Today’s challenge centres around the following piece of music –
Most of us probably associate Tchaikovsky with the 1812 overture or ballets such as ‘Swan Lake’. I decided to recreate the last few weeks of the composer’s life and try to weave into the narrative memories he might have had of previous incidents, taking inspiration not just from the piece above but from ‘Swan Lake’ too. This is a creative interpretation where I have allowed my imagination not only to fill in the gaps but also to invent characters and incidents. Listen to the music, read the piece and see what you think.
Memories of June
He was hurrying along the cobbled streets, anxious to be on time for the recital, when the curly headed boy selling pirozhki caught his eye. Immediately, he was transported back to the summer of 1854 when he’d returned home from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence for his mother’s funeral. He wondered now why his father had recovered fully from the cholera that had killed his mother. His sister Alexandra had made pirozhki then and he could still taste the fried pastry, the sautéed fish and the hardboiled eggs.
This boy looked like Alexandra’s son Vladimir – or ‘Bob’ as Pyotr liked to call him. His nephew was perhaps the closest he had ever come to a son of his own. Perhaps if God had made him differently… He sighed, remembering the disastrous marriage to Antonine all those years ago – 1877 had been calamitous for a number of other reasons apart from the two and a half months’ union, for it had also seen the première of his first ballet, Swan Lake, and the scathing comments that it was “too noisy” and “too Wagnerian” rankled even now.
He came back to the present with a start, realising that the lad was holding out one of the pastries hopefully. Taken with the youth’s dark eyes and resemblance to Bob, he failed to notice the grimy hands or the dirt under the fingernails, forgetting all about hygiene as he fumbled in his pocket for a coin and took the proffered delicacy.
Hastening his step once more, he took huge bites of fish, rice and egg as he scurried in the direction of the Russian Musical Society. Rubinstein was now in his sixties and had mellowed since the early days of the Society in Saint Petersburg when he’d refused to consider Pyotr’s First Symphony without substantial changes. Today’s performance would include, amongst other works, the set of twelve piano pieces inspired by the months of the year. He’d been glad of the commission at the time, beginning the work whilst still in the middle of Swan Lake, but his heart had been so wrapped up with Odette and Odile that he had paid scant attention to the first five compositions.
Sitting in the audience, with the sound of June echoing in his ears, he smiled to himself, wondering if anyone else could pinpoint when this particular piece was written. Listening with the benefit of almost twenty years of experience, he could immediately detect Swan Lake’s influence – hardly surprising when he had begun June immediately after completing the ballet. He checked his programme notes – what was it that Pleshcheyev had written as the epigram for this one? Something about the waves kissing our feet “with mysterious sadness” – but that was totally ignoring the second part of the piece when the tone moved from melancholy sadness to a far more dramatic and vibrant theme. Life had taught him that there was always an Odile for every Odette, that the delicate poignancy of the dying swan would always be counterbalanced by the allegro of a lively courtship. Light and dark, black and white, sadness and joy – existence encompassed them all. He let the music wash over him, lost in reverie, and was surprised when the last notes of December finally came to a close.
A few weeks later, he found himself in the same cobbled street, although not in such a hurry this time. His Sixth Symphony was to be premiered and, despite the fact that he had gained popularity since those earlier days of being misunderstood and pronounced “not Russian enough”, he still felt apprehensive each time he introduced a new work to the public. Conducting the symphony himself helped a little – he knew how he wanted it to sound – but it was still slightly unsettling. I feel disconcerted! he thought wryly. He looked for the boy with curly hair, wondering if he were still peddling his food now that the weather had turned bitterly cold. October was never warm, but still … Pulling his fur coat around himself, he let his eyes wander up and down, but the youth was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps it was just as well: the face had reminded him too much of Sergey, and that love was well and truly in the past even if it was the longest, strongest and purest he had ever known. Bob understood, of course – but then, that was Bob’s nature too. They were both of them Odettes, he mused, fated to stand forever lonely and watch as happiness was denied them.
He must not be late. Casting a final, regretful glance over his shoulder, he walked on, curious to see how the Pathétique would be received.
That night, he dreamed of lost love – not of Sergey, nor any of his other unfortunate infatuations with his male companions, but of Désirée, the Belgian soprano who had captured his heart when he was still in his twenties. She was the only woman he had truly loved, and in his dreams, she was willing to move to Russia to live with him there and even to give up the stage so she could settle down and raise their children. He had been totally captivated by her grace and artistry: she could hit notes that few others could even attempt; and he did not care that she was five years older than he for what was age compared to talent?
In his sleep, he relived their meetings: the parties, the performances, the evening invitations. If only her mother had not disliked him so violently! He held her gloved hand in his own, promising fidelity; but her image faded before his lips could touch hers and he knew that their engagement would not last.
Waking in the small hours of the morning, still overcome with sadness at the memory of what he had lost, he found himself thinking once more of Antonine, his wife. What a disaster that had been! He had married her on impulse – when the derogatory reviews of Swan Lake had appeared, his former student had been one of the few people to give him affirmation. And perhaps subconsciously he had thought that someone so much younger and more innocent than he would restore his creativity – instead, he had suffered from unbearable writer’s block, unable to write a single note until he left her. It had not been difficult to dissolve the marriage, given that it had never been consummated; but eighteen years later, he still suffered guilt when he thought of her tears and how cruelly he had mistreated her.
No, he was not meant for marriage. Some men were not suited to the conjugal state and besides, his work was his mistress, his compositions his children. He loved them all – even the ugly ones.
Day after day, he found himself making the same journey, whether or not he had anywhere in particular to go. He was still searching for the boy with Sergey’s face, clutching at memories of June when he was already in the November of his life.
November. Troika. Now that was a Russian sounding piece! His boots crunched over the snow-covered cobbles and, irrationally, he hoped that the boy was not still here. His thin clothing would offer no protection against the weather.
It was on the twenty-eighth, as he was hurrying once more to conduct his symphony, that the face he had been seeking finally came into view. This time, the pirozhki were stuffed with mushrooms and onions. He took two, letting the greasy flakes of pastry sprinkle his coat as he stuffed the still warm taste of heaven into his mouth. The child was dirty and unkempt; nevertheless, Pyotr looked at the exquisite bone structure and saw an angel. His mind still dwelt on the boy as he reached the concert hall.
That night, he could not sleep, his body wracked with pain. His gut twisted and he barely made it to the chamber pot in time, the slick sheen of perspiration on his forehead telling him that all was not well. Over and over again, he emptied his bowels, sometimes vomiting at the same time. Was it something he had eaten or drunk in the restaurant earlier? he wondered. Everyone claimed to boil their water these days, but one could never be sure.
The following morning, he felt totally exhausted, yet still the constant retching and diarrhoea continued. Feeling too weak to call for assistance, he tried to crawl as far as the table in the corner, thinking that if he could only help himself to water from the jug that stood there, he would start to feel better. It seemed even this simple task was beyond him.
Parched and empty, he lay on the floor, contemplating his next move. His father had not succumbed to cholera: he had fought it off and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-four. He, Pyotr, would do the same: it was unthinkable that he should die in his fifties!
Drifting in and out of consciousness, all his past loves blended into one. Désirée had Sergey’s colouring; Vladimir sang like a nightingale; even Antonine had the street urchin’s eyes. Was he Siegfried or was he Odette? He was no longer sure, his mind spinning like the dancers in front of his eyes. The waves descended over him, kissing him with the “mysterious sadness” Pleshcheyev had referenced all those years ago, and so it was that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky finally slipped into death.