Getting to know Boris Tchaikovsky,
courtesy of Rudolf Barshai


published in Fanfare (May/June 2009, pp.42-51)

            Sometimes, not very often, I get lucky. In early 1992, I met a Russian guy, a grizzled total stranger in black leather. He was a rock singer from Moscow, it turned out. He came up to me on a busy London street at noon, and just gave me a Melodiya CD of music by Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996, no relation). Just like that.  It was meant as some kind of sample of his wares. London was filled with prospecting Russians, right then. They were people amazed by the sudden miracle of apparent freedom, but flat broke, and unsure what would fly in the West. This guy was standing by the Tube station, giving out Shostakovich, Schnittke, Russian jazz, and Boris Tchaikovsky, walking up to selected people he thought looked likely to appreciate it. And I got Boris.  

Following the wave of fairly peaceable revolutions in Europe, in 1989, there had been a further period of euphoric bliss, after decades of oppression, over there. For us, there had been years of mystification and fear. We felt the change very directly, in Britain, a small island with many American missiles, aimed straight at Russia! Happy times. But tense.

We realised we’d been largely ignorant about the Soviet Bloc’s reality. Would there now be a better world? There was hope in the air, mixed with unreality and the fear that the curtain might fall again, and fast.  People were allowed to travel, and some of our fellow Europeans came over right away, blinking in the capitalist glare, wondering if the Eastern stores had anything of real value we might wish to trade, for hard currency.

Finally, the Russians came too, with their paintings, their sculpture, their arms filled with cheap Soviet tourist tat, expensive vacuum-tube microphones. Beautiful girls sometimes brought just their looks, but everyone seemed to have an extraordinary politeness, and sense of culture. “They” seemed to have kept something intensely human, that we’d given up, but they also wanted what we had. Yet warmth also seemed to matter, then. And many brought music: LPs and CDs.  

Boris Tchaikovsky was a (then) living ex-Soviet composer. I knew the name from an old LP cover, but I did not know the sound of his work. I thought I knew who the big names were (Shostakovich, Schnittke, Denisov, Gubaidulina) and I also liked some lesser known figures like Weinberg, but I figured most of the rest were probably State-sponsored purveyors of Socialist-Realist rodomontade. I thanked the guy on the street, took his card, and took Boris home to Blackheath.

The CD played me a brief Sinfonietta for Strings from 1953 (get the ancient Gauk version on Northern Flowers PMA9957, rather than the more detached, recent Hyperion). It was amazingly tuneful, but more like Grieg than Schnittke. I was quite sniffy. What were “they” doing still writing music like that, in the ‘50s? The penny did not drop. Ignorance: 1953, the year Stalin died, best and worst of times. The rest of the CD was something big for orchestra called Juvenile written in 1984. It seemed to be a symphonic poem made from incidental music. But two minutes into it, the orchestra just stopped completely, and a piano began rippling away, to accompany...a viola d’amore? And on and on it went.

The tunes were too good to be true, impossibly Romantic, but the lyrical arc just kept coming, and growing. The orchestra went away again, leaving...a recorder? A few more points of mysterious orchestral coloration, then more huge tunes from the soloist, then just a harpsichord and a recorder again, musing in the corner. Then, big warm strings.  In a sense, it was a soundtrack, and this composer would clearly have been a millionaire many times over in Hollywood, for writing just one of these melodies. And the atmosphere was unique, mixing unreal private innocence, with much bigger statements. The structure seemed defined by extended textures and moods, not by logic. But Juvenile still became a guilty pleasure I repeated many times. Old-fashioned and loose, nostalgic, even corny...but none of Tchaikovsky’s magical, tonal orchestral combinations seemed to come from anywhere else. No one in the West was writing in this idiom, but apparently Tchaikovsky was still writing in it, as I listened. Maybe it wasn’t all that old fashioned. I’d no frame of reference, any more than I had one for Eastern Europe.

Years passed, a friend (Louis Blois) sent me Signs of the Zodiac and the Sebastopol Symphony, but it didn’t really go in (you know how it is sometimes). I kept thinking, looked for more information. Now, there is a very serious Society for Boris Tchaikovsky  (, which also handles the published performing materials and distributes scores around the world. And there are many new CD issues of his music. The society’s founder, Igor Prokhorov from Moscow, has been in touch, sending an encomium, penned specially for Fanfare by the great Russian conductor Rudolf Barshai, a truly remarkable man. I knew, for example, that he had stayed in the Soviet Union as long as he did, just to “be there” for Dmitri Shostakovich. And this is what Mr. Barshai has to say:


“I became acquainted with Boris Tchaikovsky shortly before the 1948 “devastation” of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Khachaturian and other Soviet composers. A little later I heard Boris Tchaikovsky’s latest works, the Piano Trio and his early string quartet. That is to say, these two works attracted my attention and made me take an interest in his music. I played in a performance of the early Quartet, in a group that would later become the Borodin Quartet. I recall that Tchaikovsky’s work, particularly the Piano Trio, made an immense impression on me. I realised a major talent had appeared, a talent that had stuck to its path, despite all the persecution.

Boris Tchaikovsky went through all those gloomy times that saw the triumph of ignorance, and jeering at those dearest to us.  He maintained the dignity of a major and truly Russian artist, and he bore with pride the name of one of the best pupils of Shostakovich. I recall how student-composers used to sit on the windowsills before going to the “Competency Commission” auditions (where that Commission listened the works of young students), erasing the seconds and sevenths from their scores. Many of those students were dubbed “contaminated.” The most talented were taken out of the class of the great Shostakovich, and sent to the classes of older and experienced teachers, to be “reformed.” That is how Boris Tchaikovsky came to be in the class of Nikolai Miaskovsky, who was respected by everyone.

Before joining Shostakovich’s classes, Boris Tchaikovsky had studied with Vissarion Shebalin. To Shebalin’s credit, he saw Shostakovich’s influence in the music of Boris Tchaikovsky. As Director, Shebalin moved Boris Tchaikovsky to the class of Shostakovich, who had just started to teach at the Conservatory that year, at Shebalin’s invitation. The importance of Shebalin’s act cannot be overemphasized. The enormous individual talent of Boris Tchaikovsky could be revealed, in its true breadth, on such a sympathetic foundation.

Shostakovich was not one of those teachers who try to bend their pupils’ development to match their own working methods. That way, in the end, the pupils become imitators. To the contrary, Shostakovich encouraged his talented student to find and develop his own way of working, his own direction, and finally his own unique style. That’s why, quite quickly, absorbing from Shostakovich what was close to him, Boris Tchaikovsky did find his own style, his own manner of expressing his musical thoughts. That became clear in the Violin Concerto and in the Piano Concerto.

Recalling the times when he wrote those works, I would call this style an accumulation of very powerful energy, in a way an alloy of Shostakovich and Beethoven. I’d already noticed the appearance of this phenomenon in the Piano Trio: it seemed to me that an incredibly high-tension current ran through the music! In the Piano Concerto there are some moments where one can see that composer heard the steps of the giants who came before him. Brahms, in using that expression, was thinking of Beethoven. To my mind, Boris Tchaikovsky heard the same steps.  I would add that, with the highest of Boris Tchaikovsky’s achievements, along with the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto, I would place the symphonic poem Juvenile.” January 2009.


Rudolf Barshai was a friend of Boris Tchaikovsky for 50 years, premiered two concertos, and was the dedicatee of the Chamber Symphony. In the hidden, unreal Soviet world of music, Barshai clearly had no doubts about Tchaikovsky’s true stature, yet we still tend to be sceptical about claims for composers who are just emerging fully into Western consciousness. We are more used to the examples of political melodrama, and public controversy surrounding Shostakovich and his work. We also don’t like too many very good composers to come out of one place, at one time.

Like Igor Prokhorov, Barshai feels Boris Tchaikovsky was simply a major composer, of strong individuality, with a really solid body of work. Better than current CD reviews might lead one to believe. I looked at the Tchaikovsky biography, and told Igor Prokhorov it seemed there was nothing there, beyond the writing of music.

Yes, you’re right! Russian poet David Samoilov (who worked with Boris Tchaikovsky, and was his friend for many years), observed in a TV program celebrating the composer’s 60th birthday, “The outward pattern of Boris Tchaikovsky’s life is simple. Its plot and content are there in his works. He grew up, he studied, and what followed was music, music, music…’”

Nothing seemed that simple, with Soviet and Russian art. But I knew how I’d come across Tchaikovsky’s work. I knew I’d been moved when I did not expect to be moved, and I knew that the overwhelming trend in the last two decades in Western art music had also been towards neo-Romanticism and communicability, but often with insufficient emphasis on character and content: too much style, and nothing to say. Now we wanted, what the Soviets had.  I asked Igor for any insight into the private person behind Tchaikovsky’s music.

“He studied technical literature. He liked photography and filming. He liked to repair things by himself (including tape-recorders and radio-receivers) and he liked to make things with his own hands. He worked with wood and metal, and in his small flat he set up a workshop with tools, benches (some of which he made himself), and a lathe. When at the beginning of 1990s there were difficulties getting hold of manuscript paper, Tchaikovsky drew plans for a special bench to rule music paper.”

Just a guy puttering in his shop, in a Russian apartment building? So how did Igor get involved, with this life-changing passion for the work of such a modest figure?

“From 1989 until his death, on 7 February 1996, Boris Tchaikovsky taught at the Gnessin Academy of Music, where he was Professor of Composition. He was surrounded by young composers (including Yuri Abdokov, Stanislav Prokudin, Petr Klimov, Alexey Vershinin, Ksenia Prassolova, Elena Astafieva), and their friends, who admired his music.  At the composer’s flat there were not only lessons for students, but vivid communication, discussion of music and art, listening to CDs (including some with music by Boris Tchaikovsky’s, which we’d found in the West).  So, our Society “de facto” appeared that way, during composer’s last three years. When he passed away, the tradition was continued by his widow, Yanina Iossifovna Moshinskaya. In 1998 we launched the Web-site, and then received a lot of comment and reaction from people from all over the world, expressing their interest in Boris Tchaikovsky’s music.”

Humble beginnings, but the Society was soon patronised by Mstislav Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, Karen Kahachaturian, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Eduard Serov, as well as Rudolf Barshai. The music must have meant something deep to these people.

I went back to Juvenile thanks to a Relief CD that couples it with the Piano Concerto. A live performance again, from 1985, with the composer at the piano (he was top-flight), and Russians, (then Soviet citizens), cheering at the end. Even the titles of works need retranslating, like the names of cities in Russia, as we make some kind of authentic accommodation with postwar Russian life and art. Nothing’s quite what it seemed. The title Juvenile is a poor translation of the name of a Dostoevesky novel (currently reprinted as “The Adolescent,” which is better) and Tchaikovsky wrote the score for a Russian film of the book. The symphonic poem tells the story in part, but also carried some of the weight of human hope in 1984, the stuff of life that I saw emerging in London in the late 80s. Yes, it can sound like a film score, yes Hollywood should grab it, but there’s more. Then a two-CD set from Northern Flowers dropped on the doormat. Six widely varying string quartets by Tchaikovsky, showing that he directly and undoubtedly influenced the later Shostakovich, with works that also hinted at the way Tchaikovsky’s own development might have run.

As Rudolf Barshai points out, the young composer sadly ran into trouble of the worst Stalinist kind, just as he was starting out, in 1948. Now, we “judge the work on its own terms” but the Soviet State, not aesthetes and critics, defined the terms for Soviet composers. Somehow, in that context, Tchaikovsky managed to go his own way, up to a late flowering of unique, major orchestral works. In 1948, despite the poisonous atmosphere, and a ban on his own First Symphony (Naxos 8.570195), young Tchaikovsky refused to denounce his teachers.

Born on September 10, 1925, in Moscow, to professional parents, Tchaikovsky had entered the Gnessin Primary Musical School aged nine. For the entrance exam to the Moscow Conservatoire, he played an unfinished String Quartet, arranged for two pianists, and sharing duties with Sviatoslav Richter. He had a brilliant future, it seems, but this was the time when Prokofiev, for example, was effectively being dismantled, body and soul, and when nothing was brilliant, in the Soviet Union. Tchaikovsky was philosophical about the massive roadblock Zhdanov placed in the path of his career, in 1948. According to Igor Prokhorov, Tchaikovsky had this to say: 

“When we were a students, our teacher Vissarion Shebalin observed that a man, who really wants to devote himself to musical composition cannot expect a comfortable life, or a lot of money, a lot of people at his concerts…”

Tchaikovsky still managed to graduate in 1949, working as a radio editor for three years, then, in 1952, he quit to become a full-time composer, later a Professor, and that was that, until his death. His stock-in-trade was music for film, TV, and radio, work that informed his later concert music.

His early concert works (after that First Symphony, which does not prove to be a strong piece) reflected necessity, and the struggle to make a viable voice of his own, in the Soviet hell-hole. The Fantasia on Russian folk Themes (1950), Slavonic Rhapsody (1951), and the Capriccio on English Themes (1954), will appeal to fans of Balakirev, without having the visceral power someone like Gavriil Popov could inject into the worn-out idiom. The First Sonata for piano (1944, Albany TROY749) is like the earlier Kabalevsky: more subtle perhaps, but still warmed-over Prokofiev. The 1953 Piano Trio (TROY731) also has good tunes, but owes it all to Shostakovich. Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to “After the Ball” and “The Murmuring Forest” from the same period (on the same Naxos disc as the First Symphony) has more individuality at times: enjoyable, well-crafted, and atmospheric miniatures, many of which could have composed any time since 1890. But there is something personal going on in this high-class incidental music, which seems lacking in most big public Soviet works of the time. The appalling state intervention in the minutiae of compositional detail, in the 40s and 50s, helps explain, well, pretty much everything.

Some might feel he was simply keeping his head down, working within the system. That’s arguably to miss the overall high level of literate cultural knowledge among Russian artists in general, and Tchaikovsky in particular, let alone to reduce Soviet life to Cold War simplicity. There tend to be more layers and levels than we expect, in Russian conversation and in music, but human communication was paramount, as it was not, for many Western composers at exactly this time. Some of us exercised our own freedom by writing for no one, because we could. 

One obvious part of Russian discourse is an inherent contradiction: simple surface, deep, ironic meaning. But Tchaikovsky set Josef Brodsky poems in 1965, at a time when the Jewish poet had just been tried and sent to hard labor. The work earned itself a ban lasting more than 20 years, but the act of writing it, and of setting these words to a simple accompaniment, speaks of where Tchaikovsky’s heart actually lay:


“And, pressing my cheek

To my uncaring Homeland

I will see two lives

Far across the river-

Like some girlies, some sisters

From some years ne’er lived out,

Running out to the Island

To wave the boy goodbye.”


These vital songs have finally been recorded, by colleague Martin Anderson’s Toccata Classics label, along with the Trio of 1955, probably the best and most personal of the early chamber works, a genuinely moving piece. Tchaikovsky’s excellent, cultured songs are otherwise the best way into his private world, including the outstanding chamber cycle Signs of the Zodiac (1974), the Lyrics of Pushkin (1972, also on the Toccata disc), and The Last Spring (1980).

Those Brodsky words seem a key, not just to the songs, but to the whole of Tchaikovsky’s work, and the reason it matters. It matters for the meaning, the preservation of what really matters, via art that’s of use to people, despite tough times. Music as a companion.

So as the Khruschev “thaw” set in, Tchaikovsky did not become radical in his language, nor did he try to leave. Instead, he chipped away his incidental scores, and synthesised something very personal, and immediately appealing, in his concert works. A specific Tchaikovsky harmonic and melodic field had started to show up in the Clarinet Concerto (1957). It is clearer in the big, Romantic, but still Shostakovich-tinged Piano Quintet (1962, Forum FRC9111), and it flowers in the originally structured Cello Concerto (1964, TROY731), and the Partita for Cello of two years later.

His harmonic idiom actually got simpler, but he also applied a kind of “dynamic stasis,” holding moods and textures over a long period, leaving longer gaps, repeating notes and figures for a while, then contrasting them with something new. Tchaikovsky’s hard-earned mastery of orchestral color makes all this fascinating to hear, but the sense of going somewhere while really standing still, emotionally and physically, seems also to sum up the times. You can hear the first signs of what’s to come next, about four minutes into that Cello Concerto, as the harp enters, and a personal, lyrical urge takes over. You can also hear the growth of a certain rhythmically foursquare approach, and that does not often go away, in the composer’s later work.

As he entered his 40s, in the grey Soviet Union of the mid 1960s, Tchaikovsky suddenly hit his stride, orchestrally. He began writing the short series of big works, on which his apologists would likely rest his reputation. None of them is “perfect” in a Mozartean sense: the works are too individual for that, and can sometimes seem too long.  But, as Juvenile had hinted all those years ago, they do something new, with old means, something we’d largely forgotten how to do.

The Second Symphony, in three huge movements (1967), started it. The opening, weird pizzicati, gives way to fluent allegro string writing, but the two coloristic worlds collide, interact, contradict each other, and generate the structure. Later there are some transformations of  “found” music from the repertoire, very 1960s. It’s easy to get technical about Tchaikovsky’s later pieces, but the drama seems clear, and it’s absorbing to hear any music from that period that is so imaginative, melodic, and immediately appealing. Tchaikovsky’s symphonism is low-key, but on a human scale (hear the tune at the start of the last movement of the Second). The orchestral picture changes so vividly, and so often, that one struggles for comparisons (mid-period Prokofiev comes closest), and I can’t think of any Western equivalent, from the time. Nagging away is the slight rhythmic squareness, but also the sense of narrative, of untold stories, the always personal voice. It couldn’t be anyone else. You think of meaning, not process.

The Violin Concerto (1969, Northern Flowers PMA9946) came next, a massive single movement, and a vast elegy that opens with a long, still section (which could make the composer’s name on its own, if widely heard), but which ends with an odd kind of incongruous triumph. A Piano Concerto (1971) followed, whose opening movement head butts minimalism, and reduces Prokofiev to one repeated note, but which goes in many unknown expressive directions after that. Tchaikovsky recorded it himself, as well as most of his other music for piano. More expansive works were still to come, and in the late period, Tchaikovsky’s bright orchestral sound, married to relaxed structure, brought him closer to some North American strands. He referenced the Russian heritage, too. But amazingly, given the straight language, it still sounds like no one else. The Third Symphony, “Sebastopol” (1980), and the final Symphony with Harp (1993) will madden some listeners in relying on loosely extended drama and shifting color for their progress, and not contrapuntal logic, rather as Juvenile which came between them, relies on drifting Romantic melody. There’s always a still centre, in these pieces where the composer speaks very directly. This late body of work does define Tchaikovsky’s achievement, and I say that as an admirer of Webern, Bach, and all that is tidiest in music. These major pieces need playing at the Proms, and big festivals in the USA, just to see what happens. 

But nearly all Tchaikovsky’s music can be heard on CD now. I asked Igor Prokhorov if the Society still hoped to plug some gaps.

“We’d like to record the suites from the music Boris Tchaikovsky composed in the 1950s for H. C. Andersen stories: music of highest level, it was his own favorite incidental music. But we also publish all the scores, and prepare performing materials. We want to prepare the unpublished works, including the opera “The Star,” which was the composer’s diploma work (1949). At that time the music of the young composer, whether “victim” or having  “wrong teachers” could not be performed. Decades ago composer hoped to make a new edition of the opera, but he died and did not finish it. Some of the composer’s juvenilia deserve to be published and performed, as well as his incidental music. So, we’ve plenty to do in the coming years!”

How does a person join this party?

“To join, a person or organization sends us a request giving brief information about themselves. Then our Council accepts the request. We have no fixed membership fee, and we welcome all kinds of support from members. We need financial support, and also “non-money” support. Very often people themselves suggest what they can do for the music of Boris Tchaikovsky. As for the benefits, first of all we provide our members information about Boris Tchaikovsky, his music, and our past, current and future events. We provide for free published scores, CDs issued by Northern Flowers, and other CDs, too.”

It’s a huge labor of love. If you also get the Boris Tchaikovsky bug, there’s far more to explore than the works I’ve mentioned, including plenty of cogent chamber pieces. He plays with form a lot, sometimes assembling works from many varied short movements and sections, starkly contrasted. Whatever you feel about the resulting structures, they are always marked by his melodic fingerprints, and by a strong sense of intelligent conversation, and communication. The chances are that this music is better, and more companionable than you are expecting, and that the tunes will stay with you. He was a craftsman with a big heart, and a sharp mind. The music respects your intelligence, and always says something, more than can be said for much other music of its era. 

When I think of those times in the early 90s, the unreality, it’s his music that captures best the mixed moods, and the first polite interactions, almost alien, between the two sides. And yes, it does feel innocent now, in light of what’s happened since. I saw that grizzled Russian guy once more in London, visiting the following year, and he was stressed, hardened, pushing for every dime. He said things were already not good at home. I guess that would have been the time Tchaikovsky was writing the Symphony with Harp, which is optimistic, though it flickers like a candle. I’ve wound up respecting his optimism as an affirmation, usually gentle, of what life should be. Tchaikovsky lived with the lousy Soviet system all his life, but whatever accommodation he made, it somehow enabled him to make attractive works that got better, and often transcended his milieu.  Try one or other of this short list: Juvenile and the Piano Concerto on Relief (CR991076); The Second Symphony and Symphony with Harp, also on Relief (CR991080); The Sebastopol Symphony on Chandos (CHAN10299H); The Quartets on Northern Flowers (PMA9964/5); Cello works with Rostropovich on Melodiya (CD1000944); and the Song Cycles on Toccata (TOCC0046).