Today I wanted to share with you an incredible but forgotten gem: Concert Fantasia by Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky composed it in 1884, and it was very popular for about twenty years, then virtually disappeared from the public repertoire for a hundred years, until the late 20th Century. The reason for its disappearance escapes me – I’ll let you be the judge, but I think it is Tchaikovsky’s finest work.
Concert Fantasia is basically a concerto for piano and orchestra that doesn’t follow traditional concerto rules, as it has two movements instead of three. It seems to me that it’s the piano concerto that Tchaikovsky always wanted to compose. Tchaikovsky hated the sound of piano and orchestra together. About four minutes into this concerto the orchestra stops playing and the piano goes into a solo mode for more than nine minutes. Come to think of it, maybe this explains why this concerto disappeared for so long – conductors did not want to conduct it and musicians did not to play it. Concertos are usually a team sport of a solo instrument and orchestra – this one is not. I don’t know a single concerto where the conductor and whole orchestra sit on their hands and watch a solo piano go on an exploratory journey for almost a third of the concerto.
Previously I discussed Franz Liszt’s contribution to the modern piano – mainly his transformation of piano technique and creation of new, more technically demanding music for the much-improved piano. I argued that without Liszt the music of Grieg, Rachmaninoff, and Brahms would sound very different. I should add Tchaikovsky and especially this concerto to this list. Close your eyes and listen to the solo piano part – at times this instrument sounds like a complete orchestra (this is post-Liszt new music for new piano).
Moscow Philharmonic, Vladimir Ochinnikov (piano)
Moscow Radio Orchestra, Michael Pletnev (piano)
I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s music when I was well into my thirties. I am not talking about his ballets or even his first piano concerto. (I feel I consumed that concerto in tandem with my mother’s milk.) But I feel that I had to mature as an adult to be able to relate to the deep emotional content of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. Today I want to share with you Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. I listened to it a few times when I was younger, but it didn’t click with me until recently.
Tchaikovsky was a symphonist. He admitted to a friend that he hated the way the piano sounded with an orchestra. In Tchaikovsky’s piano concertos the piano is often not a soloist but just another instrument. You can clearly hear this in the second movement of his second piano concerto.
There are two versions of this concerto. The first version is what Tchaikovsky originally composed; but it was long, and so it was modified (cut) by Tchaikovsky’s friend, the composer Alexander Siloti. The second movement of this concerto received most of Siloti’s knife work, allowing us to clearly see the difference between Tchaikovsky’s piece and what a by-the-book piano concerto should be like. Siloti took what sounded lik`e a triple concerto (a concerto for violin, cello, and piano) and turned it into a concerto for piano and orchestra.
Luckily for us, both versions were preserved. Here is the (uncut) original version. It starts with a violin solo, followed by solos for cello and then piano – a typical triple concerto.
Here is Siloti’s shortened version, which clearly follows the rules of traditional piano concertos.
I love both versions equally. What about you?
Today I wanted to share with you Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 6, called “Pathetique” (which translates from Russian as “passionate”). It was Tchaikovsky’s last symphony. He conducted its premier just nine days before his death in 1893. He was 53 years old.
To understand this symphony, we have to understand the dark period in Tchaikovsky’s life.
Tchaikovsky was a master of emotions, because he was a neurotic, highly sensitive person, full of phobias (we know this from his letters). For instance, he had a phobia that his head would fall off when he was conducting. (He eventually overcame this phobia, as at times he had to earn a living as a conductor.) His music is ridden with emotions; it is manifestation of his emotions. It is his emotional confession.
Tchaikovsky wrote “Pathetique” when he was depressed and doubting his ability to compose. (He had destroyed his previous symphony because he was unsatisfied with it.)
Tchaikovsky died from catching cholera by drinking unboiled water, or at least this is the official story. However, there is another very plausible theory, which is that Tchaikovsky committed suicide. His gay relationship with a young nobleman was about to be exposed, which would have brought public shame and destroyed his social status. (Remember this was the homophobic Russia of 120 years ago, which actually is not much different from today’s Russia in this respect).
There is an argument that “Pathetique” is Tchaikovsky’s suicide note. Historians and musical critics are divided on this point. They don’t know, and we will probably never know the truth, but I would like to zoom in on fourth movement of this symphony and let the music help you decide.
The first three movements are gloriously optimistic– there is a waltz; beautiful, lingering melodies; and ballet dances. You don’t need much imagination to see a sunrise, vast Russian landscapes, troikas, and bright white snowfields (Doctor Zhivago-type).
The fourth movement is different. It starts with a cry for help (voiced with the violins). It builds on melancholic, depressive overtones. Tchaikovsky masterfully borrows melodic elements from the first three movements, but these melodies are barely recognizable are as they are painted over with deep sadness. And unlike Tchaikovsky’s other pieces that arrive at a natural finale (you can feel they are about to end), this symphony (like death) ends in nothingness, absolute nothingness – the music just fades out.
Here are performances of the full symphony. I suggest you listen to them first:
- Herbert Von Karajan
- Leonard Bernstein
- Yuri Temirkanov
- Valery Gergiev
- Mstislav Rastrapovich (1993 100 year anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death)
And then listen to the fourth movement. We are lucky to have many performances of it.
- Herbert Von Karajan
- Leonard Bernstein
- Yuri Temirkanov
- Valery Gergiev
Today I wanted to share with you the “Swan Lake Suite” (an excerpt from the ballet of the same name). Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Though today the ballet is considered to be the pinnacle of Tchaikovsky’s genius, its premier in 1877 was not well-received. The story line of the ballet you see in your local theater is different from what Tchaikovsky had in mind – the main characters died at the end in the original version.
After Tchaikovsky’s death, his brother Modest was asked to rewrite the story, and he did. In the version we see today, the tragic ending turns into a triumphant finale that celebrates love. Swan Lake changed ballet forever. Before Tchaikovsky, the ballet was about dancing and dancers, and the music was just there as a background. Swan Lake turned that tradition upside down and brought the music to the forefront.
Here is the “Swan Lake Suite” performed by the Korean Symphony Orchestra
I’ve written about Tchaikovsky in the past
A good friend asked me if I thought Tchaikovsky was overrated or underappreciated. A few years ago I probably would have said overrated; now I say both.
music has been overpopularized in America. The Nutcracker has turned into a Christmas ballet, which is so popular that for some ballet companies it accounts for almost half of their annual revenues. “The 1812 Overture,” which was written as a celebration of a Russian victory against Napoleon, has been turned into a theme song for America’s independence from … the British. Swan Lake, though it has not yet been fully Americanized, still has a good chance of becoming an American Thanksgiving ballet. (Swans – turkeys; they’re all birds. Maybe be if a turkey emigrated to Russia they’d call it an American swan).
I always liked Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, but that was about it (I wrote about it here). I could not bring myself to listen to anything else he had written. As I got older, though, I came to appreciate Tchaikovsky’s symphonies more. I wrote about Symphony No. 4 here. Last year I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s opera Evgeny Onegin. I took my son Jonah to watch it, and to my significant surprise he liked it and doesn’t even mind when I listen to it in the car.
Today I want to share with you Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, No. 6,. It is called “Pathétique” – passionate. Russians could have used music from this symphony as the theme for the Olympics opening ceremony; it is probably the most “Russian” music I can think of. It encompasses the passion of the big Russian spirit.
I am not quite sure what Russian spirit means; it’s something nebulous that means different things to different people. To me it means Russia’s deep literary and musical culture, its large geographic footprint, Siberia, cold weather but warm people (even though they won’t smile at you on the street), the naiveté of socialism (pseudo-equality), eternal hope that things will get better, and the almost unconditional, blind love Russians have for their leaders.
Here is Symphony Number 6, conducted by one and only Herbert von Karajan.
Last time, I discussed how Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1 was rejected by Tchaikovsky’s mentor, the best pianist in Russia, Nikolai Rubenstein, – who termed this concerto “pathetic,” among other insults. But after the concerto’s successful premier in Boston, Rubenstein changed his mind and actually conducted its premier in Moscow.
A similar fate faced Tchaikovsky’s only violin concerto, except that it was rejected not by one but by two performers. Parts were difficult to play. Critics did not like this concerto either. One called it “long and pretentious,” and that critic continued, “The violin is not played but beaten black and blue.” Just like Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, this violin concerto became a tremendous success and is now among the most beloved violin concertos.
Here is Isaac Stern performing this concerto with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
There is a great lesson that we all can learn from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto Number 1. It was common at the time to dedicate a piece of music to the musician whom you wanted to perform the music, usually a famous performer. Dedication insured that a piece of music would see the light of day and also provided an endorsement of the piece. Tchaikovsky dedicated his first piano concerto to Nikolai Rubenstein. Nikolai was considered to be one of the greatest pianists of his time, and he and his brother Anton Rubenstein were important figures in Russian musical culture. In fact, Anton was Tchaikovsky’s composition teacher. (There is no relation between the Rubenstein brothers and Arthur Rubenstein, the twentieth-century Polish pianist I told you about previously).
So Tchaikovsky dedicates his concerto to Nikolai. Excited, he plays it for Nikolai, who listens in silence … and then he tells Tchaikovsky what he thinks of it. Here is what Tchaikovsky wrote about this scene to his pen pal Nadezhda Von Meck:
It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten. “Here, for instance, this – now what’s all that?” (he caricatured my music on the piano) “And this? How can anyone …” etc., etc.
Just imagine someone you respect and admire, who has incredible influence, just called two years of your work “pathetic.” Tchaikovsky was genuinely hurt, but he pledged that he would not change a single note. He reached out to a famous German pianist, Hans von Bulow, and asked if he could dedicate this concerto to him. At the time, Von Bulow was preparing to go on tour to the United States. He loved the concerto! And thus Tchaikovsky’s First was first performed in Boston in 1875. It was a great success. Music critics still found a lot of faults in it. It did not fit the established framework: the introduction, the part that makes this concerto so grand, is almost a self-contained piece of music that is attached to the concerto.
Here is the punchline. Later that year, a few months after the Boston performance, the concerto premiered in St Petersburg and then in Moscow. Nikolai Rubenstein conducted the Moscow premier. Rubenstein performed the piano solo many times and even asked to premier Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto. Tchaikovsky would have consented if Rubenstein have not died.
What is the lesson here? Even people you respect make mistakes. Believe in yourself. I could go on and on, but I won’t. Here is 23-year-old Evgeny Kissin performing this great concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra 110 years later.
I’ll dedicate the next few musical notes to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. I have always had a difficult relationship with his music. My parents loved his first piano concerto, and I’ve listened to it a few thousand times over the years (I love it, too). At the same time, I was forced to listen to his music in school in Russia. Anytime I am forced into something I naturally start resenting it. This applies to Russian literature as well: my teachers turned Russian literature into Mark Twain’s definition of a “classic ”: a book that people praise and don’t read. I am still trying to get back into Russian literature, but Tchaikovsky’s incredible music has overcome my implanted childhood resentment to it, though it took time.
In the next few musical notes I’ll share Tchaikovsky’s music and what I’ve learned about him. There are several theories as to why Tchaikovsky died at age 53. The theory I heard when I was a child in Russia was that he died from cholera – probably from drinking contaminated water. However, there is another theory about his death: that he committed suicide. Tchaikovsky was a Russian national treasure, a symbol of Russian greatness, something the propaganda machine could point at and say, “Materialistic Americans have their poisonous hamburgers (and a chicken in every pot, and toilet paper, and…), but we got art.” This is also why the propaganda machine would censor a little-known fact about its national hero: Tchaikovsky was gay.
Today we see headlines about Putin’s homophobia, but as much as it’s convenient to blame it on Putin, it is not him but his country (admittedly, a very general statement). I did not learn of the existence of gay people until I was 17, and what I was told about them by my friends and the media was not much different from what the majority of Russians perceive today: that all gay people are AIDS-spreading pedophiles, so that being gay is a contagious. Also that one can become gay by observing gay behavior and that gays are responsible for the ongoing depopulation of Russia. (This is a new one and contains more than a kernel of self-denial: drinking unto death is the more likely explanation for Russian population shrinkage.) Russian homophobia goes back centuries and was in full flight in the late 19th century, the Tchaikovsky era.
Tchaikovsky hid his gay “flaw” all his life. Many think the cholera story was a cover-up of his suicide. Tchaikovsky was caught out having an affair with Duke Stenbock-Thurmor’s nephew. The duke was going to write a letter of protest to the Czar. This would have supposedly brought disgrace to Tchaikovsky. A “court of honor” made up of his former classmates in St. Petersburg ordered Tchaikovsky to swallow poison. He did. Or so the story goes. We’ll never know which theory is true, the cholera or the suicide, but we do know that being in the closet all his life had an impact on his music. This will bring us, by and by, to Evgeniy Onegin (also known as Eugene Onegin).
Almost everything we know about Tchaikovsky today (and this is true about most classical composers) we learn through his letters exchanged with relatives and friends. In one letter to his brother when he was in his twenties, he says that he needs to get married. Not because he wants to have a family, but to help maintain his cover story. “I’ll marry anyone that will have me.” Shortly after, he got a fan letter from one of his former students at conservatory. She confessed her love for him. Tchaikovsky did not remember her, but they met. This is where the story gets murky. She wanted to marry him. He tried to explain to her that he was not interested in women and that it would be a fake marriage. Either he did not communicate that part that well or she did not understand it. They got married. She wanted more from him that he could give her. He could not physically stand her. His brother made up a story that doctors had told Tchaikovsky that his wife was making him sick. They separated.
At about the same time Tchaikovsky received a letter from Nedezhda von Meck, a very wealthy widow of a railroad magnate, who was also a fan of his music. Von Meck wanted to be his pen pal. She also ended up being his sugar mama (she supported him for thirteen years). They became close friends and exchanged over 1,000 letters. He dedicated his Symphony Number 4 to her. (I’ve written about that symphony here). But they never actually met!
There is a reason why I am writing about this. At about the time when Tchaikovsky received letters from his future wife and Nedezhda von Meck, he read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. (For those who did not go in for the Russian classics, Pushkin is the godfather of Russian literature, the Russian Shakespeare, if you will.) Anyway, Tchaikovsky was asked many times to compose an opera based on Eugene Onegin. He always declined, because he felt the bar raised by Pushkin was too high. But one sleepless night he read Eugene Onegin and became infatuated with the “letter scene” (see how this all starts to make sense?). Tatyana, who is love with Onegin, is writing him a letter, confessing her love for him. It is a deeply emotional scene, and this is the scene that pushed Tchaikovsky into writing the opera. Her felt a significant personal connection to it.
We saw Eugene Onegin in “Live in HD” broadcast from the Met last month. To my great surprise, my son loved this opera (in some cultures, taking a twelve-year-old to see opera would be considered child abuse). So today I want to share with you a few excerpts from this opera:
Letter Scene by Anna Netrebko (the performance we saw).
Here is another version of that scene by Kristine Opolais (notice the completely different stage set)
Lensky’s Aria by Rolando Vilazon (one of my favorite performances)
Prince Gremlin’s Aria (Alexei’s Tanovski sang it in the performance we saw at the Met)
I have known about Van Cliburn was since I was very little. He was about the only American that (Soviet) Russians did not hate but admired (maybe the only other one I can think of off the top of my head is Louis Armstrong). Van Cliburn won the first International Tchaikovsky Competition. It was 1958. The Soviets had just kicked American … sorry … by putting Sputnik into space. To celebrate and demonstrate their cultural superiority, the Soviets started the International Tchaikovsky Competition – a Russian version of the Olympics Games, but for the performance of classical music.
A young American from Louisiana, Harvey Lavan “Van” Cliburn performed parts from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He was an American, in Moscow at the height of the Cold War, performing incredibly difficult concertos by two Russian composers; and he did it so well that the Russians in the audience stood and applauded him for eight minutes! Remember, those were the Russians that were brainwashed to hate “evil, imperialistic” Americans (my grandparents, my parents, and even I, for part of my life, belonged to that group of brainwashed people).
Political tensions were so high at the time that before the judges could award Van Cliburn the gold medal, they had to check with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. “Is he the best?” Khrushchev is said to have asked; “then give him the prize!” There is something very pure and uplifting about this story – how the power of music trumps hate. Hollywood should should get going on a movie.
Sadly, Van Cliburn passed away on February 27th (read his obit in the Wash Post). Just last month my kids and I were listening to Van Cliburn playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 2 in the car, and I was telling them his story. Today I want to share with you Van Cliburn performing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, in 1958.
I’ll write about this concerto and the impact it had on me sometime in the future.
When my father talks about classical music you’ll never hear him say that he doesn’t like this composer or that piece; he’ll say instead, “I don’t understand it.” I always thought he was just being humble. Despite all his achievements as a scientist and an artist, he is an incredibly humble person; but there is more to his statement than just modesty. I am generalizing, but classical music often is more complex than pop music. This complexity means that are a lot of themes (stories) going on in the music; they are like underground currents that you don’t find unless you swim in the river for a while. Though we can instantly fall in love with some pieces, many require us to work – we need to listen to them more than once to hear them, to “understand.”
I remember many moons ago I bought a used CD of La Boheme. I don’t think I knew anything about that opera (my parents were not big into opera), but it had Pavarotti on the cover, so I bought it. I listened to it a few times, thinking to myself, how could anybody possibly like this opera. Now it is one of my favorite operas.
When my brother Alex and I were in Sydney in November we went to a concert in the famous Sydney Opera House. We were in luck: it was a “Russian night” (no, not so-called because Alex and I were in attendance). The famous Russian conductor (and pianist) Vladimir Ashkenazy was conducting music by Russian composers: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 4. After the concert I talked to my father, and I told him than I did not care for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. To which he replied that it was his favorite symphony. The next day we went walking on the beach in Sydney, and I made a point to listen again to that symphony. On the second or third listen, I fell in love with that piece. After I came home to Denver I had my son listen to that symphony, and predictably, he at first hated it, but now he loves it!
So today I want to share with you Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4.
By the way, I’ve listened to Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 4 probably two dozen times over the last fifteen years, and I still don’t “understand” it.