This is a wonderful and moving book of correspondence and biographical documents promising one Tchaikovsky in its subtitle and introduction, but actually delivering another — and thank the musical gods for that. Nothing here is horrid or even secret; the Russian edition was published in 2009 and has been used by English-speaking authorities since. And yet it claims to ‘unlock’ scandal: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky often swore in his letters (shock!), had many homosexual encounters, including one-night stands (covered in previous biographies) and felt at home in the upper echelons of the 19th-century Russian autocracy.
Indeed, some find Tchaikovsky troublesome, such as the Soviets, readers of this book’s original Russian edition (one review thinking it a hoax, a gay composer not being seen as capable of beauty), and even partly Tchaikovsky himself, who burnt many of his diaries. As he wrote to his brother Modest in one of the book’s (previously published) letters: ‘Can you understand how it kills me that people who love me can sometimes feel ashamed of me!’ — a desperately painful comment then as now.
The book highlights the uneasy mix of Tchaikovsky’s desire for fame and his loathing for strangers’ familiarity. In an angry if apologetic letter to his music publisher, who unsuccessfully urged him to join a musical delegation, he writes:
I want to spend the summer in the country in Russia, because I’m fed up with trying to be something that I simply am not. I’ve simply got to the point where I want to say: ‘If you want to know me, love me, play me, sing me; crown me with laurels, adorn me with roses, burn incense to me, fine! If not, I don’t give a shit, and go to hell!’ What I’m talking about is the public, fame and all that shit. Goodbye, my dear, forgive me!
In later life, Tchaikovsky preferred taking a bottle into his library until he could fall asleep; and his foreign trips often went badly, the reserved, even courtly composer relaxing only when there was a crowd to disappear in, or if he made an unexpected personal connection.
Many of this volume’s letters veer between profanity, politeness and sudden sympathies. Words like ‘shit’, ‘asshole’ and ‘fucking’ (‘If you can, send me 15 roubles in silver, for I don’t have a fucking cent in my pocket’) appear alongside ‘love’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘a thousand tender kisses’. His correspondents, here mostly his twin brothers Anatoly and Modest and his publisher Jurgenson, could count on his honesty, but hardly his mood.
His abrupt, excoriating and suddenly warm approach recalls such signature compositions as ‘Francesca da Rimini’ and the rather frightening ‘Symphony No. 6’.
Despite its misleading title, the book is outstanding for its juxtaposition of Tchaikovsky’s letters with earlier ones between his parents, his governess and him and his brothers, and official documents, including his final school report (‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ grades in all subjects apart from mathematics, natural history and physics, in which he scored ‘good’).
His father’s letters particularly are a joy: Major General Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, born in 1795, was in many ways that century’s man, adept at writing in a sentimental style to Aleksandra Andreevna Assier before their marriage:
What was the meaning of those tears? I didn’t expect to see them, but having seen them, I had to assume that I was the reason for them. My darling whom I adore! From the very moment when you pronounced that fateful word ‘yes’, when fire raced through my veins, when I felt I was on the very summit of heavenly bliss, when everything went dark before my eyes except the vision of you — one thought has been tormenting me more and more: are you not regretting the haste with which you uttered that word which bespoke my happiness?
She, meanwhile, replies in like terms (‘For the love of God, please write more often...’, ‘my dear incomparable friend!’). While their letters are easy to parody, read for what they are, their high-mindedness and unabashed emotion are simply lovely.
Tchaikovsky’s governess Fanny Dürbach’s letters, written when her earlier charge was a celebrity, are nostalgic, expressing her longing to re-establish contact with her darling Pierre — a feeling he answered. The pair met before his death, astonished that their affection had survived so easily.
The effect of the older generation’s letters preceding Tchaikovsky’s own correspondence, just as the short chapter containing evidence of the composer’s social standing (graduation certificates, official appointments, his pension of 3,000 roubles awarded by the Tsar), is sharply moving. Born into a loving and heart-on-sleeve family, encouraged by a governess who never forgot him, and helped by the state, Tchaikovsky was nevertheless restless, often melancholy, capable of great rapture while remaining romantically forlorn.
In the end, his letters burn a hole in this book, their acidity offset by desire, passion and resignation — the varied sense of which speaks so clearly, if also mysteriously, in his music.