Critical comment following the premiere spoke of the opera as ‘…complex and impressively crafted…’ and ‘darkly lyrical…marvellously responsive to (the) libretto and Shakespeare’s moods.’
How timely then that I should receive for review, from Toccata Press www.toccatapress.com, a book concerning André Tchaikowsky’s (1935-1982) www.andretchaikowsky.com entitled A Musician Divided: André Tchaikowsky’s in his own words.
Hardback 434 pages
Published: November 2013
The book is in four parts, the first giving a Biographical Outline of Tchaikowsky by Anastasia Belina-Johnson. One of the first things that we learn is that he was born Robert Andrej Krauthammer, his name being changed for his protection as a Jew during one of the most difficult times in Warsaw. There is detailed information about his early life, including his hiding from the Nazis, through his post war time at the State Music Conservatoire and his early compositions.
During his preparation for the 1955 Chopin Competition when practising Chopin’s F minor piano concerto he was criticised for his playing of a particularly difficult passage by Fou Ts’ong’s teacher, a particularly eminent professor to whom he responded by saying ‘It’s only because you can’t play it, you are jealous.’
It becomes clear that by the time of his first US tour in 1957, Tchaikowsky was showing even more behavioural problems with outbursts, shocking behaviour and a disregard for social norms. Yet this was offset by accounts of how ‘very sweet’ he was, very kind and very decent.
This biographical section covers his travels and concertising including his first visit to England, his attitude to performance, friends, neurosis, his continuing conflict between performing and composition, an abandoned biography, a short selection of letters and, of course his last illness and death at the early age of 46.
There is a final twist that many people may already know of: that of his will that left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company ‘for use in theatrical performances’, as indeed it was in 2008 when it was used in a production of Hamlet.
One of the very useful aspects of this book is the use of footnotes at the bottom of page rather than in an appendix at the back of the book making it a joy to read.
Part II: Testimony, 1947 is an account of his experience of the Warsaw Ghetto given orally in 1947 by the 12 year old boy for the Jewish Historical Institute for the purpose of recording the experiences of a Jew who had endured those times. It is all the more poignant for its childlike objectivity.
We then come to the main content of the book, Part III: Diaries, 1974-82. Right from the opening one finds sympathy with Tchaikowsky as he writes ‘Shall I really start a diary? going on to say ‘And will it make me even more of a loner?’
The diary opens with his travel to Perth and an account of a homosexual relationship. Personal relationships abound along with every day matters and concerts. We gain an insight into his tastes in literature with Samuel Becket getting short shrift. Signs of his mental struggles appear with references to his use of Tuinal and Valium as well as Transcendental Meditation.
There are his reactions to a perceived bad performance and, amidst all this his ongoing composition of his opera The Merchant of Venice. Personalities appear including Stefan Askenase, with whom he studied, Vladimir Horowitz, Isaac Stern, David Kossoff, Radu Lupu and Uri Segal as well as Tamas Vasari and Peter Frankl.
Many world locations appear in his diaries as well as his ongoing struggles as a pianist and problems with nerves giving a real insight into a performer’s point of view and the pressures of concertising.
At one point during 1976 we find Tchaikowsky ‘…in such a state, weeping, sobbing, shaking…I was not considering suicide, just desperate to talk to someone…’ The following year he says ‘I had always been an outcast…even after the war, I had been physically bullied for being a Jew.’
In 1980 we have his experience of visiting Jerusalem when he states ‘…here I’ve found myself in a land where everyone is different.’ That year he met his estranged father for the first time since 1948 and describes the difficult meeting. His father was to outlive him by a year.
Work continued on The Merchant of Venice, completed on 21st September 1980, but 1981 reveals the onset of physical health problems. There is a piano run through of The Merchant of Venice but, despite the support of David Pountney, English National Opera refused to produce the opera. 1982 brings more health problems whilst performing in Germany but his concerts continue with his last diary entry on 29th April 1982, in Salzburg. He died at 6.45am on Saturday 26th June 1982.
Part IV: André Tchaikowsky as Composer – A survey takes an in depth look at Tchaikowsky opera, the Merchant of Venice, as well as covering his other works. The World Premiere performance of The Merchant of Venice, now released by EuroArts, is covered with reviews of the production.
There are two appendices, Appendix 1: Recordings of André Tchaikowsky’s Music and Appendix 2: Tchaikowsky’s recorded performances: A chronology. There is both an index of André Tchaikowsky’s Compositions and a general index.
A bonus with this book is a CD, featuring an amateur recording of a private concert given in Currie Hall, University of Western Australia, Perth on 2nd June 1975 when Tchaikowsky was Artist in Residence there. Between performing Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy and Chopin, Tchaikowsky talks and jokes with his enthusiastic students. Despite the upright piano and less than perfect recording quality, this is a treasurable memento of just one of many such occasions.
The book is very well illustrated with numerous black and white photos, facsimiles of scores, documents, letters and diary first page entries. It should appeal to a wide audience, not just those specifically interested in André Tchaikowsky the pianist but for the wider insights into a musician and his times.