Tchaikovsky On The Edge

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Image via Wikipedia

Tonight I went to the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra‘s production of Tchaikovsky On The Edge, which was an interesting presentation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky‘s final symphony “Pathetique” (Symphony No.6, Op.76). The conductor, Roberto Minczuk and Katherine Duncan, from CBC, spent some time at the beginning of the symphony discussing the musical themes we would hear and put the music in context of Tchaikovsky’s life. I learned some very interesting things about the music legend, he was gay and could have taken his own life, but more than that, Roberto and Katherine’s introduction made me think of listening to classical music in a new way.

“Pathetique” was Tchaikovsky’s last work. He died just a couple of weeks after it’s first performance. The second time it was performed was at his funeral. The cause of his death is unknown, but when you listen to “Pathetique” it is difficult to imagine that he died of natural causes. To me, it sounded like a musical autobiography, an explanation of the emotions he felt and a way of sharing something deep inside.

The symphony itself was composed in four movements. The first rolls across you like wave after wave of emotion. There is a clear cycle of despair, loneliness, anger, frustration, annoyance, hope, joy, and then a sideways slide back into despair, only to repeat the cycle again. If you every have been, or know someone who has been, depressed then the first movement of ‘Pathetique’ will sound eerily familiar.

The second movement of most symphonies is usually a waltz, in 3/4 time, but in “Pathetique” he composed it in 5/4 time. As Roberto and Katherine explained, it is an unusual rythym that sounds almost like a waltz but it is not the same. There are these two extra beats that throw you off step. As I listened it seemed to me that Tchaikovsky was trying to communicate in music what he would never be able to say at the time. Waltzes are for couples, for lovers, a beautiful dance for a man and a woman. The fact that he loved men, made the music no less sweet, but there was something about it, the rhythm, the very DNA of the music in the second movement, made it not fit into the typical heterosexual mold. You could not waltz to the second movement, but you could dance in a different way. The music seems to say ‘I am different, but I still love’. The music of the second movement is sweet, like a first kiss.

The third movement was fun and exciting. If you view this symphony as a memoir, then this would be the chapter on his work. It is clever and fun, triumphant and spirited. There is only a hint of the musical equivalent of impatience or annoyance part way through. Maybe at the point where Tchaikovsky’s public and private lives touched. This is the point where most symphonies would stop. You naturally want to clap at the end of this movement, but Tchaikovsky had more to say.

The fourth movement is serious and somber. It speaks of a deep emotional struggle and even has passages of Russian funeral music included. It is an odd way to leave an audience. There is no cheery resolution, no rescue for the hero. the movement itself ends with a rest. A silence. It is in that silence that you wonder what he was trying to say.

Is this piece of music really a suicide note?  Or was he just breaking the bonds of conformity in the one area of his life where he was free? Perhaps his death was merely coincidence (there is no clear evidence either way). Whichever way you answer these questions, it is clear that this is an amazing emotional piece of music and the best way to experience it is to hear it live.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kelsey
    Oct 14, 2011 @ 07:05:50

    I’m learning more these days about how classical music really did tell a story, without words. Great analysis on this piece! I’ll have to look it up on You Tube.


  2. Sheryl Ratcliff
    Oct 17, 2011 @ 11:20:14

    Hi Geneva,

    I’m Sheryl, the publicist at the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. We so enjoyed reading your thoughtful blog. Thanks so much for your interest in the music we present. We love it when people get so involved with the music that they write about it. If you ever want to blog about us again, let me know!

    All the best,



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