Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 6
after the première of his Sixth Symphony (1893), in
a fit of depression Tchaikovsky drank unboiled water during a cholera epidemic,
contracted the disease and died.” Accepted for nearly 100 years, that common
explanation of his death was has since become a subject of controversy:
was it accident or recklessness - or was it suicide, by order of a court
of honour, to avoid a homosexual scandal? Such discussions somehow seem
to be compulsory when talking about the Sixth, but really they appear
to be of no particular relevance to the music, the writing of which (we’re
compelled to conclude) predated the first performance . . .
he was neurotic, fatalistic, reserved - which might explain why in 1877,
apparently succumbing to moral blackmail, he married an admirer who was
also (again apparently) a deranged nymphomaniac - for a latent homosexual
a recipe for disaster (I do wonder what might his music have been like
had he lived in today's moral climate?). This “union” lasted nine
weeks, leaving Tchaikovsky a nervous wreck. He was revived by the generosity
of the mysterious, wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck, whose patronage over
the next three years enabled him to devote himself entirely to his art.
a comfortably well-off Tchaikovsky completed The Nutcracker, arguably
his happiest score. About then, in the idyllic surroundings of his country
house near Klin, he started his Sixth Symphony. It's therefore more
than likely that in the music he was merely recalling, from the haven of
a tranquil present, the memories of anguish past. Had he felt anything
like it sounds, would he have been in a fit state to write at all,
never mind so brilliantly?
told that the Ballet influenced his symphonies. However, this balletic
influence holds for so much of his output that I wonder: is it simply that
his intrinsic style happened to suit ballet? However, Tchaikovsky's
symphonies are important really because in them he managed to aggravate
two opposing factions at one and the same time. The Russian Nationalists
disliked his cow-towing to western models, while many Western Europeans
objected to his Russian “primitivism”: Tchaikovsky dragged Russian music
kicking and screaming into the mainstream of musical culture, while stunning
that mainstream with some really wild sounds.
and Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky speaks directly and emotively to the uninitiated.
The Sixth outshines even the Fourth in combining a supreme
command of symphonic structure with belting good tunes, toe-tapping rhythms,
vivid, poster-paint orchestration (characteristically differentiating strings,
woodwinds, and brass), and overwhelming dramatic flair. Not for nothing
was this symphony dubbed Pathetic, a term whose true meaning
is entirely lost to modern “yoof culture”!
Movement (adagio - allegro non troppo) is long, but with a structural
lucidity owing much to its being built of big, bold “duplo” bricks. It
emerges from subterranean depths, brooding gloomily on a fragment of the
first subject, seemingly unsure whether it's worth bothering with. But,
let loose, it blossoms invigoratingly, spawning a motif presaging the second
subject, that object lesson in what can be got from a simple scale (as
I first heard this, my Mum sang along with it - now I can't exorcise those
damnable soppy words!).
shatters a stillness somewhat optimistically marked pppppp, a shock
usually diluted in live concerts by a huge conductorial gesture (although,
considering the palpitations it can cause when heard on CD, perhaps we
should be thankful that conductors don’t cue it with a merest tweak of
the stick?). After much frenetic activity, the music descends balefully
from an extremely loud climax. A drastically abbreviated recapitulation
relegates the first subject to a vague echo in the religioso coda.
Movement (allegro con grazia) seems to be a moment of relaxation, waltz-like
and lilting. However, it is cast in a teasing 5/4. The constant 3 + 2 alternation
lends the music a vague uneasiness, crystallised in the doleful sighing
of the central episode whose resonance casts a long shadow over the remainder
of the movement.
Movement (allegro molto vivace). Is this a march of “triumph”, as commonly
assumed, or of “hysterical desperation”? Tchaikovsky whips up such a frenzy
that I incline to the latter! But, like Beethoven in the finale of his
Tchaikovsky unleashes wild passions whilst keeping a tight rein on the
structure. Tension is thrust to considerable heights with masterly guile.
The first, tremendous crescendo unleashes the first full statement of the
main theme, but not in a mighty climax: it just tootles gently on
a solo clarinet. From here, he can crank the tension even higher, using
a technique not unlike whipping a turbocharged GTI up through the gears.
when the Big Climax comes, it is prefaced by a series of tension-dissolving
scale runs, and the tumult is led not by braying brass but by struggling
strings. If this is deliberate, and I don’t for a moment think a composer
of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic flair would have screwed up such a key moment,
then we are indeed faced with “hysterical desperation”. Hence, I guess,
the feeling that the repeat of this straining climax feels like it wants
to shout LOUDER! - but just can't find the breath.
the Slow Movement (adagio lamentoso) last was revolutionary, but
entirely logical if you're after a really depressing ending. From
the flaming heights of triumph or (more logically) hysteria, it is a long,
long drop to the depths of despondency. The stifling descent of strings
is a dramatic masterstroke. Yet, alarmingly, this famous theme is only
a figment of the modern practice of placing first and second violins together.
In Tchaikovsky's day, the left/right opposition of first and second violins
would have revealed, antiphonally, the intended intertwining of two different
strands. The yearning second subject offers no consolation whatsoever.
Passions do rise, but the movement as a whole passes inexorably from deep
despair to the rock bottom of the pit of utter oblivion.
to speculate: could Tchaikovsky have originally planned a happy
ending, putting the March last? He seemed contented enough at the time
of writing, the tonal structure does not preclude it, and dramatically
it would make a lot of sense: the second movement's unease would lead quite
naturally, through the dark adagio, into an emotional abyss, from which
the only way out is up - exactly the right place to start the March's
ascent. We may never know how or why it turned out as it did. Triumphant
endings are more sheer fun, I suppose, but the plain, indisputable fact
is that we're all suckers for a “two-Kleenex” ending. That said, who else
but Tchaikovsky should have been the first to put one in a symphony?
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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