I learned many decades ago that the best way to probe the mind or “understand” long-dead composers was through their music and their letters. The opinion of others (either performers, critics or all manner of commentators) is merely conjecture rather than fact. How to interpret the available facts and then discover/uncover truths in the scores is as personal to the interpreter as it was to their creators.
How fascinating, then, to come across Ralf Pleger’s “confessions” film, which purports to shed light on Tchaikovsky using segments from his letters as voiceovers and performances of his music as the tracks.
To add 21st century relevance, Plager (ably assisted by the camera work of Tobias Albrecht and Jürgen Rehberg) employs a modern-day video camera where the famed composer admires his sometime lover and underscores his weaknesses for booze, beauty and self-loathing.
The film purposely focusses on Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality and—either between the lines or in some of the commentaries—will leave some viewers with the impression that without his struggle to live and work in Tsarist Russia while longing for the forbidden embraces of younger men, his musical output could not have been “all about intimacy” and “how we can cope with pain.” (That last quote—notably for Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”—stemming from Kadja Grönke)
To lay rumours to rest—we are told—at 37 years of age, the St. Petersburg Conservatory graduate found a “beard” by marrying former student, Antonia Milukovia who—we learn from his letters—fully understood that she was entering into a loveless relationship and that “she’s dull and stupid…not interested in my work”. Unable to consummate their union, Tchaikovsky kept up with his male conquests (ecstasy at night; moral regret in the morning), frequently using his world travels to become “bait” for one-night stands or sudden dismissal.
The self-described corrupter, nonetheless, feeds his voracious appetite even as he soon lives in separate quarters from his wide-eyed wife. Tellingly, none of the commentators (including organist Cameron Carpenter who quite literally pulls out all of the stops in his mightily impressive transcription of Symphony No. 6) manage to find the composer’s duplicity in his catalogue.
The film’s imagery is superb. Playing the lover, Dirk Johnston brings real visual heat and passion to the home video segments, yet doesn’t quite mange the vocal challenges of “None but the Lonely Heart.” (Also disappointing are some of the orchestral interludes—especially the early excerpt from Swan Lake where the syncopated accompaniment is very untidy.) The use of the colour red—whether as backdrop for the metaphorical dead swan, real blood in the actual gay bashing videos, theatrical blood as Tchaikovsky’s favourite escort leaves the planet, the Alka Seltzer concoction as life looks more and more grim and—marvellously whether intentional or not—on oars in the final rowing scene, binds the film together in a wordless way that deftly underscores the incredible life of Russia’s “first professional composer.”
We are left with—even now, so like Mozart—the mystery of Tchaikovsky’s death and the stated notion that after leaving the plant, we all deserve to have some secrets.
Here, Pleger truly does his job of sending viewers away wondering just what other “secrets” Tchaikovsky’s music still retains. Reading between the lines of the musical notes and the correspondence will continue to unlock more and more of those, just as Tchaikovsky unlocked himself. JWR