Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Rest of Tchaikovsky

What we love the most can get in our way ...

Thanks to eMusic I've embarked on another music collecting binge over the past year, and it's taught me a lesson: Being stuck on what you like can be the biggest obstacle to finding something new to enjoy.

In collecting jazz I find myself grabbing more and more of the people I like best rather than searching out those I haven't explored yet. So I've ended up with the complete catalog of Ben Webster, for example, yet little or nothing by the likes of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I have almost every album by Eric Alexander (who I discovered in a basement club in New York a few years ago), but almost nothing by others of the new crop of talented current artists -- not even Wynton Marsalis, who is only represented in my collection by two of his classical recordings.

Slowly it dawned on me that I had similar gaps even in my classical collection, where vast amounts of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart allow scant space for all the rest. One day I realized I was totally ignorant of the 15 symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich, even though I treasure his collection of 24 preludes and fugues in every key (the only time anyone has done that since J.S. Bach).

Similarly, I was well acquainted with Schubert's "unfinished" Eighth Symphony, along with his Ninth (because it was recorded on the same album by Leonard Bernstein), yet I could tell you nothing about the rest of them. And as a big fan of Tchaikovsky's last three symphonies, how was it possible to be unaware of the other three?

This came as a shock to someone who had grown up around the feet of two classical pianists (my parents), one of whom had been to Julliard. As a child I thought nothing of going outside to play while whistling a Chopin nocturne, and took it for granted that Sunday afternoons had been intended for opera broadcasts on the radio. Admitting these gaping holes in my musical knowledge made me feel like a literature student who had written a paper on Hamlet once but had never heard of Othello or The Tempest.

Well, maybe that's going too far. The problem is more like having a familiarity with only the prominent tragedies of Shakespeare, while remaining in the dark about the lesser known histories. Or more to the point, like contenting yourself with the "best" Beethoven symphonies (3,5,6,7 and 9) but omitting the rest. I long ago worked my own way through the remaining Beethoven (1,2,4 and 8), but never got around to Schubert.

However, the problem could be solved simply enough. Immediately I started browsing through the eMusic catalog and adding lots of stuff to my Save For Later list. Soon I'd filled out the missing Schubert symphonies (not to mention his excellent Mass in A-flat) and moved on to those of Shostakovich. Speed bump! Nobody told me that Shostakovich was so tough! I had to put on the brakes when I found out how demanding he was on his listeners. I'll have to absorb them more slowly, like rich food.

But then I remembered Tchaikovsky. He was one of the first composers I discovered on my own, immediately after Gershwin. I had inherited my dad's LP of the Fifth Symphony, and went on to enjoy my own acquisitions of the Sixth and then the Fourth.

Each of these is wonderful in its own way. The Fifth is the most perfect in its classic elegance, rivaling the monumental quality of Brahms. The Sixth, or "Pathetique," is known for its slow and tremulous final movement, the get-out-your-handkerchiefs closing bow after the triumphant and trumpet-infested third movement.

The Fourth is even more of emotional roller coaster -- a lengthy first movement that seems to be all about ignoring your fate, then resisting it, and at last raging against it in an all-out childish tantrum with fists pumping and feet kicking the floor ... a second movement which is a mournful lullaby of respite ... a joyful third movement almost entirely in pizzicato on the strings ... then a finale of triumph over fate (remember that from the first movement?) with a conclusion that feels like white-water rafting down the Colorado River.

The notion that music can be "about" something emotional is an idea that first came of age with Beethoven, and turned into one of the core precepts of the Romantic school. But no one ever portrayed sheer emotion with the wild abandon of Tchaikovsky. He used to be criticized for "wearing his heart on his sleeve," which was an extreme euphemism for the way he erotically drove his crescendos to climax after climax. He seemed intent to push the orchestra to its limit, plumbing the depths of despair and reaching the heights of ecstasy, and never more so than in his greatest symphonies.

Leading up to those monsters of the orchestral repertoire are Tchaikovsky's three earlier attempts at symphonic form. But though I once heard a recording of the First, "Winter Daydreams," I didn't find it impressive enough to purchase back when "record" prices were such a large fraction of my income. And what I didn't own, I didn't listen to, and what I never listened to, I never learned to love. Over the years I came to know his piano and violin concertos, his ballet music, his overtures, the string serenade, but never the rest of the symphonies. So now at last the time had come.

The pleasure of this discovery was much the way the world would feel if a lost trove of Bach manuscripts turned up, or a missing late quartet by Beethoven. Even though the ignorance was of my own devising, the restoration of these "other" masterworks was no less a revelation.

First, they reminded me why Tchaikovsky was so accessible and satisfying to begin with. He had a gift for melodic invention uniquely his own, an apparently bottomless wellspring of tunes that were thoroughly Russian in character but universal in their appeal. Time and again while listening to these "new" works I found myself rocking in time to some lilting wordless song, or pounding along as the orchestra stampeded toward another cataclysm. You can't just sit there, you have to move.

I'm reminded of the story told by Oscar Levant, Gershwin's pianist friend, who once got out of a speeding ticket by explaining to the cop that he had been listening to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony on the radio. "You have to speed when you're listening to that," he said, as it it were obvious.

So now I'm beginning my acquaintance with these three new friends. Two of them have nicknames, "Winter Daydreams" and "the Little Russian," while the Third simply goes by its number. It's too early yet to know which will become favorites, but I'm already learning some of the landmarks of their inner landscapes.

The First comes on softly like the cold breath of air after a snowfall, an interestingly low-key debut. Each movement begins in mist, and there are some wonderful discordant horn parts that sound like winter. ... The Second attempts to be more grandiose, and largely succeeds. You can tell the composer is still gaining confidence in his use of the orchestra, but the results are frequently brilliant. I swear there is one passage that would be right at home in a modern opera by Phillip Glass -- as is often the case, great composers anticipate the future and help to bring it into being.... The Third is notable for having five movements instead of the traditional four, and they range from an introspective waltz to a stirring finale. The last movement even explores the fugal possibilities of its rousing theme.

Oops -- just noticed that Pyotr Illyitch also left us two suites for orchestra that I've never heard. Excuse me while I dive in to those.


  1. Music lovers, please don't flame me for neglecting the Manfred Symphony in my focus on the ones that were numbered. Even though Leonard Bernstein hated it, many like it, and it has an interesting history of its own. Look it up.

  2. Nice essay! Made me start listening.