Tom Strini
This Week at the MSO

Tchaikovsky’s Orchestrion

By - Nov 24th, 2010 04:00 am
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Kyoko Takezawa will play the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the MSO this week.

Kyoko Takezawa will play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Milwaukee Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. That piece, roundly criticized in its day as too difficult, has long since become a beloved staple of the repertoire.

That doesn’t make it easier; one very famous (out-of-town) violinist I know quit the Tchaikovsky concerto decades ago (“It’s just too much work,” says he who shall remain nameless). I once heard a touring pro go down in flames with this piece, as conductor Zdenek Macal and the whole MSO looked on in helpless horror.

That’s all by way of fascinating, lengthy but finally irrelevant introduction (rather like the introduction of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, come to think of it). My topic today has to do with the way we imagine genius, especially Romantic genius such as Tchaikovsky, as springing like a lily through concrete without nurture or assistance, a miracle against the odds.

I’ve never bought that notion. Now that I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, I buy it even less. He dissects the success of stars in sports, technology, law and entrepreneurship. In every case the alleged genius rose from an elaborate support system, usually involving schools and family, that gave advantage. He also points out the role of luck. In an inverse case, he demonstrates how the man with the highest known IQ in America accomplished nothing more than winning some money on a quiz show, just because his background and circumstances were wrong. Gladwell pretty much demolishes the myth of the self-made man.

TCD/MSO PROMOTION: GET 2-for-1 TICKETS FOR THESE CONCERTS. HERE’S THE SECRET CODE: 15450. Use it when you order by phone, 414-291-7605, or at the MSO website.

What does all this have to do with Tchaikovsky?

He was the son of a mining engineer. he grew up mostly in a pair of remote mining towns. Starting with his brother Modeste’s early biography, the myth has spread that the young Tchaikovsky went against the unmusical grain of his family and that his family insisted on a career other than music.

A Welte Orchestrion from 1862. Wikipedia Commons image.

Well, not really. The family had a piano and the boy had lessons. And more incredibly, his father bought an orchestrion, an organ-based gizmo that played from perforated rolls and approximated the sound of an orchestra. According to Oxford Music Online (a fabulous resource, and my main research tool these days), the precocious Tchaikovsky learned to love Mozart by sitting next to this Rube Goldberg machine.

The boy’s intense interest in literature and language flared up before his interest in music. He could write fluently in French by age 7. Without the orchestrion, would he have become the Tchaikovsky we know, or a poet?

It’s true the family wanted him to attend the mining school in St. Petersburg, and it’s true that they compromised and agreed to the School of Jursiprudence. He he entered in 1852 at the age of 12 as a boarding student, a typical sort of thing in Russia then. Tchaikovsky didn’t seem to mind.

He pursued his studies there and graduated in 1859. As it turns out, the law school had an ambitious music program, including its own high-profile concert series, choirs, some instruction, and free tickets to the city’s opera, theaters and concerts. In addition, Tchaikovsky’s aunt lived in St. Petersburg, taught him opera and paid for singing lessons with two leading teachers. Without all that, would he have sustained his interest in music?

Tchaikovsky c. 1860. Image from last.fm website.

Still, upon graduation Tchaikovsky took a job in the Ministry of Justice and won three quick promotions. On his ministry salary, he led a busy social life that revolved around the city’s theater community. He continued to practice and write a little music, but showed no sign of changing his life.

But life changed around Tchaikovsky. The Russian Musical Society formed in St. Petersburg, first as a concert promoter, in 1859. In 1860, it started offering a few music classes. In 1861, Tchaikovsky took his first music-theory class there.

Without the Society, would Tchaikovsky have become Tchaikovsky? Maybe not. But it took three more pieces of luck to change his life.

1. The Society’s classes congealed into the brand-new St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, a place where Tchaikovsky could get the comprehensive musical education he needed.

2. The Russian civil service turned down a promotion Tchaikovsky had sought. Had he won that promotion, would he have become the Tchaikovsky we know?

3. His primary teacher happened to be Anton Rubinstein. The two men later had a falling out, but Tchaikovsky bloomed under his teaching and quickly became known as the city’s hot young talent. And Rubinstein’s brother, Nikolay, came to St. Petersburg to hire Tchaikovsky to teach at the Moscow Conservatory, which opened in 1866.

Once Tchaikovsky took that post, there was no turning back. He was on his way to becoming the Tchaikovsky we know, composer of vividly Romantic symphonies, concertos, ballets and operas.

He was a genius, yes. But no one becomes a genius alone.

This Week at the MSO, Edo de Waart will conduct Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, in addition to Tchaikovsky Concerto. A Sea Symphony will feature Lee Erickson’s Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, soprano Christine Goerke and baritone Hugh Russell. Concerts begin at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 26-27, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St. Tickets are $25-$95 at the MSO ticket line, 414-291-7605; at the Marcus Center box office, 414-273-7206. Look for Michael Barndt’s review at TCD this weekend.

0 thoughts on “This Week at the MSO: Tchaikovsky’s Orchestrion”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Still we are left with a dilemma. Should we be grateful that Tchaikovsky suffered as much as he did before writing Pathetique? Could he have written it without those life experiences? Perhaps there is a difference between the turns in the road that offer an opportunity to use ones talent and the notion that the life of “suffering artist” is a prerequisite for great art.

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