The Life Behind a Musical Legend
DOES knowing about Mozart's financial hardships enhance our appreciation of "Don Giovanni"? Does the biographical fact of Wagner's anti-Semitism lessen our pleasure in "Die Meistersinger"? Does it matter that we know next to nothing about the private life of Shakespeare - or, indeed, if the person who wrote "Hamlet" was Shakespeare?
The answers to these questions are "No" and "Yes.No," insofar as we can enjoy any great work of art - an opera, ballet, symphony, novel, poem, or painting - without knowing anything about its creator. In fact, there are times when false or exaggerated myths about an artist can get in the way of our understanding the work of art. (Critics looking for Masonic rituals in Mozart are a case in point.) But, insofar as a work of art is the creation of an individual heart, mind, and imagination, something of the
creator is stamped upon the creation, and natural human curiosity will make us want to know more about the person who produced the works we love.
"And this is why," wrote Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's future patroness Nadezhda von Meck, "as soon as I had recovered from the first impression of your composition, I at once wished to know what sort of man had created such a piece.... I am so interested in knowing everything about you that at almost any time I can say where you are and to some extent what you are doing." Nor, she assured him, need he worry lest her curiosity lead her to discover anything negative about him: "[O]ften what others censured i n you would lead me to ecstasy," she declared.
Mrs. von Meck, a wealthy and cultivated widow who generously supported the composer and carried on an intimate correspondence with him for more than 13 years, represents rather an extreme case of the interest that many people feel in artists' lives. A shrewd businesswoman five years Tchaikovsky's senior who had 11 children of her own to worry about, von Meck took it upon herself to ensure that this man of genius should have the financial support needed to pursue his calling.
It was, in the opinion of Tchaikovsky's latest biographer, Alexander Poznansky, "arguably one of the most extraordinary unions between a man and a woman known to modern history," extraordinary both for Von Meck's tact in finding ways to help the sensitive composer without making him feel indebted and for her strange insistence on the condition that he and she were never to meet in person.
Tchaikovsky's relationship with his patron was not the only strange aspect of his life. There was his rash marriage to an infatuated young woman whom he quickly grew to hate. Because of his homosexual proclivities and the mysterious circumstances of his death at 53 during a St. Petersburg cholera epidemic in 1893, numerous rumors and myths have become part of the Tchaikovsky legend, including the story that he was hounded - by guilt or by blackmail - into committing suicide by drinking poisoned waters.
Poznansky, a Russian-born graduate of Leningrad University who came to the United States in 1977, has set himself the task of disentangling the facts from the surrounding myths, a task made more difficult by the tampering and censorship some of the source material has undergone. Relying largely upon Tchaikovsky's correspondence and diaries (he is, in fact, currently preparing a new edition of the diaries), Poznansky has attempted to give us not merely the facts, but "the inner man":
"While it is true," he writes, "that no amount of detailed knowledge about the composer's vicissitudes ... his friendships and enmities, will ever enable us to solve the riddle of the spell his music casts upon us, still we may learn ... how to experience an even richer enjoyment of his work through sympathy or a sort of complicity, how to conjure up his very presence across the gap of a hundred years...."
Poznansky is not out to provide a critical study of Tchaikovsky's music. Nor does he wish to demonstrate any direct "psychoanalytical" link between the composer's works and his personal psychology. His aim is not to show how and why Tchaikovsky wrote what he wrote but, rather, to show how this particular artist managed to live and work in his particular social and cultural environment.
Nineteenth-century Russia, according to Poznansky, was a society in which homosexuality was far more prevalent and tolerated than is generally assumed. Debunking the myth of Tchaikovsky's suicide, he portrays the composer as a man less troubled by his sexual proclivities, per se, than by the conflict he experienced between the lure of a dissipating life of cards, parties, drinking, and carousing and his need for solitude, concentration, and self-discipline to achieve his art.
A more overriding problem for Tchaikovsky was the question of how to make a living. Teaching at the Moscow Conservatory took up time and energy, and financial help from a former pupil proved embarrassing to accept. Even with all the tact and goodwill in the world, Tchaikovsky's relationship with Von Meck had its potential pitfalls, most of which were deftly averted by her ability to constantly reassure the hypersensitive composer of her joy in helping him. Poznansky's meticulous account of their relation ship provides a fine sense of the complexities involved.
How close Poznansky comes to achieving his quest for "the inner man" is another question, however. In describing Tchaikovsky's relationships with his family, his patron, and the various musicians, poets, prots, friends, and lovers he knew, Poznansky conveys a sense of what his daily life was like. He also paints a striking picture of Tchaikovsky's personality: a disconcerting mixture of sweetness, naivete, and sensitivity, on one hand, and the kind of oversensitivity that made him react with unexpected v ehemence toward those he suspected of being hostile toward him.
But, when one considers that the most important thing in Tchaikovsky's life was his music for its sake alone, life in this world is worth living," he wrote in a letter to Von Meck - Poznansky's decision not to discuss the composer's work leaves out the most important dimension of the inner man. But perhaps this biographer has at least cleared the way for more fully integrated portraits of the man and his work to follow.