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Roots & Branches Series
This link page corresponds to the links offered in the notes section to
Marc Estrin's novel:
And King's Shall Be Thy Nursing Fathers
A Toolbox For Closing A Coffin
(Notes For Those Who Enjoy Such Things)
Shortly before And Kings Shall Be begins, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky lay on a couch in his brother’s Petersburg apartment surrounded by men in frock coats – doctors, relatives, friends, all helping him. While I’m sure he appreciated their attendance, I am also sure he was subsequently happy to be rid of it.
For similar reasons, my feelings grew while writing it that the poem of Tchaikovsky’s corpse should be allowed to lie there, unencumbered by any frock-coated, foot-noted scholarly apparatus, as alone as T was at the end.
Still, I think it is a reasonable request from those not pentalingual (as T was), and who don’t know the nicknames within the family (i.e. Modya=Modest, his brother and partner in crime) to be further informed about what’s going on. So these are a set of notes to provide translations, cultural identifications, and my own commentary, musical and otherwise, as I think may be of interest, entirely separate from the poem.
Why the book, and why this particular book
The death of Tchaikovsky remains a mystery to this day. There is an “official story” as told by Pyotr’s brother, Modest, in his “definitive biography” which appeared three years after Pyotr’s death in 1893. It is called “the fatal glass of water”. In this narrative, the composer died after drinking a glass of unboiled water in Modest’s apartment during the cholera epidemic then raging in St. Petersburg. Another variant is told by a friend who attests to being present at Leiner’s, an upscale restaurant, when T ordered cold water even if unboiled, was refused, pulled rank, and glugged down a glass, saying something like “Who cares?”
The fatal glass of water immediately raises certain problems. Why would a high-end restaurant serve unboiled water during a cholera epidemic? If Tchaikovsky died of cholera, why was he permitted an open-coffin ceremony in which he was visited, cried over, and even kissed by thousands of his fans, lined up for blocks outside Modest’s sixth floor apartment? By medical order, cholera victims were to be doused in disinfectant and sealed in lead inner coffins to prevent the spread of disease.
The plot thickens: In 1979, Alexandra Orlova, a Russian musicologist, published some research which quite unsettled the official story. She had gone back to Moscow and Petersburg and talked with surviving ancients whose parents had been friends of the composer. “What did your parents tell you about Tchaikovsky’s death?” she asked them. They all told the same story.
Their understanding from their parents was that Tchaikovsky “had been ordered to commit suicide by a Court of Honor” made up of his old schoolmates — to prevent a national scandal involving a love affair with the son of a friend of the Tsar. Should word get out, both Tchaikovsky’s honor, and the honor of the School of Jurisprudence would be compromised. The doctors in the group could arrange an arsenic exit whose symptoms closely mimicked that of cholera, and T would die at the height of his fame, a national culture hero, a martyr to the disease, his music would be preserved, and his name remain at the top of the artistic pantheon. Or he could die whenever, scandalized, his music forgotten. Tchaikovsky was reported to have burst out of that long meeting screaming – and he was dead three days later.
Before Orlova’s, there were other suicide theories. The Sixth Symphony, which Tchaikovsky premiered nine days before his death, is seen my many, including myself, and was even referred to by the composer, as his “requiem”. In the middle of the development of the first movement there are quotes from the Orthodox Requiem text, and a hint of the Dies Irae. The symphony, especially its radical last movement, the Adagio lamentoso, was, is, as despairing and deathy as anything ever written before or after. At the time, his courtly intrigue notwithstanding, he was desperately in love with his nephew, “Bob”, his sister’s boy. They were living together in a relationship which might become catastrophic for the family. He dedicated the Sixth Symphony to Bob, conducted it, and died. That sequence, too, makes a certain amount of causal sense.
Google “Death of Tchaikovsky” for a quick review of all this, and a good bibliography of the relevant literature, bunking and debunking.
So – cholera, with or without a fatal glass of water? Or suicide, ordered or self-imposed as a way out of emotional/social impossibilities? Because I am interested in false “official stories” – from JFK and 9/11 to Tchaikovsky – I decided to solve the problem. What chutzpah!
I — from the sticks of Burlington VT, with only English, French, German and a little Russian — would write a medical mystery, have the detective solve the problem, and voilà, case solved. Next.
An amazing find gave me much encouragement early on: guess who was the doc in charge of the cholera situation outside of Moscow (where Tchaikovsky lived). Anton Chekhov! And the writer was a great fan of the composor. They had been planning to write an opera together. So — Chekhov would be my medical detective solving the mysteries around the death of his friend and hero.
And why? Because Chekhov’s patron was Alexei Suvorin, publisher of the powerful newspaper Novoye Vremya, New Times, which, two years after Tchaikovsky’s death chose to cover, in a daily, sensationalistic way, Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality trial in London, thus reminding Chekhov of his dead friend, and the dubious posthumous forensics.
What could be better? Dr. Chekhov solves the famous Tchaikovsky mystery. I get to study up on Chekhov as well as Tchaikovsky, and imitate their thoughts and writing. A God-given assignment for a novelist and lover of Russian literature.
The great edifice quickly came crashing down. All the contradictions contradicted one another. There was no evidential storyline which didn’t come up against a wall. For example, Alexander Poznansky (a native Russian speaker and scholar with much greater access to documents than mine) counters the open-coffin problems with an assertion that the epidemic was coming to an end, and that months before Tchaikovsky’s death, the burial regulations had relaxed back to open-coffin norms. I can’t find the documents, and couldn’t read them if I could find them. The various reports of attending doctors contradict one another on details, even on dates. And above all, I was beginning to find the forensics boring – the core of a detective novel.
So I put all the Chekhov stuff into a folder, and proceeded with Tchaikovsky alone – the corpse trying to figure out what has happened to him. Because I didn’t know what the real story was, I had to fudge big time, and allow T to consider all the gossip he was aware of after he became sick, and all the suicidal thoughts he had had during his life. Out of all these, the reader will have to construct a satisfactory theory – or just accept not knowing. All possibilities are somewhere in the text.
I do have my own theory: Since the time from infection to death is generally longer than the fatal glass of water of water theory allows, the contagious act must have been earlier in the week or ten days preceding. I’m willing to buy Poznanky’s assertion that the epidemic regs had loosened, and that an open coffin affair would not necessarily exclude a cholera victim, especially if his mourning were nationally important. My own thought is that Tchaikovsky likely picked up the fecal-oral disease several days earlier via “rimming” – a tongue-to-anus practice among homosexuals – while “cruising the docks” late at night looking for 15 year old lower-class boys to “fall in love with”. He may have suspected this. We don’t always know where our diseases come from.
Though this is speculation, I have to say that much of the material in the book was not speculation, or fictionally imagined, but was fed directly by voluminous correspondence now published and quoted, especially the stream of letters (keeping his sexuality secret) with his strange patroness, Mme Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, and his uncensored communication with his homosexual brother. His biographers have feasted on it, and I on them.
I discovered the title by accident while singing “My Heart is Indicting”, a 1727 Handel Coronation anthem written for George II’s Queen Caroline. The Isaiah text seemed particularly appropriate, even when twisted into Tchaikovsky’s context.
Tchaikovsky was certainly the queen as well as the king of music, feted and nourished by Tsars and kings, nursing mothers to his invert genius. The nobility bowed down to him, as did the people. While T was unsure about the Lord, he had his gods, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven among them, and was tantalized by their visions of a loving Father in heaven. The odd bisexual jolt of kings nursing sets the tone for the piece, even for those unacquainted with Tchaikovsky’s sexuality.
Notes on the text
There is a notion in some religions that the newly dead are confused after stepping through the door. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, for example, is an instruction manual, a tutorial, a collection of spells for, as the hieroglyphs say, “emerging forth into the light.” Some texts may be seen at http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Books/Papyrus_Ani.html
Tchaikovsky lies here a bewildered newbie. Much needs to be parsed. Confusion haunts him throughout the text, the old life energy swimming in and out of his weakening grasp.
I had imagined the book beginning and ending with “Queer. Queer.” But my old editor, Fred Ramey, convinced me I had to be careful of any anachronistic modernisms in rapidly and regionally changing language around homosexuality. It’s not easy to find out what slang words were used for homosexuals in Moscow or Petersburg in the 1890s. Given its current evolution in England and America as a take-back word, “Queer” was probably not among them. Did “stranii” (strange) and its variants overlap with signifiers for homosexual behavior. Finding myself over my linguistic pay-grade, I retreated to the non-word-play of “strange”, describing T’s seeing stars beyond the ceiling.
On a November night, the pre-electric St. Petersburg night is fierce with winter stars, the constellation of Orion chief among them. Hanging from Orion’s belt is his four-star sword. It doesn’t take much imagination — especially for a gay man like Tchaikovsky – to see the sword as something else. http://goo.gl/U8QsYe
And above the stars?
The blazing winter sky inevitably draws the imagination outward. So the next question for pre-big bang folks is “What’s beyond that?” Whatever T first thought in Russian, “Überm Sternenzelt” (“Above the canopy of stars”) would be an involuntary simultaneous translation for any classical musician. “Überm Sternenzelt” is a phrase from Schiller’s Ode to Joy, an evocation often repeated at crucial musical moments in the choral finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, B’s determined, hyper-setting of that poem.
Tchaikovsky had a special relationship to that extraordinary movement: as a sophisticated but malicious prank, Anton Rubenstein, Tchaikovsky’s composition teacher at Conservatory, assigned him to set the Ode to Joy poem for a graduation exercise. T was so unhappy with the results that he refused to attend its performance, and happily destroyed his score afterwards. The embarrassment led him to further appreciate Beethoven’s no-holds-barred wrestling with the text, though his relationship with the big B was always fraught.
ein lieber Vater
What is there then above the starry sky? Above the canopy of stars, “muss ein lieber Vater wohnen”. So says Schiller, so says Beethoven. A loving Father. Must dwell. Must. Tchaikovsky had a loving father, whom he loved so much as to get married (disastrous!) to please him. So — only attenuated Oedipal stuff there. (T was very attached, perhaps pathologically so, to his mom.) But that’s “father” with a small f. What about the big-F father, the big-V Vater? (alas, all German nouns are capitalized, so the difference is not so striking in German.)
Tchaikovsky’s religious stance, like Beethoven’s, was something of a muddle. He certainly loved the aesthetics of the Orthodox Church, its rituals, its iconography, and above all, its music. He wrote church music himself, and inserted a quote from the orthodox Requiem sequence into the first movement of his last Symphony. But did he really “believe in God”? I find that unclear. Beethoven, I think, did “believe” in an Enlightenment “Godhead”, but Russia wasn’t culturally and historically as “enlightened” as the German-speaking lands. Aesthetically at least, T was a believer.
And ethically? Many have commented on Tchaikovsky’s generosity and the pleasure of being around him. He did have a few unChristian thoughts when his benefactress, Mme von Meck, abruptly stopped sending checks. But aside from that, and unlike Beethoven or Brahms, you’d certainly want to have him over for dinner.
“Ethically Christian” then, except for one thing, a thing which tainted his entire adult life – his confusion, religious and otherwise, over his homosexuality, a mortal-sin-but-I-can’t-help-myself situation. Much pained discussion about this in communications with Modya, his also homosexual brother. Did Tchaikovsky think of himself as an ethical Christian? Some days yes, some days no. On the latter, he had much close embrace from Hell. The storm in his tone poem Francesca da Rimini was one he often experienced.
As for the lieber Vater überm Sternenzelt – I can imagine a freshman corpse might want to presume His existence. Pascal’s Wager. Tchaikovsky’s is an amazingly complex psyche and life, and a Google or Amazon search will instantly lead to the most relevant articles and books. But don’t forget to listen to the works. YouTube is essential. If you have time to internalize only one, it should probably be the Sixth Symphony.
better than an ogre mother
One of the funnier disputes between Petya (Pyotr) and Modya was over the contents of his second ballet, Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky always identified with beleaguered young girl heroines, and was in continual search for the prince who would kiss him into total wakefulness. But the original Perrault story (La Belle au bois dormant) did not culminate with the resurrection of the princess. Some pretty weird stuff goes on.
The wandering prince and his newly awakened princess have two children, L’Aurore (Dawn) and Le Jour (Day), whom they hide from the Prince’s mother — who happens to be an ogre (!) Hmm. Once he ascends the throne chez Mama, he is no longer able to keep the secret, and Mama sends the princess and children out to live in a house in the woods. She supplies the little family with a cook from her own staff, whom she instructs to kill and cook the boy for her dinner, using her favorite sauce.
The kind-hearted cook substitutes a lamb (in the same sauce.) Mama loves it, and orders the girl cooked next. This time the cook substitutes a goat, and slathered in sauce, it goes over well. Talk about mother-in-law problems! When her turn came, the princess offers her throat to be slit so that she might join her children whom she thinks dead. The cook pulls a fast one again, substitutes a hind for Mama’s meal (in sauce, to be sure), and brings the Princess’s family joyfully together at his own little cottage in the woods. But Mama discovers the trick, and for revenge prepares a courtyard tub filled with “toads, vipers, grass-snakes, and serpents” in which to throw the princess and her little family. But the Prince, now king, returns in the nick of time, and Mama the Ogresse, now discovered, throws herself into the tub and “was instantly devoured by the horrible beasts she had ordered placed within it.” The Prince is taken aback – she was, after all, his mother – but “he was soon consoled by his beautiful wife and children.”
How’s that for a show to take the children to?
Tchaikovsky actually wanted that for the end of his ballet. Modest talked him out of it. The Tsar said the expurgated ballet was “very nice.”
my Pathétique will take back your Ninth.
Taking back Beethoven’s Ninth is a major theme in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, as his composer, Adrian Leverkühn, descends into demonic creativity. Beethoven’s choral movement is such an optimistic conclusion to the symphony, and for all its musical complexity, seems to some, myself included, spiritually jumbled compared to the preceding three movements. (I have an extended essay about this at http://goo.gl/6f0Lbw, if you care to read it. Among my orchestra mates, mine is generally considered a whacko opinion.)
The basic question Beethoven’s finale raises is whether its optimism has any except pseudo-reality in our doom-headed time. Leverkühn, his fictive existence recorded just after Nazism and the ravages of the Second World War, could definitely say No! in thunder. For him, as for his author, ours was a civilization only to be mourned. (The end of Doktor Faustus contain some of the most beautiful, saddest pages ever written.)
Tchaikovsky, newly dead in November, 1893, had less to mourn than we do. Still, the end of the Sixth, the Adagio lamentoso, does take back the Ninth, and whatever drove Mann to end his Faustus as he did must have overlapped with the impulse to T’s, devastating and original move.
Which is true, B or T? Which is relevant to our time? Which is most faithful to the human condition? I think even those who live a good, rich life and die a good death, painless, surrounded by love, would judge Beethoven’s conclusion to be manic at least, and if inspired, crazed. I put those Mannian words into Tchaikovsky’s head because he must have felt his rendering to be more human, more humane, more realistic, more just.
Florestan’s happy release
Beethoven wrote only one opera – Fidelio. There again, ten years before the Ninth, he shows his true and constant character as one of a tough guy with a mawkish heart of gold. The gentle giant.
Florestan, unjustly held by the villainous Pizarro, is liberated from prison via some super-operatic plotting via his wife, Leonore, disguised as a prison guard, Fidelio. It’s an odd work, written and re-written, not very successful in Beethoven’s time, and not very gratifying to Beethoven. But this comment from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1948, the same year as Doktor Faustus was published, is worth considering:
“[T]he conjugal love of Leonore appears, to the modern individual armed with realism and psychology, irremediably abstract and theoretical.... Now that political events in Germany have restored to the concepts of human dignity and liberty their original significance, this is the opera which, thanks to the music of Beethoven, gives us comfort and courage.... Certainly, Fidelio is not an opera in the sense we are used to, nor is Beethoven a musician for the theater, or a dramaturgist. He is quite a bit more, a whole musician, and beyond that, a saint and a visionary. That which disturbs us is not a material effect, nor the fact of the ‘imprisonment’; any film could create the same effect. No, it is the music, it is Beethoven himself. It is this ‘nostalgia of liberty’ he feels, or better, makes us feel; this is what moves us to tears. His Fidelio has more of the Mass than of the Opera to it; the sentiments it expresses come from the sphere of the sacred, and preach a ‘religion of humanity’ which we never found so beautiful or necessary as we do today, after all we have lived through. Herein lies the singular power of this unique opera.... Independent of any historical consideration ... the flaming message of Fidelio touches deeply.
We realize that for us Europeans, as for all men, this music will always represent an appeal to our conscience.” (quoted in Wikipedia article on Fidelio)
Furtwängler, himself accused of Nazism for having stayed in Germany conducting, honored, and being state-supported throughout Hitler’s regime, sees Florestan’s happy release as helping to heal the German people through Beethoven’s holy spirit evoking a “nostalgia of liberty”, a “religion of humanity”.
Tell it to the gypsies and Jews, Wilhelm. Tchaikovsky’s Adagio lamentoso could never be so employed.
voice of the burning bush
If you want to hear how Schoenberg thought it might sound, check out the Burning Bush singing in his opera Moses and Aron (1928-32, unfinished). http://goo.gl/MrHkI9 (BB starts singing to Moses at 1:16, telling Moses to take off his shoes.)
No.13 Malaya Morskaya was the address of the then upscale apartment house where Modest lived in a top floor apartment. The neighborhood today has become more pedestrian.
http://goo.gl/Z4SbyM The corner room at the top is the one in which Tchaikovsky’s corpse lay. There is a superb BBC documentary called Who Killed Tchaikovsky? which you can find in five parts on YouTube. In the second segment (2/5), starting at 2:54, you will see a moving, if comic-awful, exploration of this once snazzy apartment: http://goo.gl/gYvQq8. I’d definitely advise watching all five segments.
I first saw electric light
One of my more frustrating searches was trying to find out if the room in which Tchaikovsky lay was lit by electricity or gas. I was able to determine that Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s Fifth Ave, inaugurated electrification in 1893. But when in 1893, and what other neighborhoods were wired and when? There may be records buried away in some Petersburg archives somewhere, but there were no books I could find on the subject. So I decided to go with gas. If I’ve got a thinking, talking corpse, I’ve got some fictive leeway. http://goo.gl/bqfMO0
It’s so bizarre in here.
The music this brings up for T is the rather weird opening of the last movement of his First Symphony, (http://goo.gl/P2FlA 33:06), an odd moment in an otherwise energetic symphony — as in the next selection (first movement, 9:05). This alternation between vivacious and grim is at the core of Tchaikovsky’s fractured heart.
Bob, Modya, Nicolai, Lev
These were all people surrounding Tchaikovsky immediately before and after his death. Bob was his beloved nephew, the possible cause of a possible suicide, of whom more later. We’ve already met Modest, Modya, his brother, in whose apartment T died, and was laid out. Nicolai was either Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, the composer’s composer friend, or Nicolay Figner, a singer friend who had helped with the early preparations. Lev was Lev Bertenson, one of the Bertenson brother MDs, who attended T through his last illness. It was problematical, both for Tchaikovsky’s fate, and for the subsequent forensics, that neither Lev nor his younger brother, Vasiliy, had ever attended an actual case of cholera. They were doctors to the upper class, and cholera was a poor person’s disease.
the day on the river bank, six boys blocking my every attempt to run away
Hoping that he might become a civil servant, Tchaikovsky’s parents enrolled him at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence ( http://goo.gl/E9yHi4 ) when he was ten. He graduated at 19, a titular counselor, on the bottom rung on the civil service ladder.
Those nine years began traumatically with Pyotr’s separation from his mother, an event which never ceased to pain him. Because he was only 10, he had to spend his first two years at the preparatory school, 800 miles from home. He remembered his dragging himself along behind his mother’s departing coach, screaming “Mama, don’t leave me!” He spoke and wrote about this for the rest of his life.
There are many reports from many sources about pupil experiences at boys’ private schools, about the bonding, sexual and otherwise, and the often sadistic treatment a young student might receive from classmates and teachers. I have woven several of these together to create some fictive memories for T’s corpse. For instance, at weekly dancing classes, some boys had to take the role of the girl. For a child like Pyotr, this was not a simple experience. Communal showers gave kids a lot of opportunity to study the physical changes going on in their own and their classmates’ bodies. There were iconic jars of vasoline. And there were public floggings for malfeasance, with much morbid fixation on young male buttocks.
The School of Jurisprudence years turned out to be traumatic not just for the pre- and adolescent boy, but may have been the cause of his death, forty years later. Because of the serious punishments by the staff, pupils regularly held “Courts of Honor” to resolve issues without bringing in the administration. These courts would strictly uphold the honor of the school and of their particular class, and continued post-graduation, lifelong. It was just such a court of the class of 1859, a group of late-middle aged, accomplished men, that according to Orlova (see initial note, above) ordered T to commit suicide, and provided the chemical means.
My tears at the Requiem
Presumably, from what fictively follows, T had attended a performance of the Mozart Requiem, and broke down in tears. My choice of that particular requiem stems from Tchaikovsky’s particular worship of Mozart, and the popular story of Mozart being visited by a stranger dressed in black, who commissioned him to write a requiem, the stranger being interpeted by Mozart as Death, and the requiem being understood as his own. There are those among the Who-Killed-Tchaikovsky? community (myself among them), who think of the Sixth Symphony as a consciously written requiem for self.
Nutcracker attack on the Jews
You can’t make stuff like this up. I include this tidbit as an illuminating glimpse of the nationalistic energies Tchaikovsky was surrounded with, and the antisemitism often attached. Tchaikovsky was frequently criticized as being too “European” a composer using classical western forms, and worshipping French and German musical gods. He travelled too much out-of-country. Ironic, then, that he eventually became the icon of 19th century Russian music.
T thought Carmen to be the greatest opera ever written, and likely the greatest which ever could be written. Again, he identified with the tragic heroine, this time a lower-class beautiful young girl, rejected by polite society, and eventually murdered by a jealous, dominating male. That she worked in a cigarette factory was a bonus: Tchaikovsky smoked like a fiend.
For his last year and a half, Tchaikovsky’s country home, 53 miles northwest of Moscow.
http://goo.gl/apSbwj It is now a much-visited museum.
That certain personage
Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova, Tchaikovsky’s short-term, but too-long-lasting “wife”. He hated her so much, and himself for marrying her, that he avoided referring to her by name. He sometimes called her simply “the reptile” or “the creature”. The story of their “marriage” is one of the most horrifying in the annals of psychosexual neurosis. I hint at it here and there throughout T’s monologue, but all Tchaikovsky biographies treat it at length. Sad, sad, sad.
lost their will to live.
Tchaikovsky was a great animal lover. So I include a story I found somewhere of a suicidal dog in order to introduce the question of suicide – which so dominates the Tchaikovsky death debates. The music quote attached is the heart-sinking last measures of the Sixth, his last work.
(http://goo.gl/16Q1L5 10:25-end.) He conducted its premiere nine days before his death. I will link to this work several times, later.
Ignatz Schuppanzigh, Beethoven’s friend, teacher, and first violinist of Count Razomovsky’s string quartet. Poor Schuppanzigh! Beethoven never ceased making fun of “My Lord Falstaff”’s growing obesity. He once composed a short choral piece dedicated to him called “Praise to the Fat One.” He must have been a pretty good player, though, to premiere all those late quartets and lead his gang through the Grosse Fugue. He grew so fat that he could no longer play. But by that time (1830), Beethoven was three years dead.
Nikolay Dmitriyevich Kashkin, professor of piano and theory at the Moscow Conservatory, and a music critic very supportive of Tchaikovsky. I think I made up his helping move T into a coffin. He would certainly have been one of the early visiting colleagues come to pay respects.
The plague is over
This declaration gives the reader (you) the chance to consider Poznansky’s assertion that official restrictions around the funerals of cholera victims had been lifted by the time of Tchaikovsky’s death, and that open coffin services would not then contradict the cholera or “fatal glass of water” narratives. I find Poznansky convincing enough to have adopted my rimming theory, but since I don’t really know, I do not commit my Tchaikovsky character to spilling the beans and revealing “the truth.”
zucchetto, gift from Giovannini
a little skullcap, worn by Roman Catholic clergy. I gave him a skullcap to wear around the house, so he could refer to little gifts given him by his Italian boy lovers. His anointing it a zucchetto accords with the habitual joking around for which he was known.
Mazeppa, in Pushkin’s poem, Poltava, became the title character in a bloody Tchaikovsky opera from 1883. More tragic love and political intrigue. In the end, Mariya, who loves her father’s friend, Mazeppa, goes insane, and Mazeppa leaves her. Another very put-upon young woman in Tchaikovsky’s collection.
lay on the flowers
You can’t say “flowers” — even if you are Tchaikovsky’s corpse — without calling up the overly famous “Waltz of the Flowers”. (http://goo.gl/Tr4mk6 beginning at 1:17)
The odd thing about the Nutcracker ballet is that is a late work, premiering before the Sixth Symphony, and less than a year before his death. The other odd thing is that while it was not originally very successful, it has become – at least in the post-60s US — as de rigeur for Christmas time as the national anthem is at sports games, annually performed by many ballet companies, a major money-maker, a must-see for the children. What is it with merry America that even Messiah is forced into being a Christmas piece? Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch. Tchaikovsky did love flowers, though.
Beauty has to be cured, destroyed.
This is part of my rant against the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, and Tchaikovsky’s fictive need to “take back the Ninth” with his Sixth. More in my essay, cited and linked to above.
Another possibility for the reader who wants a suicide theory without the help of the Court of Honor. Tchaikovsky, like many Russians, was an ardent mycologist, and would surely have known the danger – and the uses – of certain mushrooms. Several species produce gastrointestinal symptoms leading to acute renal failure, a syndrome he suffered in the last days, and which could easily pass for cholera, especially with doctors like his, inexpert at the disease. Arsenic is mentioned a little later as another cholera-imitator, and was – if you believe it — the gift given him by his doctor Scholl of Jurisprudence brothers at the posited court hearing, though, as T mentions, it is easily available at the druggist’s. BTW, “Gift” in German means “poison”.
work of art, Look at these hands
The music is the lonely horn solo opening the Second Symphony, the folk song “Down by Mother Volga.” One pictures the slow, worn, crooked hands of a Russian peasant. The movement will take the theme through many vicissitudes which might well describe a Tchaikovskian path to the loneliness to which the piece returns and ends. The next two musical earworms glimpse moments along that path.
http://goo.gl/3gl4bT, if you care to hear it.
The use of printed music in the text is only to suggest what themes are bubbling up in Tchaikovsky’s ebbing mind throughout. Germans call these “earworms”, an excellent word.
Most of these are just thrown-in names that show up in Tchaikovsky biographies. I have no idea who came to pay respects. From the description of the lines up the stairs and down the street, it would appear to have been hundreds, if not thousands. The only exception to fictive use of names is that of Alexei Verzhdilovich, whom several writers describe kissing and breaking down over Tchaikovsky’s corpse. I imagine Tchaikovsky would have loved the osculatory attention from this handsome young man and talented cellist.
Ahnest du den Schöpfer?
Another line from Beethoven’s Ninth: Do you sense the Creator… (Beethoven/Schiller continue : …world? Look for Him over the canopy of stars. Up there. He must dwell up there…” This earworm continues T’s run-in with the lieber Vater.
Vanya, Edward, Vittorio, Adriano, Ilya…
This particular incident is described in one of T’s letters to Modya. The earworm brought up by Edward’s name is T’s love theme from Romeo and Juliet.
http://goo.gl/1LdSeh (beginning 7:47) Tchaikovsky himself wrote of that connection. Vittorio appears in letters to Modya, though I may have mixed in some details from other encounters. “Strolls” is how Tchaikovsky referred to his scouting for lovers. This section is about such strolls.
I never felt so happy.
The music is the upbeat conclusion to the Second Symphony, which began in such loneliness (above). Again, http://goo.gl/PViTjn, beginning at 25:42. Of course, being Tchaikovsky, it doesn’t stay so simple and innocent.
No more mirrors, please.
Beginning now to understand that he is dead, the very weird funeral march that begins his Third Symphony comes to mind, develops in uncanny intensity and morphs into doubtful declaration. http://goo.gl/6Jqnkx. Doubtful because why, after all, start with a funeral march as context?
I told her I’d fallen in the water by accident.
In despair over what he’d gotten himself into by marrying “the creature”, Tchaikovsky thought he’d kill himself. But, being nice-guy-Pyotr, he didn’t want anyone to feel guilty about his suicide, so he decided to wade one cold night into the Moskva River, and catch fatal pneumonia. No blame. What a nice guy. It didn’t work, and he never even caught cold.
Nadezhda Filaretovna, Three. Seven. Ace.
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was a rich widow and patroness of the arts. She supported Tchaikovsky for thirteen years, generously enough that he was able to leave teaching and devote himself full-time to composition. Well, full-time when he wasn’t on strolls.
Is this the standard story of a flirting artist milking a rich widow for money? Far from it. It was one of the most extraordinary dimensions of Tchaikovsky’s hypercharged life.
While her letters make it obvious that she was in love with him – in love with the person that wrote such music – she stipulated that they must never meet. Over the years, 1,200 letters went between them, a biographer’s treasure trove. What a deep and penetrating Platonic embrace. And they never did meet, though it is possible that their carriages once passed one another on the road. Tchaikovsky was deeply grateful for her love and support, but remained uncomfortable about all that she continually bestowed on him. Consider the subtle, but penetrating shame of an intensely felt, longterm “How can I ever thank you?”
And yet, one day in 1890, three years before his death, she sent him a year’s subsidy in advance, and wrote that she would no longer be writing. None of T’s further queries were answered. In spite of the fact that he was now famous and well-off, he was hurt, and even offended by her abrupt departure. His speculation centered around her having discovered his homosexuality – a subject he had bracketed in his otherwise honest, intimate letters.
At this point in his coffin, he is confused enough to be conflating Nadezhda Filaretovna with the old, rich Countess in his opera, Queen of Spades, libretto by Modest, based on a story by Pushkin. The main character, Herman, a gambling addict like Tchaikovsky, hears tell that the Countess has a “secret formula” for winning at cards. Insert elaborate opera business here. To discover the secret, Herman invades her bedroom, scares her literally to death, and thinks the secret has died with her. But her ghost returns to whisper to him the secret formula, “Three. Seven. Ace.” Armed with this information, Herman returns to the gambling house, and runs up the stakes to an insane level. The tension is high as he bets the last card to break the house and all winning records. “Ace,” he confidently says. The card is turned over. Ace? No. It is the Queen of Spades. The card winks at him, the Countess’s ghost laughs at her revenge, and Herman commits suicide. The Countess in her beautiful youth was once known as “the Queen of Spades”.
Tchaikovsky betrays his own good self by thinking of Nadezhda Filaretovna’s departure as the old, rich Countess’s trick.
absolutely anything can be cured
Petya and Modya spend a lot of time in their letters discussing their homosexuality, how to behave around it, whether it is a disease, and if so, whether it is curable.
That gentleman in the corner
With a Don Giovanni-Commendatore fanfare (the startling opening of the Fourth Symphony), http://goo.gl/yjYaEL a stranger enters the scene.
I often conceive of a novel with one, usually silly, idea, and this was it. Pushkin will challenge Tchaikovsky to a duel over T’s insults to the Pushkin works he has polluted with smarmy sentimentalism.
Pushkin fans, and Russian literature cognoscenti do get upset about this the way certain folks (myself included) get upset about the Disneyfication of… just about anything, folktales and masterpiece stories. (“The Little Mermaid” is the one that most gets my goat. I’ll spare you another rant. But if your family has ever embraced that red-haired, little half-nymphette, I urge you to read Andersen’s actual tale.)
In the Pushkin-Tchaikovsky case, it is not so much a happy-ending, PG “G” rating (no parental guidance required (= more take at the box office) issue), but rather a determined extirpation of Pushkin’s ironic critique of sentiment. Tchaikovsky found deep sentiment in everything, and in his dramatic works, put the spotlight on it. No doubt Pushkin would have been pissed, but he died three years before Tchaikovsky was born. He was killed in a duel he initiated.
A prime example of Tchaikovsky’s tranformations of attitude re Pushkin’s heroines is his setting of the famous “letter” scene in Eugen Onegin. Pushkin shows his cards thusly: (http://goo.gl/D1SrwH)
XXVI I see another problem looming:
to save the honour of our land
I must translate — there’s no presuming —
the letter from Tatyana’s hand:
her Russian was as thin as vapour,
she never read a Russian paper,
our native speech had never sprung
unhesitating from her tongue,
she wrote in French... what a confession!
what can one do? as said above,
until this day, a lady’s love
in Russian never found expression,
till now our language — proud, God knows —
has hardly mastered postal prose.
Pretty snide. Yet here is what Tchaikovsky will do with the “letter scene” – hardly true musically to Pushkin’s character or text: http://goo.gl/evMKBv (Letter begins at 3:15.)
Only Pushkin and fanatic Pushkinites could not fall in love with this Tchaikovsky-Tatiana. Worthy of a duel, n’est-ce pas?
At this point, Tchaikovsky is confusing Pushkin’s accusations of rape with those rumored to be evoked by his recent affair with Alexei Stendok-Fermor, the son of Count Stendok-Fermor, a close friend of the Tsar. It was this potential scandal that putatively brought the fatal Court of Honor into session — if that was the case. Pushkin, of course, has no idea of what T is referring to. A fictive Countess, a very real Count. What a psychic mish-mosh. Tchaikovsky was uncomfortable in aristocratic circles juggling his culture-hero role with his fear of exposure.
I could use a cigarette.
As mentioned above, Tchaikovsky was an addicted smoker, and given his deep love of Carmen, his mind drifts to the cigarette girls, and Carmen’s seductive, but duplicitous Seguidilla http://goo.gl/9IkFnv with which she convinces a smitten, confused Don José to help her escape from prison. Again, Tchaikovsky identifies himself with a young girl breaking free from society’s strictures. An outlaw. A victim.
The seconds lay out their coats
The image of coats focuses T’s sight on all the overcoats crowding the room. The poet Lermontov, whom Tchaikovsky imagines there, was also killed in a duel. Why, he wonders, do people keep wanting to pry into his private life? This sniffing around at him brings his wandering mind back to his experiences at SoJ, its tendernesses as well as its cruelties. The next earworm that comes into his head is the beautiful, yearning them of the second movement of the Fourth, the Andantino in modo di canzona, simple, he annotates, but full of grace. http://goo.gl/UgBzUP.
Kolya Krosotkin, the Suicide Club
Kolya is a character in The Brothers Karamazov, a daring, if posturing, leader of a gang of boys which impact the young lives of the brothers, especially Alyosha. His was the trick of lying under an overpassing train. I transposed this into a fictive moment of Tchaikovsky’s boy-life, and then had the audacity to make Tchaikovsky blame Dostoevsky for the whole thing. His inner laughter about the memory bubbles up in the Scherzo (ital. “joke”) of the Fourth Symphony. I believe it’s the first symphonic movement ever written in which the strings play entirely pizzicato. http://goo.gl/zywbNe Very original, and fun to play.
Though dedicated to Mme von Meck, the emotional urgency of the surprising turn from fanfare – which T identified in letters with ominous fate — to writhing waltz (http://goo.gl/yjYaEL at 1:45), turns his thoughts to his current anima, life, soul, his nephew, Bob.
decomposing body and rising soul
This breathtaking (for who would dare breathe?) moment ending the exposition of the first movement of the Sixth poses an existential halt! to the listener. As the melody falls, the dynamics go from p (soft), to ppp (very, very soft), and from there to pppp (very, very, very, very soft), to ppppp (very, very, very, very, very soft), to pppppp (very, very, very, very, very, very, very soft) as the one remaining clarinet drops into its lowest register. I don’t know that pppppp appears in any other score, orchestral or otherwise.
Where is he? Where are you? http://goo.gl/J5HvuQ 9:57-11:00
(I like weirdo, always-unshaven Gergiev as a conductor, but I think he should take more time after the clarinet fermata measure to bathe in nothingness. The visual of his windup for the next fortissimo doesn’t help. But this is a good recording/video of the entire work, worth experiencing in its entirety.)
The opening of the Sixth. The end of the Sixth.
Again, go back to the last link, or many, any, other YouTube performances of the work. You’ll not regret internalizing this Symphony. (And I’m not a big fan of Tchaikovsky.)
Odette, Odile, Tatiana, etc
All heroines of Tchaikovsky’s ballets and operas. The Odette/Odile, white swan/black swan, good girl/evil girl pair (usually performed by the same dancer) is particularly interesting in the light of T’s psychic projections.
violin high C
http://goo.gl/gNK8OO, at the end. Nice little concerto slow movement thrown in there.
The heroine of both Pushkin’s and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. The difference between them again illustrates the difference between the poet’s and the composer’s approaches.
One of the conspirators in Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Interesting character, of relevance to Tchaikovsky’s life/death dilemma. He believes that will is the only reality, and that one can evade the fear of death only when he is able to take his own life. In accepting death, man achieves Godhood.
The chapter opens with an earworm from T’s greatest storm, the whirling catastrophe in his tone poem, Francesca da Rimini.(http://goo.gl/WKZlHS 1:25 ff) (Man, those Venezuelan kids can really play!)
The story of Paolo and Francesca (Dante, Inferno, Canto V) was of such interest to Tchaikovsky that he composed this extraordinary symphonic fantasia the better to understand it, and himself in it.
P&F: a hateful marriage, an illicit affair with a relative, death of the miscreants – what’s not to like if you’re Tchaikovsky? Eternally swept away by whirlwinds as they were swept away by their passions – this is something T had to probe as deeply as he could, even if the passions here were heterosexual.
My own Canto V
He begins to hear the passionate sections of his own Fifth, the earworm here the emotional climax of the second movement (http://goo.gl/T13aO6, 10:10- 11:23). Pretty persuasive, but the fact is Tchaikovsky didn’t really like this piece, or rather he liked it until he finished it and performed it – and then he didn’t like it.
Here is a program note I wrote for a recent performance, requested, but too racy to be printed:
SOME NOTES ON TCHAIKOVSKY’S FIFTH
“There is something repulsive about it.”
This was the composer’s comment about his Fifth Symphony after returning from a European tour conducting it.
True, Tchaikovsky was often neurotic about his compositions, announcing his joy with them to his brother, Modest, then doubting them — and himself — after performances. Schizy. He could fly like a swan, but once on the ground, he would waddle.
Waddling is one thing, but what is “repulsive” about the Fifth? Some clues present themselves.
In a notebook page dated 13 April 1888, the year of its composition, Tchaikovsky outlines a scenario for the first movement: “Introduction: Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro: (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out.”
A hopeful beginning. In opening the work, Tchaikovsky cuts to the core. The opening theme in the low clarinets recurs in every movement, commenting on other themes, or challenging them.
Thus, the opening theme carries a narrative function beyond its musical one, and it doesn’t take much imagination to hear it as embodying the Fate Tchaikovsky invokes in his primordial program. So let’s call it the “Fate theme”, and see how it functions throughout the piece.
Tchaikovsky always wore his heart on his compositional sleeve: the sublime slow movement is the expressive core of the whole work. The opening string chorale before the famous horn solo warns the audience to take this movement seriously, even religiously.
Halfway through this erotic movement, the orchestra begins a stringendo and crescendo culminating in fortississimo (fff) trumpets blaring out the Fate theme. It’s worse than hearing the steps of your parents entering the room when you are making out with your lover, or a cuckolded spouse returning home early. There’s only one possible effect of this interruption: to scare the hell out of the audience, and make it regret its emotional vulnerability. “Oh no you don’t. You’ll be sorry.” The avenging angel bares his sword.
If that’s the way the Fate theme can function, what is the meaning of its triumphant takeover of the last movement? Critics have always found this part the least successful. Is it because it’s overwrought and only barely convincing? Protesting too much, and as such, repulsive?
I think there is little mystery what the XXX refers to in Tchaikovsky’s note to Modest. Throughout their extensive correspondence, both closeted gay men dealt in code with their “sickness”. X, it was called, or sometimes Z, in unmistakable contexts. But in this case, there is more to it than that. What was going on for Tchaikovsky at this time?
It had been three years since Tchaikovsky had produced a major orchestral work — his Manfred Symphony. Manfred, a strange, programmatic inclusion in the series of numbered symphonies. Why Manfred?
Manfred is the subject of a dramatic poem by Byron, the story of a Swiss nobleman tortured by mysterious guilt. “Thou lovedst me/Too much,” he declares concerning his sister, “as I loved thee: we were not made/To torture thus each other, though it were/The deadliest sin to love as we have loved.”
Tchaikovsky was sympathetic to Byron’s love for his half-sister, and this for him brought up the dangerous theme of incest. At the time of writing Manfred, Tchaikovsky was already deeply in love with his nephew, Bob, his sister’s son, then 15, Tchaikovsky’s favorite age for sex with boys. The composer dedicated his Sixth Symphony to him, and awarded him the lion’s share of his will. Problematical family dynamics. XXX indeed, and a perfect vehicle for Tchaikovsky’s brooding about his sexuality. The noble outsider, rejected by a conventional world. He later disowned the piece, calling it “abominable…I loathe it deeply.” Sound familiar? Repulsive?
And what followed the Fifth? His fantasy overture, Hamlet, overlapping the scoring of the Fifth, and beginning again with a “Fate” theme. Over the first page, Tchaikovsky had written. “To be or not to be?” The Fifth — sandwiched between Manfred and Hamlet.
Within five years, Tchaikovsky was dead, probably by his own hand or tongue, possibly of arsenic, possibly of cholera, nine days after premiering his death-haunted Sixth Symphony, his Requiem.
Again, Gergiev has a provocative recording of the whole: http://goo.gl/QQNidd.
Mozart – the most faithful companion of my life.
The earworm that arises is Tchaikovsky’s orchestration (http://goo.gl/cQ4Qx1, click on 3. Prayer) of the short choral setting of Ave, Verum Corpus, Hail True Body, which Mozart wrote six months before his death.
The text must have been particularly interesting to Tchaikovsky’s corpse in puzzling over its own body in the light of Mozart:
Ave, verum corpus
natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
in Cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
Hail, true body
born of the Virgin Mary,
Who truly suffered, sacrificed
on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed
with water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste
In the test of death.
He included this orchestration as the “Prayer” movement of his fourth orchestral suite, Mozartiana.
The eternal waltz.
The first earworm is the lovely third movement waltz from the Fifth Symphony. http://goo.gl/PviT2U. The bad boy limping waltz, is, I believe, the first waltz in five ever written. http://goo.gl/ddOQ91.
Praise ye the Lord
http://goo.gl/pa1vP0 I’m sure Tchaikovsky also got off on the young boys choir which likely did the singing.
same even rhythm
The rain brings the gentle rhythmic pattern early in the second them of the second movement of the Fifth. This will build to the climax he heard (above), but for the moment, it gently pulses in the strings behind the oboe/horn duet. http://goo.gl/60CV9f 2:08-2:35
a trompe l’oreille as outlandish
The opening of the last movement of the Sixth, the Adagio lamentoso, is surely one of the remarkable aural illusions ever penned. Surely, no naïve listener hears anything but a descending line, F#__ E, D, C#, B, C____. http://goo.gl/iKuq9J . A glance at the score in the text demonstrates that that melody appears nowhere. That is, it appears out of everywhere, patched together by the ear from alternating notes in each of the violins, supported by harmonies in the lower strings. Why does Tchaikovsky open this, his most crucial movement in such a snake-like way? What’s with his resorting here to trickery? Are these measures his arcane reference to hiding, the great theme of his social and sexual life?
the silence after the Adagio lamentoso
The end of this, his last symphonic movement, disappears into the earth (http://goo.gl/16Q1L5 10:25-end.)
Next printed earworm just before that: 9:10-10:18
Again, the ending of the Sixth, as above.