Tchaikovsky and the dead cat
You would be hard pressed to find a musician out there who doesn’t appreciate a standing ovation. There are those who will pooh-pooh the practice, lamenting that giving a standing O seems to have almost become mandatory for anyone who isn’t monstrously ungenerous. But I am a strong advocate of you audience members expressing yourselves with unfettered abandon. If you love the performance, leap to your feet! Throw entire bouquets tied with diamond bracelets to the stage. If you hate it, boo with gusto! Be like audiences at Russia’s storied Bolshoi Theatre once were; instead of roses, throw a dead cat on the stage.
As the story (or at least one version of it) goes, a prima ballerina named Elena Andreianova was sent from St. Petersburg’s Marinsky Theatre to star at the Bolshoi as a result of a tiff between her and her boyfriend, the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres. Fans of the other soloists in the company were none too pleased about the presence of this usurper, and during a performance, instead of flowers, one particularly impassioned balletophile lobbed the aforementioned carcass on stage. No sense beating around the bush, I suppose. Though quite likely apocryphal, the story ends with the audience repenting and granting her a lengthy standing ovation.
The Bolshoi Theatre is one of the great centres of the arts in the world, located in the centre of Moscow. Opened in 1825 with support from Catherine the Great, the Bolshoi (the word somewhat disappointingly is simply the Russian word for ‘big’) Theatre, despite its appetites for scandals, has been the birthplace of some of the world’s greatest artistic achievements, notably among them, Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet, Swan Lake.
Tchaikovsky remains one of so-called classical music’s most recognized figures the world over. Composing at the height of the musical romantic movement, he created works of both sweeping lyricism and visceral impact. In the world of ballet, he was nothing short of a visionary. Before him, a ballet score was meant to be more an obligatory accompaniment, not intended to draw much attention to itself. With Swan Lake, and the ballets that followed, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, through his sublime melodic inventions and the sparkling orchestrations he created to deliver them, Tchaikovsky elevated the music itself to be one of the stars of the show.
Though covered up for many decades by Soviet propoganda, it’s now generally accepted that Tchaikovsky’s personal life was marked by a debilitating struggle with depression. He was a gay man living in Imperial Russia, one of history’s most openly hostile regimes toward homosexuality. Despite—or perhaps because of—the monumental challenges he faced, Tchaikovsky was able to create astonishing works that in many respects remain unsurpassed.
This includes his six symphonies, a handful of operas, an astonishing violin concerto and his three masterful ballet scores. All of these works are brimming over with some of the most compelling and original melodies ever written, and their enduring effect on audiences today is unquestionably palpable.
Though many will disagree with me, I believe our 21st century adherence to symphony audience etiquette has begun somewhat to resemble a metaphorical straitjacket. I’m all for loosening the constraints a bit. All I ask is that if you’re intending to resort to animal projectiles, please give me a heads up.