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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford


I know of no other composer whose huge musical output has suffered such extra-musical or non-musical critical censure among so many otherwise rational critics as has that of Tchaikovsky. There is little doubt that the novelty of his music came as something of a shock to contemporary critics in the 1870s (he was born in 1840), especially in France and Germany, a Berlin critic of the time describing Francesca da Rimini as 'ein musikalisches Monstrum -- eine Ohrenschinderei' (could that be a repulsive ear-thrash?).

As we turn into the 20th century, more and more opinion seems to incorporate words like pretentious, indiscriminate, incoherent, vulgar, savage, incompetent (that being César Cui on Eugene Onegin). A New York critic on the 4th Symphony, perhaps hard-pressed to find comment, described the orchestral colours as being 'decidedly too loud for a symphony'. Where others applied colour with a brush, they said, he poured it on from a bucket. And that applied to the sentimentality too. Maybe that was at the heart of the growing barrage of critical judgment outside Russia, for there he had become a hero.

Today there is still evidence of the distain that has hovered over the work of Tchaikovsky for the last fifty years. The critically pretentious find nothing in it to challenge their intellects. They are made uncomfortable by its wide melodic lines, its folksy roots, its lack of academic rigour. There are those who are quite simply embarrassed by such outpourings of emotion. There are many who do take pleasure in the music but are afraid to say so in polite company. Some hate it because they are afraid of its honesty. Others because they envy Tchaikovsky's technical directness, his habit of limiting his musical statements and developments with such single mindedness.

But thankfully this ridiculous critical climate is receding. Apart from it still being fashionable to snort derisively at the name along some academic corridors, there is far too much evidence in the music itself to uphold anything but admiration. The last three symphonies are truly symphonic, harmonically rich and contrapuntally clever. Most of his music is orchestral, writing of pure genius, built on the clarity he learnt from Mozart and Bizet. His ballet music is the model of excellence, and his vocal music superb. And above all, he has been venerated by greater musical minds than most of his critics who chose to mistake his accessible genius for shallowness. His style has been plundered by films, but venerated by 20th century composers from Stravinsky to Britten, composers who, unlike those critics, had more perceptive hearing.

Copyright © 31 March 2007 Patric Standford, Wakefield UK


From: Erling Eliasson, Copenhagen, Denmark

As a balletdancer, who for decades has enjoyed dancing to Tchaikovsky's wonderfully -- from a purely physical point of view -- plastic and organic music both on stage and in the daily classes, I was very happy indeed to read your article, where you reflect on the antipathy among the fineschmeckers against Tchakovsky's musical outputs.

From my point of view Tchaikovsky composed music with not only abundance of feelings in it, but also with great integrity and spirituality. If one is academically provoked by the 'formlessness' of his style, it is advisable to dig in to the substance of the content, which is generally dominated by an urge to communicate it's reasons in honest and unpretentious ways. Just listen to the first movement of the third suite written in a mood inspired by the exuberance of the fields and woods of the composer's beloved Russia.

I think Tchaikovsky will get his renaissance, like for example Mahler got after World War 2, and will be rediscovered and appreciated in the West, not so much for the already popular works, but more so for his lesser known pieces, such as his songs, his more seldom performed operas and his chamber- and church music too.

However, part of that rediscovery will probably depend on well-written essays like yours to satisfy the more intellectual sceptic.

Being Danish, please excuse me for my imperfect English.




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