For someone who becomes as obsessive about things as me, I hate to admit how little I know about classical music. I own a lot of it. Franz Liszt is my favorite. But I’ve never made an effort to learn more about it, beyond knowing what I like, which tends towards the more bombastic and the more piano-based pieces. I would think that at some point I would have gone on a tear reading about it, listening to podcasts about it, watching documentaries — something. But I don’t know much about that world. Mine is a completely superficial knowledge. Everyone knows that Beethoven was hard of hearing, or that Mozart had a rival in Saliere. (Hmmm, I have AMADEUS on DVD. I should really watch that someday. . . ) Past then, I’m your typical clueless modern guy.
Heck, most of the classical music we’re familiar with comes from soundtracks to animated shorts, fireworks displays, or commercials. (The work is in the public domain. It’s cheap. Why not use it?)
When BBC America offered me a chance to look at a two hour documentary on Tchaikovsky that’s new on DVD, I jumped at the chance. (Really, on what other blog would you ever read a sentence like that?) The unique thing about TCHAIKOVSKY: THE TRAGIC LIFE OF A MUSICAL GENIUS is that it isn’t quite a documentary, and not quite a dramatic presentation. It is a strange hybrid that occasionally suffers for it. So long as you keep in mind that it is billed as a “personal remembrance” of British conductor, Charles Hazelwood, the shortcomings of the piece will make more sense.
Hazelwood, an admitted Tchaikovsky fan, travels to Tchaikovsky’s Russian home and schools to meet with today’s classical students and to visit the archives of the man. As it turns out, Tchaikovsky was a prolific letter writer, and thousands of those letters are saved at his country home, which has been preserved to be as it was when he died.
Tchaikovsky’s story is very Hollywood friendly for the modern age. He had a bad childhood, being left at a boarding school by his mother who died when he was a teenager. He was a musical genius who quickly rose up the ranks, only to be stymied by those who didn’t understand his gift. He was a gay man who was afraid his “secret” would get out, despite being notoriously promiscuous and friendly in public with a number of other gay men. (If he were truly hiding it, he could have done a better job.) He attempted a marriage to a woman, which worked out just slightly less well than Elton John’s did to Renate Blauel. That led him to run away from home, travel the world, and write more. Eventually, he returned home, debuted his masterpiece Sixth Symphony, and died a few days later.
He wrote more than you might realize. His “Swan Lake” revolutionized the ballet world. His style became synonymous with Russian music and Russia, itself. He did opera. He piano pieces and violin pieces. He did full symphonies. He did it all. He even did “The 1812 Overture” on commission from the tsar. It was a classic work-for-hire hack piece. Many consider it a lesser work, though we all hear it every year on July 4th in this country, and in countless cartoons. The one thing you can’t control as a creator is the public’s response to your work. “The 1812 Overture” should have been a small (albeit bombastic) piece, quickly forgotten. Instead, it’s one of the best-remembered.
I called this documentary a “hybrid” before for a reason. While most of the two hours is done in a traditional talking heads documentary style, there are also dramatic recreations of events interspersed throughout. While they’re well-acted and look authentic enough, they’re often repetitive of what was just narrated and occasionally veer off into moments of salaciousness. Sometimes, it’s enough to know a piece wasn’t well received by a composer’s instructor. We don’t need to spend the next two minutes watching the instructor badmouth the piece to his student, though it is fun to see him bang away on the piano.
The highlight of the documentary, though, is the music. Hazelwood is seen conducting an orchestra filled with music students inside a gigantic marble room. The sound quality is outstanding. As we’re just hearing selected highlights from certain pieces, there’s not a dull moment in the bunch. I’d love to have a DVD filled with those pieces recorded in that room in glorious surround sound. It would have been nice to include some of those performances as a bonus, at the least, or a second DVD.
Video quality is good. This documentary originally aired in 2007. I don’t know if it was originally presented in high definition or not, but the picture quality is of a very good DVD quality. I have no complaints there. The menus are simple and easy to navigate, though the two hours of the documentary were broken into two episodes and there’s no “Play All” button. You play one episode, go back to the main menu, and play the other. It’s a minor nit, but I know it would bother some people.
There’s a bonus documentary on the disc, too, about the conspiracy theories surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death. It’s worth talking about, but I’ll save it for another time.
TCHAIKOVSKY: THE TRAGIC LIFE OF A MUSICAL GENIUS is an excellent primer in both the man and the music. While the format of the piece is a little wonky, the end result is strong. Now, where do I put my request in for a documentary on Liszt?
(If that’s not enogh Tchaikovsky for you, video clips of Hazelwood discussing the man’s music can be found on this page.)