Sex and the Symphony: Blogging the Art of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra III

Tchaikovsky's life and death--fact and fiction are discussed with his Symphony No. 5

I remember one of my co-workers telling me about a conversation that she had with her young daughter.  The daughter had asked whether “Titanic” was a true story and the mother replied that it was.  The daughter then burst into tears saying, “You mean Leonardo DiCaprio is really dead?”  The mother had to explain the difference between artists working to convey the illusion of a reality for the audience’s benefit and their actually being the reality in the art work.


This distinction sometimes seems to be lost when it comes to relating Tchaikovsky’s music to his life.  And more than childish mistakes result.  Yes, it is true that Tchaikovsky was hypersensitive, hyperemotional (as well as histrionic), and often depressed.  He discussed “Fate” including how the difficult, unpredictable circumstances of life ultimately can’t be overcome.   Of course, his music shows astounding sensitivity to tone color and dynamics in a supremely melodic, impassioned style--often times in sorrowful minor keys.  And his famous and popular last three symphonies (Nos. 4 in F minor, 5 in E minor, and 6 in B minor “Pathetique”) seem to have almost novelistic inner “programs” which he would, at times, discuss in his letters, diaries, or in conversation—though never publishing any of these often vague details for the listening public. 


He was completely homosexual (if there is such an expression—sort of like Mitt Romney’s, “I was a severely conservative governor”).  What I mean by this was that he had such a distain for the physicality of a woman that he couldn’t even carry off the pretence of a marriage with a woman--even though he tried for a few weeks.  And yes, in the late 19th century, there were laws against homosexual acts in Russia and significant social disapproval for that orientation in general—though not necessarily in the artistic and noble circles that Tchaikovsky inhabited.  So in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime there was no way to connect his ideals of intense romantic love with open affection and an ongoing, committed relationship yielding private sexual gratification--a frustrating, maddening situation. 


So grasp the superficial facts of Tchaikovsky’s life, and it’s easy enough to get to the conclusion that Tchaikovsky’s musical programs were exactly his life’s programs.  Actually, it gets worse.  Much worse.  Tchaikovsky died quickly and unexpectedly from cholera in 1893.  There’s a tremendous amount of documentation for this.  However, in opposition to this is a rumor, which started about the time of Tchaikovsky’s death, that he committed suicide.  To compound this, the rumor has been enlarged with fanciful details, seemingly stolen from the conviction of Oscar Wilde in England for a homosexual affair. Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895 for sexual acts with a young nobleman.


From “evidence” amounting to a trans-generational game of telephone, Tchaikovsky is now, too, supposed to have had a scandalous affair with a young nobleman which so disgraced his schoolmates from the institution that he graduated from as a 19 year old that these schoolmates held a private “honor trial” where he was sentenced to drink a poison (sometimes specified as arsenic) that would mimic the symptoms of cholera while his physicians and family members covered up the murder by knowingly pretending to attend to him as a cholera victim.  But remember that at the age of 53, the time of his death, Tchaikovsky was one of the most famous men in Russia, perhaps second in world renown only after Tolstoy, and a favorite of the Tsar whose brother was a well-known homosexual (who at least was able to maintain a childless, sham royal marriage).


While there are private correspondences, diary entries, and newspaper reports which all discuss the struggles with cholera and the tragedy of the death (including a diary entry of a sorrowful Tsar who, nevertheless, according to the suicide-theory ‘evidence,’ was supposed to have approved the “death sentence”), there is not a single entry of any contemporary discussing any aspect of this massive murderous conspiracy, as alleged.  Yet, for a while, this “honor trial” suicide version of Tchaikovsky’s death was the accepted history in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Encyclopedia of Music and Musicians.  It is significant that this is a British-edited undertaking and the Brits (remember Oscar Wilde) are the most passionate defenders of the suicide theory.


You are probably wondering what all this sex and conspiracy stuff has to do with the enjoyment of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 which is the final piece on the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra’s November 10th concert under new music director, David Danzmayr.  (I think that this is a good time to reiterate that the contents here are not previewed or sanctioned officially by the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra.  I’m speaking for myself.  Past regimes at the IPO would take out any reference I made to Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality when I wrote the program notes.)  Well, prior to the last few decades, there was a hidden connection between music commentators of the 20th century knowing about Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation and their discussion of his music.  This means, the commentators would have their own—almost certainly disapproving—reaction to Tchaikovsky’s sex life and then let this spill over into their musical appraisals while following the hushed propriety of the day and not using anything other than hints at the gay factor.  


Thus, Tchaikovsky’s music would be described in a manner that reflected discomfort with his sex life or a reflection of the dire Fate and overwhelming burden that such an orientation would ‘necessarily’ impose on an artist.  At least that is what the commentator’s imaginations—not facts--would lead them to “hear.”  (For the facts, read Alexander Poznansky’s Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.)  The music was overly feminine—Tchaikovsky was able to enter into the feelings of female characters (Juliet, Francesca da Rimini, Tatiana, Joan of Arc, etc.) but seldom able to see things from a man’s point of view.  The music was disoriented in a confusion between his Russian heritage and his aping of Western Germanic musical forms.  More to our purposes here, the programs and emotionality of the music became absolutely central beyond any other aspects of craft or power.   


OK.  On to the music.  The Symphony No. 5 in E-minor was written in 1888 after Tchaikovsky had finally settled down in a house of his own.   This followed a decade of travel and “sponging” stays at relative’s estates made possible by Tchaikovsky’s financial support from wealthy heiress Nadezhda von Meck which allowed him to quit his teaching job at the Moscow Conservatory.  The Symphony was first performed under the composer’s direction (restrained by all reports) in November 1888, just months after its composition.  It was relatively well received at its premiere. 


So what is the program?  Here is a quote from Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony.


In a notebook page dated 15 April 1888, about a month before Tchaikovsky began work on his [Symphony No. 5], where he outlines a scenario for the first movement: "Intr[oduction].Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable] predestination of Providence. Allegro. (1) Murmurs of doubt, complaints, reproaches against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself in the embraces of faithful A wonderful program, if only it can be carried out."


As Steinberg relates, this is pretty useless in trying to decipher the opening movement though most annotators of the British school will definitely call the introductory theme “The Fate Motive.”  One thing that is certain is that the opening motto of the Symphony No. 5 is very important to the whole plan--whatever that is.  So listen closely to those low-lying clarinets and their soft, minor-key theme.  (You should also listen closely to the slow introduction in the Haydn Symphony No. 92 “Oxford which is on a later IPO program.   But once the opening of the Oxford is gone, it’s gone--with only the most subtle relationship to what is to follow.)  Not so in the Symphony No. 5.   The motto returns in the first movement development, and breaks into the middle passages of the lyrical second movement with great malignant force.  There is mostly a ghostly hint of the motto at the ending of the graceful third movement.  However, it has its biceps rippling in triumph in the fourth movement finale.  


The Movements are:


I, Andante—Allegro con anima        [Moderately slow—Fast with spirit]

II. Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenia  [Moderately slow lyrical, with some freedom]

III. Valse: Allegro moderato                               [Waltz: Moderately Fast]

IV. Finale: Andante maestoso—Allegro vivace—Moderato assai

e molto maestoso                                 [Finale: Moderately slow and majestic—Very fast “lively”—Very moderate and very majestic]


Highlights of the Symphony are the beautiful horn melody that starts the second movement, the lovely waltz of the third movement, and the triumphant ending of the piece.  The purists are not always certain that Tchaikovsky achieved his triumph fair and square.  (Actually, the piece doesn’t exactly end with the “motto” theme but the “Allegro con anima” theme of the first movement.  If Tosca dying to Cavaradossi’s music bothers you, then this might.  Otherwise, you’ll be fine.)  Here is some interesting commentary about the Symphony with some thanks to Slonimsky’s (a Russian musicologist who never bought the suicide theory for a second) Lectionary of Musical Invective.  (I once telephoned Slonimsky, out of the blue, when he was over 100 years old.  His number was in directory assistance!  He was very gracious, and all I can remember was that we discussed Ravel who Slonimsky said was a lousy pianist.)


Of the Fifth Tchaikovsky Symphony one hardly knows what to say.

It is less untamed in spirit than the composer's B-flat minor Concerto,

less recklessly harsh in its polyphonic writing, less indicative

of the composer's disposition to swear a theme's way through a

stone wall. In the Finale we have all the untamed fury of the Cossack,

whetting itself for deeds of atrocity, against all the sterility of

the Russian steppes. The furious peroration sounds like nothing so

much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the

music growing drunker and drunker. Pandemonium, delirium tremens,

raving, and above all, noise worse confounded!

(Boston Evening Transcript, October 24, 1892)



The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony is to the Reinecke Overture as a

strong and rebellious liquor to sterilized milk. The Finale is riotous

beyond endurance. Instead of applying local color with a brush,

Tchaikovsky emptied the paint pot with a jerk. There are conservatives

in the audience who are accustomed to protest against the

barbaric muse of Russia. (Boston Herald, October 24, 1892)


Pretty neat!  Tchaikovsky as the manly man, “barbaric” “Cossack”, before his personal ‘history,’ not his music, tamed him.  I think I’ll leave the final word (unless someone wants to comment) to Sir Donald Tovey, a Brit who really knows his, er, stuff (emphasis added below).  But before I do, remember to go to www.ipomusic.org or call (708) 481-7774 for tickets to the November 10th concert.  My other blogs about the concert music are here in the Homewood-Flossmoor Patch.


My own conclusion about Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony is that great injustice to its intentions results from regarding it as inany way foreshadowing the [Symphony no. 6 in B minor “Pathetique”]. Like all Tchaikovsky's works, it is highly coloured; and a critic who should call it restrained would be in evident medical need of restraint himself; but the first three movements are in well-proportioned orthodox form, and my general impression of this symphony is that from first to last Tchaikovsky, though I have never been able to impute to him a sense of humour, is thoroughly enjoying himself. And I don't see why we shouldn't enjoy him too.

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