I’ve been forcing myself to listen to 20th-century classical music composers. My parents mostly listened to music of the Classical era (1750-1820 – Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven) and of the Romantic era (1820-1910 – think Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Rachmaninoff (late romantic). “Classical music” is an umbrella term that encompasses half a dozen “eras,” the Classical era among them.
Composers of the Classical era followed very strict rules of music composition. Romantics, in contrast, began to be influenced by the literary and art worlds, and their emotions started to slip into their music. The Romantics gradually cracked the rigid rules of the Classical era – but they still followed rules.
Enter the 20th-century, modern composers – Mahler, Dvorak, Shostakovich, Sibelius. Rules don’t exist for them. By breaking rules they created music that is free of constraints; it is full of emotion, unique sounds, and unpredictability. But that freedom comes at a cost: It is more taxing on a listener who hears it for the first time. Some pieces I have to listen to a dozen times before I start to appreciate them. Where I can relate to the bulk of Tchaikovsky’s or Rachmaninoff’s music, I can consume Mahler or Shostakovich only in small bits and pieces. I love the first part of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and the first and second parts of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
Thanks to Spotify’s “daily mix” feature, I recently stumbled on Sibelius’ fifth Symphony. Jean Sibelius was a Finnish composer (1865-1957). He is considered to be a late Romantic or early modern composer. He was a very important figure in Finland, a country of just 5.5 million people. His birthday is celebrated as a Day of Music, and his face was featured on the 100-mark bill until 2002. He was prolific until the 1920s but then did not compose for the last fifty years of his life. I wonder whether he felt unfulfilled in those last fifty years. I haven’t cracked parts one and two of his symphony, but I cannot stop listening to part 3.
Leonard Bernstein 1980s performance
Leonard Bernstein 1960s performance
Herbert Von Karajan
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
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.
I wanted to share with you probably the most unique performance ever recorded (other than Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff): Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. I don’t like to use the term “best” when I describe musicians, for several reasons: first, I am not really an authority, able to determine who the best is. Second, even “the best” are not best at playing their entire repertoire. And finally, music is not a sport where success is objectively measured in seconds or score counts.
By the time you become a recording professional musician you are good, but there is something that is unique (and maybe there is even a little bit of randomness) that makes you into what I call a musical giant. This concerto is performed by four giants of classical music: Herbert Von Karajan – conductor, Sviatoslav Richter – piano, David Oistrakh – violin, and Mstislav Rostropovich – cello. Listen. Enjoy!