Time has tamed Tchaikovsky. Works that once must surely have seemed radical–‘bold’ is a word that won’t do–are conventional to contemporary ears, and the sensibility that inspired Tchaikovsky at his most impassioned has over the past hundred-plus years been diluted. His intensely private drama, which he made public most notably in his final three symphonies, has been obscured by successive waves of culture and commerce that, from Tchaikovsky’s day to ours, have inured us to an exceptional odyssey of passion and pain.
Tchaikovsky remains a conundrum. There is the master dramatist whose finest operas, Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, remain stage-worthy and musically sovereign; the ballet composer nonpareil whose Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker seem wellnigh indestructible; the composer of songs which over time gained in technical sophistication and dramatic insights; and the orchestral composer who was best known in his own day not for his symphonies, cornerstones on which our contemporary repertory is built, but for his orchestral suites, works with charms that are abundant and accessible, but works now largely neglected. Yet despite his unquestioned mastery, Tchaikovsky was tormented throughout his life by the most severe selfdoubts, and never more than when writing his final three symphonies. Ironically, however, it was this lack of selfconfidence that became the scenario for what are inarguably his finest symphonic works. The causes of his torment are the stuff of speculation. Imperial Russia, no more than many more modern societies, dealt less than gracefully with alcoholism, with addiction to gambling, with homosexuality. Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality is an aspect of his persona with which he never made peace in the public arena, and, as the leading composer of his day, it was in the public arena where he lived his life. Indeed, his inability to comfortably accept his homosexuality is most often cited as having led to both his ill-conceived marriage and his alleged suicide.