Friday, May 27, 2011

Podcast #8 – Tchaikovsky Festival, Part 3

This week, we are concluding our three-part Tchaikovsky festival with the following line-up:

  • Romeo and Juliet fantasy-overture, TH 42
  • Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, “Pathétique”
  • More works based on Romeo and Juliet

This montage is no longer available on Pod-O-Matic. It can be heard or downloaded from the Internet Archive at the following address

The many Settings of Romeo and Juliet

In the early 1970’s, Seiji Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony released a couple of albums on Deutsche Grammophon themes around Romeo and Juliet. The selections were:

  • Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy-Overture
  • Excerpts from Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony
  • Excerpts from Prokofiev’s ballet
  • Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story”, a musical re-staging Shakespeare’s play in the context of the Gangs of New York.
As it turns out, many a composer in major concert works, ballets, incidental music to the play, opera and film set Shakespeare’s drama to music; Ozawa’s selections represent a small sampling of these. Film alone has explored Romeo several times: a quick search on the Internet Movie database (IMDb) return 84 hits!

No doubt that Tchaikovsky’s setting is the most famous of the bunch, performed frequently in concert and us an easy recognized, “go-to” piece of music when television and film need a backdrop for a love scene – comedic or dramatic.

Interestingly, Tchaikovsky never assigned an opus number to the work – it was revised twice before it finally came to the 1880 version we all hear today. The piece is dedicated to Mily Balakirev (1837–1910) who talked (and coached) Tchaikovsky through the 10-plus year effort that it took to produce the work.

In addition to the Ozawa version (and the Barchai version I chose for the podcast), I own versions by Riccardo Chailly, Claudio Abbado (in a rare recording with the Boston Symphony) and Sir Colin Davis (that one coupled with a flawless execution of the 1812 Overture with chorus).

Later in the podcast, I do include selections from Berlioz’s Dramatic Symphony on Romeo and Juliet (The Queen Mab scherzo), Prokofiev (in a piano-solo setting of one passage from his ballet) and Charles Gounod’s opera (in a vintage Met performance featuring Jussi Björling).

Tchaikovsky’s Sixth

Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, and last complete work, is a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

Time wise, the work was written between February and the end of August 1893 (thirteen years after Romeo, and five years after the Fifth). The composer led the first performance in Saint Petersburg on October 28 of that year, nine days before his death.

Where the fourth and filth symphonies try and make use of recurring themes in sewing together a programmatic vision, the Sixth does not – that doesn’t mean, however, that the work isn’t programmatic in nature. And there lies the mystery of the piece: the Pathétique has been the subject of a number of theories as to a hidden program. This goes back to the first performance of the work, when fellow composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov asked Tchaikovsky whether there was a program to the new symphony, and Tchaikovsky asserted that there was, but would not divulge it.

The Russian title of the symphony, “Patetičeskaja”, means "passionate" or "emotional", not "arousing pity." Tchaikovsky considered calling it “Programmnaja” or "Programme Symphony" but realised that would encourage curiosity about the programme, which he did not want to reveal. According to his brother Modest, he suggested the Pathétique title, which was used in early editions of the symphony; there are conflicting accounts about whether Tchaikovsky liked the title, but in any event his publisher chose to keep it and the title remained. Its French translation Pathétique is generally used in French, Spanish, English, German and other languages.

Set in the usual 4 movement template, the opening movement is very much in line with the mood of his preceding two symphonies: dark, ominous. Following a lovely adagio central theme, a loud and sudden shift in musical tome occurs 2/3 of the way through, creating the utter sense of chaos and doom that is forever associated with the work.

The second movement, with its odd 5/4 meter, presents a cute, yet unsettling waltz subject The third movement strikes me as the odd-duck: it is a fiery, almost triumphant march. Nowhere near the mood that is set for the finale movement, which returns to the dark, sorrowful tone of the first movement.

Tchaikovsky had many personal demons – his homosexuality being the most noteworthy. It is unclear if Tchaikovsky’s death due to cholera complications (from having drunk tainted water) is a case of neglgence, suicide or (as conspiracy theorists suggest) an outcome prompted by emissaries of the Tsar’s court (as it is purported Tchaikovsly had a romantic liaison with a member of the Tsar’s entourage). All this fuels the mystery behind the symphony’s hidden program.

I think you will love this music too.

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