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From Russia with controversy
Book review by Rex Levang, May 2001
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An amiable, modest public figure or a morbidly sensitive, possibly suicidal, neurotic?

Such are the conflicting images of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, whose birthday we celebrate this month. Though the popularity of his music is undisputed, the picture of Tchaikovsky the man has been anything but.

Alexander Poznansky, a Russian music scholar at Yale, has taken a fresh look at this complex personality in Tchaikovsky Through Others' Eyes (University of Indiana Press, 1999) - a fascinating account of his life and career collected from the diaries of people closest to him.

Through dozens of eyewitness accounts, a consensus emerges. He was a hard worker - at his desk for six hours every day, whether he wanted to be or not. He was unfailingly charming, according to most (though not all) people who knew him. The journalist Alexandra Sokolova put it this way: "He was unquestionably kind, but it was a sort of lazy kindness, owing not so much to gentleheartedness as to a desire to avoid conflict at all cost."

The most controversial part of Tchaikovsky's biography is his death. Did he really die of cholera, as the official story has it? Or was he caught up in a sex scandal that caused him to take his own life? Poznansky comes down firmly on the side of the cholera story, and dismisses the suicide theories as "fantasies." The medical accounts of Tchaikovsky's last days make for convincing evidence, though no one would describe them as appetizing reading.

This is not really a book on Tchaikovsky's music, though it's tantalizing to read references to The Nutcracker, the Serenade for Strings, and the violin concerto from the people who heard them when they were new. It is, though, as vivid a portrait as we have of this beloved, contested composer.

This is the debut of an "Inside MPR" music book review column written by members of the MPR classical music staff.

Rex Levang is music director at MPR.

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