Classical music's standard repertoire might seem an unmoving bedrock, but the ground has slowly shifted over the years. In the half-century after Johann Sebastian Bach died, his surname often was identified with his composer sons. Mozart fell out of fashion late in his life and was considered light compared to Wagner, Brahms and Richard Strauss. (The soprano Maria Callas called Mozart "dull.") But few famous composers have had the roller-coaster ride of Peter (Pyotr) Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
"He was considered as a lightweight composer," says Joseph Horowitz of the view in the West of the Russian composer in the decades after his death in 1893.
A cultural historian and concert producer, Mr. Horowitz will curate the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's two-week Tchaikovsky Festival focusing on the changing perception of Tchaikovsky, born in 1840, and "[ask] what his music is about."
The festival opens Friday, with PSO performances conducted by titled guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda. The festival will combine performances of Tchaikovsky's output, canonical and obscure and of orchestral and chamber size, with lectures and a film screening. Of particular note will be the playing of a recording from a cylinder of Tchaikovsky speaking among friends "very excitably and in a high pitch," says Mr. Horowitz.
The lion's share of the shift in the view of Tchaikovsky had little to do with him. Rather it was the stylistic earthquake of modernism that pushed aside the often extravagant Romantic language that had brought Tchaikovsky fame. Ballets such as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker," orchestral music such as the "Romeo and Juliet" Overture and the "Pathetique" Symphony, and solo works such as his Piano Concerto No. 1 were easy to dismiss by the proponents of atonal and then 12-tone techniques.
"Linking Tchaikovsky's popularity with the emotional appeal of his music, Western aesthetes disdained it for half a century as vulgar, wanting in philosophy and elevated thought," writes Grove Music Online.
Furthermore, his music and reputation suffered in the political environs of Soviet Russia.
"Although his music was part of the canon (Lenin favored the Sixth Symphony) ... it came to be criticized through the 1920s as irrelevant to avant-gardists in a nonbourgeois, revolutionary society," writes Grove. "Detractors claimed that it was ideologically corrupt, that it suffered from a kind of social malaise, and that its emotions were alien to the new Soviet audience."
For many Western scholars and within circles of music intelligentsia, Tchaikovsky's time in the artistic doghouse lasted until the 1980s.
"In Austria," says Austrian PSO music director Manfred Honeck, "Tchaikovsky was always very controversial. Our musical foundation is Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and so on. ... By comparison, Tchaikovsky wasn't 'serious enough.' He belonged to the entertainment world of Johann Strauss. But I think this is finally changing now. The quality of the music is simply too good."
"If the Tchaikovsky Festival were done 20 years ago it would be more like a pops event," says Mr. Horowitz. "Now, Tchaikovsky is being viewed again as a composer of the first rank, writing music of depth, innovation and influence."
"We have acquired a different view of Romantic 'excess,' " he writes in notes to the concerts. "Tchaikovsky is today more admired than deplored for his emotional frankness; if his music seems harried and insecure, so are we all."
But for audiences, the composer's music never went out of style, and his most popular works have yielded iconic sound-bytes, such as the love theme from "Romeo and Juliet."
"Tchaikovsky's reputation among concert audiences is secure," states Grove. "In Great Britain, the United States and many other countries, his music has won a following throughout the 20th century second only to Beethoven's."
As if the reception of Tchaikovsky wasn't already complex to unpack, the composer's sexuality has become a major focus of his life and music. Tchaikovsky struggled with what he called a "moral ailment" in his desire for same-sex relations. The low point came in 1877 with his marriage to Antonina Milyukova, which lasted a month and a half. Scholars debate whether or not some of his music from this time reflects his negative feelings toward being gay. This issue also became part of the reception history of Tchaikovsky beginning around the 1960s.
"Tchaikovsky's life was caught up in a discourse ... linking his music with his sexuality, an indignity that would have caused the composer unspeakable humiliation," states Grove. "When historical factors were brought into play -- especially Freud's pathologizing of homosexuality -- specialist opinion of Tchaikovsky's music changed accordingly, and dubiously slanted assessments of his music followed suit."
Perhaps the most controversial revisiting of all came with the assertion that fellow alumni of the boys school, the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, forced Tchaikovsky to commit suicide because of his homosexuality.
While Tchaikovsky's death certificate reads that he died of cholera at age 53, there are "inexplicable disparities" in reports by his family and doctors, writes scholar Roland Wiley in the Master Musician's monograph on the composer. Other theories suggest that Tchaikovsky knew he was dying long before. Proponents of the latter read the resigned nature of the end of his "Pathetique" Symphony and self-allusion in other works as proof. Although the forced suicide is the least accepted hypothesis -- there were "tolerant attitudes toward homosexuality in the Russian upper classes," writes Mr. Wiley -- there is no definitive answer.
"The consensus is that we can never know with any certainty if he committed suicide," says Mr. Horowitz. Yet, "Explanations ... have hardened into orthodoxies," writes Mr. Wiley.
In the end, that a man could stir such controversy decades after his death is proof enough of Tchaikovsky's relevance today.
"Tchaikovsky is a fascinating study of the man and the music," he says. "The man is still being discovered and the portrait is still in flux."