Robert Winston's Musical Analysis (Radio 4)

The sad lives of composers make for a devastating listen, says Antonia Quirke.

New Statesman
Robert Winston. Photo: Getty Images

The first in a new series of Robert Winston's Musical Analysis (Tuesday, 11.30am) - on the health of composers - considered how "intense guilt and anxiety blighted Tchaikovsky's life". The ever-measured and moustachioed Winston gathered doctors in an attempt to reach some consensus over the genesis of this anxiety. Someone described well the train journey Tchaikovsky took with his new bride: a woman who had admired the composer from afar for 12 years, eventually writing a letter to him declaring her feelings. Midway through scoring Eugene Onegin he decided to act on this - in a way the foolish Onegin hadn't to Tatyana - and married her immediately. During the journey he fell into an appalling funk, realising that the small matter of his homosexuality was likely to pose a problem. His new wife wanted to kiss him, and more. "Not only did she not inspire in me even simple friendship," he wrote to his brother "but she was detestable in the full sense of the word. I began passionately and hungrily to long for death." Some honeymoon.

But no consensus about Tchaikovsky could be found. Some believe that not only was he completely tortured by his sexuality but that the marriage had been a conscious form of psychological self-harm. Others insisted he was "quite jolly" - if a little up and down ("Russians are just like that.") "He was just tormented with guilt, full-stop," said one, "and bi-polar on top of it. Look at the mad joy he found in a bowl of soup." "He lived a sad life," doomed another, "and he invites you in and shows you the whole emotional mess." "How can anyone who wrote the 'Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies' be described as sad or depressed?" was the nicest line (quite easily I would have thought.)

Next week Winston goes into the long march of TB on Chopin's body and work. It's a devastating listen. A medic tells us, grimly, that the TB bacteria mutate slowly and calmly. Once, in Majorca, Chopin was examined by three different doctors and separately described as "About to die", "Dying" and "Dead". Yet he continued to compose - music with all the usual precision, with its sense of reality fully intact, never forced into a world of unreal abstraction. Which of us could ever fully comprehend that?