Dec 30, 2008

Personality - Tchaikovsky: revival of an underrated great

Amie Ferris-Rotman and Michael Roddy

KLIN, Russia/LONDON (Reuters) – A wobbly table in a blue wooden house overlooking silver birch trees is witnessing the worldwide revival of interest in the work of an often underrated 19th-century Russian composer.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, whose "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" in the "Nutcracker" ballet delights children and adults alike at this time of year, wrote his later works at the table in his last residence in the small town of Klin, about 85 km (60 miles) northwest of Moscow.

In grounds which are also home to a white pagoda and barn and stables, surrounded by Soviet-era prefabricated homes, the number of Tchaikovsky fans who are ushered along the house's squeaky oak floors is steadily increasing.

Last year there were 86,000 visitors, up from 60,000 in 2003. Even more are expected this year, said Natalia Gorbunova, chief researcher and head of what is now a museum.

"Tchaikovsky's music is undergoing a revival now, in our time, because his music is loved by the whole world, and this love continues," she said.

While nostalgia for Soviet days is making headlines from Russia and Tchaikovsky's work has been derided by some critics as populist, enthusiasts say its appeal is timeless and intimate.

Visitor Liudmila Soltokova, a retired engineer from Tchaikovsky's birthplace of Votkinsk, a small town about 1,000 km (620 miles) east of Moscow near the Ural mountains, said she was fulfilling a lifelong dream to come to the house.

"His music is simply amazing, it touches your soul," she said, glancing at his shiny onyx piano royale, in the center of a large room heavily decorated with framed black-and-white photographs of his relatives.


Every year renowned musicians and composers come to Klin to play the piano for the May 7 birthday of the composer, who lived from 1840 to 1893. Gorbunova noted the number of Europeans and Asians, particularly Korean, is up.

This winter, Moscow has been alive with his work. "Eugene Onegin," "The Queen of Spades" and "Swan Lake" opened to full houses; "The Nutcracker" plays at a theater named after him.

Berlin's Staatsoper presented a new production of "Eugene Onegin," with conductor Daniel Barenboim, while a "Revealing Tchaikovsky" festival at the Southbank Center in London sought to dispel some enduring myths about him.

An alcoholic and likely homosexual, Tchaikovsky's works including the "1812 Overture," the ballets "Sleeping Beauty" and "Swan Lake," the First Piano Concerto and opera house standards like "Eugene Onegin" and "The Queen of Spades" earned him enormous popularity among audiences in his lifetime.

That prompted some to dismiss his work as vulgar and cheap, but it was in the house in Klin that he wrote his wrenching, passionate but despairing final Sixth Symphony, which he named "Pathetique."

"In the Russian pantheon he is sitting right at the very top of the pyramid," Vladimir Jurowski, the Russian-born principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, told Reuters.

The international Tchaikovsky classical music competition in Moscow celebrated its half-century in spring with concerts played to sold-out halls.

Separately, children from across Russia's 11 time zones drew impressions of Tchaikovsky, exhibited in a Moscow museum.

"No one can be indifferent to Tchaikovsky's music," Muscovite pianist Mikhail Mordvinov, 31, told Reuters Television, before tapping out some Tchaikovsky on a piano.


Gorbunova, who decided to head the museum 10 years ago after she heard Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" opera, also written in the house, said: "His music summons listeners from deep within their souls. He wrote it for his nearest and dearest, and it is so gentle, that it attracts many more."

The Russian state helps with the museum's upkeep, and two years ago donated a metal statue of a somber-looking Tchaikovsky in his later years which stands in the grounds.

Tchaikovsky is criticized by some because his tunes are almost too good, Jurowski said. For example, it can be hard to escape "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" at Christmastime.

"He's not the only one -- Mozart did the same thing, Verdi did the same thing," Jurowski said.

"It is a rare gift which is not always a necessary feature of a great composer. Unfortunately he is recognized as a great composer mostly for that particular gift of his and people tend to overlook or fail to see the mastery of his composition."

Musicologist and composer Gerard McBurney, involved in the London "Revealing Tchaikovsky" program, is emphatic: "He is a much, much greater and more complex composer than most people understand him to be. I put him very, very high up indeed. He is the (Charles) Dickens of 19th-century music."

Museum head Gorbunova was quick to put down widely reported claims that Tchaikovsky's death at age 53 in St Petersburg, widely attributed to cholera, was a suicide in response to being hounded for his homosexuality.

While some biographers say he was gay and in love with his nephew, many Russians are loath to talk about the subject.

"His homosexuality definitely influenced his psyche," said Jurowski. "We shouldn't forget that homosexuality in the 19th century was one of the principal taboos of European society, so it is comparable to the situation of Oscar Wilde, for instance, for whom homosexuality enhanced certain aspects of his activities.

"So in a way homosexuality in the 19th century was one of the principal sources of inspiration for composers because of its taboo."

Several photographs of Tchaikovsky's nephew and reputed lover Vladimir Davidov are hung throughout the dozen or so interconnecting rooms of his house.

Miniature ceramic and bronze statues of naked men are dotted among dried flowers and shells.

(Additional reporting by Olga Petrova in Moscow; Editing by Sara Ledwith)


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