Bad and sad

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Bad and Sad by J. P. E. Harper-Scott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


Review of Roland John Wiley, Tchaikovsky (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), and  Adam Zamoyski, Chopin: Prince of the Romantics (London: HarperPress, 2010). Published in the Times Literary Supplement, 9 July 2010, p. 12.

Families are always trouble. An attempt to foreclose our interpretation of Tchaikovsky was made less than a decade after his death in a three-volume biography written by his younger brother, Modest. It has been foundational to later scholarship, but a stated aim of Roland John Wiley’s new life-and-works study for the Master Musicians series (published originally by Dent, now by Oxford University Press) is to show Modest to be an unreliable narrator.

For Wiley, the combination of Modest’s focus on Tchaikovsky’s letters and the Soviet censors’ subsequent expurgation of them has led biographers to an exaggerated focus on the question of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality. He feels that the connection between that sexuality and the works is neither demonstrable nor ultimately revealing, and adds that in any case Tchaikovsky probably largely abstained from sexual expression. Yet Wiley does not stint on evidence, translating much of it into English for the first time.

Very touching are Tchaikovsky’s letters to his brother Modest in 1876, which show him racked by his urge to perform sexual acts that he admits are contrary to his Christian belief. “Buggermania”, he writes, “forms an impassable gulf between me and most people.” Admitting to thoughts of joining a monastery, Piotr implores his brother, whose sexual interests were similar, to exercise control over himself. Some of the letters are more explicit than others. Of Josef Kotek, fifteen years his junior, he writes,

When he caresses me with his hand, when he lies with his head inclined on my breast, and I run my hand through his hair and secretly kiss it . . . passion rages within me with such unimaginable strength . . . . Yet I am far from the desire for a physical bond. I feel that if this happened, I would cool towards him. It would be unpleasant for me if this marvellous youth debased himself to copulation with an ageing and fat-bellied man.

If these internal conflicts found their way into the music (as other critics have assumed), then we are left to make the connections ourselves. Wiley separates the music from the life chapter by chapter, which can lead to some rather cold and uninvolving observation; but uncoupling musical works from their composers is a vital critical step, as long as they are not removed from all human context (which would be disastrous).

Wiley’s musical commentary lays occasional critical emphasis on prelest’, a concept veering from simple attractiveness to more dangerous seductiveness and corruption; he regards this as “a Russian element deeper than hackneyed determinants of nationality, enhancing it in pieces where no phrase of folk song ever sounds” – although he still makes plentiful reference to folk elements in Tchaikovsky’s songs, symphonies, operas and other works. It is a characteristic quality of Tchaikovsky’s music that captivates audiences, even if it displeases critics who consider an essentially Teutonic mode of musical “logic” – albeit one associated more with (some works of) Beethoven and Brahms than those of Mozart and Schubert – the touchstone of musical quality. Wiley shares this view with Richard Taruskin and others, and makes effective use of it in examining the particular qualities of “lighter” works, such as the orchestral suites.

When it comes to the “major” works, Wiley is sometimes as happy as other critics to read the music through the life. His interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, for instance, draws interestingly on Russian criticism – here usefully introduced to the largely anglophone readership of the Master Musicians series – to make direct links with Tchaikovsky’s ill-fated marriage in the year of its completion, 1877. In other instances, as when he discussed the ballets and operas, he is happier to show through impressionistic commentary how the music creates a new and vital work of art in response to its narrative or literary text. Again echoing Taruskin, he is particularly good on the qualities of Eugene Onegin, too frequently dismissed by Pushkinistas who insist on the greater complexity of the original only because they are deaf to its evidence in Tchaikovsky’s music.

The Sixth Symphony is a special interpretative case. It was quickly associated with its composer’s death, and has recently been read variously as the erotic drama of his love for his teenage nephew “Bob” Davidov or as an affirmation of his belief in Christian redemption. Wiley reads it more objectively (and more in the “Teutonic-logic” manner) in terms of tonal structures derived from several earlier works, concluding that it is “a salute to Beethoven and the grand tradition and a reconciliation of Tchaikovsky’s personal approaches with Western symphonic thought”. He is similarly level-headed about explanations of Tchaikovsky’s own death. The popular views are that he died either of cholera or violently – at his own or another’s hand. Conspiracy theories have rested on claims that the emperor compelled him to commit suicide on account of his sexual proclivities, and Wiley gently dismisses them: “We do not and probably never will know beyond doubt the cause of Tchaikovsky’s death”.

The book is serious and valuable, and presents an excellent synthesis of scholarship that would otherwise almost certainly be inaccessible. It is, incidentally, evidence of the increasing professionalization of the series that around two-thirds of the 451 entries in the bibliography are in Russian, and many more are in German and other languages. In a work of such quality, it is disappointing to find unnecessary irritations such as the faulty presentation of some of the music examples (which cut off part of the left side of the text). The social-sciences style of numerically ordered references is both unfamiliar in musicological contexts and unhelpful when the reader wishes to know to whom certain opinions should be attributed. And it was presumably the unseen copy-editorial hand of the markets that led to the bizarre mismatch between the text, which spells the composer’s name “Tchaikovsky”, and the index, where it is “Chaykovskiy”. A book with the latter spelling would surely sell fewer copies, so readers will have to live with the inconsistency.

Adam Zamoyski’s readable Chopin: Prince of the Romantics tells a familiar story. Chopin, a sick Pole living mostly away from his native land, wrote music as delicate and sad as himself, and died young of a lifelong illness. The author writes in his preface that his latest book is a remodelling of his earlier biography of the composer, published in 1979. New to this version of his story, he says, is a focus on Chopin’s health and his intellectual and social position in early nineteenth-century Europe. His sexual life and his Polishness are the other essential themes.

Chopin’s life is a superficially appealing subject for a narrative, but the life of any figure as tightly bound up as Chopin was with the essential spirit of a nation is always in urgent need of demythologizing, and the present book fails to answer that need. Zamoyski’s narrative instead proceeds irresistibly towards Chopin’s death, to which everything else seems to point the way. So it is that Zamoyski explains, early on, that Chopin’s boyhood exposure to “authentic” Polish music in the countryside, which included “peasant girls singing their songs of love and sorrow, . . . old women chanting in the fields, . . . drinking songs issuing from village taverns”, would be woven into his musical idiolect – not in the way that an English schoolboy might drop impressive-sounding Latin tags into conversation, but as autochthonous linguistic utterance, an unmediated expression of the Polish soul. Even so, early Chopin’s idyll is clouded over with “a vague foreboding that he would not be spending many more such carefree holidays in the Polish countryside” – as if he knew even then what would be coming on page 293.

The authentically human disappears as Chopin’s life is forced into a pre-existing frame. Tales of his self-destructive performing are taken uncritically from contemporary testimony: at a Warsaw soirée, when his improvising is said to have “visibly drained him as he played”, a friend “eventually went up to him and pulled his hands away from the keyboard”. Fine as episodes like this might be as images of Chopin’s commitment to his art – which is not in doubt – they present Chopin through the awe-struck lens of his contemporaries, a Chopin-for-others, not Chopin-in-himself. In the same way, when illness prevented him from writing music during a period in Scotland towards the end of his life, we are told that “for someone whose sole existence had been devoted to the creation of music, this was worse than any physical suffering”. Recent musicology has put the body interestingly near the centre of its discourse about the production and meaning of music, but Zamoyski’s drift here, by contrast, is that the body serves only as a conduit of the sempiternal, its shabby humanity burnt off by exposure to the fires of creativity. Chopin’s evidently impressive improvisation, for instance, is nothing less than “communion with the gods, heaven speaking to mere mortals through the inspired agency of the divine interpreter”. At times like these Zamoyski’s voice is impossible to separate from those of his nineteenth-century sources.

If Chopin’s physical nature is sickly and divine, it is also virtually asexual. Zamoyski is impatient with biographers who have attempted to clarify Chopin’s sexual life; for him, an adolescent obsession with Konstancja Gładkowska was unconsummated, and the superficially plausible evidence of Chopin’s homoerotic relationship with Tytus Woyciechowski unpersuasive. Even in adulthood, sex barely comes between Chopin and his piano. If other biographers have dwelt on his relationship with Countess Delfina Potocka, it is only because they are “distressed to find a sexual blank in Chopin’s first six years in Paris”; similarly, his interest in the sixteen-year-old daughter of his father’s former lodger, to whom he subsequently proposed, “hardly [showed] signs of passion”. Zamoyski may be right, but it is typical of his dehumanizing of Chopin that every sexual partner but one, George Sand, is excluded from Chopin’s world, and although Zamoyski is thoughtful about why she carved the date into her bedroom wall a year after her sexual relationship with Chopin probably began, even in their relationship the emphasis on her nursing (and, later, mothering of her “son”) is predominant.

Zamoyski’s position may be summarized as a paraphrase of Sand’s own: although Chopin had had sex at least once before moving to Paris, “when he found himself on the point of consummating his love for a woman, he would recoil at the thought of transposing his emotions onto the physical plane”. For those of us who believe that humans both have, and are, their bodies, no planar transposition is needed; the mind, too, is carnal. The discredited nineteenth-century view of the non-corporeal, spiritual subjectivity of the artist should have no place in biography today. It does neither subject nor biographer credit to repeat it.

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