Review: ‘Fame and Fortune: On Writing a New Life of Tchaikovsky’

Professor Philip Bullock (University of Oxford) offered a talk at Wolfson College last week about his new biography of the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, to be published by Reaktion in 2016. It was difficult to know what to expect from this event. Would Bullock stick to a discussion of the act of writing biography, as the organisation hosting the talk suggested he might do? Or would he instead succumb to the temptation of Tchaikovsky’s controversial reputation and use the time provided to hold forth on the tumultuous life of the subject in question? In the end, this was a talk that gave a nod to both concerns – the method and the man – and that also managed to bring a new energy to a potentially wearied topic. 

Despite his open disavowal of the utility of biographical analysis in music or literary criticism, Bullock seemed to have taken to this project with comparative ease. He was eager to emphasise the amount of work involved – essentially spending two years reading more than 6,000 of Tchaikovsky’s letters, along with the vast corpus of secondary literature that has dissected the minutiae of each – but what was most apparent from the opening statements of his talk was quite how enjoyable he had found the whole process. It seemed as though the act of biography-writing had given Bullock the opportunity to face head-on the sensationalist proponents of conspiracy theories which had undermined the character and achievements of a composer he clearly loves. Just as he has done in his short critical life of Tchaikovsky, Bullock dealt with the elephant in the room – the apparent mystery of the composer’s death – early on in his presentation. This both sated the audience’s appetite for his opinion on that controversial subject, and gave Bullock the time to deal with the more interesting story: that of Tchaikovsky’s conscious self-fashioning as a modern Russian celebrity.   

Professor Philip Bullock
Professor Philip Bullock

Though he did pay occasional attention to specific works, in particular providing an erudite reading of key scenes from the opera Eugene Onegin, Bullock spent the majority of the lecture outlining his central thesis about Russian musical society during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. He presented a culture at a crossroads: caught between the feudal system of artistic patronage still practised by the Imperial Family and Tchaikovsky’s benefactor Nadezhda von Meck, on the one hand, and a new proto-capitalist system of mass music consumption and performance backed up by the growth of print culture, on the other. It was fascinating to learn how Tchaikovsky played one system off against the other, in conjunction with his erstwhile publisher Pyotr Jurgensen. There was more to be said about Tchaikovsky’s involvement with the Moscow Conservatory, as well as the new musical middle class that bought so many copies of Tchaikovsky’s printed works. However, I assume that such details are covered in the book, and in any case it is testament to the richness of the subject – and Bullock’s examination of it – that the talk ended with the audience still keen for more of the story.            

What is undeniably apparent is that this talk marked Professor Bullock’s important contribution to the de-sensationalising of this great composer. Even more laudable, Bullock somehow managed to turn a rather earnest socio-economic analysis of the nature of celebrity in 19th-century Russian culture into a constantly absorbing hour’s discussion. At one point, he noted that “Tchaikovsky’s genius [was] to marry aesthetic and pragmatic imperatives in a single work.” It would not be too generous to say that Professor Bullock’s talk achieved that same tricky conjugation.           

Ben Horton

For more information about Professor Bullock’s work, please visit his faculty page.

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