Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading Tchaikovsky's 6th

In the Cyrillic alphabet, his full name looks like this: Пётр Ильич Чайкoвский. In Roman letters there are almost infinite ways to spell it, which can be a pain if you have to search a library catalogue for scores and recordings of his music. For example, the first letter of his last name is sometimes transliterated as Ch, sometimes Tch, and sometimes Tsch, depending on the system of transliteration. For now, I'm going with the spelling in Wikipedia: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. But you may call him Peter if you like. He won't mind. He's been dead since 1893, when at the age of 53 he either succumbed to cholera (the traditional view) or poisoned himself to save the honor of his school after being caught in an affair with a young nobleman (the more recent, sensational theory). Oscar Wilde thought he had it bad.

Tchaikovsky, the quintessential "arch-Romantic" composer, wrote six symphonies. The sixth and last, in B minor, was first performed only nine days before its composer's demise. Like one of Beethoven's piano sonatas, it is subtitled Pathétique, which means "passionate." Actually, apart from the final movement, it is lighter and more popularly toned than his other mature symphonies. But there is no arguing with the fact that it covers a wide range of emotions and, in its outer movements at least, has a pronounced dark side. The fact that the inner movements are on the lighter side - a graceful Waltz and a marchlike Scherzo - cannot negate the impact of the slow movement coming at the end, especially if you're in the mood to consider morbid rumors about Tchaikovsky's death. (I myself, in using this symphony as a talking piece for getting friends interested in fine-art music, like to call the finale a "musical suicide note.")

Movement 1 starts with a quietly growling, menacing introduction in the orchestra's lowest register. This foreshadows the main motive of the sonata movement that follows. The first group (definitely a group, not just a theme) is dominated by a four-note theme that Tchaikovsky treats with a certain contrapuntal rigor, at least relative to his usual procedure. This B-minor material has a severe, angry aspect to start with. After a transition that dwindles down to a single, rising cello line, the second group comes in with a big, broad, gushingly sentimental Romantic Love Theme, reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. This group moves onto some lighter, almost cheerful material before returning to the love theme again. Then follows a thrillingly dramatic development section built mainly on material from the first group; in compensation, the recap is limited to material from the second group. The movement ends with a coda that seems to be waving a peaceful farewell. Or maybe that's just my morbid imagination again.

I have already described Movement 2 (that "graceful Waltz," remember?), though perhaps no description can prepare you for the sumptuous treat that awaits you in this satiny-smooth dance. One can imagine Russian nobility in their finest evening dress floating and bobbing to strains such as these, in a metre that one seldom finds outside Russian music: 5/4. Wiki speculates that Tchaikowsky was trying to suggest a sense of "limping" or "stretching", but actually I have found a number of pieces by Russian composers in similar metres. The alternation of 2- and 3-beat groups, sometimes strictly alternating and sometimes in a palindromic 3:2:2:3 repeated pattern, adds an interesting dimension to music that seems almost weightless. The central "trio" is a bit more somber sounding, foreshadowing the despair of the final movement.

Movement 3 (that brisk, marchlike Scherzo I mentioned earlier) is a study in the art of a long, slow build-up. The main theme of the movement seems to be coming, and coming, and coming until you are almost frantic with anticipation; then, like a joke, it first appears as a moderately soft, jaunty clarinet tune. Soon afterward, however, it bursts out into its full military splendor, then comes back again and again, each time more triumphant. Parts of this movement would sound at home in one of Tchaikovsky's ballet suites, like the Nutcracker. But mostly it is needed as a counterweight to...

The dreaded "musical suicide note" of Movement 4. Though, as always, Tchaikowsky's orchestration is full of imaginative color and detail, one ends up recalling nothing but divisi strings drooping ever downward in poignant despair. Even a number of very loud, brassy fanfares fail to pull the movement out of its seemingly endless slump, until it fades away into the same quiet depths from which this symphony first arose.

I have become less and less a Tchaikovsky fan over the years. Even this piece, at times, irritates me - particularly things like the abrupt transition, or rather lack of one, between the first movement's development and recapitulation. At times I have felt Tchaikovsky's craftmanship did not run deep; it majored in surface effects, but did not penetrate to deeper levels of form and structure. Nevertheless, this piece - for all its mawkish love theme and maudlin theatricality - has always held a special place in my heart, and will probably be popular as long as the fine-art music tradition holds up. I have midified most of the first movement (as a college project); and my sole positive contribution to a high-school level "college bowl" competition was to shout out "Tchaikovsky!" when the questioner had only said four words ("Madame Nadezhda von Meck...") - proof that it's always handy to have a music geek around, just to diversify things. So it's good to have Tchaikovsky in my life.

EDIT: In the video below, Arkady Leytush conducts the Moscow Philharmonic in the third movement of this symphony:


barrr said...

"pathétique" doesn't mean "passionate" in English. The word "pathetic" would be the closest corresponding word in English dictionary you can find.

RobbieFish said...

Not in the sense in which most English speakers understand the word "pathetic" today.