TCHAIKOVSKY: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius (1996)

by | Jul 7, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: The Tragic Life of a Musical Genius (1996)

Starring: Ed Stoppard, William Mannerling, Alice Glover, Gyuri Sarossey
Studio: BBC Video 3000015766 [Distr. by Warner Home Video]
Video: Enhanced for 16:9, color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Extras: Featurette “Who Killed Tchaikovsky?”
Length: 116 mins.
Rating: ****

This two-part docu-drama was produced for British television by Suzy Klein, who also wrote the script. Conductor Charles Hazlewood acts a commentator and tour-guide, leading us through the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as along the corridors and music rooms of the now-called Tchaikovsky Conservatory, all in an attempt to re-create the biographical mind-set and emotional life of Pyiotr Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), who died shortly after having premiered his music at Carnegie Hall in New York and having completed his “autobiographical” Pathetique Symphony.

The biographical re-creation is rather elaborate, with expensive sets of the Russian court, the various country estates occupied by Tchaikovsky, and his domestic life, besieged as it was by the controversy of his homosexuality. This erotic theme the writing confronts quite blatantly, with moments of male nudity and several suggestive physical encounters. Ed Stoppard captures both the personal anguish and the demonic pride that spurred Tchaikovsky: his flagrant resistance to Nicholas Rubinstein’s criticism of the B-flat Minor Piano Concerto, his agonized decision to marry and keep up the appearance of normality, his acceptance of the Tsar’s commission to compose the 1812 Overture, his love affair with violinist Josef Kotek, and the extended death-throes from what has been called cholera but may have been self-administered arsenic poisoning. Tchaikovsky and brother Modeste were homosexuals, but they seem to have made peace with the social forces of their time–which like those of London at the time of Oscar Wilde–demanded a degree of tact and discretion that Tchaikovsky’s cruising life-style could not accommodate easily.

Conductor Hazlewood periodically interrupts the retrospective drama with his leading of the Marvinsky Young Philharmonic and various soloists in the more familiar scores: Romeo and Juliet, the First Piano Concerto, excerpts from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, the Violin Concerto, and Symphonies Four and Six. We get to hear a bit of the slow movement of Symphony No. 5 but not from Hazlewood. Hazlewood then asks various soloists and orchestra members to comment on Tchaikovsky’s music and personality, and virtually all of the responses are positive, accenting the composer’s passion and ability to communicate his sincerity to the people. One woman answers by referring to the St. John Chrysostom Liturgy that Tchaikovsky composed, a rarity even in today’s concert halls. Of all the works discussed and partially performed, only the D Major Violin Concerto comes off as a totally happy creation, when the composer had accepted his own limits as a man and a Russian creative artist.

Even more intriguing is the bonus selection, the 1993 BBC presentation “Who Killed Tchaikovsky”, which includes a fascinating segment with old-time conducting teacher Ilya Musin, who in his eighties, recalls the rumors about Tchaikovsky’s old colleagues’ demanding his “tactful” death to avoid some kind of political scandal. Whether disgrace would fall both upon his old school or upon the Tsar’s character, the question revolves around Tchaikovsky’s liaison with a young aristocrat; but even more dangerous were the composer’s “excursions” for promiscuous sex with the low-life elements of society, trysts that could have had him contract the cholera that purportedly claimed his life. Tasteful, respectful of its subject, but unavoidably sad and tragic, the controversy that surrounds Tchaikovsky’s death will continue mysterious, mostly because the Russian authorities and the surviving Tchaikovsky family members keep certain documents sealed. That Tchaikovsky has transcended his personal griefs and weaknesses and become a national icon for Russians is a fact, whatever we might feel about the individual worth of his prolific compositions.

— Gary Lemco

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