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Leeds College of Music to host special André Tchaikowsky symposium

29 October 2013

André Tchaikowsky at the keyboard
André Tchaikowsky at the keyboard


Pianist and lecturer Nico de Villiers outlines the life and work of composer André Tchaikowsky ahead of a symposium at Leeds College of Music on 1 November

Arthur Rubinstein referred to Tchaikowsky as ‘one of the finest pianists of our generation’. Indeed, it was Rubinstein’s assistance – and the guidance of the impresario Sol Hurok – that launched Tchaikowsky’s international performing career. Tchaikowsky studied in Brussels with Polish pianist Stefan Askenase and composition with Nadia Boulanger. By 1960 he had established a rhythm between performance and composition, which he balanced with his great interest in the works of Shakespeare and playing bridge.

Tchaikowsky harboured a life-long dream to be an actor, and posthumously joined one of the world’s most famous theatre companies when he bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It was to be used – so he hoped – in stagings of Hamlet. However, due to red tape regarding human remains, only a copy of Tchaikowsky’s skull had been used. His real debut came 17 years after his death in the hands of actor David Tennant, who agreed to hold the actual skull on stage in an RSC run of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon and London’s West End in 2009. The Royal Mail subsequently included a picture of Tennant holding Tchaikowsky’s skull aloft in a series of stamps celebrating the golden jubilee of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011.

Even though his music shows influences of composers like Bartók, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Alban Berg, the individuality of Tchaikowsky’s work lies in its duality, which constantly seems to juxtapose opposites. From his earliest works he claims certain colours and gestures, which he reiterates throughout his small, yet excellent oeuvre, developing each idea through every compositional mutation. His love for linear structures interweaves and contrasts through contrapuntal and fugal writing, and the harmonic density is passionately counteracted with argumentative expressions. His scores often include the indication pizzicato in the piano, an instruction usually reserved for string instruments. His melodic writing is often wound around certain harmonies, which make any leaps very surprising. Aggressive spiky chords are often contrasted with sections indicated as mesto (sad). The colour palette ranges from nebulous and stratospheric floating sounds to earthy feet-pounding and frustrated dissonant sound clusters.

A constant struggle – be it extrovert in exclamation, or brooding and introvert – is constantly present in his works. Life as expressed through his compositions is indeed a task. He worded this notion in his diary entry of 12 January 1980, referring to 'the daily task of being human'.

As a concert pianist, the recordings Tchaikowsky made for the RCA Victor label adds up to ten in total. As he was reluctant to perform his own compositions, commercial recordings of his own interpretations do not exist, and there are a limited number of other commercial recordings of his compositions on the market. This therefore makes the attention currently paid to his life and work even more justified.

A leading figure in the writing of the story of André Tchaikowsky is Dr Anastasia Belina-Johnson, Classical Pathway Leader at Leeds College of Music. Belina-Johnson draws on Tchaikowsky’s diaries and correspondence, as well as her own research conducted in Warsaw, in order to paint a clear portrait of not only the composer and concert pianist, but also the troubled existence and personal insecurities of the man behind the music.

On 1 November Leeds College of Music will present a symposium in which the legacy of André Tchaikowsky is established further. As a part of celebrating Tchaikowsky’s birthday, Belina-Johnson’s book, A Musician Divided: André Tchaikowsky in his own Words as well as a disc of some of Tchaikowsky’s piano music (published respectively by Toccata Press and Toccata Classics) will be launched on the day.

Mark Charles’ documentary André Tchaikowsky and The Merchant of Venice will be shown for the first time and director David Pountney will join a panel to discuss Tchaikowsky, his opera, and its Bregenz Festival premiere.

The whole André Tchaikowsky project will culminate in a recital at the end of the symposium. Renowned pianist Colin Stone will perform Inventions for solo piano. This set of works comprises of 10 miniatures (11 if you include the alternative version of the fifth Invention), and are all sketches of Tchaikowsky’s friends and colleagues.

Distinguished clarinettist Janet Hilton will perform the Arioso and Fuga for solo clarinet as well as the Clarinet Sonata, joined by Leeds College of Music lecturer and German pianist, Jakob Fichert. Before I perform the piano sonata of 1958, McCaldin and I will perform the Seven Shakespeare Sonnets. The recital is to be concluded by a performance of Tchaikowsky’s piano trio, Trio Notturno, to be performed by three Leeds College of Music lecturers: violinist Sebastian Müller, cellist Alfia Nakipbekova and myself.

The legacy of André Tchaikowsky symposium is presented by Leeds College of Music on 1 November

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