A song, a dance and the spirit of Russia

© Charles Thibo

Few symphonies have such a characteristic introduction – once you’ve heard it, you will recognize it at once. And from the texture of the introduction you will know the name of the composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky. I marvel at this symphony’s beauty, at its dynamics, its melodic lines, its lyricism – a song, a dance, all imbued by the spirit of Russia: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64.  And I love the recording by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev.

In April 1888 the composer had retired to the countryside in Klin, close to Moscow, in order to write another symphony. However, once he had got there, he felt no inspiration at all. “Do I have nothing to say anymore?” he complained to his brother Modest in a letter dated May 15. The English saying “He tried too hard” comes to my mind – a not-so-uncommon experience for Tchaikovsky.

“No worse than the others”

He had noted a few themes earlier that year during a trip to Tbilisi in Georgia, and by June, he started to compose for earnest: The muse had found her way to the estate of Frolovskoye. “I worked well all this time”, he wrote to his patron Nadezha von Meck. By November he was done. “Thanks God, [the symphony] is no worse than the others”, he wrote to his friend and fellow composer Sergey Taneyev.

I am tempted to say it is one of the best symphonies Tchaikovsky wrote. The premiere on November 5, 1888 in St. Petersburg met an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response by the audience and one of the explanations is the fact that the symphony is so easy to recognize. The beginning of the first movement and the finale are iconic – a very distinct theme, easy to sing, easy to remember, repeated in each movement.

The harmonic progression within and between the different parts is flawless and so is the expressive power.  The work has its somber-solemn and energetic textures, in the first movement for example. It has tender, deeply melancholic moments like the second movement – andante cantabile. Cantabile! And then the valses, ah, the valses. The third movement – a beautiful dance that could come straight out of a St. Petersburg ball-room.

Damn the critics!

Obviously, the most unnerving critic was Cesar Cui, from the “Mighty Five”*. He deconstructed the symphony and came up with his stereotype argument against Tchaikovsky, namely that the composer considered sound as an end to itself and not as the means, the music just being an excuse to present sonic exuberance. Another critic was more explicit but thought along the same lines than Cui. Both reproached Tchaikovsky to have written music without substance, a glittering, but empty shell, a piece bordering vulgarity in order to please the audience. How fortunate we are that nobody listened to those critics, and especially not to Cui, who knew nothing about composing.

One can only hope that today’s music critics are a little better educated. My personal conviction is that the world could well do without music critics. De gustibus non est disputandum. It would be more helpful to explain to the audience what a piece is about, how it came into being, instead of measuring a composition against a necessarily arbitrary set of criteria. Damn the critics!

© Charles Thibo

Withstanding the test of time

On the road to modernity. © Charles Thibo

His critics were quick to put a label on his music: academic, formal. “Like all St. Petersburg composers”, some would say. His critics were also quick to point out that he did not follow a coherent stylistic line, that he failed to give his compositions a distinct signature. Eclecticism – another label. Finally, the fact that he sympathized with the ideas of the “Mighty Five”* discredited him per se in the eyes of his detractors.

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Passion or folly?

No way out. © Charles Thibo

Franz Schubert’s personal tragedy becomes palpable from the first bars on. The Romantic melancholy does not creep slowly under you skin, no, it hits you like a hammer. Schubert’s inner tension, his disarray – in his letters he is quite straightforward about it – and his String Quartet No. 15 in G minor (D.887) is no less straightforward. It is a brutal piece, just like its predecessor, the quartet “Death and the Maiden.” It is a marvelous piece, just like its predecessor, the quartet “Death and the Maiden.” It is one of my favourites.

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The beginning of God’s Covenant with mankind

Pristiness. © Charles Thibo

Sarah was ninety years old. It took me a while to see the reference to the Genesis 17:17. It took me some twenty years to trace the title of this piece back to the Old Testament. Sarah gave birth to her son Isaac at the age of 90, Abraham, the father, being 100 years old at the miraculous birth of the boy. Neither father nor mother did believe God when he announced to both that Abraham would have a true heir and that he intended to establish a Covenant with Abraham and later with Isaac – the very origin of the Jewish religion. But God kept word and the miracle happened. A singular event which has its parallel in the New Testament: the miraculous birth of Jesus by a virgin of the name of Mary.

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