Tchaikovsky’s Swan Song

November 1 & 2, 2014

Program Notes by Paul Hyde

Piano Concerto, Op. 16, A minor
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)

Grieg’s only concerto has become one of the most popular works in the classical repertoire. It is a product of youth, hope and happiness, and it overflows with an array of rich melody.

Grieg, at age 25, spent the summer of 1868 with his wife and baby daughter in a secluded cottage in Denmark. This tuneful concerto seems to evoke that bucolic, romantic setting.

The score helped establish Grieg on the international music scene as the “Chopin of the North.” Part of the reason for the concerto’s success is that Grieg was a devoted composer of songs, and his love for singing melody can be heard throughout the piece.

The work is written in the traditional three movements:

I. A roll of the timpani ushers in one of the most famous piano fanfares in the orchestral repertoire. The woodwinds then introduce the sprightly main theme, which is repeated and embellished by the piano soloist. A warm, singing second subject is introduced by the cellos and likewise taken up by the soloist and extensively developed. The two themes form the core of the movement. Near the end, a dazzling cadenza test’s the soloist’s virtuosity.

II. The tender, pensive slow movement opens with muted strings. The piano introduces the main theme. This short movement serves as a sort of prelude to the finale, which follows without pause.

III. The opening theme of the energetic finale is a Norwegian folk dance, the halling. This main subject, a rondo refrain, will be heard several times in the movement, alternating with other material. A slower middle section features an ethereal melody for flute, expressively developed by the soloist. That theme returns triumphantly, in brassy splendor, at the end for a grand conclusion.

Symphony No. 6, Op. 74, B minor (“Pathétique”)
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Tchaikovsky believed this work, his symphonic swansong, to be his finest.

“If this symphony is misunderstood and torn to shreds, I shall think it quite normal and not at all surprising,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “I myself absolutely believe it to be the best and especially the most sincere of all of my works. I love it as I have never loved any single one of my other creations.”

The symphony certainly seems an honest reflection of the Russian composer’s characteristic melancholy and his keen sense of the tragic side of life. Tchaikovsky was the most autobiographical of composers, viewing his own music as a means of intimate personal disclosure.

The Sixth Symphony stands in sharp contrast to Tchaikovsky’s popular “catharsis” works, the symphonies – particularly Nos. 4 and 5 – that begin in an atmosphere of gloom but end in triumph. At age 53, and though outwardly successful, Tchaikovsky apparently no longer wished to strike a heroic pose. The Sixth Symphony is dominated by nostalgia, grief, resignation and thoughts of death.

The audience at the work’s premiere on Oct. 28, 1893 were, as Tchaikovsky predicted, taken aback by the work’s strikingly original fourth movement, which begins with a cry of pain and gradually dissolves into despair and silence. Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste, suggested the symphony’s title, “Pathétique,” with its connotations of “suffering” and “full of pathos.”

Tchaikovsky died a mere nine days after the premiere of the symphony, giving rise to the popular notion that the symphony represented Tchaikovsky’s premonition of his own death.

Some, in fact, have seen the symphony as a farewell note. Certainly it’s possible that Tchaikovsky committed suicide to avoid being publicly revealed as a homosexual. Tchaikovsky felt tremendous guilt over his sexual orientation; it was the source, some biographers argue, of his chronic bouts of depression. Tchaikovsky lived in a 19th century Russian society where homosexuality was punished by public disgrace, loss of civil rights and possible exile to Siberia. As musicologist Robert Greenberg has written, “Ultimately, Tchaikovsky preferred death to exposure.”

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth symphonies are, for many listeners, the composer’s greatest achievements. In the Sixth Symphony especially, the composer was at the height of his abilities and in complete control of his powers of expression. If the Fourth and Fifth symphonies are loved for their overwhelming sense of affirmation, the Sixth is cherished for its dramatic intensity, poignant melodies and sympathy for the shared fate of all humanity.

The symphony is composed in the traditional four movements:

I. Out of the depths of the orchestra, a solo bassoon introduces the main theme of the first movement. The tempo quickens and the theme is fragmented and tossed about from instrument to instrument, growing in intensity and dread. At another tempo change, the lyrical second subject – one of Tchaikovsky’s finest – is introduced by the strings. More than one writer has noted the melody’s beautiful nostalgic quality, reflecting perhaps a recollection of happiness in a time of pain. A sudden crash ushers in a highly agitated section. Almost nightmarish in quality and played at a pace verging on hysteria, the music suggests a soul in torment. The pace will slacken and pick up again, exploding finally into overwhelming grief – underscored by a powerfully dissonant episode setting strings against trombones and timpani. The nostalgic second theme appears again but fades away. A brass chorale closes the movement in a mood of resignation.

II. The second movement’s dreamlike waltz in the odd meter of 5/4 seems eerily removed from what has gone before. But it serves as a respite, alternately serene and giddy, from the intensity of the other movements.

III. In the third movement, Tchaikovsky seems to strike the heroic tone that gives so many of his other works their excitement and power. Beneath the swaggering mood, however, lurk fear and anxiety.  The heroism is forced and even manic. The hero bucks up his courage but is far from certain of victory.

IV. The finale begins with an outcry of anguish, setting the tone for the first theme, a lament. The hymn-like second subject seems to offer some hope and consolation but it rises to an impassioned climax and is stifled. After a final outburst, the cold whisper of the gong sounds like a death knell. The music sinks lower and lower, descending in pitch and volume into darkness.

Paul Hyde is the Arts Writer for The Greenville News and Southeast Editor of Classical Voice North America. For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.