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Tchaikovsky: A Biography Hardcover – February 27, 1996

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

There have been biographies galore of the great Russian composer, beginning with the massive but highly selective one by his brother Modest, published less than a decade after Pyotr Ilyich's mysterious death in 1893. Holden's effort does not attempt to duplicate others in detail or in musicological insight. It is, rather, the work of a skilled journalist, author most recently of The Tarnished Crown: Crisis in the House of Windsor.The biography is well proportioned, clearly and often colorfully written and depends, as far as is possible a century later, on personal observation of places and re-checking of previous sources. It delves more deeply than most studies into Tchaikovsky's homosexuality?its causes, manifestations and profound effect upon his life?and offers a carefully reasoned examination of his death, in which Holden comes down tentatively in the recently propounded "Court of Honor" camp: the theory that the composer was offered by his old schoolmates a choice among suicide (made to look like a foolish accident), permanent exile or exposure of his sexual activities. Holden convincingly shows that Tchaikovsky lived in abject terror of such exposure all his life and failed to divorce his pathetic wife only because he feared she would "out" him. The bizarre relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow who supported Tchaikovsky for much of his life, though they never met, is also tellingly set forth. This is an ideal first biography for readers who want more of the man than of the music. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Tchaikovsky (1840^-93) had a secret: he was homosexual. He could not live openly and be a public person, which produced a personal conflict that ultimately killed him. Holden concentrates on Tchaikovsky's feelings and relationships. He was a caring man who financially supported many friends and relatives when they were down. His sympathy for and failed relationships with women motivated him to write the Romeo and Juliet and Francesca da Rimini overtures, and his suffering over his isolation from society because of homosexuality found expression in his fourth and sixth symphonies and the opera Eugene Onegin. Death haunted him: his own mortality and the passings of close friends eventuated in some of his most expressive works, especially that sixth symphony, the Pathetique. In conclusion, Holden argues that Tchaikovsky's death was not from cholera, but a suicide by arsenic poisoning, committed on account of indiscretions with the Tsar's nephew. Holden certainly labors over establishing the conflict between Tchaikovsky's private and public personas, but his version of the composer's life seems most authentic. Alan Hirsch

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 490 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (February 27, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679420061
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679420064
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #725,169 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael Squires ( on August 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A bold look at a difficult man. Tchaikovsky, terrified that his sexuality would become a topic of scandal, split his powerful sexual response between (a) male members of his family on whom he showered very intense affection and (b) young men, sometimes young boys, who were often rough-trade prostitutes. Anthony Holden offers a succinct, persuasive, well-written portrait. Although short on analysis of Tchaikovsky's music (the man was a genius at representing emotion), Holden is especially good at examining the composer's emotional relationships and the causes of his death: did he die of cholera or arsenic? by infection or suicide? If you like biographies of musicians, you'll love this one.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Many kudos to Mr. Holden for this spectacular effort! This is what biography is to be! A careful reconstruction of a life, with logical extrapolation of missing points and a compelling analysis of historical inconsistencies in this unique figure. I especially appreciated the author's relative absence from the narrative (i.e., he was not telling us constantly how he felt about the facts of the biography). Gratefully, he did not editorialize about the biographies central issue: Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. The issue too often derails serious historical research, either to condemn or to convert to the cause. A sheer delight of a read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Tacitus Lector on March 14, 2007
Format: Hardcover
"The notion that one day people will try to probe into the private world of my thoughts and very said and unpleasant." So said Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, one of the most famous composers of all time, in 1880. Fortunately for Tchaikovsky fans of today, Anthony Holden has done just that and has done it well. Tchaikovsky: A Biography (Random House, 1996) provides a laymen's view of the turbulent life of the ill-fated composer, approaching both the music and the man equally. Holden's analyses of prominent works do not, as most might fear, rely heavily on knowledge of musical theory, but stem mostly from events that took place in the composer's life at the time a work was written. Commentary on Tchaikovsky's personal life and anecdotal references are written humorously and with the kind of cleverness that comes with true enthusiasm for the subject. Holden uses, as much as possible, direct quotes from those who knew the composer best, working them into the text with a narrative style. The often told of and bizarre relationship that Tchaikovsky had with his long time benefactress Nadezhda von Meck, is also brought to light in great detail. Unlike many biographers, who believe that Meck withdrew financial support upon discovering the composer's homosexuality, Holden contends that Meck's assertions of financial ruin were in fact true, owing to blackmail from her son-in-law!

As with any biography of Tchaikovsky, the most intriguing moments come with the discussions of his homosexuality and his questionable death. Like a detective presenting a scenario, Holden writes the last two days of Tchaikovsky's life with the audience directly watching, "We find Tchaikovsky at the library, looking up a score...
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By DAVID BRYSON VINE VOICE on April 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover
For most of my life, the accepted story of Tchaikovsky's sudden death aged 53 was that he had drunk a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic in St Petersburg, either through carelessness or by way of playing some kind of Russian roulette. According to what I started to hear when Anthony Holden's biography first appeared, a completely different story, current in several variations but all on the same theme, was known to everyone who mattered in St Petersburg. If it does not seem callous to say so, the episode is God's own gift to a biographer with a tale to sell. It forms a natural climax to a story that was already interesting, it gets the best of both worlds by bringing us scholarly journalism, and it leaves us latitude to form our own conclusions. `Mordre wal out' says Chaucer. It may or may not have been murder or at least forced suicide, but it says a lot for the power and determination of a lie-machine that it took a century for what was well known locally to reach a wider public.

The more Tchaikovsky's reputation grew as a composer, the more anxious he became to avoid public disclosure as a homosexual. He was a right old roarer apparently, specialising in boys in their early to mid teens. When I recently read Julian Clary's novel The Devil in Disguise I assumed that the character Simon must be a literary exaggeration -- overblown one might almost say: now I would be prepared to believe that he could have been modelled on Tchaikovsky. It takes no effort to believe either that such neurosis found expression in his music. Good heavens, you can hear neurosis loud and clear in it without knowing the first thing about his biography.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Alexei on April 13, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Holden captures the essence of Tchaikovsky's inner turmoil. To label him simply a homosexual is to grant him legitiimacy in our current liberated sexual construct. In fact he was not merely a homosexual. He was a lover of boys which is today as illegitimate, or more so than it was in the 19th century. Holden surmizes that the great copmposer's preference was for 15 year old adolescents. If correct this would make him technically an ephebephile - a lover of adolescent young men; however, he also enjoyed the sexual company of small boys according to Holden, starting with his own brothers when they were 9 and 11, and he 19. All of this in no way diminishes Tchaikovsky's brilliance and lustre as a monumental figure in the Western classical repertoire, but it did confound and plague him through his days. P.I. referred to it as his XXX. Would he have achieved the heights of introspection and musical genius that he did without having had this "affliction"? Perhaps not, which if true, makes his tortured sexual journey a gift to us and to posterity.
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