Tchaikovsky - Carnegie Hall Program Notes

The Program

Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13, “Winter Daydreams”

Winter Charm

Like the “Winter” section from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony takes a normally bleak subject and transforms it into inspiring art. Indeed, Tchaikovsky’s symphony is “wintry” in a pictorial sense only; emotionally it is perhaps the “sunniest”—or at least the happiest—of the six symphonies. Like many other Russian artists, Tchaikovsky regarded vast winter landscapes in a tranquil way. “The Russian winter landscape,” he once wrote, “has for me an incomparable charm.”

And charm is what this work is about. Indeed, there is perhaps a greater contrast between this symphony and the one that shares this program, the “Pathétique,” than the first and final symphonies of any other major composer. From the opening flute and bassoon theme against shimmering strings to the finale’s racy coda, this work has a consistent geniality unusual for a Tchaikovsky symphony. With its delicate scoring, dance-like-fleetness, and fairy-like dreaminess, “Winter Dreams” is more a forecast of the mature Tchaikovsky ballets than the later symphonies.

Romantic Agony, Russian Style

Yet the 26-year-old Tchaikovsky had terrible troubles with this symphony, as indeed he continued to have with almost everything else in the form. In addition to his usual morbid self-doubt (apparent from the beginning), he had an aesthetic problem: He was determined to make this a “Russian” symphony colored by what he called “the indescribable magic of true Russian folk music.” Reconciling this magic with the dominant Germanic symphony model was tricky (as Rimsky-Korsakov discovered in his own First Symphony). Composition was hard, done mainly
at night during a long stretch between June and November 1866; the First’s birth struggles fit well into the mythology of self-tortured Russian Romantics—Rachmaninoff, for example, who dedicated his Second Piano Concerto to his psychiatrist for saving him from a catatonic depression. In this case, Tchaikovsky’s doctor supposedly rescued him from a state “only one step from insanity.” 

The early performance history was no better, again a grim forecast of troubles to come: His mentor Anton Rubinstein (who, despite all the glowing things written about him, must have been a pill, considering the continuing trouble he gave his most brilliant pupil) dished out only harsh criticism, and when Rubinstein’s brother Nikolai finally premiered the Scherzo of the symphony in Moscow as a trial run, it flopped. After the first complete performance in 1868, Tchaikovsky was at first enthusiastic (coming out for the curtain call nervous and badly dressed, according to contemporary accounts) but later became so depressed by the work’s “enormous shortcomings” that he extensively cut and revised it.

Still, Tchaikovsky had a weakness for this early work, which he called “a sin of my dear youth,” later confessing to his patron Madame von Meck that he found it “actually better and more substantial than many other more mature things.” One can only feel for this endlessly self-deprecating artist: Even when he was finally able to like something he wrote, he often could do so only by denigrating something else.

About the Music

In mood and design, this is one of the most consistent of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. The work is dedicated to “Winter Daydreams,” and that is what the work sustains for four movements. The first, subtitled “Daydreams on a Winter Journey,” evokes the openness and sparseness of its subject through cool winds, transparent strings, and a development section suggesting snow flurries. At the end, the swirling main tune seems to be building to a dramatic coda, but the music dies away, leading to an Adagio subtitled “Land of Gloom, Land of Mist” that continues its basic mood of wintry restraint. Strings sing the opening melody, but Tchaikovsky is generous with the entire orchestra, giving the winds several elegant turns and the brass a soaring version of the main tune. The Scherzo, even more delicate than the opening movements, is a reworking of a student piano sonata and an early forecast of Tchaikovsky’s ballet music. 

The finale is held up by commentators as representing, for the first time in a symphony, the kind of strong contrast and stormy drama that were to characterize Tchaikovsky’s mature symphonies. Indeed, the brass and cymbals sound boldly at a few climactic points, contrasting with a rumbling string fugue. But as a whole, this movement too is relatively restrained, full of happy snatches of Russian folk tunes—a far cry from Tchaikovsky’s usually impassioned rhetoric in a finale. When the volume does rise, as in the big chorale at the end, so does the music’s spirits, as if the listener is being invited to celebrate the end of winter’s journey.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation



Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”

Dark Speculation

Speculation that Tchaikovsky did not die of cholera, as officially reported, but committed suicide to avoid exposure as a homosexual, gives his final symphony a dark and compelling twist. “As regards the suicide story,” music critic James Huneker wrote as far back as 1899, “while it has been officially denied, it has never been quite discredited.” Eighty years later, an ugly account—one given the authority of the 1980 New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians—emerged, suggesting that the longstanding claim that Tchaikovsky died of cholera was indeed a cover-up. Tchaikovsky, these reports claim, voluntarily took poison after being blackmailed by a St. Petersburg law tribunal, which hauled him into a secret meeting and demanded his death: The secret “It” alluded to in the Fifth Symphony, the force of “Fate” that haunted his life, finally ended it. Whether or not one chooses to believe this still-disputed story, it is given a kind of artistic credence in Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique,” written just before these events are alleged to have occurred, a work that often sounds like the musical equivalent of despair.

A New Sincerity

Tchaikovsky called this his most “sincere” symphony, and indeed it brought a new emotional honesty to music. The gloom of the outer movements—made all the more convincing by the groping toward light in the inner ones—is gripping and emotionally real. The darkness of this symphony (dubbed the “Pathétique” by Tchaikovsky’s brother) looks forward to desolate moments in Mahler, Shostakovich, and others, yet the work carries a feeling of profound isolation. In Lawrence Gilman’s words, it remains “a lonely and towering masterpiece. Where, indeed, is there anything at all like it?” 

Part of the power of the “Pathétique” comes from Tchaikovsky’s decision to conclude the work not with a desperate life-affirmation, as he’d done in his two previous symphonies, but with defeat and resignation, a completion of the tragic gesture rather than a defiance of it. After a poignant first movement with a shattering development section, a bittersweet waltz that initially puzzled critics with its emotional subtlety, and a manic, explosive march, Tchaikovsky brings the symphony down with an Adagio lamentoso where, in Huneker’s words, “an atmosphere of grief, immutable, eternal, hovers about like a huge black-winged angel.” The most famous melody, one unmistakably Tchaikovskian, is the long second subject in the first movement, which seems to sum up the heartbreak this composer poured into his life’s work.

Ironies and Surprises

Yet the immediate period during which this symphony was composed was—at least for Tchaikovsky—a relatively happy one. He was alone in a secluded village called Klin, the kind of isolated natural setting he found congenial. He later told his nephew that he often “wept bitterly” while writing, but this was apparently because the “deeply subjective” symphony was going well.

This is not to say that Tchaikovsky had conquered his usual difficulties. He was still afflicted with self-doubts that often left him “staring all day at two pages,” and when he conducted the premiere of the new symphony in October 1893, he was convinced that the orchestra was “bored” by the work. Indeed, he harbored such intense doubts about the finale—possibly his most powerful and original symphonic movement—that he pondered destroying it. Typical of Tchaikovsky’s bad luck, the symphony was received coolly at its premiere, but was enthusiastically embraced at subsequent performances a month later—right after his sudden, tragic death.

Perhaps the most astonishing fact about the “Pathétique,” Tchaikovsky’s monument to negation, is that it was composed only one year after The Nutcracker, his most enchanting, life-affirming work. (In fact, he was in a far more troubled mood when he wrote the ballet than when he composed the symphony.) The confluence of these two pieces is a testament not only to Tchaikovsky’s emotional range, but to the complexity of the human psyche and the mystery of the creative process.

—Jack Sullivan

© 2011 The Carnegie Hall Corporation