Monday, September 3, 2012

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique: Crossing the Acheron

                          “Vex thee not, Charon;
                           It is so willed there where is power to do
                           That which is willed; and farther question not.”

                                              Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno: Canto III

Music to accompany article: Symphony No. 6: Pathétique (Tchaikovsky) 

Tchaikovsky was a composer of intimate, confessional music that spoke to the individual rather than to humanity. He communicated emotions with great authenticity and force, so when one listens to his compositions, it feels as though the Schopenhauerian Will spoke directly to the heart. His Symphony No. 6 – the Pathétique – was his last. He died only nine days after conducting its premiere in St. Petersburg. Did he intend it to be his requiem? The circumstances of his death remain shrouded in uncertainty and controversy, and for a long time an argument has raged amongst his admirers, friends and scholars as to whether he died of cholera or of his own hand. Could the clue lie in the symphony itself?

     The Pathétique was Tchaikovsky’s most tragic and confessional work. The title, meaning ‘touching’ or ‘poignant’ in French, was suggested by his brother Modest, and it has endured. The symphony’s descending structure is reminiscent of the funeral bells in the Russian Orthodox Church. Trombones and a tuba enunciate the Orthodox Requiem chant to the words “With thy saints, O Christ, give peace to the soul of thy servant”. Perhaps it is about the final journey of the hero, even of Tchaikovsky himself, who descends into Hades with much pride and a sense of inevitability, having completed his task on earth? A kind of Es muss sein, ‘it must be’, as in Beethoven’s last quartet.

     The symphony consists of four parts, with the finale Adagio lamentoso echoing the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, his most revered composer. The first movement opens in a murky foreboding mood, to be suddenly interrupted by a fateful four-note phrase, often referred to as the ‘fate motif’, initially announced by the wind section. As the melody gathers strength, it is taken over by the strings. The forces of life and death, consciousness and oblivion, light and darkness reach a climax. The melody is then taken over by a single violin, as if Charon were taking the listener to the other bank of the river Acheron. The memories of passionate, but also painful moments return briefly in the form of an undanceable waltz. But are memories enough to sustain life? In the last movement, the forces of life try to make a final attempt at a comeback, with a vehemence that only confirms its futility. The decrescendo finale, highly unusual in Tchaikovsky’s time, makes the listener feel as if he were descending into a grave, or into Dante’s Inferno. The musical phrase, heavy with pain and dissonance, finally sinks into silence. The entire passage is underpinned by the bassoons, beginning on a high note which slowly descends the scale into oblivion. Barely audible sounds mark the final capitulation of the Will: from a mist we came and to a mist we return. The hero has reached the opposite bank of the Acheron. The figure of Charon hovers around for the last time, and then there is not even a shadow…