Tchaikovsky – Symphony No. 5 and other of his works

August 19, 2017

There are said to be two modes of music – dance and song – and that universally music tends either towards the dance or else towards the song. (I believe I first discovered this distinction written in Ezra Pound’s writings who has made the observation?) In Tchaikovsky’s orchestral works we very often see the dance and its variant, the march, in very strong colours and in contention together for much of the time. These two modes, the song and the dance, are used by Tchaikovsky as discrete entities to be played off against one another.

Whenever Tchaikovsky is seriously solemn, when he is out to impress upon us a severe gravity, often a solemn grief, he seems to be never far away from a stoical powerful march tune. In the third movement of The Pathetique for instance; an almost military fast tempo march proclaims that short-lived rallying of nerve and resolution which precedes a gloom and despair all too final in the final movement. In hindsight, after hearing a rendition, it has felt to have been so fitting as to have been altogether inevitable.

In a number of prominent places in his 5th Symphony however; in the ballets; in the finale to the 1812; in the Caprice Italien; in Francesca da Rimini and and in Romeo and Juliet; appear passages of outright stomping marches, and also much music which trespasses on the borders of march, intermingled and wafted hints coming in here and there of brass and drums in 4/4 time. Each of these compositions carries within it its serious sombre moments, a severe march time, but somehow shows off very little extrovert pomp and circumstance; since Tchaikovsky uses marches not as calls to physical prowess or battle, nor like Berlioz whose bursts are vibrant in triumphant exuberance. Tchaikovsky uses march and march time ever integrally as a means to denote inner strife and conflict; these being dramatised and so brought to our awareness as being agonised over.

Tchaikovsky never appears to have been much of an occasional composer (1812, and maybe The Caprice Italian excepted) perhaps because he never sought to place himself at the service of civic authority, as like a Walton or a Sousa does.

It is possibly this turning inside-out of inner feelings of pain and distress, so that they show on the outside as like Job’s boils; which Tchaikovsky so characteristically couples with, and plays off against, many exquisitely delightful lyrical rills and fragile forays normally in the woodwind and often in the strings; which makes Tchaikovsky’s music ‘work’ and so to have become lasting, popular, yet nonetheless great.

These rills and forays represent the lighter side of his orchestral music; and they tend to stay very much within the domain of dance; even in his more sombre works; wherein tone and mood are able to range and change; his carefree lyric joy for all its sweetness redounds incongruously upon the sterner more martial of his statements (usually of (attempts at) fortitude in adversity) and magnifies these grimmer moments exponentially, as salt into a wound, revealing a deep deep desperation.

Yet his style is not like a Mahler’s, who tends to integrate mutual interdependencies fused into a unity in his particular stock-in-trade of bittersweetness. Tchaikovsky divides up his mods and so separates them moreso; so that one listening may very often discern quite easily and say : This passage is sweet, and That one is bitter. Thus there is ever a foreboding about Tchaikovsky whenever his unalloyed nimble joy is in one’s ears, that the mood is not to be a constant delight as is say in Mendelssohn's Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but rather one feels one hears a musical statement of Shelley’s maxim “Rarely comest thou; spirit of delight.”

I guess that as well as with the march, Tchaikovsky was never far away from the waltz; the great high society ballroom dance style, a kind of informal and gracious march? Yet even with the waltz listening to Tchaikovsky we are nosing our ways towards the song spectrum in his music; and especially in the ballets. You might recall that Disney managed to make a song out of ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ ballet’s ‘The Garland Waltz’ which in Disney’s movie of The Sleeping Beauty was sung a with a lyric of ‘Once upon a Dream’. Like many of Tchaikovsky’s greatest waltzes, when listening to the sweep and ease of ‘The Garland Waltz’ one feels, as if one is virtually being ‘swept away’ by that lavish swish and sway and by its grand ‘uptake’ of oneself into the soul of a musical gorgeousness. This power in the music to beguile and, as it were, to put before the mind’s eye a rich sense of the glitterballs and the chandeliers, the champagne and the evening wear; is due in large part to its splendid orchestration, using its vivacious variations, and poised formal dramatic expression.

‘Waltz of the Flowers’ from ‘The Nutcracker’ and that waltz from the introduction to ‘Swan Lake’ are two delightfully raunchy confectioneries; offerings of great pleasure to listeners; in fact they are able in one’s weaker moments, to give one an impression that one’s cares might be temporarily set aside, and so dissolved, like dew into thin air, by their inundation of fantasy and sparkle.

I guess that the great Imperial Russian balls and other socialite occasions really did do splendour excellently well. Politically we see this splendour most excellently in Moussorgsky's most well-known and most frequently heard works, wherein there is never any lack of stateliness and of deep dramatic poetry. Perhaps epitomised by that most Russian of operas, Moussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’ in Russia by the Russians is hailed and proclaimed The definitive Great Russian Opera. In his own individual way, Moussorgsky as alongside Tchaikovsky in bearing the musical clout to really grab you and to make you feel in your flesh the high rhetorical sententiousness of Imperial Russia and its high society

I have written elsewhere in regard to Wagner about how he seems to have pre-empted Phil Spector and created his own version of Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ brand of music. Wagner seems to have wanted to produce on a listener an effect of an obliteration of a listener’s ‘stray and to-spare consciousness’ whilst his music was playing in a hall or on a player; seeking after an almost Primitive Baptist-like musical ‘total immersion’ for listeners.

Similarly when one is listening to Moussorgsky, in many, maybe most of his more famous pieces, and the case is often the same with Tchaikovsky, with his waltzes in particular; their ‘absorption’ skills can conjure up in us an experience of being flooded, overmastered-almost, a sense of having been stood under a high torrent, an effusive falls or cataract, issuing powerful dramatic sound. One is drawn-in, absorbed out of oneself, attracted magnetically, into a mingled engagement with these works. There is called to mind that Wedding Guest in Coleridge’s ‘The Ancient Mariner’ who is stopped by ‘a scrawny hand’ and spellbound by the sailor’s eye, so as that he ‘cannot choose but hear’ his ensuing story.

Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony is infiltrated with its fine martial moments; in fact most of the 5th> Symphony begins in the opening bars with strands of militaristic panache counterweighting the lighter more lyrical songlike strains. Like the nursery rhyme we ‘go in and out the window’ of Janet and John; John showing when the weather is frosty and inhospitable and Janet when the sun shines and the weather clement. Most of the second movement of the 5th is a discursion, as is the second movement of the 6th also, into a freer and gladder world. It is this continuous counterpoint between outright lyrical music swerving into and out of severer, usually martial, strains, which sustains the tensions in especially the 4thSymphonies upwards, It is Tchaikovsky’s playing moods off against one another with his use of a mix of a cautious brittle lightness and an ominous background qualification of it. The effect is like William Blake’s poem which tells us:

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

Which poem reminds us that Tchaikovsky was a composer par excellence in The Romantic Movement of Art: that period of art in which was stressed much more than ever before that innermost sense that “here is something stained with grief - that’s beauty’s canker”

From the very first bars of the 5th Tchaikovsky balances very expertly those tensions he creates shuttling between lyrical and the undertones of march; thus by melding nascent march with light lyric he achieves something niggling between that sense of freedom without which one cannot enjoy an unmixed delight; and that more constrained and dour feel which is acting to remind us as listeners that much of life, as it it is lived away from the masked balls and heady society heights, is seldom sparkling glitter or fancy.

There can subsist an undercurrent of weighty reserve even in some of Tchaikovsky’s most ebullient music; perhaps there is something theatrical about the presence of this underlying reserve, but if so, it is not straightforwardly a plain love of of theatrical performance which motivates him; rather it feels as if it might be a mask, a facade behind which Tchaikovsky is shielding himself by assuming; a gloss, a protective veneer; and it has an effect of acting upon a listener so as to maintain in one an apprehension of a tenuous holding-back from, a struggle to quell, a strong desire to ‘let go’ altogether into a sheer utter escapism or else into despair?. The woodwind carries the introductions of liyric tunes bearing their fragile melodies; whilst the brass introduces from time to time a burgeoning call for a martial fortitude with its hints of despair and dismay. This casual approximation of mine however concerns not a hard and fast rule in his music, because the tenors and timbres of woodwind and of the brass are able to switch roles quite magically and very cleverly from time to time

There is also another effect arising out of a commingling of light and dark moods, which gives rise in listeners, within the ear of their minds, that the effort of the lighter lyrical music to challenge for being the dominant factor as it were, represents an attempting of the mood to free itself of the more prevalent undercurrents of gloom held within the leaden and grave tempers which accompany march sections. In particular it is Tchaikovsky’s use of the deeper heavier-sounding brass instruments – the horns, the trombones, which will not allow such an escape into lyric predominance to occur. The whole of the introduction to the fifth symphony seems to be established to this design, and its use of fluid tempos acts as to ‘tease’ a listener and so lead him/her on with a hope, only for this advent of a hope to be, sometimes gently and subtly, sometimes abruptly, disappointedly, and even shockingly, turn on the tip of a compass, from being a struggle for gaiety, into a more serious threatening concern to be dealt with.

And this, my quite slight anaysis of what might be the genius of Tchaikovsky maybe discovers for me the reasons why his ‘holiday’ piece “The Caprice Italian” for myself at least, ever carries a ring of the inauthentic about it, because it seems to me to lack nearly all of Tchaikovsky’s usual dialectic which uses brass contra woodwind; and strings able to serve on either side; so that there does not occur a consequent ‘sturm and drang’, of ubiquitous internal battle going on within his music (and probably also within Tchaikovsky's mind). The Caprice Itaian is then rather more one dimensional than are near all of Tchaikovsky’s other works; having fewer and lesser contrasts and colours of tone and mood.

All said and done Tchaikovsky remains great and his music lasting, in spite of what appears to me to be a superficial almost supercilious approach of some critics towards him, with their tendency to prefer ‘more intellectual’ musics. He stands as great and lasting because he is able to lay bare in his music that human condition of life of dread and distress being peppered and touched from time to time, ameliorated by a most incongruous sense of joyous delight. No human life is spared these conditions, conditions which Tchaikovsky during his lifetime is likely to have experienced in spades.