But first, a symphony with a very original ending. (Monteux/London)
That's the end of Dvorak's 7th Symphony, which many people - not me, feel is better than even his New World Symphony. It's unquestionably magnificent though, even if, for me at least, it's a little too energetic and dance-like to have to the full weight of tragedy.
Dvorak wrote nine symphonies, only five of which are ever truly played in the concert hall, and only three of which are masterpieces. Dvorak was, by any standard, one of the very greatest composer,s and he never gets enough credit, but his greatest music, and his most 'natural' music, is his chamber music. Just to give an example of how inestimably beautiful his chamber music is, let's just the beginning of the third movement of his Dumky Trio, which begins with a few bars of music that are as perfect as the beginning of The Magic Flute or Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream. I so wish we had time to listen to the whole thing because it's just so beautiful.
Dvorak was the true successor to Schubert, a genius whose musical talent was so natural that having anything as complicated as an orchestra in front of him would only get in the way. We've already heard, and we'll hear again, that Dvorak was a master, perhaps THE master, of endings. No composer more reliably wrote great endings to his works, but he was not particularly good at openings - it's, in some ways, the opposite of Richard Strauss. The problem is that Dvorak was ultimately a melodist and a dramatist, he never quite figured out symphonic development, and who ultimately cares? He remains one of the world's great melodists, and he has the most achingly beautiful harmonies. Just think of all the melodies in the New World Symphony. Just think of that incredible homesickness at the of the New World Symphony's slow movement in which the melody literally never ends. Dvorak wrote this in Spillville Iowa in the summer of 1893, he was, off and on for about five years, the director of the first American conservatory - Jeannette Thurber, the philanthropist who founded the school, wanted a big name. She tried Tchaikovsky first, and then Dvorak.
But let's listen to that amazing ending to Dvorak 9, which unfortunately always seems to get some idiot clapping before the end. A number of critics think it's a weak ending, because it's neither happy nor sad, but to ask for either is to misunderstand the character of the symphony. It's neither a tragic symphony or a heroic one, it's a homesick one, or a pathetic one. When we say pathetic in contemporary America, we usually mean it as a term of contempt, but contempt is the exact opposite of the word's traditional meaning. Pathetic means a state deserving of compassion, and contemporary America has no word for that. No further comment... But listen to this ending - it's dramatic yes, but you hear the hurt in Dvorak's soul. (Nelsons/Bavarian Radio) (at 40:58...) We're going to skip a minute here
Dvorak's last three symphonies are masterpieces, but it took him six other tries to get there. The Fifth and Sixth are wonderful, but the Fifth has some pretty severe flaws, and the Sixth? Well, let's just compare it to a certain other piece of music written three years before by Brahms, Dvorak's closest musical friend.
First, let's play the beginning of the uncharacteristically festive finale to Brahms's Second Symphony. (Bernstein/Vienna) And now the beginning to the finale of Dvorak 6. (Davis/London) As they used to say in Vaudeville: old gag, new twist.
And now, let's go to the end of both of them. First, this time, the magnificent ending of Dvorak 6 (Davis/London). Now the perhaps even more magnificent ending to the Brahms (Solti/Chicago).
These are Beethovenian endings - not necessarily heroic, but affirmative and celebrational, wonderful endings, but not particularly original. Originality works in the exact opposite way we generally think it does. Unless you've imbibed and assimilated everything which came before you, you have no idea if you're being original or not. It's much better that a piece of music sound derivative than that it sounds insipid. Until the point of Dvorak 6 and Brahms 2, they put new spins on old types of material in their symphonies. In order to write something completely original like the ending of Dvorak 7 or 9, Dvorak first needed figure out how to put new spins on old endings, and Brahms really did too. Consider let's consider a piece you all probably know very well that Brahms may have gotten that last little bit of material for his finale for his 2nd symphony.
So now, a very particular passage in the Third Symphony, not of Dvorak or of Brahms, but of Schumann (Barenboim/Berlin St.). Schumann was not a natural symphonist, and take my word for it, those final two measures we heard have very little to do with the rest of the Symphony. So now listen to what Brahms, who of course knew Schumann's music better than anyone, save Robert's wife Clara, does with these two measures. It's perhaps the only truly derivative part of Brahms's Third Symphony.
Brahms Three is, in my opinion, both best of the four, and clearly also the least popular of the four because it's he least traditionally Beethovenian - it's a Brahms Symphony, so it's still played all the time, but performances of Brahms 3 are just a little bit rarer - and when it's performed, it's often on the first half of the program and there's a longer, flashier work on the second half.
Brahms 3 is a kind of Beethoven Symphony in reverse. Beethoven puts the minor key struggle in the beginning, and the triumphant movement at the end. In Brahms 3, the order is reversed. Beethoven Symphonies get gradually more optimistic, this symphony gets gradually more pessimistic.
Let's hear that opening Eroica-like fanfare again. "Free but happy." (Walter/Columbia) The Symphony is in F-Major, and yet, the second note, 'Aber' or 'but'. It's not an A, but an Ab, which is a minor key note in F. The chronically anxious and melancholic Brahms always has a 'but.' Minor key emotions are always threatening Brahms's confidence, and Brahms needs to find ways to overcome his fears, because in a struggle like Beethoven, he does not have Beethoven's self-confidence to know he'll always win them.
So let's listen for a minute or two to how he transitions, over and over again, almost imperceptibly, to completely different sections, different moods, different material. By this point, Brahms is fifty, a completely mature master, and you can no longer tell where one section begins and another section ends. It's completely seemless. (Furtwangler/Berlin) Schoenberg, who loved Brahms's music as dearly as any composer ever has another, and whose music is occasionally called 'Brahms with wrong notes,' said that Brahms was not a musical conservative but a misunderstood progressive, and he particularly loved this process of Brahms in which the older master is constantly and imperceptibly transitioning his musical material, called this process 'Developing Variation.'
So now, you've heard both a gentle waltz, and the turbulent waltz juxtaposed with each other, yet done in seamless transition. Now hear how he combines the two a few minutes later.
So now, let's hear what happens when Brahms relaxes the tension in a way Beethoven never would in a mystical section that perhaps wouldn't be completely out of place in Wagner.
And now the ultimate heroic statement of the Eroica-like theme, plus the waltz in a completely new, heroic character!
But what happens then? He, once again, ratchets down the tension completely. It's the exact opposite of what Beethoven would do.
A quiet ending to an heroic movement! Beethoven's untamed hair would have stood straight up.
The second movement, the least thought about of the four, is extraordinary in all kinds of ways. We're going to skip the beautiful church chorale that starts it. Let's go straight to the lulling second theme in the middle of this incredibly strange movement. And to lull us still further, Brahms gives us the most unbelievably pieceful but strange, harmonically spare, almost stagnant, interpolation of the first two notes. As though to almost deliberately put us to sleep. This sounds like it could be from Morton Feldman or even Webern. And now, let's leapfrog into the inferno of the final movement and hear this incredibly peaceful theme transformed into something that sounds like war itself. (Beecham/NBC) Not to mention, it's the same four note motif as... guess who?... Beethoven's Fifth!
Everybody's heard the third movement, even if you think you don't. It's a beautiful melody, it's also perhaps the weakest movement because compared to the rest, it doesn't have quite as much formal connection to the rest of the work. It's like a palate cleanser. (Sinatra) OK, this is kind of an abomination, it takes Brahms's amazing melody and puts it into a completely different meter.
So let's hear that famous and gorgeous theme in the original. But now, let's go back to those amazing transitions of Brahms. Let's hear how he transitions back to a restatement of that theme. Listen to the Beethoven 5 rhythm? It's completely disguised, but it's everwhere in there! But it's not just Beethoven's 5th. There's another Schumann reference in there - Schumann's 4th Symphony.
Now let's hear the anxious second subject of the third movement.
What is that possibly setting up in the finale that we've already heard? (Walter/Columbia)
So now, let's finally get to the last movement. Which in a Beethoven symphony would be the opening. Within thirty seconds, you'll hear that motif from the second movement, in a completely different cast.
We'll skip more Beethoven 5 declarations, and I think you've already gotten the turbulence of this movement. And instead, let's hear one of the more magnificent passages in Wagner's Ring (Boulez/Bayreuth). This is the Forest Murmurs in Act II of Siegfried - which has to be easily the most underrated Wagner opera and the most neglected of the Ring Cycle, though it's frankly much more engaging than Das Rheingold. Now let's go straight to that magnificent, peaceful, anti-Beethoven ending of Brahms 3 and hear how, through Wagner, Brahms subverts Beethoven. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
Only someone who completely idolized Beethoven could have written something in such opposition to Beethoven's model. Wagner wrote something completely different from Beethoven, in many ways he transcended Beethoven. But the third symphony is is, in so many ways, the anti-Beethoven's 5th. Beethoven wanted victory, Brahms wanted peace. By opposing Beethoven's revolutionary edge, he preserved everything which Beethoven fought for. He may have lacked Beethoven's will to greatness, but he had his own kind of blood and iron. He had a caution that insisted on getting everything exactly right, and the same iron will Beethoven had, which allowed him to work through his caution. He didn't recapture the spirit of Beethoven's revolutionary zeal, and in 1883, I doubt anyone could. Wagner's revolution was very, very different from Beethoven's. Beethoven's revolution was, ultimately, an affirmation of the self, Wagner's was, in ways we won't get into, a renunciation of the self. Beethoven showed the way out of the struggle. Brahms showed the way to preserve a world without struggle. He showed how we can all achieve something great through weaving an endless array of ideas into a diverse and inclusive whole that incorporates everything at all times.
But not every temperament is Brahms, and clearly not everybody is satisfied with merely endless ingenuity and integration. And don't think Brahms didn't know that.
So now, let's go to the Fourth, which Brahms wrote the next year, at the age of 51, and in many ways is a companion piece to the Third just as the First and Second belong together. I would say the Third is the best of Brahms's 4. It's the most characteristic of Brahms's music. It's the closest to the more peaceful world of his four instrumental concertos, which in my opinion are even better than his symphonies, and also of his chamber music. Brahms did drama extremely well, but what he did even better was a luminous lyricism that exists in this ambiguous state between melody and form. The developing variation in which his music is always evolving in the most luminous way. And there's no better example of this than the Fourth.
Listen to what we call a melody in the opening of the Fourth Symphony. It's so basic that it's barely a melody.
It's just a chain of thirds - in varying octaves: B-G-E-C-A-F#-D#-B. And then, the chain of thirds goes up again: E-G-B-D-F-A-C. Rhythmically it's so foursquare that we have to call it something between a dance and a trudge.
There's no way of knowing exactly what if anything Brahms meant by this except music. Brahms would often try to deceive his friends about the scale of the music he was working on. He wrote to one friend that he was working on a bunch of waltzes and polkas - which should have probably set off some alarms for them. But like Beethoven 7 or Schubert 9, there is something about this music that is a dance symphony. But it's a much more burdensome series of dances, like dances that mek you tired and make you fake enthusiasm when all you want to do is rest. It's perhaps a perfect musical metaphor for daily life. Going back and forth on the same ground, the same predictable routine. A routine that inevitably makes you want to fall asleep and dream. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
So now let's go back to Beethoven. Remember how I said, a bunch of weeks ago that Beethoven's Eighth Symphony could be considered the real First Symphony of Mendelssohn and Brahms? Well, I showed you what I meant by Mendelssohn when we talked about him, but now let's see what we mean when we say that it's Brahms. Let's listen to some of that amazing long coda of Beethoven's 8th. (Szell/Philharmonia)
It's almost impossible to hear the details of those two giant F-Major crashes, the way that Beethoven gets that effect is by instructing each basic section of the orchestra to play five different rhythms. The horns and trumpets play whole notes, violas cellos and basses play quarter notes, the winds play quarter-note triplets, the timpani plays eighth notes, the violins play sixteenth note triplets. It sounds like a jumble, but like so many things that sound like chaos in classical music, particularly in the 20th century, it's actually extreme order.
So now, let's hear that full dreamy passage in Brahms 4th and the buildup within what feels like a dream sequence that might have more rhythms in it than anything between Beethoven's 8th and the Rite of Spring. (Kleiber/Bayerisches St.)
So many musicians complain, rightly so, that Brahms is much much harder to play than he looks. That passage doesn't sound all that revolutionary, but the flutes and oboes and horns and trumpets have one rhythm, the cellos and basses and bassoons have another, the violins still another, the violas still another, and the timpani still another. Just like in Beethoven 8, five simultaneous rhythms, in the middle of a melodic line. It should sound like the most natural thing in the world, but coordinating it's a real nightmare. There was a book by Gunther Schuller, a legend of both classical music and jazz, in which he went through a couple dozen recordings of the piece and found that only one recording by an undistinguished Hungarian orchestra got the rhythms exactly right.
All these little subtle compositional tricks are both the glory of Brahms and also why a lot of people hate his music. By now, the Fourth is probably most people's choice for Brahms's best symphony, but it was the only one of Brahms's symphonies that wasn't an instant success. Some people think that it doesn't evoke mindless routine, but that it was mindless routine. This is what Hugo Wolf, a contemporary of Mahler and a great writer of lieder, had to say about it:
"He (Brahms) never could rise above the mediocre. But such nothingness, hollowness, such mousy obsequiousness as the e-minor Symphony has never yet been revealed so alarmingly in any of Brahms's works. The art of composing without ideas has decidedly found in Brahms one of its worthiest representatives. Like God Almighty, Brahms understands the trick of making something out of nothing. Enough of this hideous game!"Wolf was an incredibly expressive composer, and he responded to music that was immediately expressive. But while Brahms seems like absolute music, there are nevertheless clues that these supposedly 'hideous games' have real meanings. So what might Brahms have really been expressing behind it all? Let's now go to one of Brahms's final works, the third of his Four Serious Songs - O Death How Bitter Are You. (Fischer-Dieskau/Moore). So now let's go forward to the last movement of Brahms 4 (Szell/Cleveland)
The melodies and harmonies of O Tod, O Tod come from the beginning of the first movement, the harmonies of wie bitter come from the beginning of the last movement.
And just in case that seems a bit too coincidental, listen to this moment when falling asleep becomes much much creepier, perhaps like a much deeper sleep. (Jochum/Berlin) It's like a musical memento mori.
So the symphonies we're talking about today are Pathetic Symphonies. Before the 20th century, 'Pathetic' had the precise opposite meaning from what it means today. Not a state deserving of contempt, but deserving of compassion, an ignoble state. These symphonies aren't heroic, perhaps some of them would like to be, but there is no real sense of triumph. It's not hard to imagine what the first audiences thought when they heard Brahms 4, a creeping realization gradually dawning on them that there would not be a happy piece of music (Celibidache/Berlin). A symphony needs lots of work, and Brahms would often find a cabin in the woods for the summer to write his symphonies. After he wrote his Fourth, he wrote to a friend of his about it and he said:
It tastes of the climate here... In general my pieces are unfortunately more agreeable than I am, and one finds less in them to correct?! But in these parts the cherries do not become sweet and edible -- so if the thing doesn't taste good to you, don't bother yourself about it.After that deadly seriousness, you need something that will be a bit more balmy, and the second movement is not only gorgeous and moving, but there is something about it that feels much older. The whole symphony is in E-minor, but while this movement begins in E, it begins not quite in a key so much as in an old Church mode, never mind which, and then it seems to procede in E-major in the rhythm of an old Spanish Baroque dance, the Sarabande with strings imitating a guitar, and quiet winds that sound like the softest possible pedals of a pipe organ. (Kleiber/Vienna)
Fifteen minutes in, the cherries finally sweeten for a minute or two, in the leadup to that gorgeous second subject and we finally have a balm for all that suffering in the first movement, almost like a lullaby, but nevertheless, one that's interrupted a rhythmic figure that becomes more threatening with every appearance. (Kleiber/Vienna)
But of course, this being a 'pathetic' symphony, the soothing nature of it can't last for too long. It was only a matter of time before things got extremely turbulent again. (Furtwangler/Berlin) And yet, Brahms allows for us to have some consolation for our suffering. Another one of Brahms's most moving moments in music, in which, after the turbulence, we emerge with what I can only describe as a Lutheran chorale that ends the music with a peace that completely eludes this music elsewhere.
The raucous third movement is there as a counterweight, again, a palatte cleanser, that is meant like a fake handoff in football (Kleiber/Vienna).
In fact, when I was very young, the first musical joke I ever got was in the third movement of this symphony. But the real question remains, what is Brahms really trying to set up by having this movement? So let's listen to this one passage that builds and builds over eighty seconds until it gets to something that perfectly sets up the finale:
(Go straight into the finale after those five chords (Szell/Cleveland))
An so now we go into a different Baroque dance, the Passacaglia - a repeating bass line, which repeats I believe 29 times over the course of the movement in different tempos. Brahms was the master of variations of any type, and here And within it there can be held all kinds of dances. Tangos, czardases...
But then comes our old friend chromaticism, and Brahms does some incredibly beautiful and creative modal dissonance. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
And then comes the real moment of heartbreak and pathetique, the flute solo. (Bernstein/Vienna.) Then comes another kind of Lutheran chorale in the trombones that's taken up by a fuller choir of winds and brass.
But just when you think salvation is imminent, we have three of the most brutal moments in music. Hanslick, the famous critic, friend of Brahms, and mortal enemy to Wagner and Bruckner, said after hearing this symphony for the first time that he felt like he'd just been beaten up by two very clever men. After an ending like this, which seems to stomp on the hope of what just happened, it's very easy to understand why. (Furtwangler/Berlin)
Brahms was not the most natural symphonist, or, for that matter, the most natural musical genius. He was, however, the most natural composer, so it goes without saying that every one of his symphonies would be works of genius. When we think of what we currently define classical music as, something austere that repays endless relistening so long as we pay close enough attention and devotion, it's in many ways built around the way people listened to music in Vienna circa 1880, when the person whose music they most awaited was Brahms's. It's almost as though the whole experience of classical music is built around Brahms, and perhaps that's no small part of why he engenders so much hate in some and so much love in others.
So now we come to the first ever composer who spoke the orchestra as a native language. Some composers wrote for the orchestra like it was an extension of the piano or string quartet - Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms. Other composers understood how to be innovative in how they used the orchestra, but it ultimately it was not the source of their music's greatness - Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn. And then there were composers like Berlioz and Wagner who basically invented the modern large symphonic orchestra from their own imaginations. But with Tchaikovsky, we see an established conception of the orchestra that's simply taken for granted. Tchaikovsky is the first composer who was probably more adept writing for the orchestra than any other medium. The texture of the orchestra seems interwoven into his music, and while Tchaikovsky was a perfectly good pianist, he wrote in a letter that he couldn't imagine music except in the specific instrumental combinations he wrote for. Tchaikovsky was exactly seven years younger than Brahms, but those seven years seem to demarcate a new generation of composers. Brahms was young enough to remember the world of Schumann and Mendelssohn, and had a conception of music as form that was inspired by music as early as the early Renaissance. When Tchaikovsky was growing up, Wagner was talked about everywhere - dividing opinion everywhere between thinking him a god and a demon, Lisztomania inflamed the whole world, and while Berlioz was not appreciated properly, there was one country which couldn't seem to get enough of his music - Russia.
No society cared more deeply about literature than 19th-century Russia, so it seems sort of natural that they would take a composer so inspired by literature like a fish to water. Tchaikovsky was no exception in this regard, he of course wrote the overture based on Romeo and Juliet everybody loves, but also wrote great works like Francesca da Rimini based on a canto of Dante's Inferno, overtures based on Hamlet and The Tempest, and an entire symphony based on Byron's Manfred.
The term decadence gets thrown around a lot when it comes to society around the late 19th century, but decadence is, when properly defined, not a term with moral disapproval. It simply means a society that has lost its preconceived notions of what's moral and true - a society is generally built on widespread agreement on priorities, and it generally fractures when the agreement is no longer there. So when I say Wagner is a symptom of 19th century decadence, that shouldn't have a criticism implied. Wagner was such an event in music that he changed the curvature of everybody's thinking about what music could do. Before Wagner there was doubt as to whether music COULD express extra-musical ideas, after Wagner there was doubt as to whether music SHOULD.
So in the couple years after 1876, Wagner's Ring Cycle, musical development seemed to split country by country into those who didn't want to incorporate Wagner's reforms. In Vienna, Brahms wanted to continue plowing the fields of Beethoven - showing that you could burrow ever deeper into the formal relationships of musical motifs (Furtwangler/NDR). Brahms may have been the conservative of his time, but from Brahms, we get the path to atonality and serialism of Schoenberg, we get the neoclassicism of Hindemith and Reger, we get the still severer symphonic forms of Sibelius and Nielsen, and the luminous organ-like sonorities of Vaughan Williams, and you could even make the argument that the deeper Hungarian music of Bartok and Kodaly wouldn't be possible without the gypsy-lite music of Brahms's Hungarian Dances and so many passages in his other works.
Here's a second path. (Kleiber/Vienna) Bizet's Carmen, premiered the year before Wagner's Ring was released, but only achieving worldwide success a year after when Bizet was dead already. What a loss that was. Carmen completely wiped the slate clean of musical metaphysics. From Carmen on, the operative word of so much music was pleasure. And many musicians believed that we're just a bunch of neuro-physiological nerves with a hydro-chemical consciousness, nothing but physical material for whom the only real sensations that count are pleasure and pain; so we might as well give pleasure. From Bizet you get the hedonism of Debussy and Ravel and Milhaud and Poulenc, you even arguably get Jazz and the entirety of 20th century pop music.
And then there's the Russian way. Since Wagner demonstrated that form and motifs could end up being an end in themselves, the priority in how to build music has to be different, and a completely new and still underrated line of great symphonic composers was started with Tchaikovsky that, if it's ending, has only ended very recently. Not just big names like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, perhaps Scriabin and Rachmaninov and Glazunov too; but names that have yet to be discovered in the West on a wide scale like Miaskovsky and Schnittke and Taneyev, plus some offshoots to great symphonists in Poland like Penderecki and Panufnik. Plus many others in genres that are not symphonies.
Perhaps this new Russian tradition would develop so many symphonists because it was more naturally close to the Beethovenian spirit than the others. Wagner's music was certainly incredibly expressive, but it was almost beyond expression - meta-expressive perhaps. Wagner's music was less interested in expressing the characters' emotional states than it was in using their emotional states to illustrate philosophical points. But Tchaikovsky's music was, in some senses, more directly expressive, perhaps even self-expressive, than any music until his point in music history: Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann. Whereas Brahms and Wagner, in their very different ways, took the emphasis off of self-expression, Tchikovsky doubled down on it. And the 'double-down' was crucial, Tchaikovsky's self-expression took on a very different hue from Beethoven's, and we'll see exactly how when we talk about the Pathetique. Many people call it a 'symphonic hybrid.' It loosens the constraints of symphonic form, and rather than motifs, it allows for full melodies to blossom through.
Tchaikovsky was the first in this line, and the appeal of his last three symphonies is so immediate that it almost seems like he's cheating. There were years of my life, college of course when I was a pretentious composition student, when I really doubted the greatness of Tchaikovsky - the construction of his three famous symphonies was just too sloppy and felt like filler. And even if they're not, there is something about the Symphonies that are so unbelievably melodramatic that they feel a bit narcissistic. To me, Tchaikovsky's greatest music is still the ballets. He had most of his greatest success in the theater, and the greatest success of all in his career was Sleeping Beauty, which is probably his magnum opus. Unfortunately, Tchaikovsky, and most people probably, thought that ballets were an inferior artform, and when a star pupil of his had the temerity to tell him that the inner movements of Tchaikovsky 4 sound like ballet music, he was extremely offended. So as such, he put the greater share of his attention elsewhere, and as always, people's greatest talents, even a genius on the level of Tchaikovsky, go misused in the best of circumstances.
Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky obviously brought a theater composer's dramatic sensibility into the concert hall. But his ballets have an emotional balance that's worthy of Mozart, they can be plenty dark but the dark is always balanced by light in a way that his famous three symphonies are obviously not. And while it's a shame that we won't talk much about the second symphony, because there are moments when I think to myself that both his first two symphonies, played so much less than the last three, are greater than his last three because their spirit is so much closer to the ballets. Just to give a couple quick examples, I can't let the first symphony go without comment: here's the just magical opening of the first symphony, called Winter Daydreams (Gergiev/London). And then there's that even more magical second movement, which sounds like a twelve-minute Pas de deux from one of his ballets. In Tchaikovsky, a Pas de deux is always something special. Let's go roughly eight minutes in and feel the winter breeze and imagine the prima ballerina being lifted in the air. And in case that isn't enough to make you think that this might be a composer put on earth to write ballet, listen to a bit of the scherzo. And finally, let's just listen to the incredible lengths to which Tchaikovsky turns the transformation from Beethoven's Fifth, that we've now heard in Schumann's 4th - which was a huge influence on Tchaikovsky's 2nd symphony, into something miraculously long and church like, it begins with what clearly sounds like a Russian chorale being sung in a very dark place.
If you really start listening to music deeply, you can begin to convince yourself that there's no such thing as an original idea. It's not that there's no such thing as an original idea, it's that originality only happens by assimilating everything that comes before. If you really want to understand a symphony or a painting or a novel, look at the work of the creator's heroes and you'll see how their work got transformed. When you see Beethoven's Fifth against the backdrop of Tchaikovsky's first two symphonies, or Schumann's Fourth, or Brahms First and Third, all these works take on new meaning, which gives Beethoven's Fifth new meaning too! Together, they point toward like lanterns toward a new direction of the imagination. Milan Kundera uses that metaphor for the history of the novel in The Curtain, so much for my originality...
All this is a way of saying that my period of distaste for Tchaikovsky's famous symphonies was before I started reading Russian literature. Once you see how Dostoevsky's characters express themselves - and some critic once called Dostoevsky the Shakespeare of the insane asylum, once you realize the sort of ultra-refined, almost French, sensibilities of Tolstoy, you really do begin to understand how Tchaikovsky became the composer he became, and I developed a completely new, and much deeper, appreciation of his music.
There are basically two sides to Tchaikovsky's personality. One is the Tolstoy or Turgenev side - the ultra-refined conversationalist, perhaps even social climber, who could speak fluent French and German at the drop of a hat, who was beloved of every society hostess, who knew exactly how to flatter patrons and placate musicians. The side which wrote beautiful, lyrical melodies, the poet of nostalgia and elegies with incredible nuance and depth of feeling.
But then there's the explosive, Dostoevskian side who obviously had subterranean urges that, even if they weren't particularly animalistic, since they were homosexual urges, Tchaikovsky himself obviously viewed them as animalistic. But even if Tchaikovsky were straight, he might not have been completely together emotionally. Tchaikovsky conducted the first ever performance at Carnegie Hall in 1891, and the legend goes that he never let his left hand let go of his head because he somehow became convinced that his head was about to fall off. When he wrote his first symphony, which everyone should hear at some point, he was so insane that he literally thought he was dying of a series of strokes. This is not to say that Tchaikovsky's sexuality was not a source of unfathomable anxiety to most people, but it's also to say that he was of a particular type of personality that made such inner conflicts worse for himself.
In Tchaikovsky you see a battle raged not just between these two sides of his personality, but these two sides of Russia as well, two sides that are still fighting as hard as ever. One side, the Western side of Russia you read in Turgenev, loves tolerance and nuance, is at least open-minded enough to not ask or tell, and just wants to be accepted by mainstream Europe. This is the side of Tchaikovsky that made him get a Western-style education whereas other great composers of his time and place like Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Balakirev, were almost completely self-taught. It also drove him into traditional Western forms like the Symphony, of which he was the only one of the ones mentioned to write more than three. And contra popular opinion, Tchaikovsky didn't write six symphonies, he wrote nearly eight if you count Manfred and what we now call the Seventh Symphony - a symphony he completed more than half of but gave up shortly before the end and worked the material into other works.
But then there's the Russia of Dostoevsky (and for that matter, of Mussorgsky), the mystical Russia who has priests everywhere that seem like Old Testament Prophets who obsessively denounce everything which they see as morally decadent, particularly homosexuals, since so many religious fanatics over the years have so obviously been gay themselves. Eventually many of their descendants became Politboro apparatchiks. At least one of them seems to still long for the Politboro and has an obsession with taking shirtless pictures of himself atop a horse that he then broadcasts to the world...
So keeping in mind these dualities both of Tchaikovsky's character and also of Russia's character, let's take a look at the Fourth Symphony. We're not going to talk much about the Fifth Symphony, just because I still haven't really made my peace with it. It's never any less than good, but to me, it's so much more formulaic than the Fourth and Sixth. I honestly think the first two symphonies are better than the Fifth and Manfred is just as good.
So we've listened now to the beginning of Tchaikovsky 4, just remember that beginning when we go forward. Listen now to the very distant way Tchaikovsky begins this next section. Like a dance band playing a waltz from the next room - think of that famous distant music as Jack Nicholson hallucinates the bartender in The Shining (Nelsons/Birmingham). But it's not just a waltz, just to add a bit of confusion, this is a waltz-squared, or maybe even a Waltz multiplied by i. It's not in 3, it's in 9. ONE-2-3-FOUR-5-6-SEVEN-8-9. And to add to the complication, Tchaikovsky's melody is in a much more complex meter 2+2+2+3/8 (sing and clap it). This is not a waltz meant to lure you, this is a waltz meant to exhaust you - perhaps, like in the beginning of Brahms's Fourth, Tchaikovsky really resents pretending like he's enjoying the dance.
And then there's the second subject, in which Tchaikovsky finally seems to allow himself to truly acknowledge how badly he's feeling. In the winds you can hear what sounds, at least to me, like sighing on those downward slides, while the strings give us any number of ghostly memories of the dance. And then that dance seems to get creepier and ghostlier every time it reappears, especially because it's now in a major key, B-major, and it's the most distant major key from the home key, F-minor.
So now comes the moment in the first movement everybody remembers, or at least should remember if it's played well. No symphonic composer before Tchaikovsky would have the stones to do this. Just a simple sequence of upward notes, unadorned by anything, that gets more and more intense, until he brings back the opening fanfare. (Temirkanov/Royal Phil) Brahms would be absolutely scandalized by composition like this from a student! But such is the intensity that Tchaikovsky's worked up for us by this point that it absolutely works - or at least it does if the conductor gradually accelerates the tempo. This is one of the great moments in any composer's music. And this is what's meant by originality - it took Tchaikovsky three symphonies before he figured out an original spin on symphonic form. It took Mozart more than twenty more symphonies than Tchaikovsky to reach the same level - and Mozart was Tchaikovsky's hero along with Schumann.
So now, let's look at a bit of the second movement. Just that magnificently boring beginning. A perfect picture of depression which Tchaikovsky by an oboe playing, by my count, eighty eighth notes. Followed by the cello playing it again. 160 eighth notes without any interruption. So what exactly was Tchaikovsky depressed about? Well, for one thing, he married a groupie he didn't really know at all who was desperately in love with him because of his music and threatened suicide if he didn't marry her. Stunningly, the groupie turned out to be mentally unstable, and Tchaikovsky is said to have attempted suicide within six weeks of their marriage. I'm loathe to tell the full story because the circumstances aren't entirely clear and I don't want to give misinformation and wade through what I think is true and what I think isn't, particularly because that's much more relevant in the Pathetique Symphony, the 6th.
The more important relationship to this piece is the mythical Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky's pen pal, closest friend, confidante, patroness, and most importantly, a person whom he never even met. They agreed that they could be far better friends if they stayed at a distance from each other. No doubt they were at the same concerts, there is even a story about her being at the same vacation resort and Tchaikovsky not knowing how to handle the situation. But in person, they had nothing to do with each other, and the young Debussy was Nadezhda von Meck's personal musician for a brief time when he was in Russia, and he obviously had much more to do with Madame von Meck's daily life than Tchaikovsky did. The point of such relationships, forget anything about sexuality, is this romantic, almost medieval, notion of courtly love from afar. This generally does not exist in anything but the upper class, which can afford to be impractical, and think of love of the spirit that has no bodily need to take care of. Such people, almost inevitably, seem to gravitate to classical music - the music of the disembodied world.
Did Madame von Meck know that Tchaikovsky was gay? Probably. I doubt Tchaikovsky ever said anything so revealing in his letters, but she could clearly put two and two together, she no doubt heard the gossip every upper class person in Russia heard, and who knows, I've never actually examined the correspondence between the two but there is plenty of sexual code that exists in so many letters from back in the day. There's that famous line in a letter from Jonathan Swift to a female friend. I forget exactly how it goes but it was to the effect of: 'I enjoyed the cup of coffee we had last night, I'm looking forward to two or three cups of coffee with you tomorrow morning.'
Madame von Meck was, for at least fifteen years, the most important person in Tchaikovsky's life. She not only gave him money, but he could confide to her, if not about his sex life, then at least about his emotional state. He would not have had the nerve to write anything nearly so original as the Fourth Symphony without her friendship, and it was, in many ways, an autobiography of his emotional turmoil around the time of his marriage.
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 true. It's one thing to proposition soldiers and workers and even other noblemen, but it's another to 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. There were plenty of gay people in Russian high society, so long as it was kept quiet, everybody pretended to a certain extent that these things weren't there.
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 orchestra, and 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.
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 concieved 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. 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 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 second movement and those descending strings which reappear in much more pleasant circumstances. It's another practically undanceable waltz, a waltz in 5/4 if you can believe it.
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, 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, this is the Tchaikovsky who was hero to the 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 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.
We will leave that last musical gesture for two classes from now, when we compare it with Sibelius Four and Mahler Nine.