P. I. Tchaikovsky came up here one day
With something he called the “Swan Lake Ballet.”
Man, what a drag! It was real bad news,
Till we changed it to “Pete Tchaikovsky’s Blues.”
Allen Sherman, Peter and the Commissar
When I was young I used to celebrate—well, observe, anyway—my heroes’ birthdays. 15 February was Galileo’s birthday, for example, and I usually made a point of observing something celestial with a telescope, even if it was only the girl next door. (Okay, we didn’t actually have a girl next door—on the one side we had a vacant lot with an abandoned or burnt-down house, depending on the year, and on the other a gravel pit.) For some reason it always seemed to be overcast on Galileo’s birthday. It didn’t stop me from dragging out my telescope and trying to observe something, though. 7 May was Tchaikovsky’s birthday, and at least one year my mother baked him a cake and we threw him a party—though I think that was also partly because it was the last day of our extracurricular Spanish class. Anyway, whatever the reason, I have a photograph of me and my friends gathered around Tchaikovsky’s birthday cake to prove it. Or prove something anyway.
I don’t know when I first discovered Tchaikovsky—it seems like I’ve known his music all my life. The first piano concerto, the sixth symphony, Romeo and Juliet, even the Nutcracker—these were the soundtrack to my life at one time. I was listening to the Nutcracker when the Columbus Day Storm knocked our power out. (My memory tells me that I was doing homework at the time, but as it was a Friday, I’m very much inclined to doubt that.) I was blown away by the (reconstructed) seventh symphony in the early hours of the morning when it was played on KPFM’s all-request Music Out of the Night. The third movement of the sixth symphony inspired me to an act—well, anyway, I have many memories associated with the Russian composer’s music.
One of the curious things about the library at John Rogers school (K-6) is that it actually had interesting books in it. It had at least two books about Tchaikovsky, one of which was the story of his relationship with his long-time patron, Madame von Meck. At least one of them, maybe both, were open about the composer’s homosexuality, a subject that usually didn’t come up in the 1960s, at least not when children (such as myself) were present. I learned that Tchaikovsky suffered from horrendous bouts of depression, that he had irrational fears, that he was downright neurotic in many ways, if not actually psychotic. Artistic temperament is one thing, but a story that stuck in my mind over the years is the one about his first attempt to conduct a piece in public. As he faced the orchestra he became overwhelmed with the belief that his head was about to fall off and rolling down into the string section, something that would no doubt cause considerable alarm and confusion among the musicians. To prevent that eventuality, he grasped his head firmly with one hand, while with the other he gestured with the baton to direct the orchestra. It worked; at least he managed to keep his head and get through the piece without mishap, but his unusual conducting style became the subject of some comment. It wasn’t until decades later, when reading a review of his performance in the New York Herald, that he began to think he might not be utterly incompetent as a conductor. The reviewer noted his self-effacing manner, but added that he was a changed man when he took the baton and showed his entire mastery of the orchestra and control over the piece. It was only then that he began to think that he was not as bad as he’d always thought he was.
Okay, I probably have it all wrong—this is stuff I read as a child filtered through many years of memory fog and dust. But I felt affection for the guy who created the music that moved me then, and I enjoyed celebrating—or at least remembering—the day of his birth. “How old is Tchaikovsky?” my father asked one 7 May long ago as we sat at the table for breakfast.
“I don’t know,” I answered, not having figured it out.
“Well, what year was he born?” asked dear old Dad.
I always knew the dates of everything; my memory was sticky like that, but put on the spot I couldn’t remember that particular information at that particular moment. I knew Tchaikovsky was a younger contemporary of Lewis Carroll (1832) and Mark Twain (1835), but the year of his birth escaped me. Then something came to me—the number thirteen. You see, I’d learned a trick for testing divisibility by three and had been randomly checking out numbers that came to my attention—
“I don’t remember the actual date,” I answered cautiously, “but I do remember one thing. When you add the digits of the date together they total thirteen.”
My father stared at me. “Okay,” he said, “I always thought that kind of thing was so implausible when it came up in one of those mathematical puzzles in Scientific American. It’s so obviously a device—people don’t talk like that in real life. That’s not how people’s minds work. It’s one thing coming from Martin Gardner; I don’t expect it from my own family.”
Since then I’ve never forgotten the year of Tchaikovsky’s birth. He’s 170 today. Happy birthday, Pyotr Ilyich.