Overture (Part 1)

24 Jan

Part 1: Concerning Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the first leg of my journey is complete!  (This journey is going to have lots of legs…think arachnid here.)  Before I regale you with tales of my travels through Chicago, however, a few introductions are in order.  Some of my readers are musicians and are well-versed in musical terms, but for those less familiar with some of the musical jargon, I’ll provide some footnotes.  For example, an overture is an opening movement to a play, oratorio, or opera which introduces some principal themes that will be running throughout the rest of the work.  Hence, the title of this entry – I’ll be introducing some major players in my trip to Chicago.  First, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, which I heard the CSO perform twice during my visit.

A great deal of mystique surrounds Tchaikovsky’s famous sixth symphony.  The composer’s death just nine days after its premiere in October 1893 came as a tragic shock to the public.  Tchaikovsky was only fifty-three when he died of cholera in St. Petersburg, leaving a massive legacy behind him.  In his lifetime, Tchaikovsky composed numerous ballets, symphonies, concerti, and other works which earned him a great deal of notoriety both in Russia and the rest of the world.


Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony was premiered on October 28th, 1893, with the composer conducting.  Titled Pathétique, which in Russian means something more akin to passion and emotional suffering, the symphony is both dramatic and programmatic, although its true meaning remains a mystery.  Tchaikovsky composed the symphony during a period of immense personal emotional turmoil.  Wracked with insecurities throughout his lifetime, the composer grappled both his own compositions and his homosexuality.  During the time when he was composing the Pathétique, Tchaikovsky had fallen in love with his nephew and heir, Bob Davydov.  Although the composer’s intentions for the meaning of the symphony remain ambiguous, it is hard not to interpret his passionate themes as expressions of forbidden and unrequited love, especially given the context and title of the piece.  Such was the mystery surrounding Tchaikovsky’s composition and unexpected death that the symphony was once regarded as a prelude to suicide.

The Pathétique is a dramatic break from Tchaikovsky’s earlier symphonies.  Scored in B minor, the first movement begins with a deep and ominous bassoon solo.  The violins soon enter, tentatively at first, but soon crescendo into a passionate melody.  The first movement maintains a tragic yet passionate tone, containing some of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful themes. Its title (Andante – Allegro non troppo1) indicates the wide variety of character and tempi2 throughout the opening.  Tchaikovsky scores the orchestra in the widest possible dynamic range, from bold fortes to nearly inaudible pianissimos3 (at one point the orchestra is marked at pppppp, which in Italian would be pianissi-issi-issi-issi-issimo, to put it in perspective).  After a prolonged, tender and soft section, Tchaikovsky suddenly returns to the first theme, subito forte4. (Side note: if you ever see this symphony performed live, watch the audience – those who are unfamiliar with the piece will leap at least a foot out of their seats at this point.)

All of the video clips in this entry are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing under Fritz Reiner.  Unfortunately I was unable to embed the clips, but you can follow the link to the original YouTube post!

The second movement, much shorter than the first, is a sort of quirky, 5/4 waltz.  Its main theme is much lighter than the first, creating an aura of hope and relief after the passionate first movement.  (On a personal note, this is one of my favorite movements by Tchaikovsky.  I defy you to listen to the main theme, introduced by the celli, without smiling.)

The third movement is a brilliant march.  At this point the first-time listener feels as if the symphony may have a happy ending.  What began as a tragedy shows strength and resilience in this movement.  A jaunty theme is passed between the winds while the strings maintain a bouncing, triplet feel beneath.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the rumors of this symphony being a suicide note.  Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova was the first to publish this belief in 1979, and for a time it was widely believed by many of his followers.  Since then it has been largely refuted.  That said, the final movement of the Pathétique sounds like a farewell to me.  Perhaps the composer intended the movement to signal a defeat, succumbing to life’s failures and frustrations.  Perhaps it was a solemn and heart-breaking acceptance of the fact that his could never truly express his love in a society fiercely intolerant of homosexuality.  Listeners should make of the music what they will.  The passionate themes speak for themselves to each person.  The movement begins with a dramatic and desperate-sounding introduction in the strings, eventually evolving into a more tender theme.  Soon, however, the melody becomes dark and brooding once more, and a deep tam-tam stroke signals the beginning of the end.  To me, the low ostinato5 on the tonic6 from the double basses brings one word to mind: inevitability.  The symphony ends as ominously as it began, fading to a nearly inaudible note in the low strings.

The first audience of this symphony was stunned by this conclusion, uncharacteristic of any symphony, let alone one by Tchaikovsky, known for his powerful, almost bombastic endings.  To the composer’s initial dismay, the crowd’s response to the ominous symphony was a round of half-hearted, bewildered applause.

The work premiered under Tchaikovsky’s baton.  At its next performance, the concert hall was draped in black, in memory of the one of the world’s greatest composers.

I saw this symphony performed twice by the CSO with Juanjo Mena conducting.  Both performances were thrilling.  The amount of passion created by the orchestra was stunning, capturing the emotional highs and lows of the entire work.  The first performance was particularly enrapturing to me, as this was the first time I had seen the piece performed live.  Pondering the composer’s untimely death, the final movement brought tears to my eyes as it diminished to what the program notes aptly described as “defeat and disintegration, over a fading, ultimately faltering pulse.”  Leading up to this performance, I studied the CSO’s recording of the symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim and fell in love with the piece.  No recording, however, can match the striking emotional expression of a live performance, particularly with such talented musicians.  I was happy to hear it performed twice during my stay.

In the next entry, I’ll introduce the Chicago Symphony Orchestra itself.  Stay tuned!

1 Most movements are named after the basic tempi they follow.  Andante is Italian for a walking pace.  Allegro non troppo roughly translated means “not too fast.”
2 Tempi – the plural for “tempo,” which indicates the speed of a piece.
3 Pianissimo – “Very soft” – the suffix “-issimo” in Italian roughly translates to “very” or “to the highest degree” in English.
4 Subito forte – Italian for “suddenly strong.”
5 Ostinato – Italian for “obstinate,” in music this term refers to a persistently repetitive musical phrase or rhythm.
6 Tonic – The first note of a major or minor scale.  This is the note after which a particular key is named.  Most pieces end on the tonic.


One Response to “Overture (Part 1)”

  1. Jeff 02/04/2011 at 6:25 pm #

    This certainly provided a much greater depth of understanding for me, and adds a 4th dimension to both the composer, and his works – expecially the 6th.

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