Classical Music: Tchaikovsky concert opens door to fact, fiction

What: Victoria Symphony (Masterworks): Naked Classics, Tchaikovsky's Pathétique.
When/where: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2:30 p.m.; Monday, Feb. 3, 8 p.m.; Farquhar Auditorium (University of Victoria Centre).
Tickets: $35 to $58. Call 250-721-8480 or 250-385-6515; online at tickets.uvic.ca; in person at the UVic Ticket Centre and the Victoria Symphony box office (610 - 620 View St.).

Last March, the Victoria Symphony offered the local première of Naked Classics, a novel performance project in which a single major work is explored in depth, in a multi-media format, and then performed. (On that occasion it was Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique.) The project was launched in 2007 by Paul Rissmann, a Scottish-born, London-based composer and writer who specializes in presenting classical music in concert in innovative and accessible ways.

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This weekend, Rissmann returns to the Victoria Symphony with a Naked Classics presentation on Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), to be conducted by the orchestra’s music director, Christian Kluxen.

The Pathétique, premièred in Saint Petersburg barely a week before Tchaikovsky’s death there at age 53, belongs on even the most selective list of greatest and most fascinating symphonies. Still, when I heard that Naked Classics was taking up this particular piece, my first thought was: “Uh-oh …”

Why? Because Tchaikovsky studies have become a poisoned well, rife with errors, prejudices, rumours, and conspiracy theories, which have been foisted onto a trusting public by commentators incapable of assessing the scholarly record.

You’ve probably heard that Tchaikovsky was tormented by his homosexuality and lived in a state of self-loathing celibacy. You’ve probably heard that he committed suicide, either on his own initiative or on orders from “above.” You’ve probably heard that the Pathétique, with its slow, bleak finale, was a “homosexual tragedy” that expressed his depression and was effectively his suicide note.

It’s all rubbish.

Tchaikovsky’s only issue with his homosexuality was concern that public exposure would embarrass his family and friends (hence his hasty, doomed marriage).

He was not tormented by what he called his “natural inclinations,” and had an active sex life. To be gay, he wrote, was to be “guilty of nothing!”

Tchaikovsky died of complications from cholera, a fact confirmed by a mountain of documentary evidence. How he contracted it is not known (drinking water? sexual contact?), but it was then prevalent in Saint Petersburg, among all social classes, though it was widely perceived as a “poor-man’s disease.” But we do know the hour-by-hour progress of his symptoms and the treatment he received from four high-ranking doctors, all of this witnessed by many people, with updates regularly posted for the public and reported in the press.

And Tchaikovsky was not mired in despair when the Pathétique was composed and premièred; in fact, this was a particularly happy period for him, in part precisely because of his creation of that great work.

To believe that a tragic symphony could only be composed by a suicidal person is to hold incredibly naïve and romantic notions about how professional artists work.

So why all the rubbish? Because some people prefer colourful fiction to monochromatic fact.

(Fortunately, there are some reliable scholarly sources on Tchaikovsky, notably Alexander Poznansky’s biographical studies, and the website en.tchaikovsky-research.net. Incidentally, the most voluble suicide theorists have all been British — make of that what you will.)

Alas, the Victoria Symphony and Naked Classics evidently prefer colourful fiction.

The orchestra’s program note for the Pathétique is woefully misleading, confidently declaring that the cholera evidence was “a fabrication” and retailing a preposterous rumour according to which Tchaikovsky, accused of some homosexual scandal, committed suicide in the wake of a guilty verdict from a “court of honour” comprising a bunch of old schoolmates.

Rissmann, meanwhile, in a short video on his website, asserts that life for Tchaikovsky was “self-imposed torture” and that “a variety of alternative theories have emerged” concerning his death, “including suicide, arsenic poisoning, and extermination by order of the czar, though we have little hope of ever uncovering the truth.”

This is shamefully mealy-mouthed. With Tchaikovsky’s death we are not dealing with a mystery yielding only divergent hypotheses of equal weight. His was probably the most minutely documented death of any major composer, and the documentation all points only to cholera, while the “alternative theories” are based on literally no evidence whatsoever, only innuendo and hearsay.

So, by all means, go this weekend and enjoy one of the glories of the orchestral literature. But if presented, beforehand, with a salad of nonsense about the composer and his death, just clap politely and ignore it.

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