Even 117 years after his death in 1893, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music still seems to retain a grip on audiences’ attentions and imaginations. His music is still programmed and performed frequently in concert halls across the world, and it is regularly featured in pop culture in some form or another (Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming Black Swan, for instance, is set during rehearsals for a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake).
Watch Tchaikovsky on Fandor.
What is it about Tchaikovsky’s music that still appeals to the general public? Maybe it is the heart-on-sleeve emotional directness of his music. There is little doubt, for instance, as to what those weeping strings that usher in the fourth movement of his “Pathétique” Symphony are meant to express, especially in light of the fact that it premiered in St. Petersburg nine days before his death. Or take the famously grand tune that opens his First Piano Concerto, a lump-in-the-throat melody so insanely catchy that bandleader Freddy Martin adopted it decades later for his popular 1941 song “Tonight We Love.” (Its memorable quality in the context of Tchaikovsky’s concerto is partly enhanced by the fact that, after a second repetition, the tune is never heard again, in any formal or stylistic variation, in the rest of the work.) Is Tchaikovsky’s reliance on such Big Tunes “vulgar,” as many critics at the time seemed to think of his music? Maybe; maybe not. But who said great art had to always be in good taste?
Tchaikovsky, Igor Talankin’s 1969 biopic of the composer, presents the composer as more or less the man you would expect from his intensely heated music. For all the moments in which he gives himself over to high passion and a fiery temperament—especially when secretly pining for his most important patron, Nadezhda von Meck (Antonina Shuranova), or rebelling against his initially overcontrolling mentor Nicholas Rubinstein (Vladislav Strzhelchik)—he also exudes a shyness that can be difficult to reconcile with some of his compositions, such as the bombastic 1812 Overture.
Tchaikovsky is known to have suffered from bouts of depression, which would perhaps explain his mood swings (though the film, in the tradition of Soviet socialist realism, generally avoids such explicit psychological explanations). Talankin, who also co-wrote the film, approaches this wildly mercurial character in a similarly free-form manner, abandoning prosaic “this-happened-and-that-happened” dramaturgy for a structure that contrasts mundane period recreations with occasional flights of cinematic fancy. The result does not so much explain the genesis of these perennially popular works as it offers the spectacle of hearing Tchaikovsky’s music in fresh contexts. Thus, a surreal black-and-white image of a ballerina dancing is set against the backdrop of Dmitri Tiomkin’s rearrangement of a famous theme from Swan Lake; another, longer sequence has Tchaikovsky envisioning scenes from his opera The Queen of Spades as if he is a spectator on a stage of his dreams. Tchaikovsky resonates less as a psychological portrait of the composer than as an impressionistic rhapsody that uses elements of his personal biography as a springboard for a fairly imaginative tapestry inspired by his music.
If nothing else, this sumptuous-looking film—which got two Academy Award nods in 1972 for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Score—will inspire you to return to the composer’s music with fresh ears.
Kenji Fujishima writes about cinema and the arts for The Wall Street Journal, The House Next Door and at his own blog, My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second.