Is Tchaikovsky really for 18-year-olds?

By December 7, 2013ABC, Education, History, Media, Music, Society

This is another autobiographical essay about composers and music. You can read the earlier ones by going to ‘Music’ in the categories above. A short intro for newcomers tells you that I discovered classical music at the same time as the LP became available, in the early 1950s, and since there was no FM radio at the time, radio stations simply had not broadcast long pieces of music of any kind. Pop music and country and western I knew well, and a bit of jazz. I played the piano at pubs, was putting together a band, and starting to write songs.

But this new classical music fascinated me. It went on so long, and you had to listen to it. I had no idea which composers were important, but some of them were familiar because they wrote little pieces as well as big ones. One of these was Tchaikovsky, a Russian, bits of whose ballet music had indeed been broadcast both on the ABC and commercial radio stations. At the newsagent which doubled as our town’s music stores I saw the Symphony No.6 by this man, bought it, and booked up the 37/6 to my account, which had to be paid off each month from my £18-a-month teachers college scholarship, or my army pay or what I earned in pubs — it was a borderline financial existence for someone addicted to LPs.

His Symphony was called ‘the Pathetique’ and it certainly tugged at my heart-strings. There was such agony in it, and at the time I responded very well to that sort of personal agony. In time I bought his 5th, and later still his 4th, and they were much the same, though not so broodingly morbid. I learned that he had written concertos too, and bought his 1st piano concerto. To my surprise, I was put off by its opening, which sounded bombastic, almost unpleasant. After that came some very beautiful music both for piano and for the orchestra — but that opening just wouldn’t do, and even now I have to almost grit my teeth and endure it before we get to the good music afterwards. His mentor Nikolai Rubenstein didn’t like it either. Eventually my collection contained much of Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music, but I rarely go to it. One reason is that you hear a lot of it on Classic FM, but another is that I feel I have rather outgrown it — it worked when I was 18, but not for long after that time.

I do not deny that he is a first-rate composer, a superb orchestrator, perhaps the supreme composer for ballet, and able to write well across all the major forms of music. He is deservedly in the front rank of the Western classical tradition. And there is no doubt that he endured a wretchedly unhappy personal life, which culminated in his suicide, probably from drinking something containing arsenic. And you can hear the  outcome of that despair in a lot of his music — though not the ballet scores, where he was able to live in a fantasy world where his own private problems could be put to one side and forgotten, at least for the moment.

Of course, it is not all gloom and doom. Like Mozart (whose music he loved) and Dvorak (whom he admired), Tchaikovsky had a great gift for melody. Tunes run through everything he wrote, and they came to him with ease. When he couldn’t think of one, or he needed to move from one key to another, or from one subject to another, he often employed scales, and he could deal with them in the most ingenious way. He was a feeling composer rather than a thinking one.

But his gloom no longer works for me. Perhaps, again, I am just too old, not a Grumpy Old Man this time, but a philosophic old man, wanting to say to Pyotr, ‘Get over it’. Mahler’s hysterical climaxes don’t work for me either. I retreat from them to the calm and order of the Baroque, or to Mozart or Haydn. There I can hear music which is in a sense ‘pure’, not handing out a message about how terrible life is, or can be. I know it can be like that, but I can do without it, too.

Tchaikovsky will live forever, because there is always a new generation of eighteen-year-olds — and new people who, for perfectly good reason, feel that they too have lives of despair and agony. He speaks to them, and understands them, and comforts them. And somebody needs to. After all, I was there once myself.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • PeterE says:

    When I was 12 and at boarding school in Adelaide in the early 1950s someone donated an old wind-up gramophone and several jazz records on 78rpm disks. These included not only some of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (they were the first to record jazz in about 1917) such as Tiger Rag but several by Mugsy Spanier including ‘Bluin’ the Blues’ ‘At Sundown’ ‘Eccentric’ and more. The gramophone was kept in a the boarders’ Common Room, a long room containing about a dozen long tables with benches holding five lads a side where we did our homework. After hours it was where we lived when not out on the cricket field. I played these records and replayed them, changing the needle as required. I was enchanted. I have never been able to detach myself from this genre of music, although later I found even better examples such as Bix Beiderbecke. At university I bought books on the symphony and the sonata, the trio, quartet and quintet, the flute, oboe, French Horn and the banks of violins. I listened to many examples but whenever I go into a store to buy a Beethoven I came out with a Bix. However, back to Tchaikovsky (‘see under T’). I do appreciate his melodies and his orchestration. I rarely hear something by him that I do not find agreeable. I do not agonise with him. I simply marvel at his skills and never failing imagination. Perhaps in this respect I will remain 18 (or 12) forever.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Bravo! I never suggest in these posts (or I hope in any) that the reader must agree with me. I too learned about Mugsy Spanier at about the same time (a record called ‘Hot Horn’ from memory).

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