From: Wade T.Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Sun 08 Dec 2002 - 16:21:18 GMT
Meaning is a process of culture.
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.''
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
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.''
LIFE IN ART
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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