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Roland John Wiley, professor of musicology at the University of Michigan, published a book on Tchaikovsky's ballets (Tchaikovsky's Ballets: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker [New York: Oxford University Press, 1985]), and wrote the article on the composer in the second edition of The New Grove. Now he has written a life-and-works monograph on the composer. The book is in fact not so new: according to his own testimony (http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/u-m-scholar-has-new-tchaikovsky-biography/ [accessed 26 May 2010]), Wiley had already conceived it in 1990. The unusually long gestation period of his book saw not only the demise of the Soviet Union, but also a new wave of Western literature on Tchaikovsky. In his preface, Wiley criticizes these publications for neglecting Tchaikovsky's music in favor of his biography, and it is his goal to set this straight (no pun intended).
The final result has been published in Oxford's series "The Master Musicians." This is remarkable insofar as this series already included a book on Tchaikovsky (Edward Garden, Tchaikovsky [London: Dent, 1973]), which Wiley's is undoubtedly intended to supersede. Not surprisingly, Wiley repeatedly takes on Garden and also David Brown, whom he punishes by excluding volumes 3 and 4 of the latter's four-volume monograph (Tchaikovsky [New York: W. W. Norton, 1978–1992]) from his otherwise rather extensive "select bibliography" (451 titles in alphabetical order). Speaking of Wiley's bibliography, it doubles as a numbered reference list for citations: his book comes without footnotes or endnotes. Wiley arranges his book in chronological order, and each chapter on a given period of Tchaikovsky's life is followed by another one on the music composed during the same period. He calls this arrangement "a difficult choice"; he chose it to counteract "the premise [prevalent in older literature on Tchaikovsky] that all of Tchaikovsky's music had immediate and profound motivation in his life" (p. xviii). Still, he is convinced that some of Tchaikovsky's works (the usual suspects from the Fourth to the Sixth Symphonies, Eugene Onegin, etc.) had such a motivation.
The biographical chapters are a particular pleasure to read. Wiley's dealing with Tchaikovsky's homosexuality as well as with other facets of his personality that may cause or have caused controversy is straight-forward. I was particularly intrigued by two lesser-known phenomena exposed at length. The first is Tchaikovsky's inability to budget. Even with generous subsidies from Nadezhda von Meck, from his publisher Jurgenson and, last but not least, the House of Romanov, he was always short of money due to his lavish lifestyle and inclination to make generous gifts, and he inadvertently asked for more, feeling entitled to it. When he writes (in 1879) to one of his creditors, Vladimir Shilovsky, "you are a rich Maecenas and I am a poor artist" (p. 215), Tchaikovsky comes across as both preposterous and hypocritical.
The second is the eerily unanimous, clannish behavior of Tchaikovsky's brothers, who seem to have placed the common good of the family's reputation over everything else. How they planned the details of Tchaikovsky's separation from his wife (p. 152ff.), how they spirited their sister's daughter away to Paris to let her give birth to an illegitimate child (pp. 246–47), how they brought that child back to Russia to be adopted by Tchaikovsky's oldest brother, Nikolay (pp. 290–91)—all this sets the stage for what happened after Tchaikovsky's death, when they immediately started destroying, cutting out from, and blotting out in Tchaikovsky's papers everything that might have compromised, according to the values and mores of Russia in 1893, their brother's posthumous reputation, and maybe their own as well (p. xiv). The culmination of this cover-up operation was the publication of Modest Tchaikovsky's three-volume biography in 1903 (Zhizn' Petra Il'icha Chaikovskago [Moscow: Sobstven nost izdatelia P. IUrgensona, 1903]), ostensibly endowed with the...