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Hardcover – 1 Nov 1982
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But this is a much lighter affair and none the poorer for that. I keep a copy close by me at all times - it's very easy to read and find insightful reviews of all the major works including, splendidly, the often neglected operas. It's the book to get if you want to know more about Tchaikovsky, the man and his music, without going for the full length study.
The works are listed and reviews in chronological order alongside his life. Brown is certainly a fan but no blind acolyte. He knows Tchaikovsky's weaknesses all too well and sometimes Brown seems to feel a genuine disappointment that Tchaikovsky lets him down... "If only, if only, the same could be said for the Finale..."
But he is meticulously fair. If you are in any doubt about Tchaikovsky's place among the first rank of composers, then this book will help to to find Tchaikovsky right up there; music so much maligned but, at its best, some of the finest and most powerful ever written.
I have the book here now; one of the reviews says, "This book made me want to listen to the music again and that, I think, is the effect the author most desired." And it really is like that. You revisit music you may have known for years - perhaps the Violin Concerto, for example - and after you read what Brown says about it and you really do want to sit down and listen to a good performance with refreshed ears.
Scholarly but accessible, this book is a must for all Tchaikovsky devotees and those who might simply want to know more about the man behind some of the most beautiful music ever written.
It is a little disappointing to find the first eighteen years of the composer's life - the most formative for any human - being covered in only eleven pages. And chapter ten of the thirty takes us up to the age of thirty-five. But at least Brown does not shy away from his subject's homosexuality, writing how the composer's sexuality "has long been (and, perhaps, still is) a subject provoking sometimes violent dissent." And yet, when Brown writes about "a small incident that gives us graphic insight into Tchaikovsky's inner sexual world", the details provided about the young Vittorio that the composer encountered in Florence could be interpreted as wholly innocent in nature.
One chapter consists of lengthy extracts from correspondence written by Tchaikovsky to his patron. These helpful quotations provide some keys to his composing method, such as "Those who think that the creative artist at the moment of emotional excitement is able ... to express what he feels are mistaken ... Having no reason to be happy, I can fill myself with a happy creative humour and, conversely, in a happy situation produce a piece that is imbued with the most gloomy and hopeless feelings." As an example of the composer's integrity, Brown quotes Tchaikovsky writing, "You cannot write a symphonic work and afterwards seek out a programme for it."
The circumstances of the composer's death remain contentious. Brown states categorically, "there is no proof that Tchaikovsky's death was not from natural causes but from cholera caught through drinking unboiled water." Brown notes the inconsistencies and oddities in the records, but counters that "attempts to argue that, since none of these can be proved, therefore none of them could have happened, simply will not do." He concludes, "We are unlikely ever to know for certain what actually happened or - even more important - why it happened." This doubt about ever knowing the truth applies also to the `court of honour' story. But, he says, this should not matter, for Tchaikovsky's reputation rests less on scandal than on true artistic merit and on his humanity, examples of the both being replete throughout the book.
What marks this biography out is that it also contains separate entries in the text that provide an explanation and a critique of the composer's principle works. Brown also adopts his own star system, where one star denotes "pieces of some significance" and five stars means "top-priority pieces". There are a dozen of the latter. These reviews are extremely useful for the beginner, and even for people like me who know quite a lot about Tchaikovsky's music but are still finding some lesser-known gems. For example, Brown provides a five-page review of the composer's opera `The Oprichnik'. And Brown's explanation of the second symphony has persuaded me of its greatness. But I found it strange that the author, in his review of `Romeo and Juliet' does not assist the new listener by referring to the sword fight evoked by the `feud music'. In his reviews, Brown makes some original claims, such as that Bizet's `Carmen' lies behind the first movement of Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony.
There are three appendices to help the reader who has little or no knowledge of musical theory. The first is a brief description of musical forms; the second an explanation of keys, modulation, and ciphering; and the third is a glossary of musical terms.
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