BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS / Classical Music: The secret death of Tchaikovsky

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The Independent Culture
WHEN Tchaikovsky went to America in 1891 the New York press enthused about the 'young and pretty wife' accompanying a man whose age was 'well on 60'. Actually 51 and travelling alone, he was irritated by the overestimation of his age, but he also knew that there were worse things the press could say about him as a public figure with a secret sexuality. It would have been some comfort to him to know that for the greater part of a century after his death, the details would be under lock and key in the Tchaikovsky Archive at Klin, near Moscow, where the custodians were (to say the least) selective in the access they allowed.

But times have changed and the Klin custodians are more helpful than they used to be. As 1993 has seen the centenary of the composer's death, there has been much debate about what actually killed him. This month saw Tchaikovsky Remembered (Faber pounds 20), a fascinating collage of contemporary documents by the leading Tchaikovsky scholar David Brown. Earlier in the year there was a new edition of Edward Garden's Tchaikovsky in the Dent Master Musicians series (pounds 11.99). And for the seriously voyeuristic there was Alexander Poznansky's Tchaikovsky (Lime Tree pounds 35), a sociological rather than musicological study that documents the cultural context of life in late 19th-century Russia in fine but readable detail.

The critical differences between them are their lines on the composer's death. Brown supports the new theory that it was suicide - by poison, self-administered at the demand of a kangaroo 'court of honour' to avoid public disclosure of an affair Tchaikovsky had pursued with a young aristocrat. Poznansky argues for the traditional view that it was cholera, accidently contracted. Garden is neutral, suggesting both possibilities. But one unchallengeable fact is that the circumstances of the death were suspicious, and so was the manner in which they were documented - not least by Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, who went to great lengths to conceal the composer's sexual disposition in a subsequent biography. True enough, there was a cholera epidemic in St Petersburg in 1893; but it was essentially a working-class disease, associated with insanitary conditions. Tchaikovsky was the third most celebrated man in Russia, after Tolstoy and the Tsar, and in his circle the likelihood of drinking contaminated water was remote. Moreover, the physicians who attended him failed to prescribe the standard treatment for cholera - until it was late enough to be no more than a token gesture. And as Rimsky-Korsakov noted in his diary, it was curious that, in defiance of the health regulations governing cholera deaths, Tchaikovsky's body remained on open display where large numbers of mourners filed past and kissed it.

That said, the only evidence for suicide is verbal, and there are precedents enough for romanticising the deaths of composers. It's only surprising that legend hasn't made much of the approach made to Tchaikovsky, shortly before he died, to write a requiem. It happens to be true. Unfortunately he turned the offer down.

The latest assault on Verdi's legend comes from Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, whose Verdi: A Biography (OUP pounds 30) is a monumental feat of scholarship, probing a life that maintained an uncommon degree of privacy within a very public career. In Italy, opera was, and remains, a central issue in the lives of ordinary people, and 200,000 of them lined the streets of Milan at 7am on a January morning for Verdi's funeral. But then, Verdi was more than a composer: he was a politician, a patriot, a philanthropist, and Phillips-Matz provides a view of him as all these things.

She also reveals him as a man whose domestic life was by any standards irregular. To some extent this was already known, but Phillips-Matz dots the is and crosses the ts with a thoroughness that could be tiresome but is actually engaging. The detail is particularly welcome in relation to the crisis year of 1851, when Verdi severed his relationship with his parents by legal deed and ordered them out of the family farmhouse at S. Agata. At the same time he was living, out of wedlock, with Giuseppina Strepponi and most likely had a child by her that was secretly abandoned after birth at the foundling hospital in Cremona. He was also writing and preparing for the premiere of Rigoletto, the most poignant of all Verdi's father/daughter narratives. Make of that what you will.

The relationship between the lives and the art of artists is a standard quest for biographers and interviewers, who stay in business because there are no standard answers. Composer to Composer: Conversations About Contemporary Music by Andrew Ford (Quartet pounds 17.95) is one of the best collections of its kind I have read, and the fact that Ford is himself a composer (Australian, little known in Britain) is probably a reason for its success. It can be hard to prise from a composer any half-articulate, half-readable analysis of how he or she lives, works or thinks. But these, mostly quite short, encounters are paradigms of how to do it: concise, sharp, and stylistically responsive to the different characters under scrutiny.

The Tippett interview is oblique and perverse: he says a lot about fashion footwear and not much about music. Birtwistle has to be coaxed but gets there in the end. Steve Reich presents virtually in monologue: an enthusiast who talks with the driven intensity of a steam engine, rather like his music. And in every one - they total 30 - there is something to remember that strikes to the heart of the work. Judith Weir describes how imagistic texts impede the progress of music because they make you wait for information; Birtwistle talks about the way he considers each new work a chapter in the same, gradually unfolding book; Boulez eulogises Ravel as 'much cleverer' than Debussy; Elliott Carter sketches his own compositional methods with engaging clarity and insight. Andrew Ford sums up Carter as a 'confluence of gentility and apocalypse', and it's one of many observations, throughout the book, which communicate their subjects more keenly than 100 pages of academic analysis could.

There are 1,300 pages in the new Viking Opera Guide (pounds 60), which sets out to be 'the most comprehensive single-volume reference work on opera ever published'. It probably is. And with an imaginative gathering of contributors (who include Peter Jonas on Humperdink and Robert Saxton on Elizabeth Lutyens as well as leading scholars) it certainly outclasses the Oxford Dictionary of Opera published last year. If you can't afford the four-volume New Grove (biblical but ruinous) and want something with a broader compass than Kobbe, this is the one to buy. It catalogues 1,500 operas in some detail, is clearly organised and easy to use, and includes useful information like running times, orchestrations and suggested recordings. But the style is Blue Guide - informative and rather dull. Moreover, it is concentrated on repertory, so you don't find agreeably discursive entries on production, voice types or other more conceptual matters as you do in Grove and the Oxford Dictionary. But even so, the Viking Guide is useful as a first-call work of reference. It is over-priced, but some shops are offering Christmas discounts.

For more detailed advice on recordings, there is a new Penguin Guide to Opera on CD (Penguin pounds 13), a spin-off from the general Penguin Guides by Edward Greenfield, Ivan March and Robert Layton that branches into Kobbe territory by prefacing the disc analyses with plot summaries. I'm not sure why someone who wanted to know about comparative versions of Traviata would need to be told its plot, but there is good, across-the-board advice in here, and significantly it includes withdrawn sets - for serious collectors who like hunting down their prey.

The same serious collectors should know about two important paperback reissues: The Songs of Robert Schumann (pounds 9.99) by Eric Sams and The Schubert Song Companion (pounds 22.99) by John Reed. Both are from Faber, both are classics, and essential reading for anyone so much as gently nibbled by the bug of German lied.

(Photograph omitted)

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