A student, preparing for her senior recital, asked me how to write program notes, and I knew just what to tell her. I’ll pass on my recipe. You need three kinds of sources. First, copy (assuming you can computer-access it) the entire article on the composer from Grove Online, just so you have the accepted skeletal facts in front of you and won’t go astray. Next, assuming the composer is moldy enough, check out books of two kinds: an old-fashioned biography, pre-WWII if possible, of the conventional myth-making variety, and then a more recent revisionist book of articles by musicologists, such as the Cambridge guides, or Bard’s “So-and-so and His World” series. Then you find the date of composition of the work in question, and look through the old-fashioned biography for some colorful event in the composer’s life immediately preceding, if possible, or at least proximate to the piece’s creation – say, Saint-Saens’s baby falling out of a window, or Brahms jilting that woman he was supposed to marry. Naturally, you lead with that event, not, “Cherubini lived from 1760 to 1842,” or “Giuseppi Verdi was the towering figure of 19th-century Italian opera” – both deadly. If the biographical event has some actual connection to the work, all the better, but if not, proximity will do. You then play up the contemporaneous events found in the myth-making biography, but contrast them with some point of revisionism from the recent musicology book, so that you can get credit both for indulging the reader’s need for heroism and romantic detail, and also for showing that you’re not taken in by the démodé illusions of conventional hagiography. For instance, you mention the famous story of Alkan’s being crushed by a bookshelf, before letting the reader know it never happened.
There’s a story from Tchaikovsky’s last years so good that you’d think it’s apocryphal, but it appeared in a 1912 Moscow newspaper, and none of the principals involved ever contradicted it. In December of 1890, Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades was premiered. He felt it was his greatest work, but he interpreted the audience reaction as cold, and, after the performance, wandered the streets of Petersburg despondently. Suddenly he heard music from his opera in the street, the first-act duet between Liza and Polina. He investigated, and found three students, who indeed had acquired a piano score before the performance and attended it, and were now enthusiastically singing through their favorite parts. Their names were Sergei Diaghilev, Alexandre Benois, and Dimitrii Filosofev, and they would become friends of Tchaikovsky for the brief remainder of his life.
Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), of course, was to become a great choreographer and impresario, a supreme figure in the world of ballet. Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) became a painter, graphic designer, and theater designer. All three men were associated with a movement to become known as Mir Iskusstva (The World of Art), which would start its own magazine in 1899 and usher in a new, 20th-century sensibility in Russian art.
What does this have to do with The Nutcracker, that simple staple of Christmas celebrations? According to Russian cultural historian Arkadii Klimovitsky, The Nutcracker (which Tchaikovsky wrote a year later in 1891/92), was the first “opera of miniatures,” and its evocation of puppetry, its underlying dark symbolism, its mixture of humans and toys, and even its imitations of 18th-century music were all inspirations behind the aesthetic of Mir Iskusstva. Without The Nutcracker, it is unlikely that Diaghilev, Benois, the dancer Nijinsky, and the composer Igor Stravinsky would have gone on to create the puppet-show ballet Petrushka, one of the seminal ballets of the modern world. Now that we in the West have more open access to Russian scholarship, Tchaikovsky appears to have more direct ties to the formation of 20th-century aesthetics than his reputation as one of the 19th century’s great sentimentalists would have suggested.
Tchaikovsky’s reputation has changed in other ways, too. In 1891, the same year Tchaikovsky made a tour of America, a Carnegie Hall program presented Brahms, Saint-Saens, and Tchaikovsky as the three greatest living composers. By the end of the century, rumors of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality began to circulate outside Russia, and he came to be thought of in the English-speaking world as a dark, tortured individual, one who may possibly have even committed suicide to avoid scandal and exposure. Recent attention to Tchaikovsky’s letters and diaries, however, shows that while he was certainly a deeply sensitive individual, uncomfortable in all but fairly intimate social situations, his sexual orientation was not nearly the burden on him that inheritance of a Victorian moral outlook would lead one to assume.
While homosexual acts were officially illegal in 19th-century Russia, the laws were virtually never enforced, and potential scandals even among the highest nobility were simply overlooked. In 1876, however, at the age of 36, Tchaikovsky decided that his sexual decadence was a bad influence on his likewise homosexual brother Modest, and he decided to marry. Conveniently, he started receiving love letters for a former student, Antonina Miliukova, and after some courtship, they were married on July 6, 1877. The composer quickly realized that he had made a terrible mistake, and that his sexual preference was not something he could change at will. After 21 days, the marriage still unconsummated, he traveled to see his sister, and when he came home in September, he stayed only 12 more days before leaving Antonina forever. (It might correctly be inferred that Antonina had a couple of screws loose, and she indeed ended her life in a mental institution.)….
Of course, I go on to Tchaikovsky’s mysterious patroness Nadezhda von Meck, and the guy died soon enough after Nutcracker that I could end by throwing in the allegation about him committing suicide by drinking cholera-contaminated water – before telling the reader that it never happened.
Another effective ploy is to throw in some criticisms of the composer, contemporaneous or current. This has the double effect of making it seem that the composer labored heroically against a lack of appreciation, as all of us do, and also takes classical music down off its pompous pedestal and makes it seem OK to criticize it. The reader can then sympathize with the composer, and is primed to find the music not as bad as people say. For instance, here’s what I had fun writing about Saint-Saens, a composer I heartily loathe:
The life of Camille Saint-Saëns spans ancient and modern France. [Disappointingly conventional start, but it's a setup.] At the age of 12 he played for the “Citizen King” Louis Philippe, yet he lived to write a cantata about electricity, the first film music by an established composer, and music in praise of the aviators of World War I. Liszt pronounced him the world’s greatest organist, and he astonished Wagner and Hans von Bulow by his ability to sight-read the orchestral scores of Tannhauser and Lohengrin at the piano. Thanks in part to their influence, in youth he was more famous in Germany than in France – his opera Samson et Dalila, widely considered his greatest work, was produced in 1877 in Weimar, and not performed in France until 13 years later. In old age, England and America considered him France’s greatest composer long after his reputation had begun to fade in his own country.
In short, Saint-Saëns stands astride French music like a colossus, but a frail one, and everyone seems to find fault with him. He was a child prodigy who composed at six and played Mozart and Beethoven with an orchestra at ten, leading the older French musical giant Hector Berlioz to remark, “He knows everything but lacks inexperience.” Unlike most Romantics – Schumann, Chopin, Wagner, Liszt – Saint-Saëns wrote best in the sturdy classical forms of sonata, symphony, and concerto, yet George Bernard Shaw dismissed his music as “graceful knick-knacks and barcarolles” (the barcarolle being a piece that imitates the songs of gondola drivers). The advent of the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel made Saint-Saëns seem like a dinosaur at the end of his life, and he railed against Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune: “I’d soon lose my voice, if I went round witlessly bawling like a faun celebrating his afternoon.” Ravel returned the compliment: “If [Saint-Saëns] had been making shell-cases during the war, it might have been better for music.”
Perhaps Saint-Saëns’ difficulty in playing nice with others is responsible for the steep decline in his posthumous reputation. It’s difficult to decide even how French he seems: extremely so in languorous melodies like “The Swan” and his fairy-like schrezo textures, the least so in his devotion to sonata form and full-bodied contrapuntal textures. (Gounod dubbed him “the French Beethoven.”) He did fit, however, into a long and illustrious tradition of French organist-composers, most recently embodied in the late Olivier Messiaen….
And so on. Of course, if the composer is living, it’s more difficult, because the only good biographical incidents are either dirty or humiliating, and no living composer will admit to them; in fact, few composers’ lives today seem to have much of the really disgusting stuff that makes for good program notes. For Jennifer Higdon I once had to content myself with the fact that she once caught 41 fish in an afternoon’s fishing. But I do often get compliments for writing livelier and more absorbing program notes than average, and the tricks I use are easily appropriated. It’s a good thing for a young musician to know how to do. Too bad the thought of writing books about conventional repertoire bores me to tears.