“Ah, whither are ye banished,
my springtimes golden days so dear?
What fate will morning bring my lyre?
In vain my searching eyes inquire
For all lies veiled in misty dust.
No matter; fate’s decree is just.
And whether pierced, I fall anointed
Or arrow passes by, all’s right,
The hours of waking and of night,
Come each in turn as there appointed,
And blessed with all its cares the day,
And bless the dark that comes to stay.’
‘The morning star will gleam tomorrow,
And brilliant day begin to bloom,
While I perhaps descend in sorrow,
The secret refuge of the tomb;
Slow, leafy then, with grim insistence
Will drown my memory’s brief existence,
Of me, the world shall soon grow dumb,
But thou, fair maiden, wilt thou come
To shed a tear in desolation
And think at my untimely grave,
“He loved me, and for me he gave
His mournful life in consecration
Beloved friend, sweet friend I wait
Oh come, oh come, I am thy mate.”‘
(These two Pushkin sonnets are moving precisely because they are written in so deliberately banal a style. They are composed by Pushkin’s doomed character Lensky moments before his premature violent death. But opera was made for such banal sentiments, and Tchaikovsky turns them into musical gold. How many thousands of Russians were shot by firing squad, froze on the tundra, starved in famine, or were butchered by Nazis rather than the Communists, with this song in their ears?)
Prescript: Before beginning this post, please know that I know that declaring what I declare above in the title is utterly absurd. Of all the literally thousands of composers who need championship, Tchaikovsky might, in objective terms, be the absolute #1 who absolutely needs no further promotion. And far be it for me to suggest that a perennial Top 5 most played anywhere needs anything but to be played less. Instead, let me just suggest that we pay him tribute to him by playing him less and respecting his music more.
It was already more than seventy-two hours ago. I don’t know exactly when it was during the Washington National Opera’s searingly moving production of Eugene Onegin that the thought occurred to me that however much Tchaikovsky has been valued, and seemingly to a point well past overvalue, we haven’t valued him highly enough. Tchaikovsky is a ‘universal composer’ like Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert who, even if he wasn’t completely at home in them all, acquitted himself well in every genre. He is the first great composer who was completely at home writing for the orchestra. Many great composers before Tchaikovsky wrote for the orchestra as though it were just a large chamber ensemble, Beethoven wrote for the orchestra as though it was a large piano, so did Dvorak, while Bruckner and Brahms wrote for the orchestra as though it were a large organ, Berlioz and Wagner were visionaries, inventing their orchestras as they went along; but Tchaikovsky was the first immortal to ever speak the language of the orchestra as his mothertongue. Just as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven did around the turn of the 19th century, Tchaikovsky’s achievement kicked off an absolutely unbroken line of Russian achievement in composition that only seems to be running out of steam now today’s mature generation. With a pre-echo in Mikhail Glinka, still very popular in Russian but virtually unplayed in the West, it goes all the way to the final generation of the Soviet Union. It doesn’t seem to go past there (though there are a number of still young post-Soviets whose explosive gifts threaten to resume that line, just about all of them women); but if you haven’t heard of Alfred Schnittke, Krzystopf Penderecki, Sofia Gubaidulina, Rodion Shchedrin, Veljo Tormis, Andrzej Panufnik, Peteris Vasks, Karel Husa, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Giya Kancheli, Osvaldus Balakauskas, Henrik Gorecki, or Arvo Pärt, don’t worry. If classical music hasn’t completely disappeared by 2050, your most intellectually curious grandchildren will be all over that stuff.
One could argue that Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries, ‘The Mighty Handful’, were co-authors of this musical golden age, but it is only when you combine the achievements of all five – Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, Cui – that you equal Tchaikovsky’s. And I declare this as someone who can scientifically prove himself to be Mussorgsky’s biggest fan and thinks Rimsky-Korsakov is probably the most underrated composer of the 19th century. And yet, it is only when you combine them with other distinguished minor composers like Borodin and Balakirev that they stand together as tall as Tchaikovsky, who is as much a composer of the human soul as any of the great Teutons. The Mighty Handful stood for proud musical nationalism, and with it, proud musical amateurism. They rejected the musical lessons of the West for reasons having as much to do with bigotry as laziness, and saw little good in learning from anything which was not Russian. Mussorgsky, the genius among them, withered away to a dead end from alcoholism, brought about in part because even a genius with ADHD can’t compose purely from spontaneous inspiration. While Rimsky-Korsakov, easily their most distinguished achiever, learned from Tchaikovsky’s lesson and eventually developed as erudite a technical arsenal as any composer of his era. Tchaikovsky, on the other hand, was the internationalist who learned from other cultures even as he remained as Russian as an onion dome. Westerners have derided his unorthodox composition techniques for a century and a half, but Tchaikovsky learned from the techniques of the West as only a genius can, assimilating the techniques so thoroughly that he discarded whatever from them would inhibit his originality.
The result seems increasingly apparent to me that Tchaikovsky was, almost beyond doubt, the greatest composer of his generation – an illustrious generation that includes Rimsky and Mussorgsky and Borodin, and also (my dearly beloved) Brahms, Saint-Saens, Bizet, Faure, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky’s nearest rival: Dvorak.
Why is Tchaikovsky the greatest of his time? Because at a moment of Western musical crisis, indeed, at a moment of European history’s crisis when the whole continent seemed to lose confidence in its ability to solve its many problems, Tchaikovsky provided the best and most regenerative way forward. In the 1870s, at virtually the same historical moment when Germany became the dominant European power and threatened Europe’s security for the next seventy-odd years, its epochal artist, Richard Wagner, premiered his 15-hour Ring of the Nibelung – a mammoth fusion of music, drama, myth, philosophy, and psychology which promised its listeners redemption through destruction. Under Wagner, music was no longer music, for he used his narcotic musical gift as a mere nail on which to hang his transcendentally triumphalist total works of art.
What were composers, most of whom have no reason to study philosophy, to do in the wake of music so monolithically powerful? You can’t simply unlearn what you’ve learned, and in the face of Wagner’s destructive power, you can’t write a symphony like Beethoven’s and expect to have an impact on listeners like Beethoven’s.
One way forward, Brahms’s and to a lesser extent Bruckner’s, was to look backward rather than forward. To study and internalize the lessons of past masters so thoroughly that you can grow entire symphonies from two or three notes. It worked for them, but as time went on, this hyper-controlled music, sculpted at the cellular level, became ever more divorced from its audiences. Brahms may have been the conservative of his time, but if you proceed on a path from Brahms, we get the path to Schoenberg, great music but still not beloved 100 years after its composition, we get the neoclassicism of mid-life Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Respighi, Busoni, Milhaud, Poulenc, Martin, and Martinu. We also get the sparse and severe later symphonies of Sibelius. All of it great music, but all of it a type of music in which you feel the limitations of how much the music allows itself to express. There are certain places of the musical imagination wherewhich Brahmsian aesthetic dares not go. Leonard Bernstein once offhandedly called it ‘refrigerated music.’ Proceed down this path, and eventually you get to its logical endpoint – the hyper-controlled avant-garde of Boulez, Elliott Carter, Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt etc. – music so completely controlled that it sounds like chaos. Music so fearsomely technical, so indifferent to audience assimilation, that it sounds as though composed by Northrup Grumman. Whether or not one loves it or hates it, it seems almost predestined to be hated by traditional classical audiences.
Another way forward, Bizet’s, is to bypass Wagner’s questions of transcendence completely. Carmen is about pleasure; unceasing hedonistic pleasure, and the chase of it so obsessive that it positively welcomes death rather than live a life which settles for any lull in pleasure’s thrill. It is the ethos of so much popular music in the 20th century, prefigured in a surprisingly tragic ‘opera comique’ of the mid-1870s, influenced not only by the operettas of Offenbach and Johann Strauss, but also by the Parisian follies and burlesque houses, and more indirectly the British music halls and American minstrelsy. Bizet was dead in 1875, but after Carmen’s inflaming success in 1877 would come the rise of Ragtime and Vaudeville, and therefore the rise of popular music as we still understand it. It should go without saying that there have been many glorious achievements in the non-classical realm over the last 150 years, but the art in popular music began, as most high art did before it, from populist beginnings that deliberately made as few demands as possible. Carmen is a perfect opera, its demands on our patience are as few as are made on albums like Rubber Soul or Pet Sounds, and in doing so it wiped the metaphysical palate of classical music clean for an ethos of something entirely new, but because it did, its metaphysical demands on us extend only to death, and through Carmen we are compelled to speculate that while fate is unalterable, we are all just a bunch of chemico-physiological wires, capable of experiencing nothing better than the pleasures and pains of the body, until such time as our bodies give out. So think of the early grave this ethos led so many performers to, along with so many more devoted listeners. In the midst of the most prosperous eras and areas known to man, it encouraged a kind of self-defeating nihilism which prohibited so many under its sway from enjoying the full extent of the prosperity’s pleasures which should have been theirs.
But then, there was the Eastern way, the Russian way, or more particularly, the Tchaikovsky way, and to a slightly lesser extent, the Dvorak way. Preserve the old forms of Mozart and Beethoven, but redesign them for a new era. The Beethovenian way of composing, building whole symphonies and string quartets and sonatas out just four-or-so notes, was a liberation for composers like Wagner and Liszt and Bruckner, but by the 1870s, the new generation of musical geniuses found it a prison. Tchaikovsky introduced the more natural elements of music into this extremely unnatural musical form – complete melodies, rhythmic excitement, instrumental color, and yes, the most compelling expression of a personality through music since Beethoven and Schubert.
Wagner’s music was less interested in expressing the characters’ emotional states than it was in using their emotional states to illustrate philosophical points. But Tchaikovsky’s music was, in some senses, more directly expressive, perhaps even self-expressive, than any music until his point in music history. Whereas Brahms and Wagner, in their very different ways, took the emphasis off of self-expression, Tchaikovsky doubled down on it. In a decadent musical era, Tchaikovsky’s music was an infusion of natural vitamins into instrumental forms that were in danger of fossilizing. Tchaikovsky was no revolutionary, he was an evolutionary, who realized that the best way forward was neither to preserve or dispose of old ideas, but to mutate them for an era with new requirements – a more prosperous era of history, but also more tragic, living with the awful knowledge that its current prosperity could not continue forever. More than any other composer, more than Wagner, it was Tchaikovsky who articulated the spirit of his age. It was not Tchaikovsky the homosexual who was decadent, it was those who opposed him, who said that the beautiful melodies in his symphonies as string quartets were sentimental, who heard the enormous sounds of his orchestra and thought them vulgar, and who heard the glittering array of orchestral color in his ballets and thought it effeminate camp.
And so, in 2019, why the refusal to give Tchaikovsky anything more than a begrudging admittance to the frontest of front rank? Why the claims that his music is too emotional, too voluptuous, too beautiful, too overdramatic, too hysterical, … I hope you’re getting the point by now. The problem, then as now, is in part that there is still a residual discomfort with Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, and from that once-uncomfortable fact of his life story read qualities into his music that are fundamentally not there. So many famous and influential music critics were gay themselves, and have derided Tchaikovsky in language that sounds flagrantly self-loathing.
I too have been dismissive of Tchaikovsky over the years, and as the years go on, I perceive the full extent of this profound error. Is Tchaikovsky Beethoven or Mozart? No, he is Tchaikovsky, and that’s just about the next-best thing. And if those few musicians reading this don’t think Tchaikovsky deserves his universal renown, think of all his progeny, and how they rival Mozart and Beethoven in demarcating the extent of Tchaikovsky’s influence. They range all the way from the acerbic Stravinsky to the voluptuary Rachmaninov, from the pagan mystic Scriabin to the hyper-Christian Pärt. His influence travels West most obviously through Sibelius and Elgar, while Mahler and Strauss certainly learned a number of things from Tchaikovsky, and then there’s music for Broadway and movies…
The conversion moment, or ‘reconversion’, since every adolescent who listens to Tchaikovsky takes to it like a fish to water, was when I started reading Russian literature. Once you see how directly the characters express themselves in Dostoevsky’s novels and Chekhov’s plays, once you realize the sort of ultra-refined, almost French, sensibilities of Tolstoy and Turgenev, you really do begin to understand how Tchaikovsky became the composer he became, and I developed a completely new, and hopefully still deepening, appreciation of his music. This is the duality to Tchaikovsky’s personality. Natasha Rostova on the one side, Dmitri Karamazov on the other.
One side is the ‘Tolstoy side’ – the ultra-refined conversationalist, perhaps even social climber, who could speak fluent French and German at the drop of a hat, who was beloved of every society hostess, who knew exactly how to flatter patrons and placate musicians. The side which wrote beautiful, lyrical melodies, the poet of nostalgia and elegies with incredible nuance and depth of feeling.
But then there’s the explosive, Dostoevskian side who obviously had subterranean urges that, even if they weren’t particularly animalistic, since they were homosexual urges, Tchaikovsky himself obviously viewed them as animalistic. The Russian who finds German music wooden and inexpressive, the tortured soul who must confess his sins, the creature of excess pathologically attracted to danger, the Underground Man seeking out the light of day, longing for the ability to keep unbridled passion controlled, but wiser for his intimate knowledge of suffering’s many contours.
In Tchaikovsky you see a battle raged not just between these two sides of his personality, but these two sides of Russia as well, two sides that are still fighting as hard as ever. One side, the Western side of Russia you read in Turgenev, loves tolerance and nuance, is at least open-minded enough to not ask or tell, and just wants to be accepted by mainstream Europe. This is the side of Tchaikovsky that made him get a Western-style education whereas other great composers of his time and place were almost completely self-taught. It also drove him into traditional Western forms like the Symphony. (And contra popular opinion, Tchaikovsky didn’t write six symphonies, he wrote nearly eight if you count Manfred and what we now call the Seventh Symphony – a symphony he completed more than half of but gave up shortly before the end and worked the material into other works.)
But then there’s the Russia of Dostoevsky, the mystical Russia who has priests everywhere that seem like Old Testament Prophets who obsessively denounce everything which they see as morally decadent, particularly homosexuals, since so many religious fanatics over the years have so obviously been gay themselves. Eventually many of their descendants became Politboro apparatchiks. At least one of them seems to still long for the Politboro and has an obsession with taking shirtless pictures of himself atop a horse that he then broadcasts to the world…
So consider where we are in 2019. We are, or so we would like to think, cleaning house, purging our discrimination with regard to race and sex and sexuality in ways that bespeak the long dormant and desperate longings of suppressed peoples. Intersectionality would seem to have us believe that all of the networks of oppression are so interconnected in a conspiracy of privilege that we can clean it all at once, sweeping it neatly aside to make it as much a vestige of our past as a tailbone. But new concepts are guaranteed to create new problems, there is always a conflict, an eternal conflict, of one right with another right. Such is the human condition, and the remedying of wrongs for one will subtract to the remedying of wrongs for another.
The remedying of the wrong estimation of Tchaikovsky is so absurdly down the list of wrongs to be righted that there is, or there should be, very little space for it. But whether we acknowledge it, it insists upon itself in 2019. A great gay composer, THE great gay composer, in a world where the most powerful country in the world entertains the idea of Pete Buttigieg, America’s first major openly gay Presidential candidate, facing an international climate where a candidate who defeats Trump most do battle with a shrunken but nihilistic superpower whose President-for-life who seems to hold two priorities over every other:
1. to destabilize the liberal international order.
2. the suppression of homosexuality.
Music is not just organized sound, it is sound organized into meaning. If previous generations can denigrate Tchaikovsky as hysterical camp, wiser generations should be able to hear the desperate pleas for dignity in his music. It is everywhere in the tragic strains of his last three symphonies, in the doomed fatalism of his music for Romeo & Juliet and Francesca da Rimini, the most nightmarish passages of Sleeping Beauty and the Queen of Spades, the horrific sublimity of nature in the Manfred Symphony and The Tempest. “Tragedy”, George Steiner wrote, “springs from outrage; it protests at the conditions of life.” I don’t know if Tchaikovsky would frame his music as a ‘protest’ as we currently understand it, but the most horrific passages in Tchaikovsky cannot spring from anywhere but outrage, and we know precisely what Tchaikovsky had to be most outraged about.
Think of Eugene Onegin – Pushkin clearly meant Onegin as a partial standin for himself, a bored idler of the noble class, a narcissist who seeks a more interesting life as thought it’s owed him, seeking sensations and pleasure yet finding so little that interests him that he thinks barely anything of even murdering his friends. But so did Tchaikovsky, and when you hear Onegin sing his lines…:
If I wished to pass my life
within the confines of the family circle,
and a kindly fate had decreed for me
the role of husband and father,
then, most like, I would not choose
any other bride than you.
But I was not made for wedded bliss,
it is foreign to my soul,
your perfections are vain,
I am quite unworthy of them.
Believe me, I give you my word,
marriage would be a torment for us.
No matter how much I loved you,
habit would kill that love.
Judge what a thorny bed of roses
Hymen would prepare for us,
and, perhaps, to be endured at length!
One cannot return to dreams and youth,
I cannot renew my soul!
I love you with a brother’s love,
…You know that Tchaikovsky is talking to a large extent about himself. Onegin’s problem is that he’s clearly not particularly interested in women. Just as Tchaikovsky was writing this opera, he embarked upon a sham marriage that quickly ended in a suicide attempt. But Tchaikovsky could nearly as easily have identified himself with Tatiana, privately composing ill-advised love letters to the objects of his affection, or Lensky, full of foreboding that his penchant for sensitivity may lead him to an early grave.
And so, if we now have this knowledge about Tchaikovsky in 2019, it stands to reason that he deserved to be as well-estimated as he is beloved. But in 2019, the people best disposed to raise his estimation also believe that ‘genius’ is a series of myth designed to be excuses. Excuses to ignore artists when they suffer – for genius would create something great out of suffering, to excuse the abusive behavior of the powerful – for a genius is too important to punish for his sins lest we lose potential works, and to crowd out any space for artists who have the bad luck to be considered ordinary by programmers – for surely some element of the ‘genius’ myth is expertly designed publicity.
But genius nevertheless exists. It insists upon itself and will never be ignored. It is the source of illumination that alters the polarity of the world to its axes. You can believe that the ‘myth of genius’ is a pernicious way to keep artists suffering, you can believe that ‘genius’ is a convenient excuse for the abusive behavior of the gifted, you can believe that belief in ‘genius’ or ‘great men’ is an extremely efficient way to cover up out the contributions of ordinary people; but even if all three of of those notions are true, all three problems exist separately from a blindingly obvious truth, which is that a few people are truly so gifted that the world is different because of their achievements. To say that the world is different because of geniuses is not the same as saying that the world is better, and geniuses should be held to the same standards of behavior as the rest of us, because even the most beneficent genius is value neutral; geniuses can use their gifts as easily for destruction as for creation (even in musicians of genius, like Wagner, it’s arguable that they can use their gifts for both). But whether the world is better or worse due to achievements of genius, the world is most certainly different because of their achievements, and we cannot help but constantly re-evaluate their contributions in light of the newest world developments, their reputations waxing and waning, their insights accumulating ever new relevance to new eras with new ethea. No matter how much space we can clear up for new creative people, new artists, new composers and musicians, genius will always have its place at the top of the hierarchy of exposure.
In 2019, Tchaikovsky should no longer be merely beloved but esteemed as a master of masters. Thus far through music history, he is the composer and one of the pre-eminent artists in any form, of alternate personal identity, and how living with knowledge of it among a normative population can isolate and colden the soul. His time has come.