A life between darkness and light
The composer André Tchaikowsky The Merchant of Venice
André Tchaikowsky was born in 1935 in Warsaw as Robert Andrzej Krauthammer. After the outbreak of war in 1939 his family were sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, but Andrzej's grandmother had other ideas. She procured false papers for herself and her grandson, adopting the surname of her favourite composer, Peter I. Tchaikowsky, and managed to smuggle the boy out of the Ghetto. André spent the remainder of the war hiding in a cupboard in the bedroom of a pregnant young woman who the boy thought must be the Virgin Mary. Somebody must have prayed for him at any rate, since he survived.
After the war Tchaikowsky rapidly made a name for himself as an excellent concert pianist, and soon settled in England. Yet he never had the temperament for the life of a concert pianist and instead longed to compose. He wrote a legendary piano concerto as well as some chamber pieces, before embarking on an opera. As its subject, the survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto chose Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Even though Tchaikowsky had bitter personal experience of anti-Semitism, The Merchant of Venice is in fact a superb choice for an opera. The play traverses two diametrically opposed worlds, each of which suggests a different type of musical expression. Venice is the male world of business, a city dominated by power, money and intolerance. Belmont, by contrast, is the abode of women, love and music. The wooers seeking the beautiful Portia's hand must choose between three caskets. Bassanio chooses the lead casket in preference to the gold and silver ones, and wins. The message is unmistakable: money, which in Venice is the primary means of measuring value, is worthless at Belmont.
Tchaikowsky exploits the musical possibilities of the two contrasting milieux with astonishing mastery, as though this were already his fifth opera. Venice sounds dark and cruel, while Belmont is painted in exquisite colours with reminiscences of the music of the Renaissance; humour and wit are also to be found. Shylock and Portia, the opera's two central roles, go through dramatic developments in the course of the plot, which Tchaikowsky renders in a highly imaginative and masterly way in his score.
I am very proud that we have the opportunity to use the festival's resources to unearth another valuable piece of operatic literature!