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Sons of Janus by Sheila Seymour

November 15, 2015

Title: Sons of Janus

Author: Sheila Seymour

Publisher: Austin MacAuley Ltd

ISBN 978 184963 496 0

Number of pages: 188

Price: £6.99/€7.99/$14.95

Sons of Janus is a fictionalised account of the life of the great Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky.  In the Author’s notes Seymour explains her approach.

“There are no outright heroes and no outright villains to be found in these pages because those involved were all real people.  There are no fictitious characters, no fictitious events. I have endeavoured to give fair and accurate portrayals of all the people you will encounter….The views I have assigned to them are, I hope, fitting and appropriate, but this is where creative interpretation has come into play…I have developed great sympathy for all those whose voices I have purloined for this book.”

The book is structured in an unusual and original way.  It consists of chapters written by people who knew Tchaikovsky or  who describe important events of the time.  The chapters are not necessarily in chronological order.  The first half of the book consists of:

Prologue: Modest and Petyor Tchaikovsky c 1878

Part One: Beginnings

Papa Illya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, 1859

Alexey Apukthin, 1866

Nikolai Rubinstein, 1877

Antonia Miliyukova, 1877

The Kremlin Palace, Moscow, 7 September 1855 (an anonymous account of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II)

Anton Rubinstein, 1878

The key point is that Tchaikovsky never appears and speaks directly to the reader.  Instead we have a portrait of him which is built up through the cumulative effect of pen portraits by other people, with all the inevitable contradictions.  In the first half of the book this approach leads to quite a lot of rather gossipy material.

My first week with Petyor did not go quite as I had planned and I began to understand Tolya’s letter.  Petyor had been on his own for nearly a fortnight and all he wanted to do was talk…and talk and talk.  First he wanted to know what the Russian press was making of his marriage and subsequent events.  Difficult one.  I prevaricated, reminding him that we were engaged in a war with the Turks and the press had bigger things to worry about, but this did not deflect him. “And the gossip columns?” he asked.  Well, I have long held to the maxim that when cornered stick to the truth, so I told him all.  I did not use the words “field day”, but other than that I was straight with him.  Speculation was rife and some of it nasty.  He shrugged and then wept,  I was tempted to call for brandies, but a spectre of Tolya rose before me.  It really was too early in the day… We went for a walk instead – and then had the brandies!

(Sons of Janus, Prologue: Modest Tchaikovsky, p.27)

Nevertheless, a picture of Tchaikovsky’s early career emerges, touching on his relationship with “The Mighty Five” and his career as a Conservatoire teacher . The portrait of Tchaikovsky, it has to be said, is not very flattering, an impression which is reinforced in the second part of the book which deals with, among other subjects, Tchaikovsky’s relationship with his wealthy patron Madam Nadezdha von Meck.  Nadezha von Meck is the most interesting and successful character in the book, mainly because the portrait of her belongs to the realms of comedy, i.e. a play on the discrepancy between perception and reality. Tchaikovsky and von Meck conducted their relationship by letter and scrupulously avoided meeting, an arrangement that Tchaikovsky no doubt found very convenient.  Seymour depicts Tchaikovsky as sponging relentlessly on his gullible patron.

I was aware of Petyor’s existence from about ’68, when his 1st Symphony was premiered at the Moscow Conservatoire.  I was a sponsor of the Conservatoire from its earliest days and counted Nikolai Rubinstein a good friend, so when, in ’76, I decided to employ a resident musician to coach my children, accompany me, and write short pieces for my musical evenings I asked Rubinstein if he could recommend one of his students.  As a result Joseph Kotek joined my household and when I wanted a composition more substantial that he could produce he offered to approach his good friend Petyor Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky.  I could not believe my ears. I already regarded Petyor as above the rest of humanity; beautiful, dignified, refined and so gifted musically one could only wonder…Fearful that a composer with the reputation of Petyor was developing would not accept my commission I offered a very good purse.  It worked.  He produced a charming piece in very short time and I wrote to thank him.  Once I began that letter my pen just ran away with me.  It became vivified, eschewing all direction.  I explained how his music entered my soul and created a spiritual bond no other could experience because no other could possess my profound appreciation of this compostions.

(Sons of Janus, Madam Nadezha von Meck, pp.131-2.)

Tchaikovsky is depicted as knowing a good thing when he saw it.

The year 1882 was better than the previous two, but times had definitely changed.  When in Russia Petyor was at Kamenka dealing with family problems, particularly those of his niece Tanya.  She was in Paris receiving treatment for her morphine addiction and for some reason Petyor was footing the bill.  He was so stretched that in March he asked for an advance of his allowance and then in May for another.  I did not mind of course but his output was suffering and I began to wonder what my patronage was buying.

(Sons of Janus, Madam Nadezha von Meck, p.146.)

Nadezha von Meck’s son Vladimir also appears and contributes to the characterisation of his mother.

Tchaikovsky’s death is described by his brother Antoly “Tolya” Tchaikovsky and is quite dramatic: Tchaikovsky dies  an agonising death after unwisely drinking a glass of unsterilised water and contracting a fatal condition, possibly cholera.

Sons of Janus is a colourful and entertaining, though somewhat gossipy, introduction to Tchaikovsky and his world. The characters are believable and the historical background seems to be well researched. There is however the question of the relationship between the novel and historical reality.  There are a few sources referenced, and these are mainstream ones such as A Holden’s Tchaikovsky, 1995.  The back cover makes reference to lesser-known material.

“Using material unavailable during the Soviet Era, Sheila Seymour has written a vivid and lively account of Tchaikovsky and his turbulent, terrorist plagued, world.” (Sons of Janus, back cover.)  But none of these sources are listed in the bibliography or appear in the book, so perhaps they are among the fictional elements.

Barry Mitchell

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