May 8, 2007 at 8:12 pm (Book review, books, Music, Russophilia)


I have just finished reading Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, by British musicologist David Brown. It is hard for me to decide where to start discussing this book. I was thinking of titling this post, “The Book That Took Over My Life.” That might give you some idea of the affect it had on me.

Brown paints a portrait of a humane and decent man who also happened to be a genius. He was generous to a fault toward family members, friends, and sometimes even strangers, if he judged them worthy. He lived a life surrounded by relations, friends, and admirers and only found himself alone when he chose to be so.

As I read this book, I listened to the pieces Brown referred to; this provided a chronology of Tchaikovsky’s musical life. And what a life! The composer had the great good fortune to be appreciated, loved, and revered during his own lifetime, a boon which is not always granted to an artist. As for the other aspects of his life, Brown’s book reads like a Russian novel. Repressed (mostly, but not always) homosexual desires (Tchaikovsky himself; also his brother Modest), morphine addiction (Sasha, Tchaikovsky’s beloved sister), out-of-wedlock births (Sasha’s daughter Tanya), threats of suicide, actual suicide, inexplicable death – all make their appearance in this larger-than-life biography. Add to this Tchaikovsky’s mysterious and wealthy patroness Nadeshda von Meck – they exchanged innumerable letters but never actually met – and you have a true tale that outstrips fiction in many respects.

When I finished Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Music, I was moved to tears and felt that, with the composer’s death, something of incalculable value had passed from the world. And – I try to be neutral when it comes to people’s preferences – but I can’t imagine a life worth living without this glorious music in it!

[The above portrait of Tchaikovsky is by Nikolai Dmitrievich Kuznetsov. It is the only such portrait painted from life and currently hangs in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.]


  1. Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Tchaikovsky, a prolific, almost compulsive letter writer, confided his thoughts and feelings about this symphony to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. Of the last movement, this man, whose genius was just only now becoming apparent, who was most probably tormented by depression and doomed, because of confused and only dimly understood desires, to spend his life “looking into happiness through another man’s eyes,” wrote: […]

  2. Bach is back! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] program concluded with a motet by Tchaikovsky: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Detail from a portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, by Nikolai […]

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