As we perform two composers’ final completed symphonies, we celebrate their lives and momentous impact on music by drawing inspiration from Jupiter, the Roman king of the gods. Mozart may have as well when he composed Symphony No. 41, which was later nicknamed Jupiter Symphony. This piece became his most complex composition and still serves as an inspiration to modern composers. Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique walks a dark path as it weaves the story of life and death as drawn by the hand of fate. Both pieces will leave you in awe of the musicians’ abilities to move your emotions.
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter)
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 (Pathetique)
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551 Jupiter
BORN: January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791, in Vienna
WORK COMPOSED: 1788
WORLD PREMIERE: Undocumented
Mozart’s reputation and fortune were waning by 1787; he was facing illness, mounting debt and the depressing realization that, only five years after his arrival, the Viennese were growing weary of him. By the summer of 1788 he was poor. He pawned several valuables, attempted to sell his manuscripts and pleaded with his publisher for an advance. Desperate for money, he wrote a number of letters to his friend Michael Puchberg, begging for loans. Because of the Austro-Turkish War, this was a difficult time in Vienna for musicians; the general level of prosperity had fallen and the aristocracy found it difficult to support music. It was in the midst of this seemingly hopeless time that Mozart composed his last three symphonies in close succession during the summer of 1788. Within a seven-week time span he finished the 39th on June 26, the 40th on July 25, and the 41st on August 10, a remarkable feat for anyone – even Mozart!
One might consider Mozart’s last three symphonies as one unified work. An argument Nikolaus Harnoncourt makes is that No. 39 is the introduction and No. 41 is the grand finale to finish the trio. In case you were wondering, the 39th is in E-flat major and the 40th is in G minor. It’s interesting to note the characteristics of these three keys (from Christian Schubart’s Ideen zu einer Aesthetik der Tonkunst (1806)): E-flat major is the key of love, devotion and an intimate conversation with God; G minor is the key of discontent, uneasiness, resentment and dislike; and C major is the key that is innocence, simplicity, purity. When we think of the Mozart portrayed in the movie Amadeus, the joyful, childlike prankster, the key of C major comes to mind.
The 41st is the longest of Mozart’s symphonies. Although the first three movements are sublimely beautiful and classic Mozart through and through, the last movement is where his genius shines. Throughout the movement there is a fugal interplay within the orchestra that must have, in its time, turned the world upside down. The opening four notes (C D F E) provide the main theme to listen for throughout the movement. The second main theme begins after a very short introduction in the oboes, bassoons and strings. Once the second theme is set, everything stops except for the statement of the first theme by the second violins followed by a fugal setting of the first theme played by the strings. The entrance of the winds playing the first theme signals the entrance of the third theme in a short eight-bar call and response between the first violins and the low strings. This is immediately followed by the second theme in a call and response between the high and low voices of the orchestra. The orchestra comes to a halt and softly the strings begin with the first violins introducing the fourth theme quickly followed by the bassoons with the third theme interrupted by the flute playing the second theme two times, after which the flute then goes straight into the third theme (Does it sound confusing? Try playing it – it is so easy to get lost! I’ll buy a beer for the first non-musician in the audience who comes up and correctly identifies all four themes). The second half of the movement starts with the first theme again in the new key of G major and the themes appear again albeit in different keys and sometimes upside down or backwards, then finally it all comes together in a joyous ending.
This is truly one of Mozart’s greatest achievements, as Sir George Grove wrote, “it is the greatest orchestral work of the world which preceded the French Revolution.” Beginning around the mid-1780s there is a change in Mozart’s music: it became more expansive, more complex and more difficult than before this time. In 1784 Mozart met Haydn in Vienna and they became friends, playing in string quartets together whenever Haydn would visit Vienna. One may surmise that Mozart strove to impress Haydn with more intricate compositions. In 1785 Haydn told Leopold, Mozart’s father, “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”
The name of the symphony came from an early arrangement for piano published in 1823 by impresario Johann Peter Salomon. The symphony perfectly captures the noble character of the Roman god Jupiter and is a completely appropriate title for this monument of the Classical period.
Program Notes © Vincent Osborn, 2015
PIOTR IL’YICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathétique
BORN: May 7, 1840, in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia
DIED: November 6, 1893, in Saint Petersburg
WORK COMPOSED: 1893
WORLD PREMIERE: October 28, 1893, at Hall of Nobles, Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky conducting
The beginning of 1893 was a depressing time for Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker and Iolanthe were produced as a double bill at Mariinsky Theater in December 1892 and were not well received. A symphony he was working on was not coming together and he was still hurting from the sudden end his patroness and pen pal Nadezhda von Meck had put to their relationship two years before. On February 11, 1893, he wrote to his nephew, Vladimir ‘Bob’ Davïdov, “I had the idea for another symphony, this time with a programme, but such a programme that will remain an enigma to everyone – let them guess; the symphony shall be entitled: A Programme Symphony (No. 6)… You can’t imagine how blissful I feel in the conviction that my time is not yet passed, and to work is still possible. Of course I might be mistaken, but I don’t think so.”
Tchaikovsky considered calling it Programme Symphony but felt that would arouse curiosity about a subject he did not want revealed. The Russian title, Pateticheskaya, is defined as passionate and emotional. Indeed, it is easy to consider this symphony as descriptive of the tormented life that he was living at that time. Tchaikovsky was uncomfortable with his homosexuality and the only person he could talk to was his brother Modest, who himself lived a fairly open homosexual life. He not only had to keep his homosexuality a secret, his relationship with his nephew would have completely destroyed him. At the beginning of the letter quoted above Tchaikovsky writes, “If you do not want to write, at least spit on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and send it to me. You are not taking any notice of me at all. God forgive you – all I wanted was a few words from you.” One can imagine the frustrating emotions he must have been experiencing and then pouring those emotions out on paper in what would become this great symphony.
Tchaikovsky did, as he wrote to the Grand Duke Constantine, put his “whole soul into this work.” He also maintained during rehearsals that it was “the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose” despite the lack of enthusiasm for it from the orchestra members. Indeed, Tchaikovsky has bared his soul and explored the whole spectrum of emotions to bring us to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Very quietly the symphony slowly emerges from the void, checking the atmosphere, making sure it is safe to come out into the open. Even when the tempo doubles the entrances are conservative, inviting others to come out as well, and it is not long before it builds into a frenzy as the tempo speeds up. All the insecurities are shed as the fanfares sound and soon comfort is found as the tempo relaxes and brings us to one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous and beautiful melodies. After a comforting moment a new development begins as if awakened from a deep slumber. It almost feels chaotic to the point of being out of control, but when it seems that it has reached the point of no return, there is a grounding pattern that brings it back.
The second movement is a beautiful and hauntingly graceful waltz in 5/4, not 3/4! Each measure is divided in a two plus three pattern. The waltz doesn’t seem to fit with the emotional content of the entire piece, but at the same time it allows the listener time to relax and absorb fully the first movement. Tchaikovsky follows this with a brilliant scherzo that at times will remind the listener of The Nutcracker and one can imagine a great ballet scene as it develops into a grand march. Although we might take this march at its face value and feel triumphant, the result only serves to make the finale sound even more bitter and mournful. A quiet pulsating beat from the double basses brings the symphony to a close, returning to the dark void from where it began.
The symphony was received with some hesitation at its premiere. We can only imagine what it must have been like to hear this for the very first time as a new work in that time period. The orchestra members were not too enthusiastic about the new composition and this had a depressing impact on the composer, who was also conducting the premiere. The heart-wrenching finale takes the listener into an abyss, a puzzling ending indeed. Only nine days later, at the age of 53, Tchaikovsky was dead. That, and the intense emotions of the symphony and the dedication to his nephew “To Vladimir Lvovich Davïdov” have stimulated a number of theories that this symphony was a suicide note. The official story of Tchaikovsky’s death is that he drank a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic in Saint Petersburg, fell ill and died within four days. Alexandra Orlova, a Russian musicologist, published an article in 1979 claiming that Tchaikovsky committed suicide by poison on order from a ‘court of honor’ that consisted of several of his fellow alumni of the School of Jurisprudence, where he had studied in the 1850s. This ‘court of honor’ came about because Tchaikovsky had been having an affair with the nephew of Duke Stenbok-Fermor and a letter from the Duke written to Tsar Alexander III complaining of the affair had been intercepted. A documentary, Pride or Prejudice, aired in November 1993 on BBC came to the conclusion that Tchaikovsky had been sentenced to death and ordered to ‘do the decent thing.’ A doctor working in the British National Poison Unit concluded that the reported symptoms of his illness ‘fit very closely with arsenic poisoning.’
Tchaikovsky decided not to leave a detailed explanation of his last symphony, he wrote to his nephew, “Let them guess!” Is the Pathétique prophetic? Did he know that he would live only a short time after completing it? Nevertheless, Tchaikovsky was able to make some minor corrections to the score and on November 18, 1893, it was first performed in the version we know today at a memorial concert under the direction of Eduard Nápravník. In 1906, at the age of 35, Davïdov committed suicide. The emotional depth of the symphony and the tragedies that followed may take on deeper meaning considering that in the first movement Tchaikovsky includes a musical quotation from the Orthodox Requiem Mass: “With thy saints, O Christ, give peace to the soul of thy servant.”
Program Notes © Vincent Osborn, 2015