For those new to the field, as well as those who’ve spent a lifetime listening to classical music, few works are as soul-stirring and as easy to enjoy as a Tchaikovsky symphony. They are the epitome of Romantic expression (especially symphonies Nos. 4, 5 and 6) and are full of colorful orchestration and melodic invention. Their creation, though, did not come easily.
Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform the complete Tchaikovsky symphonies this season; the cycle begins Sept. 25 with Symphony No. 4.
Tchaikovsky struggled with the symphonic form. The problem was not a lack of imagination or creativity. It was his inability to stay within the bounds of the form that Haydn and Mozart perfected in their later symphonies, along with his inadequacy at conveying his hyper-expressive musical ideas. “The immense popularity of the [Tchaikovsky] symphonies is due to their tunefulness, brilliant orchestration and somewhat theatrical expression of Romantic emotion,” wrote Donald Jay Grout in his textbook, A History of Western Music. Grout wrote that over 50 years ago, back when academics would shake their heads and make clucking sounds about non-Germanic composers writing large-form symphonic works: “Poor darlings. If they could just get the hang of sonata-allegro form.”
Classical music, though, is a sea that is deep and vast and has room for a variety of works from different musical origins. Anyway, who says the symphony form as defined by Haydn and Mozart is the only way a composer should express his orchestral ideas? Tchaikovsky’s sound world is not about Classical-era forms but about Romantic-era ideals — personal expression and depth of feeling. Unlike his contemporary Johannes Brahms, Tchaikovsky was not saddled with the burden of history when he took to writing symphonies. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the entire Mannheim School were not peering over his shoulder when he sat down to write a symphony. Brahms, meanwhile, was so humbled by his Germanic predecessors that he took 21 years to complete his first symphony.
In 1840, the year of Tchaikovsky’s birth, there was not a major music school in all of Russia, and there were no permanent orchestras, only military bands. In his mid-20s, despite being a composer with limited experience in symphonic forms, he started on his first symphony, Winter Reveries, and struggled to contour his musical ideas to the topography of a formal symphony. After the first complete performance of Winter Reveries in Moscow in February 1868, however, Tchaikovsky would go on to compose hugely successful operas, symphonies and ballets; he would become the most popular Russian composer of all time.
His last symphony, No. 6, the Pathétique (think pathos not pathetic), an acknowledged masterpiece, is performed with the same frequency as many of Beethoven’s symphonies. Nine days after it received its premiere in October 1893, Tchaikovsky died at 53.
In a letter about his fourth symphony, written to his patroness Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, he reveals his innermost thoughts on composition:
“How can one express the indefinable sensations one experiences while writing an instrumental composition that has no definite subject? It is a purely lyrical process. It is a musical confession of the soul, which is full to the brim and which, true to its nature, unburdens itself through sounds just as a lyric poet expresses himself through poetry. The difference lies in the fact that music has far richer resources of expression and is a more subtle medium into which to translate the thousand shifting moments in the soul’s moods.”
Chronicling those “thousand shifting moments in the soul’s moods” is exactly what Tchaikovsky’s music is about.
Chicago-based writer Jack Zimmerman has authored a couple of novels, countless newspaper columns and was the 2012 recipient of the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Arts Achievement Award.
PHOTO: Detail from a cover illustration for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, recorded in Dec. 3-4, 1947, by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy.