Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January's Masterworks: Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique"

This weekend's concerts with the Harrisburg Symphony – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg (with a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance) – features a young pianist, 16-year-old Yen Yu Chen, winner of the second Rodney & Lorna Sawatsky "Rising Stars" Concerto Competition, playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G. The program opens with a relatively unknown work by a composer who was something of a "Rising Star" himself when he composed it, Miklós Rózsa, who would later become more famous for his award-winning film scores.

(My previous post was an introduction to both of these pieces.)

The second half of the program is one of those "war-horses" which most concert-goers should be quite familiar with, given the frequency it's performed and how much it is loved – Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, subtitled the "Pathétique."

It's a work that comes with a lot of emotional baggage – given the title, the tragic, heart-rending "finale" ("final" in more ways than one), and the fact the composer was dead nine days after he'd conducted its premiere – which gives rise to a whole raft of mythology that I'm not sure is historically accurate but (like the play and movie Amadeus, about Mozart's death) makes for great theater.

After I'd talked with conductor Stuart Malina about the program and this perception of the composer's death and the symphony's back-story, I thought I'd look into my collection of Tchaikovsky's letters (an old 1970s reprint of an edition first published twelve years after his death with commentary by his brother, Modést) to see what his state of mind was when he wrote it and I found it very surprising.

Most people assume he wrote it either fully aware he was dying (he was only aware of that, according to his brother, a few days before he died, not while he was composing what became his final symphony) or that he was so depressed as a result of writing it, he committed suicide after the premiere which most people believe was a failure (true, it wasn't that well received but it was no failure). Some believe the symphony was intended as his farewell or even a "symphonic suicide note."

Then there is his death, itself – did he commit suicide? Was he ordered to commit suicide by a tribunal of his fellow law-school alumni (to avoid scandal that would, by association, bring shame on them)? Did he knowingly drink a glass of unboiled water in the midst of a cholera epidemic?

When I started researching this (such as my research is – just compiling material that is already there), it turned into, unfortunately, a very long and detailed post which, if you wish to pursue it (and of course I would highly recommend it), you can read it in its entirety at my other blog, Thoughts on a Train.

But this post is just about the music. And in fact, I'm going to make my job easier here (and presumably yours) by letting Leonard Bernstein tell you about it.

This famous analysis of Tchaikovsky's 6th looks at "how the piece is put together," primarily from the composer's use of two rather primitive "germs" or ideas – the prominent use of scales both obvious and more subtly embedded within a melodic idea; and the interval of a Perfect 4th which is the foundation of the tonic-to-dominant harmonic motion that is the simplest of all chord progressions. Out of these seemingly simple building blocks, Tchaikovsky builds his themes, gives them background and continuity and yet also creates variety between the ideas and, depending on the variety of character in the music, between movements.

The symphony is in the basic four movements – this is what textbooks would call the "symphonic form." But what constitutes a "symphony" deals with more than just this four-movement structure – "symphonic" also indicates a certain amount of "development" of its musical ideas (themes or motives) which takes these ideas and expands them in some dramatic way into something perceivable as structure whether it's something you understand or just comprehend without realizing what the composer's doing with it.

The first movement, the longest, bears the brunt of the symphonic drama. Usually, this drama may simply be the contrast between "keys" or tonality, the first theme in one key, the next in another. This sense of drama is worked out in such a way, when things are restated, brought to a well-rounded conclusion, these themes are now in the same key.

With Tchaikovsky, this drama takes on a much more literal sense, more... well, "dramatic." High drama – tragedy – violence. The characters in Shakespeare's Midsummer Nights Dream have conflicts that are eventually resolved – this also is 'drama' – but the 'drama' of Hamlet is a whole different level, both emotionally and physically.

The middle movements are a kind of dramatic respite – a graceful "Waltz" that is in the very un-waltz-like meter of 5/4, not 3/4. The third movement, usually a minuet or scherzo to previous generations of symphony composers, is a wild and exciting March that usually leaves people applauding and cheering even though it's not the end of the symphony (it just sounds like it).

The final movement is the "odd-man-out." Usually, symphonies would end with something light-hearted or triumphant – a big finish, loud-and-fast, something that brings everything to a Happy Ending or at least a positive outcome. But here, Tchaikovsky places his slow movement (which should normally be the 2nd movement, maybe the 3rd) and not just any slow movement but one of the most tragic-sounding conclusions in the orchestral repertoire.

Here is Leonard Bernstein talking about how the composer creates this music which fills these pages with the sounds we will hear as Tchaikovsky's final symphony:

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Part 2

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Part 3

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From a mildly technical stand-point (and musicians and specialists in music theory or composition can get even more technical until your eyes would glaze over in complete boredom), this is how Tchaikovsky puts the elements of his symphony together, to create what you hear and what becomes a dramatic, emotional musical statement that then leads us to want to interpret what that "means."

The problem is, music is abstract – it can be just notes on a page or about the balance of form and structural technique. Music can also imply emotional responses – happy, sad, dramatic, tense, relieved – but by itself it can't tell a story.

Music that suggests a story is called "program music" (or as the British spell it, "programme"), meaning the music is "about" some narrative that may have tunes or elements that suggest characters or plot elements that may or may not unfold the way the story does. Tchaikovsky's own Romeo and Juliet Overture doesn't follow the chronological details of Shakespeare's play but it does give you a few basic character sketches, underscores a few key dramatic points (the lovers, the duel, their deaths). You could never listen to this music and think it's about a day at the beach (well, unless your day at the beach had a very unhappy conclusion).

Tchaikovsky told his friends there is a program behind this last symphony of his – he even called it (working title) "A Program Symphony" – but he refused to tell anyone what it was. To his nephew (to whom he'd dedicated the work), he wrote "Let them figure it out."

And ever since, listeners have been taking the details of his death, so soon after completing it, and coming up with "what it means" (to them).

"What it means" is very elusive especially since nowhere did the composer leave any insights into his program.

Like his earlier two symphonies, the 6th also fits into a type of symphony that depicts Man's Struggle with Fate – that much might seem obvious, especially from the use of a "Fate Motive" (or theme) that occurs throughout the entire work. This, we know, is how Beethoven viewed his own 5th Symphony: a struggle in the 1st movement, some respite in the middle movements, before the struggle is resolved triumphantly in the finale. This is the same "plan" Tchaikovsky used in his 4th and 5th Symphonies.

But in the 6th, the struggle with Fate is different. Anyone who's read Tolstoy's War and Peace might hear one of the Imperial Balls in Tchaikovsky's 2nd movement and one of the epic battle scenes in his 3rd. And while the struggle of the 1st movement could be personal (who would not mistake that gorgeous lyrical theme for anything but a Love Theme straight out of "Romeo & Juliet" or perhaps between Tolstoy's characters Natasha and Prince Andrei?), the outcome is not triumphant: not every hero survives his battle. Perhaps in the last movement, Tchaikovsky was thinking of that great scene where Prince Andrei is lying on the battlefield (given that 3rd Movement), wounded and near death, in fact believing he is dying – and later, dies in one of this epic novel's most personal moments.

Or maybe not.

If Tchaikovsky had lived a few more years, composed a few more pieces, people would never think of this music as his own personal struggle with his demons or that he was envisioning his own death (sooner than later).

Rather than depressing him, it actually elated him – primarily because he had thought himself "burned-out," no longer able to create anything great (or even good). He was convinced this symphony was his greatest work, so far, and his reservations about the last movement were more from the audience reaction rather than any misgivings about his own confidence.

If he was thinking about War and Peace (we have no idea he was or wasn't), why not just say "Yes, you got it, that's it!" Obviously the "program" behind this music is also very personal – or possibly so trivial that it would lessen the impact of the music on the listener's emotions. We might assume Beethoven's 5th is about his struggle to overcome his deafness but what if Tchaikovsky's 6th was about his struggle to deal with his own homosexuality in a country where simply being homosexual was punishable by imprisonment and exile to Siberia? And why, then, end the symphony in "defeat"?

No one can answer these questions. But you can listen to the music and appreciate it on whatever level you want: what was going through the composer's mind to write such incredibly emotional music or how he put together such a long work with such simple basic building blocks like scales and intervals?

Here is what I consider one of the finest recordings ever made of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique with Evgenny Mravinsky conducting the Leningrad Philharmonic in a 1960 recording that (as I recall) was made while they were on tour in London. The drama is more intense, the March is more hair-raising, the finale sounds like everyone was weeping in grief and despair by the end.

(Since there is no "video" in this video, you could listen to the performance here, and download the full score here to follow along.)

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1st mvmt

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1st Mvmt beginning w/Development Section (alas, the break here destroys one of the symphony's most shockingly dramatic moments)

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2nd Mvmt

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3rd Mvmt

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4th Mvmt

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Perhaps, for some, it's a bit over-the-top, but personally, I think that was Tchaikovsky - and to me this makes the music come (ironically) more alive than anything.

- Dick Strawser

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