Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Symphony Guide does Tchaikovsky

It's Tuesday so time to check out what Tom Service has for us today over at the Guardian's weekly symphony guide. I'm going to miss this series when it is done in the very near future.

Today's installment is on the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky, nicknamed the "Pathetique" and his last and most-perfect symphony. I just listened to this a few days ago and it is an impressive work. As is usual with him, Tom begins by exploding some of the typical characterizations of the piece and in this case, it is called for and well done. No, this is not a "suicide note" from the composer and it is probably the finest music Tchaikovsky wrote. Mind you, Tom then blots his copybook by dragging back in some programmatic comments that Tchaikovsky originally wrote about a previous symphony that he was sketching. So, six of one taken away only to add on half a dozen later on. Tom is quite right in describing the symphony in this way, however:
That slow, lamenting finale turns the entire symphonic paradigm on its head, and changes at a stroke the possibility of what a symphony could be: instead of ending in grand public joy, the Sixth Symphony closes with private, intimate, personal pain.
Yes, it is with this movement that Tchaikovsky creates (or perhaps recreates if we take Beethoven and Schubert into account) the notion of the symphony as existential struggle rather than public celebration. It certainly started as a communal act of celebration: nearly every symphony by Haydn and Mozart fulfills that purpose. But with Beethoven darker elements begin to appear and with this symphony by Tchaikovsky they take over the form. I have written about this here. Tom ends his essay with this comment, which I think is quite true:
He knew this piece marked a new high-watermark in his confidence as a composer, and that he had re-invented the symphony on his own terms, and for so many composers who came after him. Mahler, Shostakovich, Sibelius, and many others could not have composed the symphonies they did without the example of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth. It’s just a terrible fluke of fate that this was his last symphony, and not the beginning of what could have been his most exciting creative period as a composer.
Now let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 6 by Tchaikovsky. Here is Mravinsky and the Leningrad Symphony:

This is the second symphony by Tchaikovsky to appear in the series. Tom previously wrote about the First Symphony.

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