Leger lines

The Herald - Arts - - Arts - Michael Tumelty

Tonight in Glas­gow and to­mor­row in Ed­in­burgh, the RSNO will play Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Sym­phony, one of the Rus­sian com­poser’s best­known and most pop­u­lar works. It’s a thor­ough­go­ing mas­ter­piece, with four move­ments: the first, launched by mighty fan­fares, which re­cur and which rep­re­sent fate, is a brood­ing, tur­bu­lent and tem­pes­tu­ous piece of mu­sic. The sec­ond move­ment is all charm, melan­choly and re­flec­tion.

For the third, Tchaikovsky came up with some­thing novel that ab­so­lutely thrilled him: its main theme is en­tirely, and daz­zlingly, played on pizzi­cato strings. And the ex­plo­sive finale is sheer dy­na­mite, with a Rus­sian folk tune thrown into a cock­tail that amounts to one of the most sen­sa­tion­ally ex­cit­ing, out-of-your-seat fi­nales ever con­ceived by any com­poser.

Though the mu­sic has its crit­ics in academe, the Fourth Sym­phony is a rock­solid, bul­let­proof mas­ter­piece. It’s as straight­for­ward as that.

Or is it? The Fourth was in fact writ­ten at the time of a near­in­cred­i­ble cri­sis in Tchaikovsky’s per­sonal life. The sym­phony is very close to au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, and is cer­tainly highly sub­jec­tive.

Tchaikovsky was ho­mo­sex­ual – gay seems an en­tirely in­ap­pro­pri­ate term for this anx­i­ety-rid­den and of­ten­tor­tured soul. Fur­ther, as can be gleaned from his let­ters to his brother (also ho­mo­sex­ual), he was pro­mis­cu­ous.

But Tchaikovsky was para­noid about his sex­u­al­ity. Ru­mours about his in­cli­na­tions and be­hav­iour cir­cu­lated in Rus­sian so­ci­ety. The fear of ex­po­sure, and acute sen­si­tiv­ity about the shame that would fall on his fam­ily, led him to make an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­ci­sion. He de­ter­mined to marry, or form some other per­ma­nent union, with a wo­man in the hope of sti­fling the ru­mours and gos­sip.

There was al­ready one wo­man in his life, a wealthy widow, Natasha von Meck, who adored him and be­came his pa­troness for many years, on con­di­tion that they should never meet, an ar­range­ment which suited him ad­mirably.

Then, out of the blue, as his per­sonal cri­sis was deep­en­ing, he re­ceived a let­ter from a young wo­man, An­ton­ina Mi­lyukova, declar­ing her love for him. He ig­nored it. She wrote him an­other two, in which she an­nounced that if he wouldn’t at least meet her, she would com­mit sui­cide.

He agreed, pro­posed within a few days of their hav­ing met, and laid down his re­quire­ments: it was never to be con­sum­mated. She ac­cepted and they mar­ried. It was a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen. He loathed her and couldn’t take the pres­sure. He tried to kill him­self and failed. All this time, he was writ­ing the Fourth Sym­phony.

Tchaikovsky fled, had a ner­vous break­down, and was in a coma for 48 hours. He was warned that his only hope was to get out of the mar­riage and get away. He did. He went off to Switzer­land, Aus­tria and Italy, fin­ish­ing the sym­phony and de­ter­min­ing hence­forth to be only what he was. Be­fore long, he was out on the street again, be­ing him­self.

He pos­sessed, ap­par­ently, a re­mark­able abil­ity to de­tach him­self from his var­i­ous predica­ments and get on with the work. But the essence of his har­row­ing and de­press­ing ex­pe­ri­ence is there in the mu­sic. He him­self said the mu­sic was a “faith­ful echo” of the cri­sis he had just about sur­vived. Judge for your­selves.

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