Tchaikovsky. A Biographical and Critical Study
Vol. 4, The Final Years (1885-1893)
W. W. Norton & Company, 1991
This is the final part of David Brown’s four-volume biography on the greatest Russian composer, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and is the perfect epilogue of one of the most accurate and important studies ever written for a composer.
The last eight years of Tchaikovsky’s life shows him definitely established as one of the leading composers of the second half of the XIX century. His fame has definitely crossed the borders of the Russian empire and has spread abroad. Brown portrays easily this fame describing the numerous trips around Europe the composer did, the reception of his works and also his relationship with distinguished colleagues as Brahms (who Tchaikovsky did not like at all) and Dvořák, who aroused Tchaikovsky’s sympathy and admiration. One chapter is necessarily devoted to the most important of all journeys, the triumphant American tour of 1891.
To public success does not correspond an interesting private life and in these years the only remarkable events are family mourning, the most important of all is the death of Tchaikovsky favourite sibling, his sister Sasha, and the break with the benefactress and correspondent Nadezhda von Meck after more than a decade. Inevitably, the part of the book devoted to these aspects is a little boring, especially since you may have the impression of repetition after a while, but it is necessary to explain the gloomy mood felt by Tchaikovsky at this stage of his existence, even if sometimes it is not easy to understand why it became so unbearable that he ended his life with suicide.
The last chapter of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of Tchaikovsky’s last months and to the suspicious circumstances of his death. Here Brown is extremely careful and just objects to the most absurd explanations of the account given by Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother, librettist and biographer) and summarizes the discoveries and theories made by Aleksandra Orlova in her book Tchaikovsky. A Self-Portrait, which is one of the best texts about Tchaikovsky by its own right. The best feature of this part is that Brown is not distracted by the bizarre theories which are quoted so often, but he attempted a lucid and coherent explanation as far as the evidences allow it: since it is so frequent to read many romanticized accounts of Tchaikovsky’s final days, I really appreciate the balance of this chapter.
The musical works are accurately examined. Brown provides precise and interesting discussions of all the major compositions of this period, which are more numerous than before and which represent the perfection Tchaikovsky attained in many genres: the best achievements are The Nutcracker, provided by the composer with some of the best ballet music he ever wrote even if the subject is pointless, and the sixth symphony (the famous Pathétique), with which Tchaikovsky demonstrates to have completely mastered the genre without compromises or betraying himself. Anyway, I personally think that the most interesting chapter is the one about The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky’s most famous opera after Eugene Onegin, which Brown explores with special attention to the psychological side of every character and the way in which Tchaikovsky successfully stresses their distress and neurosis.
Other important works are The Enchantress, one of Tchaikovsky’s finest and neglected operas, the fifth symphony, the ballet The Sleeping Beauty and Iolanta, while two interesting chapters at the end of The Final Years give you an overview of the composer’s piano music and of his link with the Russian music; this one is particularly interesting because it serves as an introduction to the last symphony.
The four books of Tchaikovsky. A Biographical and Critical Study are overall an engaging reading, which helps to clarify almost every aspect of Tchaikovsky’s life and music thanks to the competence of a great musicologist and a fine writer. I think the time I spent in the company of these volumes has been invaluable and I hope it will be the same for you too.