The Nutcracker Suite
Is not the only thing that
Sure, the 1812;
But dig deeper and you’ll find
Lustrous, stunning gems.
Every Christmastime, the music of Tchaikovsky rings out again, as ballet dancers charm onlookers in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairies and other dance confections.
There is the wondrous Violin Concerto in D Major. And then there are the late symphonies.
Symphonies 4-6 explore the concept of fate, and whether one masters it or yields to it. Tchaikovsky called fate “that tragic power which prevents the yearning for happiness from reaching its goal.”1 Wow.
In his Symphony No. 6, also called the Pathétique, Tchaikovsky breaks the mold of the symphony form. His first and last movements are slow, which is unusual. Also unconventional is that the waltz movement is not in standard 3/4 time, but 5/4, making it sound just a little off. The third movement, the Scherzo, too seems to go a little awry. In its final movement, the symphony does not end with a flourish, but rather, it fades away. The symphony ends with repeated muffled bass notes, which then just stop. To me, this sounds like the final beats of a heart.
Tchaikovsky died nine days after the premiere of the sixth symphony.
There are many fine recordings of the late symphonies. Conductors whose names kept popping up in my reading were Mravinsky and Karajan. Mravinsky’s interpretation is deemed intense; Karajan’s, a benchmark. Other performances by Russian orchestras that I found interesting were conducted by Pletnev and Rostopovich. Choose your favorite, and get ready for an unforgettable experience.
If you want to hear Tchaikovsky’s voice, fortunately, we have a small snippet.
If you want to read more about Tchaikovsky, here are two free books that are available online. First, The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modeste. Second, Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans, available free via Google Books or Internet Archive. Also see the Tchaikovsky Research webpage. If you can read Russian, you can find a number of Tchaikovsky’s manuscripts here.
- Libbey, Ted. The NPR Guide To Building a Classical CD Collection. New York: Workman Press, 1994, p. 188, 189-192.
- Kozinn, Allan, The New York Times Essential Library: Classical Music. New York: Times Books, 2004, pp 147-150.
Image attribution: Photograph of Tchaikovsky [public domain] from book Tchaikovsky by Edwin Evans. London: J.M. Dent & Co., New York:E.P. Dutton & Co., 1906 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ATchaikovsky_1906_Evans.PNG