Monday, November 18, 2013

The Music Lives on Forever

   Throughout the centuries there have been many fine pianists and highly successful musicians, but encountering a genius either at a concert or through his music performed by himself or others is a very rare occurrence in most people's lives.  Listening to the compositions of such people can be a transformative experience and can touch your soul in a way that few others things can.

    One man who had such an extraordinary ability was Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).  Born in Russia and showing extraordinary talent at a very early age, Tchaikovsky went on to write three ballets, eleven operas, six symphonies, and numerous other works before dying in 1893.  For many people in the West he is known composing the music for “The Nutcracker”, a ballet which is very popular in the US during the Christmas season.  His music was also used in countless films and, thereby, became popular with many generations of people who might not otherwise have had the experience of or interest in hearing classical music.  For example, Disney used several pieces by Tchaikovsky in their 1940 film “Fantasia”. This film helped to introduce young children and parents to some of the finest pieces of classical music ever written by using them as accompaniment to the actions of various Disney characters.

    Tchaikovsky was not only a Romantic music composer, but he was a Russian Romantic music composer.  The influence of Russia on his music can be heard in many of his pieces.  For example, this is very obvious in his “Fourth Symphony”.   The influence of a person’s homeland on his music is certainly not limited to Tchaikovsky. The same thing could easily be said of Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Rachmaninov died in Beverly Hills, California in 1943, but he was never simply a Russian born American composer.  In the case of both of these men their culture helped to make them into the composers they became.

     There have been several films done about the life of this musical genius.  In the 1950s, the Walt Disney Company produced a half hour film about “Peter Tchaikovsky”1 which was the first time a television show could be heard in stereo.  In 1969, Mosfilms, a Soviet film studio, produced the film “Tchaikovsky” which was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Foreign Language Film” in 1971.  This film goes into a great deal more detail about Tchaikovsky’s life, especially the influence of Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894) on his career.   Mrs. von Mack was his “silent” benefactress who was willing to help support Tchaikovsky financially on the condition that they never actually met face-to-face.

     Both of these films presented the Tchaikovsky’s life in a noncontroversial way.  There was some mention of his personal life, but much of the film focused on his work as a composer and his need silence the music which he heard in his head on a rather regular basis since childhood.  Neither of these films would be considered offensive by those who chose to show them to their children.  However, this statement cannot be made about the next film about Tchaikovsky’s life.

     “The Music Lovers” was a 1970 British film directed by Ken Russell.  The film includes at least two major factual errors. In one sequence, Tchaikovsky and his patroness, Mrs. von Mack, see each other on the road; the two never spoke, although their paths crossed once by happenstance in a park in Italy. Later, his wife, Nina, goes mad and is placed in an insane asylum, prompting the composer to call his Sixth Symphony the Pathetique, when in reality she was not institutionalized until after his death.2   

    If these two factual errors were the only major negative factors this film that would be fine; however, it did not stop there. Richard Chamberlain (b. 1934), a fine actor who later became popular in the US for his role in the television series “Thornbirds”, was cast in the title role.  His portrayal of Tchaikovsky could easily have given someone the impression that the composer was a mental patient instead of a genius musician. 

     A great deal of time was spent focusing on the alleged nymphomania of Tchaikovsky’s wife, Nina, and on the question of whether or not Tchaikovsky himself was a homosexual.  Was Russell attempting to make the point that there was a direct link to Tchaikovsky’s alleged homosexuality and his musical genius?   Should musicologists spend time researching if there was a direct link between Rachmaninov’s heterosexuality and his musical genius?  Most people would say, “That is absurd”, but it is not absurd to focus so much time and energy on the idea that Tchaikovsky was a homosexual. 

     “The Music Lovers” was an extremely strong agenda disguised as a film.  Pyotr Tchaikovsky heard music which other could dream of hearing and was able to put that music on paper so that these pieces will be heard by numerous generations long after we are gone.  At this moment, “Evgeny Onegin” is appearing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, some one hundred and thirty four years after it was first performed in Moscow.  I sincerely doubt that most current pop songs will be remembered 134 years from now. 

     Musical preferences are highly individualized.  Some people may love opera or classical music while others might prefer jazz or country music.  While musical tastes differ, it is important that people who show musical talent be encouraged.  Parents play a major role in either inspiring or destroying their children individuality.  This is often done under the guise that either the parents know what is best for their child or the parents “meant well”, but the reality is that in many cases these parents are living their lives vicariously through their children with often very unhappy results. 

    Parents often insist that their children conform and not go against the prevailing societal code. Many parents staunchly believe in blind and mindless conformity. They believe that there is safety in following the prevailing and/or majority opinion. They contend that following the majority consensus offers a sense of belonging and security. They stress to their children that it is safer and more feasible to conform to the prevailing groupthink philosophy. They strongly discourage their children's strong individualism and nonconformity because it is believed that if their children refuse to conform to the prevailing groupthink, they would be considered oddballs or worse, being ostracized and alone. A worse scenario according to the parents, these children would be ostracized and denigrated by their neighbors and associates. So if their child/children dare to have a unique, creative, and innovative thought and idea, it is squashed and oftentimes considered outlandish and weird because nobody else thought of it! These parents are killing the dreams of a potential Tchaikovsky.3

     On October 28, 1893, Tchaikovsky conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony the Pathétique in Saint Petersburg. Nine days later, he died there at age 53. While Tchaikovsky's death has traditionally been attributed to cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier, some have theorized that his death was a suicide.] Opinion has been summarized as follows: "The polemics over [Tchaikovsky's] death have reached an impasse ... Rumor attached to the famous die hard ... As for illness, problems of evidence offer little hope of satisfactory resolution: the state of diagnosis; the confusion of witnesses; disregard of long-term effects of smoking and alcohol. We do not know how Tchaikovsky died. We may never find out ....."4

    While there is a great deal of speculation surrounding the Tchaikovsky’s death, there is no such speculation surrounding his musical genius.  His contributions to classic music are still admired by audiences throughout the world.  It is entirely possible that he may have lived a difficult and even tragic life, but the mark he left will last forever. 

                                                           End Notes

1)    Disneyland - 5.16 - The Peter Tchaikovsky Story - Version 1”  (accessed 10/9/13)

2)     “The Music Lovers”  (accessed 10/9/13)

3)     “Destroying Individuality: Making Everyone Mediocre” (accessed 10/9/13)

4)     Wiley, Roland John, "Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Illyich" In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Second Edition (London: Macmillan, 2001), Vol. 25: 169. 

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