On Bernstein’s Tchaikovsky

Although I occassionally consider myself to be somewhat of a Puritan, I always found that Tchaikovsky is a terribly underrated composer, and that Bernstein gives us a Tchaikovsky for people who really do like Tchaikovsky. You probably wouldn’t approve of Bernstein’s interpretations of his music, if you believe that Tchaikovsky is an “exhibitionist of feelings” (Alfred Einstein) whose music occasionally “stinks” (Hanslick), whose desperation sounds like “schlager music” (Adorno), and whose homosexual Slavic sentimentalism, which makes him the favorite composer of the “intellectual middle class” (Einstein again), requires a tyrannical martinet of a conductor, in order to whip that whiny effeminacy back into shape.

   It is noteworthy that much of the popular critique of Tchaikovsky isn’t so much (or simply) about his music but about him violating, in lack of a better term, “conservative” norms. Music isn’t supposed to “stink”, it is not supposed to sweat and only then is an “exhibitionism of feelings”, an artistic processing of neuroses and one’s own psychopathology permitted, when it is possible to philosophically elevate them (like with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that is then quickly associated with “fate knocking at the door”), if it is possible to link it to religion (as is the case with Bruckner’s Catholicism) or to “chaste” neuroses (as is the case with highly neurotic, superstitious Jew turned Catholic Gustav Mahler). It is therefore not surprising that a) many critics of Tchaikovsky only accept those interpretations that “thin out” his music (like a strong Russian liquor being watered down) or whip it into shape with a high tempo and the musical equivalent of an austere military regiment, since this, too, conforms to the conservative idea of how to deal with such queer characters; and b) that some of the most prominent advocates of Tchaikovsky were not part of the frothy “middle class” but, quite the opposite, performers who were dedicated to defend the modern arts, and whose eccentricities and performances caused smaller and bigger scandal, as well.

   To cite an example, Glenn Gould, whose physicality and whose (in)famous non legato caused occasional indignation, once said about Tchaikovsky, “I consider Tchaikovsky to be a great composer, even though it is a trend today to dislike him. I on the other hand believe that he was one of the great symphonists after Beethoven and I love his music.” Leonard Bernstein, who was notorious for jumping up and down while conducting (Christa Ludwig, once asked about the differences between Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan, replied that “Bernstein sweats, Karajan doesn’t.”), and whose collaborations with the worlds of musical and jazz caused suspicions, loved it, either. Unsurprisingly, the popular critique of Tchaikovsky was also directed at Bernstein’s interpretations of his music – they were accused of being too loud, too stinky, sweaty and too sentimental; just not chaste enough. Especially Bernstein’s Pathétique with its slow tempo and its savoring of feelings is a good example of this. Whereas Mravinksy needed only around 10 minutes for the elegiac last movement, Bernstein needs almost 18; and this is gorgeous, this is liberating and this is a congenial apology of this ingenious composer and his disarming music that has a tendency to overcome all defense mechanisms (such as intellectualization or sublimation) and therefore can be “dangerous” in the best way possible.

About Smultronstallet

"My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better." - Philippians 1:23
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