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Tchaikovsky and Women

January 3, 2013

 

The more I think about Tchaikovsky--and I already do, a lot--the more I come to believe he had an entirely preternatural understanding of both genders, and perhaps the wide, sliding spectrum between the two. More on this in a minute.
  
In brief biographic sketches, Tchaikovsky is often, variously and unfairly defined as a depressive, a closeted 19th-century Russian homosexual, a sensitive youth traumatized by having to leave his mother and go to boarding school. Though true to one degree or another, this labeling also makes him seem soft, unfit for the rigors of life. But that's not true. Through his letters and the testimony of friends and family--his brother, Modest, a particularly strong witness to his character--a more well-rounded picture emerges. Tchaikovsky was prolific both as a letter writer and a composer. He had a sharp wit. And as conflicted as he may have been about his sexuality, he also embodied it with vigor. (According to Modest, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saens performed an impromptu ballet on the Moscow Conservatory stage--a private performance, unfortunately).

Tchaikovsky faced hardships, as we all do, with about as much grace as could be expected of anybody. He simply was not your garden variety Tormented Artist. As much as I am a fan of biography, I feel as though Tchaikovsky writes his own autobiography with his music.

For example, just as you think it can't get any longer or more technically demanding, he brings the first movement of the violin concerto in D to a close only to follow it with two stunning shorter movements, the last one a mad dash to a particularly speedy trepak that ends the piece. Hardly the writing of a depressive.

For all its bombast and as much as Tchaikovsky himself claims to have written it "without warmth and without love" (though he did conduct it at the dedicatory concert of Carnegie Hall), there's nothing limp-wristed about the 1812 Overture. In fact it has, for me, more genuine verve (okay, and camp, too--are those strings ever, ever going to wind down before we get to the cathedral bells?) than what feels like the manufactured merriment at the end of his fourth symphony. That movement makes me think a little bit of Shostokovich forcing Communist Party spirit into his own compositions half a century later. So maybe we glimpse the depressive Tchaikovsky there, doing his damn-est to be happy. 

Yet of his Symphony No. 5 (like Beethoven's fifth, based on a "fate" motive, beginning darkly and ending in a triumphant major key), some have likened the last movement to an acceptance of his sexual identity. It's hard to imagine programmatic music addressing sexual identity..... In any case, we get to the end of the fifth, knowing Tchaikovsky has already gone through his "rash act" of marriage and subsequent depression, and what we hear is a man with a baton on the podium in charge of the work he has written. (Okay, he hated conducting; he thought it would make his head fall off. He really did. Still, I see him there, on the podium after the false cadence that makes you think the whole shebang is over and there he is, just marching the orchestra--egging on the brass--through those last couple of minutes, not in the least concerned about losing his head.)

This is all Tchaikovsky's Big and Tall Man music. And it's masculine. It's deft and loud and exuberant and I love it. But he goes farther in other works. He goes feminine. And by that I do not mean weak, insipid, sentimental or sugary. When he goes feminine, he goes wise, knowing, keen. In fact, other than when George Balanchine switched out the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings in C to make it the last movement in his ballet, I'm not sure there is a composer, choreographer or writer who gets the feminine more than Tchaikovsky does.

Which is how, in this roundabout post, we get to "Nutcracker." Ah, "Nutcracker," that feel-good holiday classic. Guess what? I don't think so. "Nutcracker" is a sad story, a fearsome story about a girl growing into the knowledge of her limitations. Of course it's filled with captivating music and spell-binding dancing. And it all starts with a big Christmas party (and a tree that grows). But in the party scene where Clara is given the gift of her nutcracker, she is alternately mesmerized by the I-wouldn't-leave-my-kid-alone-with Uncle Drosselmeyer and bullied by her obnoxious brother who ends up breaking the nutcracker. 

After that, of course, the magic begins: Clara (asleep? enchanted?) is transported to the Kingdom of Sweets, treated like a Make-a-Wish kid and entertained by all manner of ethnic dance interpreters.  Tchaikovsky's very good at this. Don't we hear the castanets clacking away in the Spanish dance, see the sultry gyrations of the Arabian dance, and the heel-kicking hi-jinx of the Russian trepak (we already know that Tchaikovsky put the "tre" in "trepak").

After many more such souffles of music and dance comes the pas de deux, the one to end all pas des deux. It's between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. And what's so awful about it, so very awful, is that it is beautiful. And entirely unreal. It is entirely outside the realm of plausibility. For one thing, the Sugar Plum Fairy is never going to end up with her Cavalier. That's because he isn't real. Nor is she real. They have both been conjured by Uncle Drosselmeyer. Or if not Drosselmeyer, then by the sleeping drugs Clara's mom gave her to help her after such an exhilarating party. After all, Christmas can be stressful!

But far worse than the truth of the matter--that the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier aren't real and thus, can't live happily ever after since they don't live at all--is the second truth of the matter: Clara can never be the Sugar Plum Fairy. No woman ever can be. That momentous idea--ethereal/embodied, weightless/grounded--of feminine perfection is about as real as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Which is to say that no woman can ever be that woman. But who would want to be anything less?

You don't believe me? You think it's all just fun dances and hummable tunes? Well, then, listen. Listen. (This is the ballet company of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russa, with Larissa Lezhnina as the Sugar Plum Fairy.)


The first five minutes of the pas de deux that is the penultimate scene in "Nutcracker" is one of great poignancy and loss. Coming as it does right before the end, a joyous end, it seems out of place, ill-conceived. And yet Tchaikovsky's sister died not long before he composed the piece. It seems to me a mournful, though powerful, homage to what life requires that we leave behind--so many dreams and so many loved ones. In its way this is a particularly feminine realization, or perhaps just one realized earlier on in life for women than for men. 
 

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.