David Brown – Tchaikovsky. A Biographical and Critical Study
Vol. 1, The Early Years (1840-1874)
Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1978
I wondered for a long time if it was better to present you a general summary of all the four volumes which constitute the monumental biography on Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky by David Brown, or it was better to talk of every one of them in different posts. I finally chose this last option because I think this important study deserves all the possible consideration, being one of the best (or simply the best?) you may find about the Russian composer.
The first volume covers the years between 1840 to 1874 and follows the development of the young composer under domestic and social background, with full and extensive analysis of all the major compositions of this time, beginning with The Storm, inspired by Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s famous drama, and the firsts symphonies and operas, together with other important or minor works. For every one of them, Brown takes into consideration the important aspects, such as Russian (i.e. Glinka) and Western influences (there are frequent comparisons between Tchaikovsky and his beloved Mozart), the internal develop of each movement or aria, the impact on the public, and so on. The most important composition or the most significative passages are accompanied by examples.
After music, also some people are portrayed with great care, considering the influence they had on Tchaikovsky’s life. Among them, the most important are the Rubinsteins and Mily Balakiriev, to whom Tchaikovsky owes a great debt for his help at the early stage of his career and in particular for the creation of Romeo and Juliet. Many references are devoted to many other legendary composers of the calibre of Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and Mussorgsky, and of some opera singers, with special attention to Desidée Artôt, to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated some works and had a significant love affair.
Brown gives also an accurate account of Tchaikovsky’s life, giving voice to the protagonist himself with quotes from his letters or relying on contemporary witnesses, adding also explanatory observations when they are necessary. In this way, it is possible to know Tchaikovsky’s character or at least have hints about it and to reconstruct his everyday life.
As Brown’s Glinka, I found this book very well written, balanced and carefully researched. Brown’s books are always a revelation, even after many years.