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Tchaikovsky, A Biography ~ A Capsule Book Review

Tchaikovsky ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The great Russian composer Peter (“Petyr”) Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 and died in 1893. He was a complex man who experienced many setbacks in his life, but one who, despite his fragile psyche, managed to write some of the great symphonic masterpieces of Russian music and of the nineteenth century, including six symphonies, three ballets, several operas, four serenades for orchestra, chamber music, songs, and (still) wildly popular concertos for piano and orchestra and violin and orchestra. His music is, today, still very accessible and popular and is performed and played wherever music is appreciated. Tchaikovsky never falls “out of favor” or becomes “passé,” as some composers do. (Writer-physician Anton Chekhov said during Tchaikovsky’s life that Tolstoy occupied the first place in Russian art while Tchaikovsky occupied the second place and Chekhov himself occupied the ninety-eighth.)

Tchaikovsky was born into a large and loving family (four brothers and one sister), in an isolated region of Russian where his father was a civil servant. His mother was rather cold to her children, but Tchaikovsky idolized her. Her death at age forty from cholera was a terrible blow from which he never fully recovered.

Tchaikovsky was morbidly sensitive with the soul of an artist, tending to be withdrawn and introspective. He was a homosexual who openly engaged in homosexual activity from the time he was a young student. (His turbulent inner life played a large part in the music he composed.) While not hiding his sexuality, or denying it, he always believed that it wasn’t “right.” After he became famous and successful, he lived in fear that he would be “exposed” and his career ruined or irreparably damaged. In his efforts to appear “normal,” he entered into a disastrous marriage with an unstable (possibly insane) woman named Antonina Milyukova. It turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life. He only lived with Antonina for two or three months, but she spent the rest of his life antagonizing and threatening him. He referred to her as a “demon” and “spawn of hell.” He could only assuage her, temporarily, by giving her money. She was a bitch on wheels.

About the same time as Tchaikovsky’s disastrous marriage to Antonina, another woman entered his life. Her name was Nadezhda von Meck. She was a wealthy widow, whose deceased husband had made a fortune in railroads. She had an almost obsessive admiration for Tchaikovsky and his music. She idealized him as the perfect artist, the perfect musician, the perfect man. She became his patron, which means she partly subsidized (supported) him while he composed. Madame von Meck was as eccentric in her way as Tchaikovsky was in his. The one condition of her financial support was that the two of them never meet in person. They corresponded for fourteen years, thousands of letters, and were both in the same place at the same time on many occasions, but they never met. Many of the letters they wrote to each other still exist.

Unlike many composers, Tchaikovsky achieved astounding success and popularity during his lifetime. His fame spread from his native Russia to Europe and the United States. Despite his never-ending personal struggles, his output of orchestral masterworks is extraordinary.

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly in St. Petersburg in 1893 at the age of fifty-three. The official account of his death, and the one that was accepted for a century, was that he drank “unboiled water” and died of cholera during an epidemic. However, more than a hundred years after his death, new information came to light which strongly suggests that he deliberately ingested poison to kill himself.

Tchaikovsky, A Biography, by Anthony Holden, is an informative and engaging chronicle of the life and times of Russia’s greatest composer. It’s a long and exhaustively detailed biography, but never too long or too ponderously wordy. If Tchaikovsky’s music “speaks” to you, as it does to me, reading this book and understanding the life of this great man adds a new dimension to enjoyment of his music.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

1880s ~ Best Man Up Top

1912 ~ Let’s Have Lunch in Grand Central Terminal

Grand Central Terminal in New York City in 1954

Rodolpho Valentino (1895-1926)

The House He Lived In

The House He Lived In ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp

Sid Bone was small for his age. He was the boy in school with the funny clothes: the pants too big and the sweater too small, the shoe with the flapping sole and the holes in his socks. His classmates never invited him to any of their parties because he wasn’t the party type and, anyway, he had a funny smell.

Sid Bone would never grow to manhood. When he was twelve, his liquor-addled mother gave him sleeping pills to make him unconscious and then she wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and strangled him. She just couldn’t take care of a twelve-year-old boy anymore, she said. It cost too much money to feed him and just having a kid underfoot all the time wore on her nerves. Without him, she’d be able to get her life in order, get off the booze, find a decent man. Then, later on, when everything was jake, she’d have another baby and they’d all be happy. Maybe the new one would be a girl who would take care of her in her old age.

After she sobered up a little, she was sorry for what she had done to Sid Bone. She would never have had the courage to do it if she hadn’t been drunk. She sat in her easy chair and blubbered and wailed for a while. Since there was no one to hear her, she let loose with some anguished screams. After she had cried herself out, she gave a little laugh, peed in her pants because she couldn’t get up, and reached for the bottle again.

After a day and a night spent in the chair, drinking and feeling bad about her terrible life, she made herself get up and go into the bathroom and clean up, wash her face, comb the mats out of her hair and put on some clean clothes. She was going to have to call the police. They would send someone out. She needed to make herself look decent and presentable.

She had the story straight in her head. She worked out all the details. Her boy, Sid Bone, had met with a bad accident. She had been sick, sleeping in the other room; she didn’t hear a sound and she wasn’t even sure what happened. When she found him lying on the bed, unconscious, she tried to revive him, but, of course, it was too late. He must have done himself in because the kids at school laughed at him. There could be no other explanation.

For a while, several days at least, Sid Bone didn’t realize he was dead. He woke up in the morning and sleepily went to school as he always did. He thought it was a little funny that his mother wasn’t in any of her usual places, on her bed or sitting at the kitchen table, but he didn’t mind her not being there; he could manage fine on his own without her.

At school, he sat at his desk all day long, as he always did, doing what he was supposed to do: listen to teacher talk, copy problems off the blackboard, read this or that book, get up for recess or lunch. Then when school ended, he walked home as he always did. The next thing he knew, he was getting out of bed in the morning to start his day all over again. He had no recollection of anything in between.

On the fourth day, Sid Bone knew something was different; something had changed. Somebody new was sitting at the desk he had occupied all year. When he went to the front of the room and tried to ask teacher about it, she didn’t seem to see him but instead looked right through him. He turned around and faced the room at large, thirty-two of his classmates, and screamed Hey! in his loudest voice, but nobody looked up or turned their heads in his direction. It was if he no longer existed.

Not knowing what else to do, he went upstairs to the nurse’s office. Miss Faulk should be able to look at him, touch his head and tell what was wrong. She was better than any doctor.

Miss Faulk wasn’t in her office, though. The only person there was a woman he had never seen before, sitting at Miss Faulk’s desk, writing. When he paused in the doorway, she looked up at him and motioned for him to come into the room. He was a little relieved to know that somebody was seeing him, even if it was somebody he didn’t know.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the woman said, standing up and coming around to the front of the desk. He saw that she was quite short and her face was crisscrossed with tiny lines like a road map.

“You have?” he asked, genuinely surprised. “Do you know me?”

“Well, I know of you. I’m Miss Munsendorfer. I used to be a teacher here a long time ago.”

“In horse-and-buggy days?”

“Not quite that long ago. We had cars then.”

“I was looking for Miss Faulk.”

“She’s not here right now, but I am here.”

“I wanted to see if Miss Faulk could take my temperature or something and see if I might be sick.”

“I think I can tell you you’re not sick.”

“How do you know?”

“You’ll never be sick again.”

“How do you know?”

“You don’t need to come to school anymore, either.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how best to explain it to you, so I’ll just show you.”

She took him by the hand. Before he knew it, they were outside on the playground and then they were walking down the hill away from the school. Then, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were in the church on Windsor Avenue.

“What are we doing here?” Sid Bone asked.

“You’ll see,” Miss Munsendorfer said. “Just be patient.”

The church was full of people, a funeral in progress. There was a closed casket at the front of the church draped in yellow-and-white flowers. All the people in the church looked solemn. Some of them dabbed at their eyes. An old man, a minister, was standing at the pulpit talking about evil in the world and how the only way to accept it is to recognize it as part of God’s plan. The words coming from the minister’s mouth sounded funny as if they were being spoken underwater.

Just when Sid Bone was looking out over the sea of faces in the church, picking out the ones he knew, Miss Munsendorfer touched his hand again and they were outside, moving away from the church and, once again, before he knew what was happening, they were in a different place: they were standing on the street where he lived.

The street was there, of course, but the falling-down house that he lived in with his mother was gone, as if by magic. In its place was bare dirt; even the junk and debris in the yard were gone.

Sid Bone was beginning to catch on. He wasn’t especially surprised the house was gone; he would have been more surprised if it had still been there.

Miss Munsendorfer again took him by the hand and, again, in the beat of a heart and the blink of an eye, they were standing in the hallway of the women’s penitentiary two hundred miles away.

“What is this place?” Sid Bone said. “I don’t like it here.”

Miss Munsendorfer pointed into one of the cells. When Sid Bone turned his head and looked, he saw his mother in the cell, sitting on the bed. She looked a human wreck: dejected, wretched, forlorn. He turned away before he started to cry.

Miss Munsendorfer again took by the hand, standing in that hallway of the women’s penitentiary, and in a flash they were back in the nurse’s office at school. Miss Faulk still wasn’t there.

Sid Bone found himself overpoweringly sleepy. He lay down on the nurse’s cot they kept in the corner for the suddenly ill and Miss Munsendorfer covered him over with an army blanket, tucking him in the way a mother would, with all but the kiss goodnight.

“Are you an angel?” Sid Bone asked her.

“No, I’m not an angel. I’m only here to help you.”

“Okay.”

“But you don’t need my help any more. You can do the rest on your own.”

She patted him on his shoulder and then she was gone.

When he awoke, he was in a place he had never been before. There were flowers and birds and lots of trees; animals of all kinds, but even the lions and bears wouldn’t hurt you because they were tame and gentle; you could walk right up to them and tug at their fur and they would only look at you. There were also people, some of whom he remembered or thought he remembered, but they left him alone whenever he wanted to be left alone. Most surprising of all, it never rained or got dark until you were ready.

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp    

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