Gay in Russia: How much do we really know about Tchaikovsky′s music? | Music | DW | 14.07.2015
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Gay in Russia: How much do we really know about Tchaikovsky's music?

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is just as misunderstood as he is popular. The prestigious Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival demonstrates how much is still unknown about the composer.

In the view of the Russian musical establishment, his music was far too German and too academic, not "Russian" or folkloristic enough. In Western music circles, by contrast, Tchaikovsky's melodies were considered sentimental, too romantic and catchy, almost kitsch. Addressing his Violin Concerto, the notorious music critic Eduard Hanslick even asked "whether there might not also be pieces of music that one can hear stink."

Sustainable popularity

Strong stuff when it comes to one of music history's most popular composers, one whose tunes entered the collective consciousness - even among those who do not usually go to classical concerts. Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, his Piano Concerto No. 1, the ballet music to "Swan Lake" and his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies are performed all over the world. People think they know a lot about Tchaikovsky - but how much do they really know? Germany's largest-scale classical music festival - one of the world's biggest - says: not enough. In his anniversary year - 175 years after his birth on May 7, 1840 - the composer is being rediscovered, but nowhere more intensively than in the North of Germany.

More clichés exist about Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky than about nearly every other composer. Frank Siebert, chief dramatic advisor to the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival (SHMF) said an "inner need" was felt there to clean up those clichés. The composer's popularity notwithstanding, "If you question the Tchaikovsky you really know, nothing much comes to mind," said Siebert. "That's why we wanted to present the full range of this composer."

Misty Copeland Schwanensee EINSCHRÄNKUNG

There's more to Tchaikovsky than "Swan Lake"

Gay music?

Tchaikovsky image was enduringly influenced by biographers from around the turn of the 20th century, when rumors of his homosexuality began to spread outside Russia. For decades to follow, the emotionality in his music, even his incomparable melodic talent, came to be explained - often with pathological connotations - in the light of his sexual orientation. Rumors persisted that the composer did not die of cholera, but by suicide - somehow as a logical consequence of his lifestyle. Research has long since dispensed with that thesis, but biographers continued to "explain" perceived weaknesses in his music as presumed character flaws, doing enduring damage to the composer's image.

Much of Tchaikovsky's opus still awaits discovery by a broader public, says Siebert. "We invited the artists to participate in setting up the program, with some quite amazing results." Russian pianist Lilya Silberstein, for example, discovered a little-known sonata by Tchaikovsky that she wanted to play for the festival audience. The composer's Second Piano Concerto is scheduled in the rarely-performed original version, with Elisabeth Leonskaya joining the Hanover Radio Philharmonic. And conductor Christoph Eschenbach felt a personal need to share an instrumental cross-section of the music from Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin."

Archivbild Dirigent Christoph Eschenbach

Christoph Eschenbach has done it again at the SHMF

A musical inner life expressed

"This is about enhancing Tchaikovsky's popularity while including more facets of him," Frank Siebert explained to DW, noting that each of the approximately 180 concerts in the current season (from July 11 to August 30) - at least those featuring classical music - has a Tchaikovsky connection. The theme culminates in a chamber music night at Kiel Castle featuring, among other works, the piano trio, string sextet, and a number of songs.

The fact that a composer's inner life affects the nature of his music - particularly its emotional content - seems self-evident. Nowadays, however, serious research takes greater care in explaining how. Visitors of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival have a chance to separate cliché from truth - and to find their own image of Tchaikovsky.

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