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Tchaikovsky is No One-Trick Pony

By Michelle Rafferty


I’d argue our Black Swan “fever” peaked at Jim Carey’s SNL performance, but we might see a resurgence this weekend at the Oscars. In anticipation I contacted Roland John Wiley, author of Tchaikovsky and Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, for his thoughts on his subject’s recent omnipresence. Turns out, Tchaikovsky hasn’t always been taken seriously in the academic community. Here, Wiley explains the trappings of music snobbery – and why Tchaikovsky’s popularity among the “muggles” is no reason to discount his brilliance. Oh, and, he dishes on the original Swan Lake ballerina. (Dra-ma!)

An even more recent take on Tchaikovsky - Jim Carrey dances "Black Swan" on Saturday Night Live (c) NBC

Me: How do members of the academic community (like yourself) feel about Tchaikovsky’s resonance in popular culture?

Wiley: I may be different from most ‘members of the academic community.’ Not only does Tchaikovsky’s music speak to me, I also find the conceptual and technical aspects of it operating at a very high level. He was a very fine composer, an assessment that my academic colleagues increasingly acknowledge. Were we to go back 40-50 years, especially in light of the fashion then for early music and the influence of German musicologists who emigrated to this country after World War II (without which our musicology would be much the poorer), we would find a distinctive aloofness about Tchaikovsky in academic circles, which I sensed myself as a graduate student.

Me: Is his popularity with the general public what makes him taken less seriously in academia (sort of the way an indie band loses credibility when it becomes popular)?

Wiley: In a word, yes. But this is changing with the flourishing of popular studies in academia, which are having the effect of implying that so-called serious music is elitist.

Me: And are we (the general public) misusing or misconceiving his work in any way? For example, is a film like Black Swan blasphemous to a true Tchaikovsky fan, like yourself? And what does the academy say?

Wiley: I sense no misconception in the public acceptance of Tchaikovsky, but the need for fairness in distinguishing a truthful aversion to his music from a purely snobbish one. The misconception is that it’s correct to persist in the latter. I don’t think academia as a corporate entity has an opinion about Black Swan. To me it seems, like any other artwork, the product of its creators’ fantasy, and as such owes nothing to the mundane truth.

Me: Black Swan is all about the behind the scenes rivalries. What about the original Swan Lake? Is it true that there were “creative differences” between the original Odette and Tchaikovsky?

Wiley: There were rank and rivalry differences between the first Odette, who was junior, and the company’s leading ballerina, who took the part only at the third or fourth performance. We’re not sure what happened – possibly a scandal involving the leading ballerina or moneyed influence associated with the junior dancer – but when the senior ballerina came to the role, she went to St. Petersburg and asked the balletmaster Marius Petipa to compose a pas for her exclusive use in ‘Swan’. He did, but to music of Ludwig Minkus. Tchaikovsky would not countenance such an interpolation, and re-wrote the variation keeping to Minkus’s rhythms.

Me: Asking for her own pas—was this a pure diva move?

Wiley: For senior dancers in the imperial theatres it was not unusual—perhaps more so for the dancer requesting it than for the dancer receiving it from the balletmaster when a work was in revival.

Me: Bringing things back to Black Swan, would you say it accurately depicts the ballerina psyche?

Wiley: Ballerinas are not exempt from psychological distress, but the ones I have met  are surprisingly down-to-earth and level-headed.  On stage, they are counting out their combinations and trying to keep their center of  gravity with aplomb.

Me: I heard Tchaikovsky rushed to finish Swan Lake. Is his story the equivalent of those novelists who became famous for the novel they wrote in three weeks to make a quick buck, while their “real” works stand relatively forgotten? Arguably, he is most widely recognized for Swan Lake – would he be ok with that?

Wiley: Tchaikovsky composed quickly and completed ‘Swan’ ten months before the first performance. He wasn’t in a rush, though theatre editors may have been, getting the work revised in time. As to the situation you describe – Rachmaninov’s famous ‘Prelude in C-sharp minor‘ comes to mind – insanely popular, associated with his name instantly and more than any other, to the exclusion of more sophisticated and arguably better works.

With Tchaikovsky it’s a mix. Something like the 1812 Overture he thew together in a few days and it is still a signature piece. ‘The Nutcracker’ he struggled with, taking months more than he planned, and yet its famous numbers are instantly recognizable. He composed ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ in 40 days amidst ongoing distractions – a feat of enormous concentration. ‘Swan’ is between these in composition time, and probably as recognizable as parts of ‘The Nutcracker’. With so many famous pieces, Tchaikovsky is no one-trick pony. Whatever, he was always OK with success.

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