week18: tchaikovsky, maria popova, louis-ferdinand céline


The first of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet scores, Swan Lake, premiered in 1877. To counteract this brilliant success, the low point of his life also came that year, when he allowed himself to be conned into marriage by a music student who idolized him. After a few weeks with her, he fled in a state of collapse. [...] For Tchaikovsky, though, this disaster perhaps helped him for the first time to come to terms with his homosexuality, which was then a capital crime in Russia. […] But after the marriage he wrote to his brother, “I have finally begun to understand that there is nothing more fruitless than not wanting to be that which I am by nature.”  jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

what was all that last week about seriousness in regards to music? and here i am this one, blasting Swan Lake like a call to prayer---here i digress to what our dear nietzsche had to say about rigid adherence to a prejudice (all opinions about music are exactly that): we should always be willing to be talked out of martyrdom... we’re not that sure …

… and that is why joy, too, is needed as much as seriousness. joy, frolicsomeness, cheerfulness—necessary components to any serious endeavour, without it one confesses a lack of any instinct for longevity, durability and etcetera od surviving the contemporary. without joy, whatever it is one is serious about must sacrifice a tremendous amount of reality for the sake of it’s ‘truth’. yet another thing i’ve learned from Nietzsche: that life is deep, but joy is deeper still. one must therefore not allow oneself to become hung on the lone hook of any one belief, except, of course: the right to have and change our minds (Nietzsche also)—that is the only cause worthy of martyrdom…

… back on earth: i’ve enjoyed that surplus of cheerfulness this week, and the margin of that surplus is owed entirely to tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. after all that wax about the importance of seriousness in regards to the spiritual mission of our musical education—and in light of the tremendous importance of precisely the opposite of seriousness—surely this ballet suite was the perfect fit…

and the perfect fit for the beginning of december wherein one is suddenly left scrambling to compensate for the onslaught of christmas music. the Swan Lake Ballet Suite this time of year is a sort of compromise between that seriousness which has no sympathy for the chummy superficial merriness of christmas tunes and cheerfulness which has no sympathy for killjoys…

[Tchaikovsky’s] lapses in judgement are to a large extent made up for by the wallop of his emotions, the brilliance of his orchestration, his gift for grabby tunes. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

this ballet suite hosts one of the most epic finales in the entirety of this catalogue. the main theme is a sub-aquatic threat all throughout, a threat realized in the full gale force of the last minute of the finale, it’s like the theme from Jaws, minus sharks and shitty graphics, plus full orchestra and crazy swans. in fact i could almost forgive all of darren aronoksky’s filmography on account of how much his Black Swan (2010) lived up to this finale—to have botched this finale would have been a waste of everyone’s time and money. thankfully natalie portman was absolutely brilliant throughout the slow neurotic collapse of her character, and her balletic performance was somewhat believable. the crucial moment of the finale is not the crescendos but the levitating effect (at the 1:40 minute mark in the video below) created by the quivering string section water-lammed by a faint piano accompaniment. it’s the epitome of her delirium, the last of her final contact with reality as she takes a leap from which she never recovers—and when the horn section kicks in, every hair on your neck stands in ovation. the effect is incomparable…

or perhaps it is comparable: for when, about three decades later, stravinsky had the idea for his Rites, all he knew from the very start was that it was to end with a dance to the death, the sacrificial subject must be extinguished by her delirium, intoxication, her dionysian madness. inasmuch as tchaikovsky was a bellwether for the next century’s russian composers, then The Rites of Spring = Swan Lake + nijinsky + dissonance. more or less…



Tchaikovsky has only one real rival as a composer for ballet, Stravinsky, and both of them created music ideal for dance that works equally well in the concert hall. [...] There seems to be some innate Russian genius for orchestration, and, again, one of the few who outdoes Tchaikovsky in that respect is his fellow Russian Stravinsky. “”jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

Mercury Wing Classical Recording. Recorded in N/A. // Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) // Swan Lake Ballet Suite

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antal Dorati

  1. Scene of the Swans

  2. Pas de deux (male/female dance duet)

  3. Pas d’Action (balletic mimation of storyline)

  4. Dance of the Little Swans

  5. Pas de deux

  6. Dance of the Swans

  7. Coda (final round of a pas de deux)

  8. Introduction

  9. Fanfare and Waltz

  10. Hungarian Dance

  11. Scene — The Black Swan

  12. The Final Scene

By that point his artistic salvation had already turned up in the figure of a wealthy widow named Nadezhda von Meck. She adored his music and offered him a generous stipend so he could devote all his time to composing. To keep their relationship on an ideal plane the agreed that they would never meet. “” jan swafford, Language of the Spirit

(on getting started)———

The fool, with all his other faults, has this also: he is always getting ready to live. “” epicurus

i owe the degree to which i’ve followed through on this blog to maria popova’s Brain Pickings (‘an inventory of the meaningful life’); it was on one of my many visits to her blog over the last 5 years that i found the aforementioned quote by epicurus.  her ‘inventory’ is also a modern iteration of a foregone but invaluable academic profession: philology. universities the world over are nodoubt still churning out their share of philologists, but not since our dear Nietzsche has anyone from that field of study made it out of their parochial nook and into public consciousness. in fact i attribute the majority of Nietzsche’s genius (that is, his output) to his training as a philologist, his utmost priority for the historical point of view in all matters (his ‘world historical significance’)—and his incredible, incomparably slow metabolism for the implementation of even his most urgently acquired and piercing insight. it is this slowness in regards to the metabolism of ideas (and their relation to daily life ) that is my invaluable harvest from the lush greenery of Nietzsche contemplative landscape. in that public consciousness: there is not much better an example than Brain Pickings of the benefits of looking back, revisiting old texts--not because they are old, but because they were written on their way to posterity. (do we still write books that are on their way?)...

the format of maria popova’s blog inspired mine—and her marathonian fitness in regards to weekly output inspired the pace i’ve tried to maintain here. aside from pace: there’s also the question of why get started at all?---there are those who find themselves born into an intellectual tradition to which their simplified task is  either conformity or rebellion. for those of us outside of any such tradition or intellectual precedence, a makeshift historicism is our makeshift launching pad. in short: if you’re unsure where to begin articulating what’s wrong with the world, you can buy yourself time by articulating the genealogy of the ideas you want to re-evaluate. what is true for ideas and texts, is true also for music—to that extent, this blog is a sort of Ear Pickings: an inventory of western musical tradition of the last three centuries. what i’ve hither-to suffered from, to which this blog is a quotidian antidote, is what is call the gag of good taste: the self-censorship that results from gawking, awe-struck, at the lacuna between the quality that your work is always on its way to and what it is every time you sit down to write. ‘I’d rather not write at all’ is a laudable alternative in theory—a sure way to be free of the appointments of failure that come with writing—but in practise great writing is a result merely of an incalculable sum of “that’ll do’ writing.

‘Young Man Reading’ by octavian smigelschi (1892)

‘Young Man Reading’ by octavian smigelschi (1892)

learning how to praise other people’ work, how to reach and articulate the ceiling of your gratitude, is the best way i’ve found to remove this gag. but it’s more than that, more than for the sake of good writing. becoming better at praising and appraising other people’s work is an end in itself: for in doing so one has to first go back among the people, to be remind constantly that there is no higher value system than the people, and that we’re always, to that extent, at each other’s mercy.

speaking of revisiting texts: ferdinand celine’s Journey to the End of the Night (1932) remains for me the best literary example of the ultimate destination of all philosophical investigations, every daring experiment of isolation for the sake of truth, every intellectual obstinacy for the sake of cleanliness:

A time comes when you’re all alone, when you’ve come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It’s the end of the world. Even grief, your own grief, doesn’t answer you anymore, and you have to retrace your steps, to go back among the people, it makes no difference who. You’re not choosy at times like that, because even to weep you have to go back where everything starts all over, back among the people. “” louis-ferdinand céline, Voyage au bout de la Nuit (1932)

as i’ve said elsewhere, that music is shortest path back towards the people, towards getting started…