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.
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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:

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"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)."
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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."

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"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."
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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:

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"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."
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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),

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"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!"
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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,

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"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."
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In mid-August, he writes to Bob,

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"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!"
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(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,

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"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."
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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,

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"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."
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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

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"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..."
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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.."

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"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."
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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.

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"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."
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Now, in Russian, Патетическая (pah-te-tih-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.

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"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."
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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."

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"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."
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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,

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

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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:

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"...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)
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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

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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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony: Up Close & Personal

This is part of a series of posts about Tchaikovsky's three most famous symphonies: you can read about the 4th here and here, and about the 6th, here.

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It’s one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire but when the composer was writing it, he was unsure of its quality, in fact was having difficulty writing it. Even after it was done, having warmed up to it only as he was finishing the piece, Tchaikovsky wrote “There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public.”

Tchaikovsky was always a fairly insecure composer. Four years after he finished law school, he quit his job as a government clerk and began to study at the new music school Nicholas and Anton Rubinstein founded in St. Petersburg. Though Tchaikovsky had been playing the piano for years and loved improvising for dances, he didn’t know very much about the simple details of music nor was he aware of how many symphonies Beethoven had written, since he’d not had the chance to hear any of them. One of the first graduates of the Rubinsteins’ school, he moved to Moscow where Nicholas Rubinstein recruited him to teach at the new music school he’d just opened there, feeling he was barely one step ahead of his students. Any confidence would have been severely damaged when his former teacher declined to premiere his first symphony, a refusal he never forgave, though he always thought highly of Anton Rubinstein otherwise (“it is just that he does not care for my music, that my musical temperament is antipathetic to him”).

There are certainly wonderful pieces in these early works, but the music we would consider his greatest began appearing when he was in his mid-30s: the 1st Piano Concerto, the ballet “Swan Lake” (a failure at its premiere), the opera on Pushkin’s “Eugene Onyegin,” the 4th Symphony, and the Violin Concerto (famously reviled at its premiere as music that “stinks in the ear”). All of these works, now considered masterpieces, were composed over a four-year span.

In the midst of composing “Onyegin,” Pushkin’s tale of a young woman who contemplated suicide after writing a love letter to an older man who patronizingly rejected her, Tchaikovsky received a love letter from one of his own students, Antonina Miliukova. He couldn’t even remember who she was but, perhaps feeling a bit like Onyegin, agreed at least to meet her. Even though he felt no love for her, he decided to marry her because, as a homosexual when it was against the law to be one, he felt it would please his family and stop any rumors.

The marriage turned out to be a disaster and it was the older man, in this case, who contemplated suicide. Only days into their honeymoon, Tchaikovsky realized this had been a huge mistake, that they had nothing in common: following a nervous breakdown, he waded into a freezing river hoping to catch pneumonia. His younger brother Modeste took Tchaikovsky away to Petersburg and then, after arranging a separation from Antonina, took him to Switzerland to recover. Technically, the couple never divorced but they also never saw each other again during the remaining sixteen years of his life (she would spend the last twenty years of her life in an asylum).

At this same time, however, Tchaikovsky met another woman. Well, not actually “met.” Nadezhda von Meck was the widow of a wealthy railroad tycoon who liked Tchaikovsky’s music (keep in mind, of that list of works I’d mentioned, only the Piano Concerto had been written so far) and wanted to subsidize him so he could quit teaching and devote himself entirely to composing. The only stipulation was that they should never meet, just write letters! He later described his 4th Symphony, already underway at the time of his marriage, as “our symphony” in a famous letter to her, describing it as a “musical confession” echoing the intense despair he felt at that time of his life. He detailed a story about how the opening fanfare represented fate, an invisible force you will never overpower. After detailed accounts of each movement, he ends with a P.S. in which he mentions how impossible it is to “put into words and phrases musical thoughts and ideas.” Clearly, he is looking back over the work – “I was down in the dumps last winter when the symphony was in the writing, and it is a faithful echo of what I was going through at that time” – and trying to find words to explain the music, rather than saying “these are my thoughts from which I composed the music.”

The 5th Symphony seems to have a similar program – instead of a fanfare, a whole full-blown theme that first appears as a dirge which later is transformed into a triumphant march – but he never quite put it into words. There exists in his notebooks a ‘verbal sketch’ for a new symphony he would begin a month later:

"Introduction. Complete submission before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro. Murmur of doubt, complaints, reproaches to XXX. To leap into the embrace of faith??? A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out". (In his private writings, “XXX” or “Z” appear frequently, usually referring to his inner secret – his homosexuality. )

While it’s possible the symphony may have begun with another personal crisis, the music that evolved from it, however intelligently designed, transcends the in-the-moment reality of the composer writing it as well as the people making or listening to it.

So what “personal crisis” inspired these thoughts in April of 1888?

First of all, it was now ten years after he completed the 4th Symphony. Despite the immense successes, the busy and often harrowing social schedule (always a trial for a shy person) and the acclaim he received from meeting the likes of Brahms (with whom he found little in common), Grieg and Dvorak (whom he liked a lot), he had not found much consolation in a three-month European tour in which much of his recent music – the piano and violin concertos, the Serenade for Strings, the 3rd Orchestral Suite, and the 1812 Overture – was performed to great acclaim. It was, however, not reported in the Russian press: no one at home knew how he and his music were being received in Germany or Prague, Paris or London, and yet he was representing all of Russian art for which no one at home cared a bit.

But before all that, he had spent a month with a dying friend, witnessing his deathbed struggles and feeling totally powerless to help, a time which the composer described to Mme von Meck as “one of the darkest periods” of his life. A sister and a niece were also mortally ill at the time and he felt “a sort of weariness with life... a sad apathy, the feeling that I myself must die soon, and because of this nearness everything that I had held to be important and essential in my life now appears to me trivial, insignificant and utterly pointless."

So he returned home where the effects of his success quickly wore off and thoughts of mortality continued to linger, settling into a period of quiet months at his country estate where nothing seemed to come to him. He was concerned about being “written out.” A month after sketching the idea about “submitting to Fate,” he began work on a symphony that did not progress smoothly. In his letters to Mme von Meck and his brother Modeste, he wrote more about his discussing poetry with Grand Duke Constantine, the tsar’s nephew, and about the enjoyment he got from planting flowers and watching them grow and blossom. He was approached with the possibility of an American tour which would bring in $25,000 (this, in 1888) which he considered a princely sum. But about the new piece, he remained despondent, proclaiming to Mme von Meck, "There is something repellent about it... This symphony will never please the public." In early August, he tells her that signs of age are beginning to bother him (he is now 48 years old), tiring easily and no longer able to read at night. Half of the new symphony, however, is orchestrated. That fall, in Petersburg to conduct the premiere, he was busy making corrections and changes in the score. It seemed to be a popular success though not well received by the critics. Other successes followed and he took it on another European tour which similar results, but still Tchaikovsky had doubts.

While finishing the new symphony, he had written to the Grand Duke disagreeing with him on his assessment of Brahms’ music: “in the music of this master (for one cannot deny he is a master) there is something dry and cold that repulses me.” But he had met Brahms on his tour the year before and liked Brahms the man. Now in Hamburg, he found that Brahms was staying at the same hotel – in the next room, in fact – and had stayed an extra day before returning to Vienna so he could hear this new symphony, something that greatly touched Tchaikovsky. Afterwards, Brahms was very frank about his reaction, liking everything but the noisy finale (earlier, a German orchestra asked to drop the 1812 Overture from the program because of its “noisy finale”). Tchaikovsky wrote to his nephew that the symphony was magnificently played and “I like it far better, now, after having held a bad opinion of it for some time.” The press was hailing him as a Second Wagner but he also notes that news of these successes were again ignored in Russia. The only disappointment, it seemed, was the fact the dedicatee was unable to attend the concert.

During the tour before he’d begun the 5th Symphony, Tchaikovsky met the director of Hamburg’s Philharmonic Society, Count Theodore Ave-Lallemant who was in his 80s. He told Tchaikovsky he could not understand his music, especially its noisy orchestration, but felt he had in him “the makings of a really good German composer” if only he would leave Russia and settle in Hamburg where classical conventions and traditions would correct his faults. They managed to part good friends. The following year, Lallemant’s frailty and illness kept him from hearing a symphony dedicated to him but one wonders what he would have made of such an un-German, untraditional and overall noisy piece!

The year after it was composed, Tchaikovsky’s 5th was performed in New York: "In the Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony ... one vainly sought for coherency and homogeneousness ... in the last movement, the composer's Calmuck blood got the better of him, and slaughter, dire and bloody, swept across the storm-driven score." - New York City "Musical Courier" March 13, 1889

A few years later, still a piece of fresh contemporary music, it was performed in Boston: "Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say ... In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack, whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of the Russian steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens, raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!" – Boston “Evening Transcript” Oct 24, 1892.

Really, they just don't write reviews like that any more...

Dr. Dick

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Photograph of Tchaikovsky, taken by Reutlinger for a "cabinet card" in 1888, the year he composed his 5th Symphony.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony: Part 2, "Art & Life"

This is part of a series of posts about Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies: you can read about the 4th here (with general background information) about the 5th here and the 6th here.
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Most people don’t pay much attention to Tchaikovsky's first three symphonies - #1 (“Winter Dreams”), #2 (the “Little Russian” or, more politically correctly, "Ukrainian" ) and #3 (“Polish” despite the fact it has a German dance in it, too); it’s probably just as well everyone ignores #7 since he didn’t finish it (he’d begun it right before he started the “Pathetique” then thinking it not very symphonic, started turning it into his 3rd Piano Concerto but died before he officially gave up on this version of it as well).

In the earlier post, I wrote about some things you might not normally read in your standard program notes, different aspects in the composer's background, particularly some of the cultural contradictions of being a Russian composer in the 2nd half of the 19th Century. Like any generalization, it has its problems but it also gives you some insights into the man as a composer

(Of these two photographs, the top left was taken in the last year of his life, when he composed his 6th Symphony; the one on the, right, dates from 1877, around the time he began work on the 4th Symphony).

But what about Tchaikovsky the Man? As most people who knew him would admit, it was obvious he was a very emotional man quick to respond to external impulses, often violently. There is no better example than those events that occurred around the time of his marriage: now in his late-30s and still unmarried, there were rumors about his homosexuality and in order to stifle them, a coincidence presented itself as a solution.

Most of the details come from Tchaikovsky’s letters to Nadezhda von Meck (see photo, left), a wealthy widow who adored Tchaikovsky’s music and wanted to offer him something of an allowance that would free him from having to teach to earn money, allowing him to concentrate all his time on composing. The only stipulation was that they must agree to never meet in person, only to write to each other in a voluminous correspondence that began in December of 1876 and lasted for 14 years.

The “other” woman in Tchaikovsky’s life was a former student, one he did not remember meeting when she was 16 and he was 25. But apparently she had had a crush on him: she signed up to take classes with him and two years after she left the school, in late March of 1877, Antonina Miliukhovna wrote him a letter, telling him of her love for him. His response was not intended to give her hope – he admitted the feeling could not be mutual – but after a series of further letters, he agreed to meet her. As he wrote to Mme. von Meck, “It seems to me as if the power of fate had drawn me to that girl.” In hindsight, he felt he was misleading the girl (she was 28 at the time, “no longer young” and past the age most women would normally have married) but by then it had gone too far. If he “turned his back on her… [he] should cause her real unhappiness and drive her to a tragic end.”

In May, just weeks after her first letter, Tchaikovsky began work on a new opera, based on one of the most famous works by a Russian author, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onyegin by Alexander Pushkin. It tells the story of a world-weary bachelor (Onyegin) and a young girl (Tatiana) who falls in love with him. She writes him a love-letter (the famous letter scene that ends the 1st Act of the opera) which Onyegin returns to her, rejecting her because she is too young and innocent for him. Years later, an even more world-weary Onyegin rediscovers the now mature Tatiana (married to an old aristocrat in Petersburg) and falls in love with her. They meet. She now rejects him.

The parallel here is obvious. Of course, he knew Pushkin’s story long before he began turning it into an opera. Did he choose the story now because of the parallel similarity in his life or did it only dawn on him a few weeks later when he first met her that she was “his Tatiana” and he might prove to be a cad like Onyegin? Before the month is out, he agreed to marry her.

The wedding takes place in Moscow on July 6th, 1877. (This photograph of the couple was taken at that time) After a week’s honeymoon in Petersburg, they move into an apartment in Moscow and a few weeks later, the composer – alone – leaves for his sister’s estate, Kamenka, in Ukraine where he spends 6 weeks composing. The day after he returns to Moscow, he has a “panic attack” and eleven days later he attempts suicide by wading into the river at night, hoping to catch pneumonia. With his brothers’ help, he arranges an end to the marriage – they do not divorce but they agree to separate and never see each other again. Tchaikovsky is taken off to Switzerland so he can recuperate from a stress-induced coma which left him unconscious for 48 hours, and Nadezhda von Meck offers him the annual allowance that will give him financial independence.

In January, 1878, Tchaikovsky finishes two works: his opera Eugene Onyegin, and the Symphony No. 4 in F Minor.

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It is tempting to think of both these works – two of his greatest – in the context of these events. But whether it is a matter of “Art Imitating Life” or “Life Imitating Art” is difficult to say.

It’s obvious, considering the timing, he chose to marry Antonina because he saw her as the innocent Tatiana and himself as Onyegin. It’s also no coincidence that none of Tchaikovsky’s earlier operas succeeded – for whatever reasons – like Eugene Onyegin because he clearly loved Tatiana (her Letter Scene is one of the finest moments in Russian opera) whether he loved Antonina or not. It was only when he realized that he could put Tatiana away when he was done composing but Antonina was a real person. Whatever she was like as a person, she was not Tatiana and clearly not the woman for Tchaikovsky. He writes to Mme. von Meck about his wife’s family – clearly dysfunctional in modern terms, how the mother abuses her late husband’s memory in front of her children, some of whom she admits to hating and how the sibling rivalries are like sisters having daggers drawn for each other – that is unlike his own loving family experience. While this marriage might mask his homosexuality (which in Russia then was a crime punishable by arrest and deportation to Siberia), it was not going to “cure” him: the question I’ve never seen asked was “would Tchaikovsky have been happy living with a male partner?” Probably not.

A side-note for those wondering whatever happened to Mrs. Tchaikovsky. The next three years were marred by letters and occasional meetings. At one point, she even moved into an apartment on the floor above the composer's. Tchaikovsky arranged an allowance for her through his publisher on the condition that she, essentially, leave him alone.

Between 1881 and 1884, she had three children by unknown fathers, each child given up and soon dying in an orphanage – the first died before her first birthday; a son born six months later lived to be almost 8; a daughter died at 2.

Considering the amount of correspondence he left behind, there is only one surviving letter written to his wife, dating from 1890.

Divorce in Russia was allowable only on grounds of infidelity which would have meant, initially, Antonina would have to perjure herself (von Meck even offered her 10,000 rubles to do so). Tchaikovsky, marrying her to mask his homosexuality, now feared even more what may have been revealed in a divorce trial. Even after her first child in 1881, he chose not to pursue a divorce in the courts. He wrote to von Meck that Antonina was not to blame in the failure of their marriage but later, in his letters to his brothers, he referred to his wife as “The Reptile."

She wrote her memoirs the year after Tchaikovsky died and even though she may come off very naive and superficial, she was also very coherent, unlike ones expectation after the image we have from Tchaikovsky’s correspondence (though her own letters were full of wild accusations especially about a conspiracy on the part of his brothers to quiet her).

Three years after Tchaikovsky’s death, Antoninia was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Petersburg for four years but was readmitted the following year, staying there until her death in February 1917, two weeks before the Tsar was forced to abdicate and eight months before the Bolshevik Revolution brought an end to Imperial Russia.

Considering all this and that she spent most of the last 20 years of her life in mental institutions, one wonders what her life might have been like if, like Tatiana’s, Tchaikovsky had played the cad instead and rejected her as Onyegin had done?

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The one thing that puts a bit of a crimp in our willingness to see the 4th Symphony as his reaction to the nightmare of his marriage is the chronology.

The famous letter in which he describes the program of “our symphony” was written in February 1878, a week after its premiere. Of course, he had written to her about it long before it was finished, but the program – the explanation of the Fate Motive heard in the brass throughout the work as a “Sword of Damocles that hangs perpetually over our heads” – is all “after the fact.” Is that what was in his mind when he wrote it or something he used to explain it in hindsight?

But he writes on May 1st, 1877 – before his fateful meeting with his future wife – “At the present moment I am absorbed in the symphony I began during the winter. I should like to dedicate it to you because I believe you would find in it an echo of your most intimate thoughts and emotions.” The fact he is working on this now is the reason he gives for turning down her very generous commission for a new work for violin and piano. “Just now any other work would be a burden – work, I mean, that would demand a certain mood and change of thought. Added to this, I am in a very nervous, worried and irritable state, highly unfavorable to composition, and even my symphony suffers in consequence.”

Following the wedding, the honeymoon and a week’s visit to his mother-in-law’s, Tchaikovsky writes to von Meck he is going on to his sister’s country estate so he can work on the symphony: “I leave in an hour’s time. A few days longer and I swear I should have gone mad.” A week later, he informs von Meck he is beginning to feel better, not quite returned to normal but annoyed that he is “absolutely incapable of taking up my work. Yet it would be the finest remedy for my morbid state of mind. I must hope that the hunger for work will return before long.”

Nine days later, he writes:

“I am much better… I must struggle against my feeling of estrangement from my wife and try to keep all her good qualities in view. For undoubtedly she has good qualities. I have so far improved that I have taken in hand the orchestration of your symphony. One of my brothers, whose judgment I value, is very pleased with such parts of it as I’ve played to him. I hope you will be equally pleased. That is the chief thing.”

The next day, he continues, after lamenting how difficult it is for him to work when around other people:

“Our symphony progresses. The first movement will give me a great deal of trouble as regards orchestration. It is very long and complicated; at the same time I consider it the best movement. The three remaining movements are very simple and it will be pleasant and easy to orchestrate them. The Scherzo will have quite a new orchestral effect, from which I expect great things. At first only the string orchestra is heard, always pizzicato. In the trio the wood-winds play by themselves and at the end of the scherzo all three groups of instruments join in a short phrase. I think this effect will be interesting.”

After returning to Moscow and his new wife and their new apartment, he writes “My wife has done all she possibly could to please me. It is really a comfortable and pretty home. All is clean, new and artistic.”

“The orchestration of the first movement of our symphony is quite finished. Now I shall give myself a few days to grow used to my new life. In any case the symphony will not be ready before the end of the winter.”

Twelve days later, he suffered a “nervous breakdown,” attempting suicide and fleeing to Petersburg where his brother Anatol (who had attended the wedding in July) could barely recognize him.

At the end of this first movement, then, consider what it might have been like inside Tchaikovsky’s head – having spent six months working on this music and dealing with the unraveling details of his life during that same time: which influenced which, Art or Life?

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With living composers, a conductor or a listener in the audience could ask them something about the music they'd written. However, Tchaikovsky died 116 years ago but in his correspondence with Mme. von Meck, he can still give us some insights into his creative process: shortly after completing the 4th Symphony, he tells her,

“I write my sketches on the first piece of paper that comes to hand, sometimes a scrap of writing paper, and I write in very abbreviated form. The melody never appears in my head without its attendant harmony. In general, these two musical elements together with the rhythm cannot be conceived separately: every melodic idea carries its own inevitable harmony and rhythm. If the harmonies are very complicated, one must indicate the part-writing in the sketch….” (And the same with its orchestration.)

The next day he wrote again, illuminating some of this:

“What has been written with passion must now be looked upon critically, corrected, extended and, most important of all, condensed to fit the requirements of the form. One must sometimes go against the grain in this, be merciless and destroy things that were written with love and inspiration. Although I cannot complain of poor inventive powers or imagination, I have always suffered from lack of skill in the management of form. Only persistent labor has at last permitted me to achieve a form that in some degree corresponds to the content. In the past I was careless, I did not realize the extreme importance of this critical examination of the preliminary sketch. For this reason the succeeding episodes were loosely held together and seams were always visible. That was a serious defect and it was years before I began to correct it, yet my compositions will never be good examples of form because I can only correct what is wrong with my musical nature – I cannot change it intrinsically.”

In the months following the premiere, he wrote to her,

“You ask how I work regarding the orchestration. I never compose in the abstract – never does the musical idea come to me except with suitable exterior form. So I find the musical thought simultaneously with the orchestration. When I wrote the scherzo of the [4th] Symphony, I imagined it just as you heard it. It is impossible if not performed pizzicato. If played with the bow it would lose everything. It would be a soul without a body and all its charm would disappear.”

“As regards the Russian element in general in my music (i.e. the instances of melody and harmony originating in folk-song), I grew up in the backwoods, saturating myself from earliest childhood with the inexplicable beauty of the characteristic traits of Russian folk-song, so that I passionately love every manifestation of the Russian spirit. In short, I am Russian in the fullest sense of the word.”

To us, this insistence would seem pointless: isn’t he Russian because he was born in Russia, because he is ethnically Russian? But he was often under attack from the Russian Nationalists who heard Germanic symphonies with Russian-like themes, some of them identifiable as specific folk-songs.

After she had asked him about the 4th Symphony, especially if he sticks to established forms, he responded,

“Yes and no. In certain compositions such as a symphony, the form is taken for granted and I keep to it – but only as to the large outline and proper sequence of movements. The details can be manipulated as freely as one chooses, according to the natural development of the musical idea. For instance the first movement of our symphony is handled very freely.” He then describes how the key of the second theme is handled differently and how in the recapitulation, it doesn’t appear as it should in its entirety, only in part. “The finale,” he concludes this passage, “also deviates from conventional form.”

One of the obvious symptoms of this dichotomy between his European Cosmopolitan Training and his innate Russianness can be heard in the last movement of this 4th Symphony, a different kind of deviation from convention.

The second theme is an authentic folk-song, generally entitled “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” which he writes in 4/4 like this:

Not being Russian and not having heard this tune in any other way than Tchaikovsky’s, I was surprised when years ago I first heard a recording of a little known work – at least in this country – by Mily Balakirev, the founder of the Russian Five who also worked hard to recruit Tchaikovsky into his circle. It’s in his Overture on Three Russian Themes (correction: generally known as the 1st Overture, not the 2nd as I'd noted previously), written 19 years before Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, that Balakirev uses the same folk-song – “In the Field there Stood a Birch Tree” – but in a way that is presumably closer to the original song (transposed here to the same key Tchaikovsky used):

Note the difference. Balakirev’s is notated in 2/4 with three measures to each phrase with a slight variation on the ‘repetition,’ along with an occasional 'improvisatory' flourishes to the basic line here and there.

Tchaikovsky, instead, writes it in 4/4 but places two beats of silence after each phrase (repeated exactly). Why?

The original folk-song moves in 3-bar phrases. German Classical Music moves in multiples of 2 and so Tchaikovsky forces this phrase into four-square units. He could, if he wanted to, write three-bar phrases or write it with a 3/2 meter or something to accommodate the tune. But he didn't.

Perhaps it’s not a major point or even a fault (unless you know and prefer the original – is there any law saying that Tchaikovsky had to maintain the original structure of the song? There’s no copyright infringement, here), but it compares one approach to the other: between Balakirev who was not bound by European Conventions no matter how often he used them in this or other works, and Tchaikovsky who, consciously or not, was something of a synthesis between the Russian Nationalist with a deep love of his heritage and the European Cosmopolitan intent on making Russian music understandable outside the realm of his own culture.

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One further quote, from a letter to Mme. von Meck after she had told him about her emotional, ecstatic response to his music, almost as if she was drunk on it.

“There is one thing in your letter with which I cannot agree in the least – your view on music. I particularly dislike the way in which you compare music with a form of intoxication. I think this is quite wrong. A man has recourse to wine in order to stupefy himself and produce an illusion of well-being and happiness. But this dream costs him very dear! The reaction is generally terrible. But in any case wine can only bring a momentary oblivion of all our troubles – no more. Has music a similar effect? Music is no illusion but rather a revelation. Its triumphant power lies in the fact that it reveals to us beauties we find in no other sphere; and the apprehension of them is not transitory, but a perpetual reconcilement to life. Music enlightens and delights us. It is extremely difficult to analyse and define the process of musical enjoyment but it has nothing in common with intoxication… But when all is said and done, this is only a matter of words. If we both look upon the enjoyment of music from opposite points of view, at least one thing is certain: our love of it is equally strong, and that is sufficient for me. I am glad you apply the word ‘divine’ to the art to which I have dedicated my life.”

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony: Up Close & Personal

It's often joked that Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies: No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6. Or, as others put it, he wrote one symphony three times, since they're all Fate-dominated and similar in character and content.

This post is the first in a series about each of these three symphonies: this one, more of a prelude to the set, contains background information about the composer and his historical context at the time he was composing the 4th. You can read about the 5th Symphony here, and about the 6th, here.

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Neither Tchaikovsky nor his 4th Symphony really need much in the way of “explanation” for a concert-goer to be able to enjoy the music. In these “Up-Close & Personal” posts, I’m usually looking for something behind the music, something that was going on in the composer’s life at the time the music was written or maybe about the times it was written in, whether that impact is direct or seemingly indirect. You can always argue that a work of art stands independently of any of the extraneous and technical details involved in its creation, but you can also argue that a work of art is something you can come to time and time again and each time discover something new, something that may make you listen to it in a different way or appreciate it from a slightly different angle, that the more you know about it the more you can appreciate it.

If you’re not familiar with the events of Tchaikovsky’s life at the time he wrote this symphony – his disastrous marriage and the voluminous correspondence with the rather mysterious Nadezhda von Meck – you can read about that in Part 2 of this post. There are some other ideas I’d like to look at, for now.

Tchaikovsky is a Russian composer which, to an American listener, may seem obvious but actually implies a number of often conflicting ideas. It also implies a debate similar to that around Aaron Copland and the “American Sound” – how much of what we identify as the “Russian Sound” is really what we think of as being Tchaikovsky’s sound? What is it that makes Russian music sound Russian? When I asked a famous Soviet-era sociologist this question back in the ‘70s, she thought for a moment and said, “I don’t know – perhaps the long cold winters?”

Culturally, putting it into a glib nutshell, there are at least two Russias. As a political nation, it has been on the edge of Europe and never really a part of the general European culture. As a geographical entity, it straddles both Europe and Asia and much of its ethnic and social back-history is more Asiatic than European. While there are people who had always lived in the area we think of as Russia, much of its history was crystallized first by Scandinavian migrants who set up ancient kingdoms and converted to Christianity, then by Asians ranging from the Tatars and Mongols who conquered them. A long ingrained xenophobia aside, the lack of trade routes to connect them with Western Europe and the lack of a viable marketplace for European goods created little need for contact between these cultures until the 18th Century when one of these rulers – known to us as Peter the Great but not considered “Great” by the Russians themselves – forcibly turned his backward empire toward the West, imposing on them European attitudes and customs after conquering a miserable stretch of swampland where he built a grand city that, within a few generations, created a seemingly artificial world of wealthy aristocrats living in a mirror image of the royal courts of France and Germany while the greater percentage of Russians lived in a peasant culture of extreme poverty. There was little else, then, in between.

A century after Peter the Great built his new imperial capital St. Petersburg, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. At that time, few if any aristocrats spoke Russian. The language of the court was French, the literature and theater they enjoyed was in French. Much of the architecture of Peter the Great’s brand new city was the result of Italian architects trying to encompass something that looked Russian combined with something they were familiar with. Much of the music the aristocrats listened to was written and performed by Italian-born musicians who began teaching Russian-born musicians how to write and play in a European style. Even in Tchaikovsky’s youth a generation after 1812, there were still no Russian music schools: everybody was an amateur who studied privately with musicians imported either from France or Italy.
The “first” Russian composer (or at least the first one to be recognized as one), Mikhail Glinka, generally referred to as the “father” of Russian music, learned the rudiments of music and composition by way of correspondence with a theory teacher in Berlin, not by studying with a composer first-hand or by attending a school. Another important composer with a national awareness, Alexander Dargomyzhsky, learned not directly from Glinka but essentially by borrowing his notes.

In the mid-19th Century, the Russian musician Anton Rubinstein was one of the greatest pianists of his day, usually placing 2nd to Franz Liszt, but as a composer he was too German for the Russians and too Russian for the Germans. He was too much of a Futurist for the Conservatives and, for the Futurists like Liszt and Wagner, too conservative. As a Jew who’d converted as a child to the Russian Orthodox church, he was also regarded as a Christian by Jews and as a Jew by Christians, therefore, as he put it, “neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.”

In 1862, Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai opened the first music school in Russia – first in St. Petersburg and then another in Moscow – making a point that courses would be taught in Russian, not in French (one grand lady retorted “Music in Russian? That’s a novel idea!”).

Tchaikovsky, who had discovered classical music as a child through a music-box reproduction of some Mozart pieces, wanted to become a musician but lacking any chance of good training ended up going into law. After becoming a law clerk, he decided it was too boring and he joined Rubinstein’s newly opened conservatory as one of its first students. He did well enough upon graduation, grounded in solid European-style training but without much practical experience, he was immediately set up as a teacher in the new Moscow school.

This was all happening around the same time young composers gathering around Mily Balakirev began formulating ideas about creating an authentic Russian musical style. They became known as “The Russian Five” or “The Mighty Handful” and their attitude about what Russian music should be was directly opposed to Rubinstein’s.

In Western music there are often extreme opposites among contemporaries – Brahms’ Classicism (building on the past) versus Wagner’s Romanticism (looking into the future) or the Serialism-vs-Tonality argument of much of the 20th Century. In Russia, this became a musico-political argument between those following European (and by then, mostly German) ideals against those looking for a more authentic Russian identity – Cosmopolitans vs. Nationalists. This aesthetic argument was going on in all aspects of Russian life, not just the Arts.

It’s curious that what we think of today as the Age of Russian Music encompasses basically two generations: the prominent composers in Western minds are Tchaikovsky & a few of the “Russian 5” followed by the next generation of Rachmaninoff & Skryabin (or Scriabin as he’s usually spelled in the West). In 1917, even the notion of “Russia” came to an end with the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union. After 70 years of Communism, Russian music is not the only thing still trying to reestablish its identity.

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Basically, we’re told Glinka’s solution to this question of Russian-ness had been to turn to “the music of the people” for inspiration. His setting in 1848 of two folk dances in the orchestral rhapsody Kamarinskaya (which is usually mispronounced Kamarinskáya but which I was told should be pronounced Kamarínskaya though several sources say it’s Kamárinskaya…) was considered “the acorn from which the mighty oak of Russian music grew” by no less than Tchaikovsky.

But it wasn’t just a matter of listening to Russian folk songs and transcribing them. They realized Russian folk-songs did not organize themselves the same way German ones did: uneven metric patterns with uneven phrase structures could move freely between tonal centers so, to us, it might sound like it’s in E-flat Major but the phrase cadences in C Minor.

What Glinka and many of his followers also did was to create something that would sound noticeably different from European music, giving it an exotic quality which could then be perceived as non-Western and therefore Russian. Glinka used the tonally ambiguous whole-tone scale to create a magical fairy-tale world half-a-century before Claude Debussy used it in France to create an “impressionistic” counter-balance to German harmonic rigidity. Rimsky-Korsakov, in addition to using melodic inflections reflecting that Central Asian exoticism of Russia’s oriental heritage which we hear in Scheherezade, created a synthetic scale rarely found in folk music but which became the norm for that folk-like sound we Westerners are now so used to.

Many ethnomusicologists might refer to this not as folk-lore but as “fake-lore.” Stravinsky would later use it in The Firebird, his first fairy-tale ballet but also later in Les Noces, a ritualized setting of a Russian folk wedding even though he says he never actually saw nor heard one. However much actual folk-lore is behind his third great ballet, the Rite of Spring could not exist musically without these artificial solutions.

Tchaikovsky often used folk songs in his music – whether it’s the beautiful Andante Cantabile, the Kamarinskaya-like finale of his 2nd Symphony or his use of “The Little Birch Tree” found in the last movement of the 4th Symphony. His colleagues in the Mighty Handful considered this as mere decoration: it didn’t get to the heart of the matter, or rather to the soul of the matter. Quoting folk songs was, in a sense, lip-service unless the essence of the folk idiom permeated his music.

But Tchaikovsky used them within Germanic forms like the symphony and the concerto. Part of the Mighty Handful’s problem, though, was not just to create a melodic and harmonic dialect that sounded Russian: they needed to come up with a way of using them in a larger, structural context – what we call “form” – beyond rhapsodies and symphonic poems, because they were unable to overcome one of the innate limitations of folk music.

Folk songs are usually self-contained and don’t provide much in the way of expansion, what classical musicians call “development.” No better example would be the bizarre appearance of a Russian folk-song “Slava!” in Beethoven’s E Minor String Quartet dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky. As Glinka showed in Kamarinskaya, there were many amazing and wonderful ways you could treat these tunes he found, but basically all he did was repeat the tune over and over, each time in a different orchestral color, maybe with different accompaniment or a change in the harmony (many of these tunes could be quite chameleon-like in ways you could harmonize them). But to get more mileage out of them? Not likely. Beethoven takes his round peg of a Russian folk song and pounds it into the four-square hole of Germanic structure.

Without spending another 3,000 words on it, let’s just say that Tchaikovsky as a Russian was full of the dichotomies of his era: he idolized Mozart but had no concept of Mozartean form; he wrote Germanic symphonies and concertos but tried to make them sound Russian by using native Russian melodies (but unlike the Handful, not Russian harmonies); he tried to come to terms with classical structure (the left-brain aspect of music) while living in the hyper-emotional world of romantic sensuousness (the right-brain aspect of music). His symphonies – at least the three famous ones – heave under the weight of these intense emotions while his ballets reflected the dazzling aristocratic fairy-tale world of the imperial court that still defines what we consider “classical dance.” American audiences familiar with his Violin Concerto may find no great contrast between the Mozart-like clarity of the first movement’s opening and the wild Cossack dance of its finale (is it any different from Brahms ending his violin concerto with a wild Hungarian dance?).

Even one of his own students, Sergei Taneyev (whose music is virtually unknown in the West) accused him of writing a symphony full of ballet music. It’s not easy to figure out exactly what he meant by that – is he equating ballet music with drivel or is it just that this is music incapable of further development that could easily be danced to? One of the complaints about Tchaikovsky’s ballets was that the music was often more symphonic – more developed – than the usual string of pleasant dance tunes audiences (and dancers) expected.

Taneyev refers specifically to the middle of the 2nd Movement, the trio of the 3rd and to a “little march” in the finale where his “inner eye sees involuntarily our prima ballerina… and spoils [his] pleasure in the many beauties of the work.” Perhaps he means these spots relax the emotional impact of the European-style development for something more accessible?

Here’s what Tchaikovsky said about how he saw his own problems as a composer:

“All my life I have been much troubled by my inability to grasp and manipulate form in music. I fought hard against this defect and can say with pride that I achieved some progress, but I shall end my days without ever having written anything that is perfect in form. What I write has always a mountain of padding: an experienced eye can detect the thread in my seams and I can do nothing about it.”

The symphonies that Tchaikovsky’s European contemporaries were writing – with the exception of Brahms who was regarded as old-fashioned by most followers of contemporary music then – were not like the symphonies of Haydn or Beethoven. Even Beethoven’s 6th and 9th Symphonies are not typical of what a symphony was considered to be, then. Symphonies were abstract architectural forms and composers approached them in a technical sense much the way a poet might write a sonnet: while the form allowed you some flexibility, there was still a “default definition” that had to be adhered to. If you started a sonnet that turned itself into a limerick with added syllables per line and perhaps no coherent rhyme scheme, was it any longer a sonnet? Did that make it bad? Should it be called, perhaps, something else?

With the composers writing after Beethoven – beginning with Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique written three years after Beethoven’s death – this technical ideal of something easily defined and strictly adhered to (more or less) was swept up in the Age of Romanticism with its emotional response from the senses rather than from the rational, Classical mind – the irrational right-brain taking precedence after the 18th Century’s emphasis of logical left-brain issues.

In this sense, music began moving from the abstract – music as form – to the subjective with its idea of telling a story through music. Berlioz’ “Episode from the Life of an Artist” (his Symphonie fantastique) went deeper into the senses than Beethoven’s 6th Symphony with its “Pleasant Impressions Upon Arriving in the Countryside.” Rather than write symphonies, now, composers began to focus more on “symphonic poems,” an aesthetic concept attributed to Franz Liszt. Ironically, because the concept of “sonata form” was inherently dramatic in terms of its tonal scheme, the contrasting nature of its themes made it attractive to musical characterizations of a story’s cast list or plot synopsis. By reflecting the nature of a personality or the mood of a scene or its setting, composers found they could superimpose their subjective interpretations of music onto the basic premise of sonata form (used in the standard first movement of a symphony). And so now, instead of individual one-movement symphonic poems, composers could write several movements that might serve to augment the initial “story.” This became known as “program music” – music that tells or implies a story.

Tchaikovsky hated “program symphonies” – he complained as much in his letters – yet he wrote three symphonies that he admitted had specific programs even though he never divulged their details, especially in the last one. After writing several one-movement symphonic poems based on Shakespearean plays, he composed a vast four movement work based on Byron’s “Manfred” which he even called “a Symphony in four movements” but which was never numbered as his Symphony No. 5, reminding us that musical terms and definitions may be fairly vague and subjective but sometimes they can be too specific as well.

Perhaps one reason the last three symphonies have succeeded in the popular canon and “Manfred” has not has more to do with the subjective reaction to the music in each work rather than how he handled its form. By Beethoven’s standards, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies are structurally speaking not very good symphonies. By text-book analysis, it’s possible “Manfred” (written in 1885) might be a better example of a Symphony but its music is inferior to those symphonic works he composed before and after it (the 4th in 1877, the actual 5th in 1888). For some, it would be a right-brained response to say “this is great music” where a left-brained response might say “this is not great music.” It is, however, a no-brainer to say “this is music that has proven popular through the ages.” Does that make it great? Does it matter?

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You can read Part 2 of the post about Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony here.

- Dr. Dick

illustration at top: Photograph of Tchaikovsky taken in 1877, the year he composed his Symphony No. 4.