So let's start with exactly where we left off: the third movement of Tchaikovsky 4. What did Tchaikovsky do to get rid of all that turmoil? Well, for one thing, he turned to 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 Russian settings where gentry act up like you find in certain scenes in The Brothers Karamazov or War and Peace, 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, and, of course, Oscar Wilde - who underwent the kind of trial that was exactly what Tchaikovsky most feared - more on that in a minute. So who knows what these hallucinations are? But 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 these people were no different than others.
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 womanizer 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. 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 in E-Flat Major, the key of the Eroica, but this is not an heroic explosion, it is an explosion of the most brutal, terrifying sarcasm.
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. Take the Organ Symphony, an extraordinarily well-made piece of music - all of Saint-Saens's works are extraordinarily well-made. But, at least in my opinion, it's not so much a great symphony as a great imitation of one. Exciting as it is, there is no hard-won sense of struggle. The C-Major triumph duly appears exactly where it's supposed to, but there's no sense that it urgently needs to be there. It's exciting, it's beautiful, it's astonishingly well-composed in a traditional manner to a point well past so many of Saint-Saens's more clumsy symphonic contemporaries like Bruckner and Franck and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak, but it is not a great symphony.
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 perhaps like what happens in a life after death.
So now we come to two gigantic works that completely reestablish the metaphysical struggles of Beethoven, but on a much higher plane than Beethoven ever aimed for. In the third and fifth, Beethoven aimed for victory, in the Sixth, Beethoven aimed for peace, in the Ninth, Beethoven aimed for brotherhood and universal human love, but the metaphysical struggle, at least in the symphonies, never seemed to extend to eternity.
We've played quite a bit of the first movement of Bruckner 8 in at least two classes, but I just want to point out one thing in it. After the movement's enormous climax, it ends with the most chillingly quiet ending which Bruckner referred as his 'death watch.' You almost hear the ticking of the clock.
This is a very different Bruckner, it's almost as though the stress of success completely changed him. Before, when he was working unsupported, he knew how to be humble, but with the worldly success of the 7th symphony came the stress of living up to it. Bruckner 8 is in many ways much more ambitious than the 7th, as though Bruckner is ready to grapple with the full demons of the world in a way that he wasn't willing to since much earlier in his career - the first three symphonies when perhaps, in my opinion and many opinions, he was biting off somewhat more than he could yet chew. But now, he was ready, and the entire symphony built out of just the two notes of the beginning. Here's how he transforms it in the horns in the second movement . Here's how he transforms it in the violins in the 3rd movement - listen to those final two passing tones, they almost sound like what we call grace notes - like a musical afterthought, and yet they're utterly crucial to the movement. And here, as we've heard, is how he transforms it in the strings in the last movement. When he sent it to the eighth, Hermann Levi, Levi sent it back, saying he was completely mystified by the work. Bruckner was crushed and he considered suicide. He went back and he made revisions not only to the 8th, but just about all his symphonies, and every conductor has a horrible choice to make because no one knows truly which edition is Bruckner's real inspiration and which edition is Bruckner trying to make his work more palatable.
So just to give you an example of the changes, here is how Bruckner originally ended the first movement of the Eighth. (Inbal/Frankfurt)
It's much more traditionally Brucknerian, and it's terribly flawed - much too long and redundant, and as we'll see, it sort of gives the game away in the last movement. Bruckner absolutely made the right call in his revision, yet I always find myself miss that shock of grandeur.
Let's just briefly talk about the last two movements. Bruckner has already given us death in the first movement, so it's time to take us to heaven, and it's striking that this is the only symphony of his that has a harp. What can this be but a revelation of the angels, perhaps as Bernini or Botticelli rendered them, strumming on their harps in heaven. (Tennstedt/Chicago)
But once again, when we talk about transcendence, when we talk about that mystical plane to which only the Symphony seems to reliably bring us, that transfiguration that seems to happen in Beethoven 5, in Schumann 4, in Brahms 1, we arrive at the Symphony's ultimate transfiguration, the end of Bruckner 8. The transcendence at the end of the symphony is the point of the whole symphony. At the end of Bruckner 8, we are supposed to feel as though we're in the presence of God herself. (Celibidache/Munich0
And now that we are in the presence of God herself, we are ready to talk about the composer who gives us the God's-eye view of all creation. There were greater composers who wrote symphonies, but there has never, and probably will never, be a greater symphonist. He said of the symphony that it must be like the world, it must embrace everything, and in his music we find the entire world of his time and place expressed - along with reflections on the past and visions of the future. We have reached the Symphonic Summit, and we are ready to speak of the composer for whom the entire history of the symphony was leading. I'm talking, of course, about Gustav Mahler. (Bernstein/New York)
So that incredible explosion on a diminished chord, where could Mahler have gotten the idea for that? And those incredibly, horrifically diminished chords with which Mahler ends this passage of his Resurrection Symphony, where could Mahler have gotten the idea for that? (Karajan/Berlin)
And those cellos at the beginning of the finale of Beethoven 9. Remember those, and remember them in addition to the overture to Wagner's Die Walküre.(Boulez/Bayreuth) And here is the beginning of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony. (Mehta/Israel)
In Mahler, the entire history of German music from Bach to Wagner and Brahms exists in dialogue. Every scrap of music Mahler ever valued, and many that he didn't, ends up in Mahler, transformed as only a genius can. Mahler knew that the world was changing very quickly, and he had, as Leonard Bernstein put it, one foot in the past, to which he held on desperately, and one foot, insecurely and reluctantly in the future.
I would add to that that Mahler had a third foot, perhaps his most important foot, in the present. His musical universe was no more dissonant than his contemporary and friend (not to mention, rival) Richard Strauss, yet as a composer, Richard Strauss was infinitely more admired in their own time. Strauss was precisely what a composer was supposed to be in 1905. He set philosophical ideas to music, he used the orchestra like a virtuoso, and he made lofty ideas entertaining. Mahler, on the other hand, made entertainment lofty (Walter/New York)
This is based on a song by Mahler. (Prey/Krist) St. Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fish. I don't think I need to point out how much these fish sound strangely like belly lox and sturgeon. Part of the text reads:
The sermon having ended,
each turns himself around;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.So let's just say, purely speculation, that fish are a code for a very specific type of heathen. Let's just fast foward a few minutes and hear a very clear dichotomy in this music. The Jew and the Christian are heard unmistakably together. One side is going about its business, sounding uncannily like Tevye and Lazar Wolf, another side is clearly preaching. One is low comedy, the other is high sublimity, and it seems very clearly as though Mahler is mocking the sublime, and taking the side of the lowbrows. Wagner's operas were longer, more dissonant, and more bombastic - and so, sometimes was Richard Strauss. Mahler didn't offend anybody with hose three criteria, Mahler's offense was to pollute Holy German Art with street music, with folk music, with eccentric instruments and sounds that are clearly supposed to be comic, ironic, and anything but serious. He was ahead of his time, but more importantly, he was a man of his time in a manner that the audiences of his time were in denial about. Proper Germans believed that music must always be lofty, utterly serious, with eyes placed straight onto the heavens. Mahler certainly stormed the heavens, and that made the moments when he cast his eye on the streets that much more offensive. Music, in Mahler's Symphonies, was a democracy. Every human sentiment exists in dialogue with each other - tragedy with comedy, street music with church music, sublimity with vulgarity. This is what nobody could forgive Mahler for, and Mahler knew it.
So now we go forward another few minutes: (Bernstein/New York)
To me, this has an unmistakable flavor of religious violence. Perhaps even the dreaded Pogrom. But again, that's purely subjective speculation. And yet, let's fast forward again. The beginning of the last movement has the exact same musical material, what Mahler called, in the program he wrote for this symphony, the Cry of Despair. Mahler is clearly setting us up for some kind of religious event.
I doubt that Mahler had anything more than the same vague forebodings that everybody had in his time that society was breaking down and a great destructive event might be imminent. But I do think he had more than a vague sense that something in his society was totally awry.
Mahler was, of course, born Jewish. He converted to Christianity for a job - to become the director of the Vienna Opera - the top job in the conducting world. When he converted, he shrugged it off by saying that 'I've changed my shirt.' In his soul, Mahler was neither Jewish nor a Christian, he was a typical intellectual of his time and place. Not an atheist, but a metaphysician, a kind of deist or pantheist for whom God was, perhaps as Spinoza - another not quite Jew - would put it, God is the universe itself, and reflected in every part of creation - which is exactly what Mahler tried to put into his symphonies.
The last movement of Mahler's Resurrection, like Beethoven's Ninth, is meant to be something larger than perfect. The musical material deliberately doesn't hang together, it's basically a hybrid of cantata and symphonic poem.
Here is the program Mahler wrote for this movement:
Once more we must confront terrifying questions. The movement starts with the same dreadful scream of anguish that ended the scherzo. The voice of the Caller is heard.There are elements of both Judaism and Christianity in this vision. first there is the moment when Mahler seems to quote the Jewish Rosh Hashana prayer: Oonetaneh Tokef - "Ooveshofar Gadol, Hitakah! Hitakah!"
The end of every living thing has come, the Last Judgment is at hand, and the horror of the Day of Days has come upon us.It's also worth noting that in Judaism, Yom Kippur is known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths.
The earth trembles; the Last Trump sounds; the graves burst open; all the creatures struggle out of the ground, moaning and trembling. Now they march in a mighty procession: rich and poor, peasants and kings, the whole church with bishops and popes. All have the same fear, all cry and tremble alike because, in the eyes of God, there are no just men.So the way Mahler sets this is what would be music straight out of a B-horror movie.
At the end of this passage, we finally have a moment that recalls the first movement. Let's refresh ourselves with a bit of the existential terror from the first movement. It's as though it recalls the ultimate 'terrifying' question of existence. And now we hear it at the moment before resurrection when salvation is completely in doubt.
Here's Mahler again:
How does Mahler set the cry of mercy and forgiveness? More freygisher scales, more that's redolent of Judaism, with a God that is both terrifying, and takes up these questions in a way that signals that perhaps his judgement will be more Jewish than Christian...
The cry for mercy and forgiveness sounds fearful in our ears. The wailing becomes gradually more terrible. Our senses desert us; all consciousness dies as the Eternal Judge approaches.
The trumpets of the Apocalypse ring out. Finally, after all have left their empty graves and the earth lies silent and deserted, there comes only the long-drawn note of the bird of death. Even it finally dies.The second symphony was one of the only pieces whose performances were praised in Mahler's own lifetime. It was said that at the premiere, the entire audience exhaled together at what followed.
What happens now is far from expected. Everything has ceased to exist. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard. Soft and simple, the words gently swell up: "Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt! Then the glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and no small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence.
Mahler converted to Catholicism two years after this piece premiered, but this is an extremely un-Catholic vision of resurrection. What it is, however, is a vision that is full of Christian mercy, in which all sins are forgiven and mankind is redeemed. If redemption was not to be, as Beethoven dreamed, here on earth, then perhaps it can happen in the next world.
This is the moment when I should probably talk about Mahler 8, but that's the one Mahler symphony I don't care much for, so let's leave it here.