|Tchaikovsky in 1888|
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The old joke is "Tchaikovsky wrote three symphonies - his Fourth, Fifth and Sixth." It's true, in a way, because they're the only ones performed with any regularity. And there are those who said "he wrote one symphony three different times."
In one sense, that's almost true, as unfair as it is. These three symphonies are all about Man contending with Fate much in the way we often think of Beethoven's 5th (Beethoven himself described the opening motif as "Fate Knocks at the Door").
In his 4th, Tchaikovsky has a fanfare that represents fate which recurs throughout the symphony. In his 5th, it's an out-and-out theme, very dolorous at the opening but turned into a raucous triumphal march in the finale (a bang, indeed). In fact, both symphonies - if they express fate slightly differently and how the 'hero' responds to it - end triumphantly. It is the 6th, subtitled the Pathetique, that ends with one of the saddest endings in the symphonic repertoire: reminding us that the hero is not always victorious.
(You can read more about the 4th and the 6th symphonies in other posts of mine.)
In this performance of the complete symphony, Herbert von Karajan conducts the Vienna Philharmonic:
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Tchaikovsky's Fifth is 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...