Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony: The End of a Musical Life

This is the conclusion of a series of posts on Tchaikovsky's three most famous symphonies, beginning with 4th here and here, and the 5th here.
- - - - -

Tchaikovsky's final symphony, known universally by the French title Pathétique, has so many emotional associations, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction or, at least, assumption. Hearing the music is one thing, interpreting and assuming facts from it, another. Then, too, events following the composition of the symphony may get confused with the composition itself – the composer's state-of-mind, for instance, what inspired him to compose it.

(A separate post at the Harrisburg Symphony Blog includes more details about the music, including audio of Leonard Bernstein's "analysis" and of Mravinsky's 1960 recording with the Leningrad Philharmonic.)

To begin with, I'd like to look at "just the facts." Even this is difficult, because there is a great deal of conjecture by different writers about Tchaikovsky's death, that even deciding what is a fact is difficult. But here goes...

First of all, let's leave its nickname out of it, for now – it was not applied until after the premiere and, in Russian, means something subtly different from how English-speaking listeners interpret the French word, Pathétique. So, in this chronology, I'll refer to it as either the "new symphony" or the B Minor Symphony.

After Tchaikovsky completed his 5th Symphony in 1888 – which, like the 4th, was built on a Triumph-over-Fate program much like Beethoven's 5th – the composer felt old and washed-up. Keep in mind – despite the familiar photographs of a white-haired man with a trim beard – he was only 48 years old. (See the photograph, above, considered the last one taken of the composer: at that time, he was 53.)

The 5th itself had come after a long period where, following the 4th Symphony, he had written many works that never succeeded to the same level of popularity. For instance, the 2nd Piano Concerto never caught on – in fact, many listeners are surprised to discover there even is a second piano concerto, since it is rarely performed. The programmatic Manfred Symphony, written in 1885 and designed upon the framework of Berlioz' Fantastique, was something Tchaikovsky himself dismissed as "a repulsive work," but then he often had very negative attitudes about other works of his, regardless of the popular reaction.

In letters from his country estate at Klin (see photo, left), Tchaikovsky considered himself burned-out, that the peak of his career had happened in the fateful years after his failed marriage in 1877 and that he would never match the level of achievement he'd reached in the 4th Symphony, the Violin Concerto and the opera Eugene Onyegin written at that time.

One of the most stabilizing aspects of his life was the unusual relationship that had developed with Nadezhda von Meck, the wealthy widow of a railroad tycoon, who supplied Tchaikovsky with an annual stipend to free him from economic concerns in order to concentrate on his composing. The one stipulation was that they never meet. They shared a voluminous and often personal correspondence but it was basically one between an artist and his biggest fan. Her support, however, was invaluable to him, not just financially.

So it came as a bitter shock in 1890, when the composer turned 50, that Mme. von Meck informed him, due to the economy, that her fortune had suffered greatly and she would be unable to continue her financial support. But what was worse was the end of their fourteen-year correspondence. He felt that he'd been thrust aside like a worn-out pensioner, that he had been nothing more than a charity case to her.

The next three years – which turned out to be his last – were full of "gloom and depression." He traveled a good deal – to America in 1891 to be honored at the opening of the new Carnegie Hall where he also conducted, and across Europe for performances of his works in Germany, France and Austria.

Writing "The Nutcracker" in 1891 was a chore for him – he disliked the restrictions he had to deal with (the choreographer was giving him detailed descriptions of the various numbers down to exact number of measures: rather than writing music Petipa would choreograph, Tchaikovsky found himself writing music tailor-made to Petipa's choreography) – and much of it was written while he was on tour in the United States and while traveling through France on his way home.

In the midst of this, he was jotting down ideas for another new work which he had written about to Grand Duke Konstantin, one of his most ardent fans in the Russian Imperial family. It was to become a "grand symphony" on an as yet unspecified program. During the return voyage from America, he jotted down this outline:

- - - - -
"The ultimate essence ... of the symphony is Life. First part – all impulse, passion, confidence, thirst for activity. Must be short (the finale death – result of collapse). Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away (also short)."
- - - - -

This actually became a symphony in E-flat Major – not the one we call the Pathétique – and even though he was distracted by the ballet (in the end, another work he cared little for so, as he wrote, naturally the public will adore it) and an opera, Iolanta, he had sketched the first and last movements of the new symphony by June, 1891. He hoped to finish it that summer but it wasn't until November that he had completed all four movements in sketch form and had orchestrated the first movement up to the recapitulation (a point where, many composers might feel, the rest of it becomes 'routine,' a suitable place to take a break). He had even offered to conduct its premiere the following February (1892) but then he lost creative steam and put it aside.

When he came back to it late the next year, he was disillusioned with his sketches, seeing the work as "impersonal" and lacking the "introspection required in a symphony." He wrote to his nephew, Vladimir Davydov (whom the family called "Bob") (see their photograph, right), that "I've decided to discard and forget it..." instead of composing "meaningless harmonies and a rhythmical scheme expressive of nothing."

- - - - -
"The [new] symphony is only a work written by dint of sheer will on the part of the composer; it contains nothing that is interesting or sympathetic. It should be cast aside and forgotten. This determination on my part is admirable and irrevocable."
- - - - -

Three days later, Bob responded "I feel sorry of course, for the symphony that you have cast down from the cliff as they used to do with the children of Sparta, because it seemed to you deformed, whereas it is probably as much a work of genius as the first five."

Rather than keeping it a symphony, for some reason, he chose to turn it into a piano concerto – his third – which he began working on in April of 1893.

But the original idea behind this new symphony had continued to show potential and stir Tchaikovsky's imagination, and two months earlier, he had written to Davydov on February 23rd, 1893:

- - - - -
"I must tell you how happy I am about my [new] work. As you know, I destroyed a Symphony which I had partly composed and orchestrated in the autumn. I did wisely, for it contained little that was really fine – an empty pattern of sounds without any inspiration. Just as I was starting on my journey [to visit Paris in Dec. 1892] the idea came to me for a new symphony. This time with a program but a program of a kind which remains an enigma to all – let them guess it who can. The work will be called 'A Program Symphony.' This program is penetrated by subjective sentiment. During my journey, while composing it in my mind, I frequently shed tears. Now I am home again, I have settled down to sketch out the work and it goes with such ardor that in less than four days I have completed the first movement, while the rest of the symphony is clearly outlined in my head. There will be much that is novel as regards form in this work. For instance, the Finale will not be a great Allegro but an Adagio of considerable dimensions. You cannot image what joy I feel at the conviction my day is not yet over and that I may still accomplish much. Perhaps I may be mistaken, but it does not seem likely. Do not speak of this to anyone but Modést."
- - - - -

This is hardly something that might strike us as depressing – in fact, after he mentions the finale already worked out in his head, he mentions "the joy" he feels that his creativity has been rejuvenated. This doesn't sound like somebody who's just conceived his own requiem!

Immediately after this letter, he was interrupted with concerts in Moscow and Kharkov as well as "an attack of headaches" that bothered him for two weeks. Returning to his country home at Klin, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother Modést (see photograph, left),

- - - - -
"I am now wholly occupied with the new work . . . and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up!"
- - - - -

More interruptions – writing what he called "pancakes," a series of small piano pieces, intending to write one a day, and the more he wrote, the better his income would be – and a trip to Berlin (complaining of how much he hated train-rides and how home-sick he felt) and London where he conducted his 4th Symphony with a brilliant success, concluding with an honorary degree from Cambridge, in the company of Saint-Saëns, Grieg, Boïto and Bruch.

But the return home was less than joyful. He received word that four close friends had either died in his absence or were now close to death. In the past, one such death would have paralyzed him but now, he wrote, death appeared less enigmatical and fearful. He had become, according to friends, more serene about death and it did not disturb the joy he felt in meeting Nephew Bob at Grankino, a family estate on the Ukrainian steppes.

Then in July, he was back at work. To Bob, he wrote that he had become ill in Moscow, "from drinking too much cold water at dinner and supper... The day after tomorrow, I start upon the Symphony again. I must write letters for the next two days.

Three days later, he wrote to Modést,

- - - - -
"I am up to my eyes in the Symphony. The further I go, the more difficult the orchestration becomes. Twenty years ago, I should have rushed it through without a second thought and it would have turned out all right. Now I am turning coward and have lost my self-confidence. I have been sitting all day over two pages yet they will not come out as I wish. In spite of this, the work makes progress... [about his home, he writes] All is in order; a mass of flowers in the garden, good paths and a new fence with gates. I am well cared for. And yet I get terribly bored unless I am working."
- - - - -

In mid-August, he writes to Bob,

- - - - -
"The Symphony which I intended to dedicate to you – although I have now changed my mind – is progressing. I am very well pleased with its contents but not quite so satisfied with the orchestration. It does not realize my dreams. To me, it will seem quite natural and not in the least astonishing if this Symphony meets with abuse or scant appreciation at first. I certainly regard it as quite the best – and especially the 'most sincere' – of all my works. I love it as I never loved any one of my musical offspring before!"
- - - - -

(The reference to changing the dedication was merely playful because his nephew had been neglecting to answer Tchaikovsky's letters.)

Nine day later, Tchaikovsky writes to his publisher,

- - - - -
"I have finished the orchestration of the new Symphony... I have made the arrangement for four hands myself and must play it through, so I have asked the youngest Konius [one of a family of musicians Tchaikovsky had supported] that we may try it together. As regards the score and parts, I cannot them in order before the first performance which takes place in Petersburg on October 16th [28th, according to the new-style calendar that took effect in 1917]... On my word of honor, I have never felt such self-satisfaction, such pride, such happiness as in the consciousness that I am really the creator of this beautiful work."
- - - - -

Again, the image of the composer, here, bears little resemblance to the popular idea of a depressed composer writing a musical suicide note and that, nine days after that premiere, he would be dead, some say by committing suicide!

Immediately after dropping a copy of the score off with his publisher, Tchaikovsky went on a tour to Hamburg. On his return, he visited with Modést who wrote,

- - - - -
"I had not seen him so bright for a long time past. He was keenly interested in the forthcoming season of the Musical Society, and was preparing the program of the fourth concert which he was to conduct."
- - - - -

Modést was now preparing to take up housekeeping with their nephew Bob who had finished his studies at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence (Tchaikovsky himself was an alumnus) and his letter continues how the composer was considering a new opera on George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (she had recently become one of his favorite authors) or perhaps her Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton, but Modést talked him out of it. At least, he never mentioned the project again.

In early October, Tchaikovsky wrote to the Grand Duke Konstantin, "Without exaggeration I have put my whole soul into this [new symphony]." Yet he confides to Modést a few days later, writing from Moscow, how he has been feeling "dreadfully bored and misanthropical... I sit in my [hotel-]room and see no one but the waiter. I long for home, work and my normal existence."

Back home, finally, he writes to a friend that he is working on the new Piano Concerto's orchestration (this had been the former E-flat Symphony). Then, a week later, he leaves Klin for St. Petersburg and the eventual premiere of his new B Minor Symphony. On the way, he stopped to attend a memorial service in Moscow for one of his close friends who had just died and, passing the village of Frolovskoe, he pointed out the cemetery and how "I shall be buried there and people will point out my grave as they go by," something he repeated to his student Sergei Taneyev.

Another friend, the critic Nikolai Kashkin, recounts the gathering following the memorial service where the question came up, quite inadvertently, who would be the next to "go." Kashkin good-naturedly observed that Tchaikovsky would "outlive us all." And while the composer "disputed the probability, he said he had never felt better or happier in his life." That night, he caught the night-train to Petersburg where he would conduct the world premiere of his new symphony.

Kashkin continued that Tchaikovsky "had no doubt as to the first three movements, but the last was still a problem, and perhaps after the performance in Petersburg he should destroy the Finale and replace it by another."

They then parted, knowing they would see each other when Tchaikovsky returned in two-weeks' time to conduct a concert in Moscow.

In the commentary that Modést Tchaikovsky includes in a collection of his brother's letters, he writes (in the third person) that

- - - - -
"Tchaikovsky arrived in Petersburg on October 10th [22nd, New Style]. He was met by his brother Modést and his favorite nephew [Bob Davydov]. He was delighted with their new abode and his spirits were excellent... One thing only depressed him: at the rehearsals the 6th Symphony made no impression upon the orchestra. He always set store by the opinion of the musicians. Moreover, he feared lest the interpretation of the Symphony might suffer from their coldness. Tchaikovsky only conducted his works well when he knew they appealed to the players. To obtain delicate nuances and a good balance of tone, he needed his surroundings to be sympathetic and appreciative. A look of indifference, a coolness on the part of any of the band seemed to paralyze him; he lost his head, went through the work perfunctorily and cut the rehearsal as short as possible, so as to release the musicians from a wearisome task. Whenever he conducted a work of his own for the first time, a kind of uncertainty – almost carelessness – in the execution of details was apparent and the whole interpretation lacked force and definite expression. The 5th Symphony and Hamlet were so long making their way merely because the composer had failed to make them effective..."
- - - - -

Here, Tchaikovsky viewed the symphony as the greatest work he'd yet written but on this occasion, his brother continues, "his judgment remained unshaken, and even the indifference of the orchestra did not alter his opinion that this Symphony was 'the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose.'"

At the premiere, Modést writes, "the work fell rather flat. It was applauded and the composer was recalled; but the enthusiasm did not surpass what was usually shown for one of Tchaikovsky's new works.."

- - - - -
"The press did not speak of the new symphony with as much admiration as Tchaikovsky had expected but on the whole the notices were appreciative. The St. Petersburg Viedomosti thought 'the thematic material... was not very original, the leading subjects were neither new nor significant. The last movement, Adagio lamentoso, was the best.' ...The Novoe Vremya said: 'The new Symphony is evidently the outcome of a journey abriad; it contains much that is clever and resourceful as regards orchestral color, besiudes grace and delicacy (in the two middle movements) [wait a minute, 'grace and delicacy' in the March??!?] but as far as inspiration is concerned it stands far below Tchaikovsky's other symphonies.' Only one newspaper, the Birjevya Viedomosti spoke of the work in terms of unqualified praise while finding fault with composer's conducting of the work."
- - - -

The next morning over breakfast, the composer and his brother looked at the score over coffee. Tchaikovsky had decided to send the score to his publisher in Moscow 'as is' but could not decide on a title. It needed, he felt, more than just a number but he was dissatisfied with "A Program Symphony" (and he may well have regretted ever joking with Davydov about challenging listeners to figure it out).

Modést suggested "Tragic" but that did not please the composer either.

- - - - -
"I left the room while Peter Ilich was still in a state of indecision. Suddenly the word 'pathetic' occurred to me and I returned to suggest it. I remember as though it were yesterday how my brother exclaimed 'Bravo, Modést, splendid!' Then and there, in my presence, he added to the score the title by which the Symphony has always been known."
- - - - -

Now, in Russian, Патетическая (pah-te-CHESS-kayuh) means "passionate" or "emotional," not as it does in English, "arousing pity." In all Western publications, as often happens, the Russian was translated into French as Pathétique. If we had to translate it into English, it should be called "The Passionate Symphony" and not "The Pathetic Symphony."

And so he sent off the score but immediately changed his mind. The composer wrote to Jorgenson, hoping it wasn't too late, what he wanted on the title page – the dedication to Davydov, the fact it was "No. 6" but no title.

- - - - -
"It is very strange [he continued] about this Symphony. It was not exactly a failure, but was received with some hesitation. As far as I am concerned, I am prouder of it than of any of my previous works. However, we can soon talk it over together, for I shall be in Moscow on Saturday."
- - - - -

Following the premiere, Tchaikovsky attended other performances in St. Petersburg, including Ostrovsky's play A Warm Heart. During an intermission, Tchaikovsky and his brother visited an actor-friend in his dressing room where the conversation turned on spiritualism "and his loathing for 'all those abominations' which reminded one of death. Peter Ilich laughed at Varlamov's quaint way of expressing himself. 'There is plenty of time,' said Tchaikovsky, 'before we need reckon with this snub-nosed horror; it will not come to snatch us off just yet! I feel I shall live a long time.'"

Immediately after that performance, Tchaikovsky joined Davydov and some friends – including the composer Glazunov – for supper at the Restaurant Leiner, a fashionable restaurant that Tchaikovsky frequently enjoyed. Modést joined them an hour later – his brother had already eaten: macaroni with white wine and soda water.

The next morning, Tchaikovsky complained of feeling indisposed – indigestion and a bad night's sleep. He paid a late-morning visit to the conductor Napravnik and returned an hour later still complaining about not feeling well, though he declined to see a doctor. There was nothing unusual in his complaints: Modést was familiar with past indispositions and thought nothing of it, at the time.

According to his brother, Tchaikovsky joined him and Davydov (Modést's roommate) for lunch and but didn't feel like eating, instead pouring a glass of cold water that, as it turned out, hadn't been boiled.

Much is made of the cholera epidemic in Petersburg at the time but in fact it had started in Russia in May, 1892, so it was nothing new that restrictions about drinking un-boiled water would have been unfamiliar.

But his condition worsened almost immediately and that evening, Modést called the doctor who arrived around 8pm. Tchaikovsky had already grown very weak and complained of "terrible oppression on his chest." More than once, the brother commented, he said "I believe this is death."

By morning, things seemed more hopeful and he even joked that he had been "snatched from the jaws of death." But the next day, his mental depression (as Modést describes it) returned.

"Leave me," the composer told his doctors. "You can do no good. I shall never recover."

- - - - - -
"Gradually, he passed into the second stage of the cholera, with its most dangerous symptom – complete inactivity of the kidneys. He slept more but his sleep was restless and sometimes he wandered in his mind. At these times he repeated the name of Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck [usually known as Madame von Meck] in an indignant or reproachful tone... A warm bath was tried as a last resort without avail and soon afterwards his pulse grew so weak that the end seemed imminent."
- - - - -

He continues that, with the arrival of their brother Nikolai, a priest was summoned but he could not administer Last Rites because Tchaikovsky was by now unconscious, unable to respond.

At 3:00am on November 6th, 1893, Tchaikovsky passed away in the presence of his brothers Nikolai and Modést, three nephews (including Davydov), three doctors and a faithful servant.

As Modést concludes his volume of his brother's letters,

- - - - -
"At the last moment an indescribable look of clear recognition lit up his face – a gleam which only died away with his last breath."
- - - - -

Coming nine days after the premiere of this symphony, the composer's unexpected death was even more of a shock. The funeral took place three days later, the tsar allowing it to be held in the great Kazan Cathedral which held 6,000 people. Though ten times that many had applied for "tickets" to be able to attend, still some 8,000 people crammed into the cathedral for the service.

The second performance of Tchaikovsky's last symphony took place at a memorial concert nine days after the composer was buried in the Tikhvin Cemetery. The response, then, was very different. It was said that conductor Eduard Napravnik wept frequently throughout the performance.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

The mythology – legends, facts and purported facts, assumptions – that developed after Tchaikovsky's death are well-known and mostly unfounded, perhaps not even accurate, judging from Tchaikovsky's own comments in his letters regarding the composition of the work.

How can anyone read these letters and think he conceived the piece as a "symphonic suicide note"?

Many people also assume, because he died so soon after the premiere, the composer was already ill and therefore knew he was dying, in fact wrote the symphony under that assumption. But if he had placed that finale as one of the middle movements where a slow movement would normally go and worked that rousing March into a suitable Finale, Tchaikovsky's "after-life" might be very different. But that is what he intended – actually, even before he began work on it: the original plan for the abandoned E-flat Symphony included a finale representing "death – result of collapse" that concludes "dying away."

In fact, if anything, writing this symphony – cathartic or otherwise – rejuvenated the composer's long creative "depression," composing something he regarded as his finest work, something he did not claim often.

Listening to this music, especially its almost unbearable finale, it is not difficult to understand why people might assume, depressed by the piece – or by its supposedly failed reception – Tchaikovsky went and committed suicide.

Then there is the infamous Glass of Water.

Did Tchaikovsky drink it on purpose – this unboiled water in the midst of an on-going cholera epidemic – as a means of consciously committing suicide?

Glazunov, for one, remarks how Tchaikovsky had ordered a glass of cold water from the waiter at the restaurant following that performance of Ostrovsky's play (the one in which he and one of the actors joked at intermission about death). His brother's account says he drank it the next day at home without realizing it wasn't boiled but was already complaining of symptoms that would eventually be diagnosed as choleric.

More recently, since 1979, theories have been proposed that Tchaikovsky was ordered to commit suicide because an impending legal case against him – as a homosexual who tried to seduce a nobleman's son in a country where homosexuality was illegal and the charges could result in his being exiled to Siberia – would bring shame on the members of his class at the School of Jurisprudence who then met in a "court of honor," ordering the composer to commit suicide before it came to trial.

Judging from the letters that Modést extensively quotes, there is nothing in the composer's demeanor that would indicate he had experienced such a horrendous event. Judging from other events in his biography that might bring on bouts of depression, you'd think such an occurrence would have absolutely paralyzed him!

It also strikes me as odd that writers about music – scholarly and otherwise – never spilled as much ink on figuring out the "programs" behind the 4th and 5th Symphonies beyond the traditional "struggle against fate with a triumphant outcome." But the 6th is full of darkly ominous suggestions, like this one:

- - - - -
"...the rapidly progressing evolution of the transformed first theme suddenly 'shifts into neutral' in the strings, and a rather quiet, harmonized chorale emerges in the trombones. The trombone theme bears no relation to the music that either precedes or follows it. It appears to be a musical non sequitur — but it is from the Russian Orthodox Mass for the Dead, in which it is sung to the words: 'And may his soul rest with the souls of all the saints.'"
paraphrase in Wikipedia, with reference to Richard Taruskin's "On Russian Music" (Univ/Calif Press, 2009)
- - - - -

While that may be, to assume Tchaikovsky is envisioning his own funeral with this quote, what does that say about Berlioz, Liszt and especially Rachmaninoff who all quoted the Dies irae from the Roman Catholic Requiem liturgy but didn't have the misfortune of dying shortly after those works were premiered?

If anyone tried to explain Beethoven's 5th as a literal struggle between the composer and his deafness, they're laughed out of town. Beethoven's "program" – Fate-Knocks-at-the-Door and all – is a universal metaphor for Everyman's struggle with existence.

But because Tchaikovsky was a composer who lived very close to the surface, with him such assumptions come naturally to a public who has to examine a work of art and attempt to explain it by finding out "why?"

- Dick Strawser

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

A footnote: whatever the relationship was between Tchaikovsky, his brother Modést and their nephew "Bob" Davydov – they were all three homosexuals – the composer had named Bob his heir, receiving the royalties and copyrights from his music. Never fulfilling his early musical potential, Davydov gave up a law career to follow a military one but then resigned his commission to live at Tchaikovsky's home in Klin where he helped Modést maintain a museum. According to Anthony Holden's 1995 biography of the composer, "An acute depressive, Davydov turned to morphine and other drugs before he committed suicide in 1906 at the age of 34."

Note: Most of the extensive quotes from Tchaikovsky's letters and all of Modést Tchaikovsky's commentary is taken from the volume of Tchaikovsky's correspondence published in 1973 by Vienna House in New York City, an unabridged republication of John Lane's original 1906 publication, The Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:08 PM

    You make a very compelling and convincing case. Thanks for writing such a nicely put together article. Still, my favorite playlist is playing the 6th, followed by Mozart's Ave verum corpus k.618 followed by Mozart's Requiem. The symphony of recounting one's life before a depressed death, followed by rebirth and grieving. I like it at any rate.

    ReplyDelete