week19: tchaikovsky

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I cannot complain of poverty of imagination, or lack of inventive power; but on the other hand, I have always suffered from my want of skill in the management of form. Only after strenuous labour have I at last succeeded in making the form of my compositions correspond, more or less, with their contents. Formerly, I was careless and did not give sufficient attention to the critical overhauling of my sketches. Consequently my ‘seams’ showed, there was no organic union between my individual episodes. This was a very serious defect, and I only improved gradually as time went on; but the forms of my work will never be exemplary, because, although I can modify, I cannot radically alter the essential qualities of my musical temperament. “” pyotr ilyich tchaikovsky

if ever it was impossible for a composition to be used as ‘background’ music—this fourth symphony would take the cake. i first heard this symphony about a month ago on the occasion of a nervous and sweating earl lee’s animated conduction of our very own toronto symphony orchestra. it was the second half of the TSO’s ‘Tchaikovsky for the Holidays’ featuring the polonaise from Eugene Onegin and the anthemic Suite No.1 from The Nutcracker——as such the structure of the program was akin to the trailer of a rather obvious horror film: beginning with the happiest most familial scenes (everyone’s running around in white linen and such); then the music switches to something stern and ominous (inexplicable footfalls heard in the attic and such) and all hell breaks loose ( the equivalent, in this symphony, of the opening theme on trumpets).  

it was in fact a brilliant combination for the evening, as this fourth symphony is about the most complete introduction one could have to the classical genre—alongside the cherry-merry Nutcracker tunes. and inasmuch as the classical repertoire prepares the largest stage for the slightest gestures in music, this symphony rises to the grandeur and quiet intimacy of the occasion. it has everything: oboes, french horns and flutes that echoe, like aftershocks, the fateful hail of the theme on four trumpets; likewise a string section that bows the full gamut of impressions from the furious caterwaul at the top of the fourth movement to the stalking pizzicato of the third movement.   

aside from this well-roundedness, there is also the allure of its extravagance: moderation in the use of its bombastic theme was not one of tchaikovsky’s creative principles. that theme on trumpets is essentially repeated two more times when it’s echoed by oboes and then becomes a sigh extinguished by flutes. another occasion of excess is the nearly six-minute-long pluckfest on strings (pizzicato), an exorbitant length that turns a usually brief clever style into a cerebral and brooding affair… thankfully i happened to be in the mood for that kind of excess this week, at the beginning of which i overheard an interview conducted on Monocle radio starring the ‘christine’ in Christine and the Queens, who on all accounts appears to be a sort of french michael jackson reincarnation. she took a decidedly insightful detour from the otherwise banal lamentations of the demands of the touring lifestyle to comment on how she defines the creative mission of her musical project (aside from churning out background music of third dates): ‘At my core, I am against every form of chastity.’

---that’s been stuck in my head all week. and is anything more illiberal than….chastity? it’s the diametric opposition to the long etcetera of ‘western values’ germinated by the enlightenment. for that reason i’ve never believed in any kind of minimalism in art, or any kind of chaste cleanliness in music, my blood runs hot and immediately in the opposite direction. and it’s beyond a matter of taste: how could i bare minimalism in a world where 40 minutes of this symphony exists? 40 minutes that begin with a full-throated announcement of the composer’s intentions in the style of that karamazovian enthusiasm and ‘painting the town red’ (to borrow from his other russian contemporary). and his german contemporary too had much to say against chastity, about how every artistic endeavour presupposes an irredeemable immodest extravagance——albeit in his own sly and equivocal (triquivocal... quinquivocal!) manner:

How I regret that in those days I still lacked the courage (or immodesty) to permit myself in every way an individual language of my own for such individual views and hazards—“” Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

it’s a kind of victory to be accused, as tchaikovsky was, of an excessive informal lyricism, of individual views and hazard (for any kind of individuality is indeed hazardous), for it suggest among many things that one has made an immodest effort at cultivating an individual language… that ‘organic union’ or correspondence between form and composition is still missing in such an individual language is merely a matter of experience and repertoire----one can never begin too early in learning how to speak that language, whatever the medium.



Thus our whole life is an alternation of grim reality and fugitive dreams of happiness. “” w. a. chislet, notes for the recording

Angel Records Recording. Printed in the U.S.A. // Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) // Symphony No.4

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Conducted by Herbert von Karajan;

Symphony No.4

  • Andante sostenuto—Moderato con anima

  • Andantino in modo di canzona

  • Scherzo (Pizzicato ostinato)—Allegro

  • Finale (Allegro con fuoco)

In this combined mood of emotional despair and financial freedom he continued work on Eugene Onegin, and the Symphony No.4, upon which he had also been engaged before he fled to Clarens.  “” w. a. chislet, notes for the recording

(‘go to the people’)———

With the opening of the finale, Allegro con fuoco, introspection and dreams are banished. “If you have no joy in yourself go to the people,” says Tchaikovsky, “they know how to enjoy themselves.” “” w. a. chislet, notes for the recording

it is of course the lengthy pizzicato of the third movement that inspires an introspective dreaminess, from which the fourth movement is a recovery, a spring after a prolonged winter, the smiling gratitude of a convalescent---a saturnalia.

The Andante sostenuto introduction to the first movement is the germ of the whole work. Tchaikovsky described the dramatic opening fanfare as “Fate,” the inevitable power which prevents the happiness so greatly desired from being achieved. This force is inescapable and there is no alternative to submissive lamentation. “” w. a. chislet, notes for the recording

… convivial merrymaking, shoulder-to-shoulderness, the herd instinct: those are the lassos that tether every long expedition, however obstinate and independent, for whatever incontrovertible and yet truth. this going back to the people was what i referred to just last week as one of the spiritual missions of the musical experience…  but what is the recourse when the people no longer know how to enjoy themselves? when the good conscience belongs to every kind of lukewarm pseudo-spirituality, to the self-preservation of our lulu-lemonized yoganandas?---and the bad conscience, the misalignment with that ineluctible herd-instinct,  is any kind of ‘wild revelry’.

a ‘saturnalia’ is the descriptive exhumed by Nietzsche in his Gay Science to exemplify a wild revelry that is rarely free of it’s bad conscience. rarely free except when suspended in the matrix of artistic experiences---as such, one’s opinions about these experiences can never be too strong---and of those experiences, none more than in music does one get to eat and have one’s cake: the communion of the apollonian element, and individuating ecstacy of the dionysian.

‘The Triumph of Bacchus” diego velazquez, 1628

‘The Triumph of Bacchus” diego velazquez, 1628

Tchaikovsky declared [the second movement] to reveal another kind of suffering. The book we are reading as we sit at home fatigued by work, he suggests, slips from our fingers and we abandon ourselves to memories of the past, some bitter and some sweet. “” w. a. chislet, notes for the recording

if i had to settle on a working definition of whatever could be meant by ‘good music’: it would be precisely the aforementioned eating and having of one’s cake … for it would describe an aesthetic compromise that surrenders neither to the apollonian nor the dionysian in music. a jest between a regimental formality and a ‘terrible narcosis’ ---in this light, classical music has more a future than a history, for it has a role to play in opposition to that terrible narcosis that has hitherto been relegated to the realm of ‘world music’....