Cultural Explanation 6/13/16: Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony
There are some days when only one piece of music will do.
The persistent rumor about an honor court's ruling that Tchaikovsky should kill himself is so silly, even for the 19th century, that I don't know how anyone ever believed it. Nevertheless, I don't know how anyone could have heard Tchaikovsky's Pathetique as anything but a suicide note. Just listen to it... It even blatantly quotes the Russian Orthodox Requiem for four bars - musical material that disappears without a trace the moment after it makes its cameo.
To this day, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality is officially denied in Russia by Vladimir Putin's culture minister. His 'shameful secret' remains to 2016 a shame to the country which owes him so many millions of hours of joy. If the Russian soul can be defined, then Tchaikovsky is as close to a one-word definition as exists.
It's also still fairly common for musical snobs outside of Russia to brush Tchaikovsky's achievements off. There were certainly years of my life when I did, but I think I know what provoked the change in me. It happened when I started reading those loose baggy monsters by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. It made me realize that Tchaikovsky is yet another of those shadowy cultural figures with an artistic personality split directly down the middle: as much Dmitri Karamazov as Natasha Rostova - eagerly awaiting his Prince Andrei, but praying in the meantime that he doesn't get a Grushenka on his hands. Full of Levin's longing to break free of privileges confines but also filled with Sonia's serene acceptance of her tragic lot.
One side of his personality, the Turgenev or Tolstoy side, is the Europhile, the lover of pretty sounds and beautiful melodies, the French-speaking Russian aristocrat comfortable within the establishment, the superbly articulate and elegant master of expression. As in Tolstoy, passions are always implied beneath an immaculately rendered surface, but his elegance is never divorced from expression and the expression is all the more powerful for having been rendered so understatedly.
The other side, the Dostoevsky or Lermontov side, is the wounded animal and master of melodrama, the Russian who finds German music wooden and inexpressive, the tortured soul who must confess his sins, the creature of excess pathologically attracted to danger, the Underground Man seeking out the light of day, longing for the ability to keep unbridled passion controlled, but wiser for his intimate knowledge of suffering's many contours.
There are some days when you hear the music, and realize that the composer had heard the news before you did. When I heard the famous melody of the first movement, I heard not only a melodramatic melody which some still find tawdry, but a pre-echo of a Liberace-like camp - something I mean with all seriousness as a compliment. There is an arch self-awareness to Tchaikovsky's great melodies, as though he's winking to his listeners and saying with paradoxical insouciance: "I'm being completely ironic yet I'm also being completely sincere."
When I heard the second movement, the 'infamous' waltz in 5/4, all I could see in my head is the dying Prior Walter from Angels in America, in an AIDS-induced hallucination of his partner dancing with him. When I heard the famous third movement, the cry of defiance brought images to mind of Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk and even Dan Savage. The last movement needs no such description except to say that it's almost unbearable to hear. It all too perfectly reflects the emotions every decent human being had to feel on the day of the worst mass shooting in this country's history. An attack on a hundred (my god, a hundred) is an attack on us all.