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.
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.
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.