Tchaikovsky: A Biography by Anthony Holden

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky contributed to a musical composition at age four, the experience proved prophetic. As a schoolboy studying for the civil service, he gravitated to music and became a conservatory teacher, then a composer. Long before he reached his fifty-third year, he achieved worldwide fame and recognition, and his life ended following his most famous musical achievement, the PATHETIQUE SYMPHONY.

His first official biographer, his brother Modest, left a tribute that carefully concealed the composer’s homosexuality. From materials previously suppressed or censored, later biographers have attempted to create a more accurate account. Holden demonstrates that Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation profoundly affected his life, contributing to his frequent travels, his shyness, his fear of disclosure, and his tortured relationships with family and friends.

Holden also gives a straightforward account of several enduring strands in the composer’s life. Tchaikovsky’s career as a composer, the reception of his music, and his relationships with other artists and composers are meticulously detailed. Among many personal relationships, the thirteen-year correspondence with his patron Nadezhda von Meck, whom he never met, is fully narrated.

Fame and success, predictably, brought no peace to an essentially troubled life. Aged beyond his years, the composer died at age fifty-three of a sudden illness. Cholera remained the official explanation until rumors of suicide surfaced. Descendants of those who knew him began to repeat stories of arsenic poisoning on the order of a court of honor bent on preventing scandal involving his sexuality. Although Holden refers to both explanations as “theories” and leaves the issue unresolved, he appears to favor the explanation that involves suicide.