Victory over Vol. III, or, The Chaikovsky Problem

Appropriately enough, Vol. III ends with Tchaikovsky (RT’s more consistently anglicized “Chaikovksy”), the master of the (melo-)dramatic finale. It was an arduous journey through the thickest volume of the set but, like the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, we emerged triumphant. Three down, two to go!

As we did with the last two volumes, we’re going to take a short reading break before resuming the Challenge with the early 20th century. But before moving on, expect some catch-up posts on the fascinating last 200 pages of the text. Also look for a Must-reads update in the near future.

But back to Chaikovsky for a moment. As I ruminate on my personal history with this composer, I remember that, as a kid, Tchaik was on par with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as far as “greatness” goes. I even owned a plastic bust of the guy (bearded composers were my favorites). Pieces like the 1812 Overture and the Nutcracker were about as amazing as classical music could get (come on, it even has a part for cannon!), and my family, which is full of musicians, ranked him high on their list (although my curmudgeonly grandfather always liked to point out that he was “as queer as a three-dollar bill”). Imagine my surprise, then, when at the tender age of 18 my college music history prof dismissed his music as “sentimental.” I clearly recall the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon learning that the music of a great composer was really something twee, excessive, and – worst of all – “popular.” I guess I, along with audiences for over a hundred years, was wrong about the guy!

The reception history of Chaikovsky is a twisting and (at times) tragic story that highlights the seismic shifts in our musical values over the last 100+ years. By “our,” of course, I mean music scholarship. For many decades, Chaikovsky’s link to ballet, his homosexuality, and his grand, gushing melodies were enough to make more than a few musicologists blush with shame. How could such a composer compete with the “serious” (read: German) masters? As a result of this category crisis, Chaikovsky was denigrated, dismissed, and discarded by generations of scholars.

Not that the concert-going public would know any of this, however. Chaikovsky, along with composers like Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Puccini, and Sibelius, dazzlingly demonstrates the frequent disconnect between what scholars deem important and what actual audiences do. Even during the darkest years of Chaikovsky-negativity in the academy, music-lovers flocked to annual performances of the Nutcracker, tingled as the 1812 finale joyously marauded their eardrums, and pondered in rapt concentration the 6th symphony in a darkened concert hall (sharing a billing with Beethoven, no less!). While I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s musicology’s job to slavishly track the popular simply by virtue of the fact that it’s popular (though tell that to the growing Lady Gaga Studies crowd), such a profound disjuncture between what is “important” to the scholar and what is “important” to the audience should give us pause.

Of course, Chaikovsky (along with the others mentioned above) has since been rehabilitated, giving today’s scholars the opportunity to look back smugly on the benighted history of the discipline and revel in just how far we’ve come. It does make you wonder, though, what we could be missing or dismissing right now. Might the musicologist of the future look back with bemusement at the conceptual blind spots that caused us to neglect such “important” artists today (Lady Gaga)?