyle. . . . Recent studies suggest that, given Russian social attitudes, sexual mores and criminal practice in the late 19th century, as well as Tchaikovsky's elevated social standing and the generally sympathetic attitude toward homosexuality in court circles and the imperial family, any scandal or repression involving the composer was most improbable. . . . An inquiry into the personality of any great artist is imperative if we would deepen and enrich our appreciation of his or her achievement, for it allows us to respond in a more complex and powerful way to the emotional and psychological issues involved in the creative process and in their artistic resolution. In the case of Tchaikovsky, his inner longings, which we cannot fully comprehend without studying the realities of his life, had a bearing on the striking and peculiar emotional poignancy of his music, which today is either extolled or else berated as sentimentalism. In the end, such inquiry will enable us constructively to reconsider the whole set of musicological cliches about Tchaikovsky, and perhaps even reconsider his status in art's pantheon, as well as the relevance of his work to our present-day cultural and spiritual concerns.''

    Dirk Olin is national editor at The American Lawyer.

    Copyright The New York Times Company

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