Exclusive interview with Classic FM's John Suchet

24th September 2018
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Exclusive interview with Classic FM's John Suchet

In May 2019, Classic FM's very own John Suchet will join forces with us here at Andante Travels to lead a special tour around the city of Moscow, which will trace the footsteps of the iconic composer, Tchaikovsky. 

With four departures available – the first being on May 16th – this exclusive tour will see guests enjoying special backstage access at the historic Bolshoi Theatre, two live performances, a private piano recital, a guided tour of Moscow, and, of course, the company and expertise of Mr. Suchet himself. 

To tease the upcoming tours, we sat down with John and chatted all things music and travel, and were fascinated by what he had to say – and hope you will be, too.

Interview with John Suchet


Music and travel are synonymous. All road trips have a soundtrack, we listen to music during flights where we stare out of the airplane window at a different world above the clouds, and songs tend to punctuate our experiences in new places. Do you have any vivid travel memories where music played a big part in the experience?

I can remember it so well. It was 1984, during the Lebanese Civil War. I was dispatched to cover it as an ITN reporter and I was on a ferry from Cyprus to Beirut. It left at midnight. I was the only passenger on it and we were steaming east towards Beirut. In the distance, I could see a red glow of a city on fire and I was heading towards it, thinking any sensible person would be heading in the opposite direction. I was the only passenger on board the ferry – no surprise there.

In my pocket, I happened to have my battered old Walkman and a cassette tape of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. I put it on, put the headphones into my ears and listened to it. I can't hear that piece to this day without thinking of that journey east. Somehow, it doesn't matter what's going on in the world, how messed up the world is, Beethoven puts it back to rights.

Many believe that Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony is a reflection of the composer's life. Would you agree with that?

It’s such a difficult question. In Tchaikovsky's 6th, which is his final symphony, he conducted the premiere of it and within two weeks he was dead. In this symphony, he did something that he hadn’t done before, in fact, very few composers have done. He put the last movement third. In other words, he builds up to this massive climax and the third movement ends and everyone bursts into applause, as they did in his day, and as they still do today. But then comes the final movement, which is really low and downbeat. Everybody has said since the day he died, that he was foreseeing it in his 6th Symphony. That it foretold his suicide. It didn't. He didn’t commit suicide in my view, but that symphony has, because it ends in darkness, fostered this theory that he took his own life. But why he did it that way round, I don't know. He was deeply depressed at the time. Things in his private life were not going well. Mind you, they never had, and that is probably why he wrote it, but he had plans to tour Europe, to come to London in the weeks following. So his death was a complete surprise and I don't believe the 6th foreshadowed it.



When did you first become aware of Tchaikovsky's music and has it played a particularly important part in your life?

I became aware of Tchaikovsky's music when I was learning the violin at school. I was 16 years old, or thereabouts, doing really badly. Then one day I heard, I can't remember how, I think it was on the radio, his violin concerto. I thought, I'm going to play that one day on the violin. I never quite got there because I reached about Grade 3 and that's about a Grade 100, but it did introduce me to his music. And my brother David will tell you, that I went out and bought an LP of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Mum and Dad had bought me a little gramophone. I played that record until it wore out and to this day, whenever my brother David hears Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, he goes, oh no, not that again! But it began a love in me for Tchaikovsky's music. I'm afraid that while my school friends were into rock 'n' roll and listening to Rock Around the Clock, Bill Haley's Comets, I was listening to Tchaikovsky.

Some of Tchaikovsky's works are performed very frequently (such as the ballet music, the first piano concerto and the 1812 Overture). What do you think is the great attraction?

Tchaikovsky is the most natural creator of melody. He could not write a piece of music without it containing a plethora of instantly memorable melodies. He is the greatest melodist in the history of classical music. If you said to me, Swan Lake, I could hum you Swan Lake. If you said Nutcracker, I’ll hum you Nutcracker. If you said the first piano concerto, I could hum you the first piano concerto. Everybody knows something that he wrote and I think that's his great appeal.

The title of your forthcoming new book, Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed, implies that there are aspects of Tchaikovsky's life that had not been explored. Why did you feel you needed to get to know more about the composer?

This is my fifth composer biography for Classic FM and The Man Revealed is the generic title because I like to get to the music through the man, not to the man through the music. I'm not a musicologist. I’m fascinated by these great, great musicians, like Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Tchaikovsky. We put them on a pedestal. We treat them like gods, but they had to eat and drink. They had to pay their rent. They had to live from day to day. How did they do it? And that fascinates me as much as the music. With Tchaikovsky, well, what a story. What a life. He was a deeply tortured man. He never came to terms with his homosexuality was convinced that his music was worthless. I was so stunned, researching his life. He’d write a piece, like the 1812, which is the most popular piece he ever wrote. It’s the new number one in the Classic FM Hall of Fame. He wrote to his patroness at the time, to say he had written it and he said that it is utterly devoid of merit. He didn’t rate anything he wrote and yet we know how great it was. Yes he was a deeply sensitive and tortured man.



How did you feel about Tchaikovsky at the end of the writing process?

My all-time musical hero is Beethoven. I've written six books on him and there's going to be a seventh soon. But I cannot like him. He's a difficult man to like, although I adore his music and I wouldn't swap him for anyone. With Tchaikovsky, you end up just adoring him. He's such a nice man. He is so sensitive. He wants to be friends with everyone. If any other musician uttered the smallest criticism of his music, and boy they did, he was wounded to the core. One critic described his wonderful violin concerto, which we love to this day, as being music that stinks to the ear. He was so hurt. His great musical colleague Nickolai Rubinstein described his first piano concerto, one of the most famous ever written, as, rubbish from first note to last. Tchaikovsky ran out of the room in tears. He was so sensitive. You can't help but like him. He just wanted everybody to like him - and I ended up liking him very much.

What are you most looking forward to about your upcoming Moscow tour with us?

I'm going to Moscow with my wife Nula, with Andante Travel, and I can't wait to get there and to see the places that Tchaikovsky knew. St Petersburg was the capital of Russia in his day, but Moscow was the old capital, so it had much more tradition. It had the Bolshoi Ballet, before the St Petersburg Ballet existed. It had orchestras before St Petersburg had orchestras. It had a conservatoire of music before St Petersburg did. And that is where Tchaikovsky really made his name. A year ago, we went there to research my book and I can't wait to go back, because unlike St Petersburg, Moscow is old Russia, and Tchaikovsky knew Moscow intimately.

To see the full itinerary for this exciting tour – and to book your place – just click the button below:


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