Monday, November 6, 2017

History of the Symphony - Class 8: The Mystic Symphony - First Third

So what did Tchaikovsky do to get rid of that turmoil. Well, for one thing, he turned what all Russians apparently turn to... The third movement is, according to Tchaikovsky, the thoughts that pop into your head when you've had a little bit to drink. But when I hear the pizzicato of this movement, I can't help thinking of balalaikas that peasant musicians inevitably play when upper class drunks like Fyodor and Dmitri Karamazov indulge in their debauchery (Temirkanov/Royal Philharmonic).

So then he says something about hallucinations after drinking a little wine. Yeah, whatever... Now, as a person who's drank his share of stuff much stronger than wine - I have no idea what he means by that. But if this is already one of those Russia settings, then perhaps there's something like absinthe being passed around, or maybe even opium. There were plenty of famous absinthe drinkers around this time: Van Gogh and Manet, all sorts of French symbolist poets, Oscar Wilde - who underwent the kind of trial that was exactly what Tchaikovsky most feared. So who knows what these hallucinations are, what we do know is that they are in different tempos - an innovation which Charles Ives would later run circles with.

So the last movement is supposed to be going out into the world. Tchaikovsky writes: "if within yourself you find no reasons for joy... go out among the people." He calls it the festive merriment of ordinary people - perhaps a carnival. Certainly, this is no ordinary gathering.  (Mravinsky/Leningrad)

You hear that melody in the winds: it's a song called 'In the Field Stood a Birch Tree." It reappears over and over again through the movement. But let's go right to the end and listen to the last two minutes or so of the piece. Because somewhere in this, Tchaikovsky hears a rendition of this song that clearly sounds... a little sexy, and that drives him into still more horrible feelings,(Nelsons/Birmingham), which then makes him need to drive himself back into the crowd that much more desperately.  (Temirkanov/Royal Phil)

It's an ending so affirmative that it almost sounds insincere, as though Tchaikovsky knows this isn't quite a solution. It seems almost as though his fate is sealed by this point in his life.

So we're going to go straight to the Pathetique, and in order to tell its story, we have to ask: was it a suicide note? Some of you have probably heard the story of a court of honor - Tchaikovsky apparently hit on the nephew of the Czar, who was duly complained to about Tchaikovsky, a court of his peers was convened, knowing that the contents of the complaint would disgrace both Tchaikovsky and the Moscow Conservatory at which Tchaikovsky worked, they ruled that Tchaikovsky should kill himself.

It's a heartrending story. I think the details of it are completely ludicrous, but I'm also one of the few people inclined to think that the impetus behind it, that Tchaikovsky killed himself to avoid the full weight of the Czar's censure coming down on him, is probably true, even if the court is stinking bullshit. A society with a don't ask don't tell policy can look the other way if you proposition just about anyone, but you can't proposition a member of the Royal Family. That's a disgrace to the Royal Family as well as Tchaikovsky because it implies that there's a homosexual in a family, which is, by definition, the perfect famliy. As everywhere, there were no doubt plenty of gay people in Russian high society, and so long as it was kept quiet, everybody pretended to a certain extent that they were perfectly normal.

Either way, Tchaikovsky no longer had his closest friend to help him bear a scandal which might have cost him a few years in jail the way it did Oscar Wilde - and Tchaikovsky was clearly a much more fragile soul than Wilde. Madame von Meck broke off their relationship about two-and-a-half years earlier, abruptly telling him that she could never write to him again - related in part no doubt to family debts, but it's also possible that her family was scandalized by their closeness - everybody in Russian society knew about their letters. Many probably assumed that they were having an affair in secret and who knows, maybe the marriage prospects of a daughter were affected by the gossip - you can never trust the consistency of gossip, and according to gossip, everybody's both gay and a ladies man at the same time.

Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky if there was a program to the symphony, Tchaikovsky said yes but nobody will know it. A lot of people take a program Tchaikovsky wrote up for the unfinished Seventh Symphony as the real program for this, but I doubt that too. Instead, let's look at this brief choral moment from the Russian Orthodox Requiem.

This is a piece that is the exact opposite of Beethoven's 9th. I think it was the old NPR critic, Ted Libbey, who said that Beethoven's 9th aspires to affirmation, but Tchaikovsky 6 aspires to annihilation. Whoever said it, that's exactly right.

It begins in the lowest regions of the orchestraand it ends there too. (Kondrashin/Moscow). As though to point to the earth from which we're formed, and to which we will return. So let's just hear four bars of the main motif of the symphony, because lots of things will happen later that are very important with it.  The Pathetique has two motifs to it, stepwise up, and stepwise down. Life, and death.

But in the meantime, there is a truly enormous amount of life. I wouldn't call it a life-cycle, but it is, as I'm sure just about all of you know, an incredibly vital piece of music. After that incredibly forbidding beginning, we get a full melody five minutes in that you'd never get from any great symphonist, perhaps even any mediocre symphonist, between Tchaikovsky and Schubert, and with a lot less symphonic pretension to scaffolding than Schubert or Mozart ever put on it.

And then comes one of the most shocking ideas ever conceived by a musician. Brace yourselves for it, it's both terrifying and amazing. Once again, the melody ends completely in the lowest notes, musical depths where the coffins lay. Suddenly, an explosion of rage, with that unfortunate engine of rage in so many different composers - fugal counterpoint... but Tchaikovsky is a genius, and rather than the regular fugues that are set up like Bach did in fifths alternating with fourths, Tchaikovsky sets them up in fourths, and therefore the fugue carries you through a whirlwind of keys only to end up in the home key of B-minor.  Followed by an explosion that would terrify even Beethoven.

Right where I've cut this off, there are four bars here in which Tchaikovsky quotes the Russian Orthodox Requiem. I'm not going to spend the time tracking it down on youtube, but right in the middle of this, This is an unmistakable clue that Tchaikovsky is alluding to something that is much more elemental and horrifying than just sad music.

So in case those explosions aren't enough, we now get to the metaphysical doldrums of something that sounds like depression, but worse than depression, because it's followed by what sounds like pure emotional horror. Once you've felt it, it's devastating that you can never unfeel it. And thereafter, suicide always seems like an option.  It goes upward and upward, only to send itself into the profoundest horror, and then irrevocably downward. It brings to mind that Nietzsche quote to beware staring into the abyss, because the abyss might stare back.

So now, while it's fresh in your minds, let's go to the undanceable waltz of the second movement, which is in 5, not 3. Specifically, let's go to the second movement and those descending strings, the horror which reappears in much more pleasant circumstances. But let's now hear the upward melody to which it's an answer - upwards motion/downwards motion. Upwards and downwards motion is the basis of the Pathetique: yin and yang, eros and thanatos, living and dying.  

Let's go straight to the third movement, which to me, and I emphasize, to me, sounds like Tchaikovsky's positive farewell to life and everything he loves about it, a way of saying 'All things considered, the good times have been pretty great.' But even here, the despair of the first movement never quite leaves, and we're back in the piece's home-key of B-minor.

I could take you through this movement bar-by-bar and show you just how unbelievably well-composed the first two thirds of this movement are, perhaps this is the Tchaikovsky who was hero to young Stravinsky. It even has the pure physical rush of the Rite of Spring, which was only twenty years later.  But I think the best way to show you is to let you feel that amazing crescendo to the climax for yourself and let you experience the unbelievable celebration that Tchaikovsky dreams up here, which is of an excitement beyond any finale in Brahms, Bruckner, maybe even Beethoven.  (Karajan/Berlin) In any other symphony, the final five minutes would belong the finale of an amazing symphony, and yet, this is not the finale, because more powerful than the most powerful life is death.

There is no questioning what happens here, and yet, let's hear how Tchaikovsky perhaps remembers exactly what he loves about life. First, let's re-hear the main theme of the second movement. (Kondrashin/Moscow), and now let's hear what might be a recollection of it in the last movement and how it comes undone in pathos. And then comes still a greater resistance in which perhaps Tchaikovsky rages against what he feels he must do, or of what is eventually demanded of us all. Followed by the inevitable, symbolized, so people say, by a gong. All that's left to do after those trombones from the Requiem quote is to gradually fade away into the material of the earth. It's done note by note by note, down into the depths of basses, and then silence.

Whether this is a symphony of suicide, it's clearly a Symphony of Death. But if we think of history in terms of cyclical theory - the kind you get in Spengler and Toynbee, and in literary criticism from Northrup Frye and Joseph Campbell, after death, the wheel of fortune begins another revolution, and at the beginning of the new revolution comes rebirth, remergence, resurrection....

So before we talk about resurrection, let's talk about a symphonic movement which would seem to be a dialogue with death. Sibelius's Second Symphony is obviously one of the most popular symphonies in the world, but it's also one of the strangest - it's made of a hundred different things that shouldn't necessarily fit together, yet obviously do. Sibelius was still a very young man who hadn't yet found his voice, and large parts of the symphony - often the more popular parts, feel more like Tchaikovsky or Bruckner than they do like Sibelius. And then there's the second movement, which incorporates an attempt Sibelius made at a symphonic poem on Don Juan. But this is a very different Don Juan from either Richard Strauss or Mozart's. The young Sibelius was a drunk and a skirt chaser, and like any good Sandinavian he was as gloomy as any character from Strindberg and Ibsen. This is clearly meant to be a very personal symphonic poem. And when he wrote it, there were certain motifs he wrote over the music.

Let's play the music while I narrate as certain fragments clearly echo the program Sibelius wrote for the music:
"I was sitting in the dark in my castle when a stranger entered. I asked who he could be again and again — but there was no answer. I tried to make him laugh but he remained silent. At last the stranger began to sing — then Don Juan knew who it was. It was death.
I'm sure many of you have seen The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, and it's not that hard to imagine Don Juan as being something like Max von Sydow pleading for his life, playing a chess match, trying, in vain to outsmart the death. This whole movement then goes into scenes that seem to go back and forth between the two sides, and inevitably, death wins, and wins brutally.

But then, twenty minutes later, comes resurrection. We're not going to go into the circumstances of Finnish rebellion against Russia and how Sibelius may or may not have meant this symphony to be You can make your own program for it, but what's clear here is that there is some kind of rebirth or revolution or resurrection, and certainly, some kind of transcendence.  (Szell/Cleveland)

So now let's go to France, or Belgium, and talk about a mystical composer, not unlike Bruckner - a great organist who only found success very late in his life. Other than Berlioz, where was French music in all this? The Germans had all their metaphysics, the Russians all their suffering, but French music is known, at least stereotypically, for its elegance and clarity. It's antithetical to something as large and messy as the symphony. As always, stereotypes have a minimal amount to do with reality, but if there is that stereotype associated with French music, the reason is Saint-Saens, who was the unquestioned King of French music in his time. Saint-Saens was an all-around genius who started as a child prodigy who at the age of eight made his debut and as an encore asked people to call out any Beethoven piano sonata, which he would play from memory. In addition to writing hundreds and hundreds of incredibly well-made pieces was an accomplished amateur in a dozen fields of study - philosophy, archeology, astronomy, and was one of the greatest pianists and organists of his time. He was, however, not a musician of great vision, he had a very formulaic conception of music - taking the conservatism of Mendelssohn to the next logical step, and he mercilessly criticized any French composer who didn't agree. He lived for eighty-six years, and basically created a climate of intellectual fear. He was a musical genius who wrote many good works, they just weren't great.

Enter saintly, shy, Cesar Franck, who in his late sixties produced a series of visionary works that blew up the conservatism of French music. Whereas Bruckner only seems influenced by Wagner, Franck clearly was. All you have to hear is the chromaticism of the Symphony in d to understand how close this is to the world of Wagner (Barenboim/Bayreuth). So now, Franck. You immediately hear that atmospheric, dark, gothic chromaticism - a archetypally dark well of the spirit. A new generation of French composers arose, a generation between Saint-Saens and Debussy - Chausson, d'Indy, Vierne, Duparc, who heard the freedom with which Wagner and Liszt composed and were insanely jealous of Germans. They compared it to the stodgy conservatism of Saint-Saens, and they resisted their instruction musical educations violently. Franck was their patron saint, they called him Pere Franck. They wanted their music to have the passionate intensity of Wagner, and in Franck's Symphony particularly they found an exemplar of how to do it.

And once again, in this symphony of 1888, we find a new way of ending the symphony. Not with the deathly pathos of Brahms 4 and Tchaikovsky 6, but the mystical transcendence of a new kind of symphony. A transcendence that sounds like what happens in a life after death.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Evan, I've noticed that your blog doesn't seem to attract much in the way of comments, so I just thought I'd "drop you a line" to say how much this fortysomething British Gentile is enjoying the stimulating stuff you put up here, and in particular your illuminating series of posts/lessons on the history of the symphony, which is right up my street!