This is part two of my “Tchaikovsky” review. The first part showed up last week.
One generic thought before I move on, though: I wonder if we aren’t reading too much into the music. Unless it’s backed up by one of his writings, I can’t always assume that the interpretation of the music is exactly reflective of the mood of the artist. To say that a piece written in a minor key means that the composer was feeling moody and depressed seems to be a bit of a leap for me. Can’t a composer write in a minor key because that’s the song he heard in his head? Is it that crazy to think that someone can write against their “mood” or their life’s position at a given moment? The people who read into his Sixth Symphony and say, “Yep, he was clearly suicidal while writing this” just make me laugh.
Music can, no doubt, mirror ones emotions or provoke one’s emotions, but to use a single piece as such a documentary piece of work is disengenuous.
Back to the DVD: As a bonus, there’s a third hour on the DVD that’s an older documentary on the death of Tchaikovsky. The first clue to its age was the video quality, which looked just slightly better than VHS. The second was that its host had huge glasses. The third was that the host appeared in his office, sitting in front of a giant box housing a 15 inch monitor. A book on the shelf behind him faced outwards to display its title, “CompuServe.” Ah, the good old days.
The special was produced in the early days of the Soviet breakup. There’s even a reference to Glasnost early on. The host visits the same home that the main feature’s host visited to study Tchaikovsky’s papers. The problem is, they hadn’t opened up the vaults yet, by the sounds of it. The picture this host paints is of a Russia that’s still secretive, and still happy to protect its icon through concealment of documents. I have a feeling that those restrictions loosened up a great deal by the time the feature documentary was researched and shot.
The focus is squarely on Tchaikovsky’s death here, and presents some interesting theories. The accepted story about death by cholera from unboiled drinking water does have holes in it. On the other hand, people are not always consistent and perfect. An “accidental tragedy” might leave the door open for speculation, but it does happen. A more sensationalistic theory or two is floated, including one in which Tchaikovsky is convinced to kill himself before his good name is sullied as well as — get this — the good name of the school he attended as a child. There are multiple suicide theories, and interviews with those old enough to be not far removed from the situation lend weight to a suicide theory.
The thing is, we’ll just never know. It’s too late for forensic evidence. It’s too far gone for anyone living at the time to still be with us. (Tchaikovsky died over 100 years ago.) It’s fun to theorize and raise conspiracy theories, but ultimately futile. There’s a lot more to learn about the man and his music from what he did write down. And, like I said, there’s more than enough “reading between the lines” that’ll be done with the music, itself. That should be enough for all of us.
All told, the DVD is an interesting look into the life of a famous composer with a beautiful soundtrack that’s sadly not long enough. It’s worth a rental, if you’re intellectually curious about such things.