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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National
Richard Taruskin
Symphonies of Suffering

ex. 14-17 Alexander Borodin, Symphony no. 2, II (Scherzo), mm. 370–77

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ex. 14-18 Alexander Borodin, Symphony no. 2, I, mm. 1–7

Despite his resolutely European orientation and his conservatory education, Chaikovsky was just as acutely aware as the “kuchkists” of the condescension with which Western Europeans regarded Russians, alien and “Asiatic” by virtue of their long-lasting “Mongolian captivity” (vassalhood to the descendents of Genghis Khan in medieval times), their geographical remoteness, their Eastern Orthodox religion, even their crazy alphabet. “You can read it in their eyes,” he complained to his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck,

“You're just a Russian, but I am so kind and indulgent that I favor you with my attention.” The hell with them! Last year [1876] I found myself against my will at Liszt's. He was nauseatingly deferential, but a smile that never left his lips spoke the sentence I underlined above with perfect clarity. It goes without saying that by now I am less disposed than ever to go to these gentlemen on bended knee.35

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fig. 14-9 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, photographed in 1890.

Chaikovsky wrote the letter while he was at work on his Fourth Symphony (secretly dedicated to Mme von Meck as “my best friend”), a work that seemed to break with the whole symphonic tradition as it was viewed in the nineteenth century. What it lacks almost completely is the highly atomized motivic texture that Brahms had educed out of Beethoven, or even the “thematic transformative” technique that “Lisztian” symphonists like Saint-Saëns or Borodin employed. Instead there was something approaching a suite of giant character pieces: a “symphonic waltz” for a first movement, explicitly marked in movimento di valse, “in waltz tempo”; an Andantino, marked in modo di canzone (“in the manner of a ballad”), with a very Italianate middle section, reminding us that the symphony was composed during a stay in Venice; an orchestrational tour de force of a scherzo, marked pizzicato ostinato, in which each orchestral choir has a distinctive theme, and then trades off fragments in breathtaking hockets; and a finale consisting of variations on a famous Russian folk song. The genres themselves, while somewhat unusual for a symphony, were not unprecedented. Although not explicitly marked as such, the first movement of Brahms's Third Symphony could be fairly described as being in waltz time (albeit with lots of Schumannesque hemiolas), and plenty of orthodox German finales (including those to several of Brahms's concertos) sported folk-like themes. What did seem unprecedented was Chaikovsky's use of expansive melodies in place of tight motivic designs, and the constant conspicuous reference to song and dance.

The first movement's main waltz theme, for example, is twenty-five broad measures in length, consisting of a regular eight-bar phrase to a dominant half-cadence, and an expertly extended answering phrase that leads back, seemingly against all symphonic precedent, to a full cadence on the tonic. Even afterward the theme continues, in expansive phrases, toward a climactic restatement in the tonic that reaches another full close before embarking on a modulatory transition that finally reveals the movement to be a symphonic binary or “sonata-form” movement after all—but only, it seems, in a very broad sense.

As a result of these unusual or eccentric features, the German-dominated literatures of music history and music appreciation have tended to treat Chaikovsky's symphonies as debased specimens, appealing (perhaps unhealthily) to audiences but nevertheless revealing some innate deficiency in the composer. One recent English biographer has even claimed that Chaikovsky was biologically doomed to failure as a symphonist since “his was a Russian mind forced to find its expression through techniques and forms that had been evolved by generations of alien Western creators.”36 The best that could be said of him from this essentialist viewpoint was that “a composer who could show so much resourcefulness in modifying sonata structure so as to make it more compatible with the type of music nature had decreed he would write was no helpless bungler”37 (italics added).

But symphonic styles are not racial endowments, and it unsurprisingly turns out that Chaikovsky chose his methods quite deliberately, with full knowledge of what he was rejecting. What he was rejecting, in a word, was Brahms, whose music (as Chaikovsky put it to Mme von Meck) was “made up of little fragments of something or other, artfully glued together,”38 with the result that he “never expresses anything, or if he does, he fails to do it fully.” Chaikovsky was painfully aware of a deficiency (as he saw it) in Brahms, one that came about in direct consequence of what is now generally considered his most valuable contribution.

For the Russian composer, the German's virtuosity in constructing large musical entities out of atomic particles represented no dialectical triumph but merely an unresolved, and therefore fatal, contradiction. “Aren't his pretensions to profundity, strength and power detestable,”39 Chaikovsky wrote of Brahms to another correspondent, “when the content he pours into those Beethovenian forms of his is so pitiful and insignificant?” These comments strongly suggest that Chaikovsky's deviations from the Beethovenian, or at least the Brahmsian, straight-and-narrow were conditioned less by a lack of symphonic aptitude than by the wish to “express something fully.”

But what? And how? The first movement of the Fourth Symphony contains two impressive clues. The first is its sheer stridency and violence, quite belying (or, at the very least, investing with heavy irony) the implications of its “waltz tempo.” The stridency is proclaimed before the waltz even makes an appearance, in the earsplitting brass fanfares with which the symphony begins, and out of which the whole slow introduction is fashioned. The violence intrudes almost as early, in the peremptory diminished seventh chord that cuts the fanfares off—virtually decapitates them—in unlucky m. 13 (Ex. 14-19).

Symphonies of Suffering

ex. 14-19 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky Symphony no. 4, I, beginning

That is operatic behavior; and the operatic impression is confirmed when the fanfares begin acting like a Berliozian idée fixe. The peak of violence, a real catastrophe, occurs in the development section, when the fanfares suddenly return and make three collisions with the waltz theme (Ex. 14-20), each more terrible than the last. (They also return in the fourth movement to disrupt the folksy festivities.) This is not merely “structure”: this is dramaturgy. It bespeaks an encoding of events, a narrative—in short, a program. So, at any rate, Mme von Meck assumed, and wrote to Chaikovsky to inquire about it.

His answering letter has become a famous document. It is now often taken as the symphony's actual, explicit, or “official” program by those who have forgotten that Chaikovsky never published it or publicly alluded to it during his lifetime; who have not noticed (or have chosen to ignore) its obvious (convenient?) borrowings from the famous programs of Beethoven's Fifth and the Symphonie fantastique; and who have not weighed into the balance the fact that the composer furnished the symphony with its program at the specific request of the woman who paid his bills.

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ex. 14-20 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky Symphony no. 4, I, the three collisions

But even if we regard the “program” as a hasty verbal paraphrase of ideas best wordlessly expressed in “absolute” music, its congruence with the shape of the musical argument (at least of the first movement) is obvious, and makes its possible relevance to the movement's conception worth considering. The entire document is given in Weiss and Taruskin, Music in the Western World, 2nd ed., no. 118; what follows is, as Chaikovsky put it, “roughly the program of the first movement”:40

The Introduction is the kernel of the whole symphony, without question its main idea: [here the fanfares are quoted]. This is Fate, the force of destiny, which ever prevents our pursuit of happiness from reaching its goal, which jealously stands watch lest our peace and well-being be full and cloudless, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over our heads and constantly, ceaselessly poisons our souls. It is invincible, inescapable. One can only resign oneself and lament fruitlessly: [Here the waltz theme is quoted].

This disconsolate and despairing feeling grows ever stronger and more intense. Would it not be better to turn away from reality and immerse oneself in dreams? [Here the second theme is quoted.] O joy! A sweet tender dream has appeared. A bright, beneficent human form flits by and beckons us on: [Here the end of the exposition passage is quoted]. How wonderful! How distant now is the sound of the implacable introductory theme! Dreams little by little have taken over the soul. All that is dark and bleak is forgotten. There it is, there it is—happiness!

But no! These are only dreams, and Fate awakens us from them: [Here the fanfares are quoted again as they appear at the beginning of the development section]. And thus, all life is the ceaseless alternation of bitter reality with evanescent visions and dreams of happiness. There is no refuge. We are buffeted about by this sea until it seizes us and pulls us down to the bottom.

Is it fair or relevant to our experience of the music to note that this deeply pessimistic document, and the symphony it describes, were written at what was arguably the low point of Chaikovsky's personal life, and in the aftermath of what was surely the most dramatic single episode in his biography? Despite the fact that he was homosexual (or rather, because of that fact, and his fear of exposure), Chaikovsky had impulsively accepted a proposal of marriage from Antonina Milyukova, a former pupil of his at the Moscow conservatory, who had developed a schoolgirl crush on her harmony professor.

What followed was a great fiasco of anguish, revulsion, flight, histrionic attempted suicide, legal separation, and moral convalescence abroad (which is how Chaikovsky happened to be writing the Fourth Symphony in Venice). Was the symphony, as Chaikovsky described his music in general to Mme von Meck, a “cleansing of the soul, which boils over with an accumulation that naturally seeks its outlet in tones, just as a lyric poet will express himself in verse”?41 Should that matter to us? Does regarding the music as confessional enhance understanding of it? Must we know an artist's biography in order fully to appreciate the artist's output? Or is the meaning of the symphony sufficiently conveyed by the wordless sounds alone?

The alternatives suggested by these questions are neither exhaustive nor necessarily incompatible, but the existence of the letter to Mme von Meck has led to the reading of not just the Fourth Symphony but a great deal of Chaikovsky's music as autobiography—and reading it, inevitably, in light of that one great biographical event and the conditions that precipitated it. But what if we did not know that letter? What if all we had was the wordless sounds? What do (or can) they intrinsically express?

As soon as we are dealing with expression in any artistic medium, we are necessarily dealing with conventions of representation. Representation necessarily relies on similarities and associations. Where other arts can make reference directly to nature, music must work through mediating codes. We already know that one of the codes on which Chaikovsky relied in the Fourth Symphony was that of dance genres, since he expressly labeled one of his themes as a waltz. Recalling that a great deal of eighteenth-century music, particularly Mozart's, also relied on dance genres and their associations as mediators of musical representation, and knowing that of all composers Chaikovsky loved Mozart best (and expressly ranked him higher than Beethoven), we are equipped with some clues to interpret Chaikovsky's expressive strategies, and in the process to understand better his deliberate deviation from the structural principles that otherwise reigned in the world of the late-nineteenth-century symphony.

Although not explicitly marked, the fanfares that Chaikovsky interpreted as the Fate theme in his letter to Mme von Meck are cast just as recognizably in a dance meter as the expressly designated waltz theme. They are in the meter of a polonaise, a dance that had its origin in Polish court processionals, and that remained the most socially elevated of all the ballroom dances of the nineteenth century. By extension, the polonaise was often associated with military parades, that is with martial rhythms and brass bands, as a snatch from Chopin's “Military” Polonaise, op. 40, no. 1 (1838) will remind us (Ex. 14-21a). The stylistic giveaway is the triplet on the second half of the second beat, also found at the beginning of the Polonaise that opens the third act of Chaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin—composed, as it happens, concurrently with the Fourth Symphony (Ex. 14-21b).

Symphonies of Suffering

ex. 14-21a Frédéric Chopin, beginning of Polonaise, Op. 40, no. 1

Symphonies of Suffering

ex. 14-21b Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, Act III, scene 1, Polonaise

Just as in the Fourth Symphony, the Polonaise in Eugene Onegin is paired conceptually with a waltz that occupies the analogous position at the beginning of act 2. Between the two of them they define a social trajectory. The waltz is played at a name-day party for Tatyana, the country girl who (as recounted in chapter 12) has rashly declared her love for the title character, and to whom he feels disdainfully superior. The polonaise is played at a high society ball in St. Petersburg, where Onegin reencounters Tatyana six years later, and is smitten in his turn; she, however, now socially outranks him and turns him down. The moral: a polonaise will always trump a waltz!

And so it is in the Fourth Symphony. It is easy to see how the attributes of a polonaise could have attached themselves metonymically to Chaikovsky's Fate theme: first of all, the military associations, connoting bellicosity, hostility, implacability. Then, too, the idea of grandiosity and invincible power, derived from political or social awe. And finally, perhaps, the idea of impersonality, dwarfing individual concerns, as the unwritten laws of society frustrated Onegin's amorous designs, or as the idea of Fate frustrates the subject-persona of the Fourth Symphony (symbolized by the waltz theme) in pursuit of happiness. The submission of waltz to polonaise—of subject to fate—is palpably denoted in the coda (Ex. 14-22), when the waltz is reprised for the last time in triple augmentation: that is, at the speed of the polonaise, each beat of the waltz theme now stretched out to the length of one full measure, and therefore no longer a waltz at all. A moment like this expresses—fully expresses—a sublime “operatic” terror that was altogether outside Brahms's purposes to express, although Berlioz would surely have sympathized.

And so might Mozart, who, to an extent only recently revealed by the work Wye J. Allanbrook,42 used dance meters and “characters” as mediators of human representation in his instrumental music as well as his operas; and whose symphonies exhibit a sheer tunefulness akin to Chaikovsky's and alien to the later motivic preoccupations of Beethoven and his many nineteenth-century heirs, from Wagner to Brahms (both of whom, antipodes though they appeared to many, repelled Chaikovsky equally).

Symphonies of Suffering

ex. 14-22 Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, Symphony no. 4, I, m. 404

The main theme of the pathos-filled first movement in Mozart's G-minor Symphony (no. 40), for example, is a fully expressed melody of a kind not reencountered in symphonic works (at least not in first themes) until now. One begins to suspect the existence of a parallel tradition of the symphony that passed from Mozart to Chaikovsky without passing through Beethoven. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Chaikovsky was the recipient of, and participant in, a tradition that goes back to or passes through Mozart in a way that the nineteenth-century Germanic tradition, however reverently its aggressive claim of descent from the “classical masters” has been ratified in conventional historiography, does not.

It is the Franco-Italianate line, which passed from Mozart to Rossini, thence to Auber, Gounod, and Bizet. These were the composers whom Chaikovsky admired, particularly his French contemporaries, and especially the opera and ballet composer Léo Delibes (1836–91), who is no longer thought of as an important figure, but whom Chaikovsky venerated as the Mozart of his day. Today it is Chaikovsky himself, with Verdi, who seems the preeminent late-nineteenth-century representative of this tradition, especially since (like Mozart) he was equally drawn to the operatic and symphonic domains and made equally significant contributions to both. But his Mozartean symphonic style had become so alien to the accepted practices of the late-nineteenth-century symphony that even one of his own former pupils, the composer Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev (1856–1915), reproached Chaikovsky in a famous letter for allowing his symphony occasionally to descend to the level of “ballet music.”43

Not that Chaikovsky was unaware of the New Germans, or that he shut himself off from acquiring their most novel techniques. The first movement of the Fourth Symphony follows a thoroughgoingly Lisztian tonal plan, governed (like the one in César Franck's Symphony) by a full circle of minor thirds: introduction and first theme in F minor (0); second theme in A♭ minor (3); close of exposition in B major (6); reprise of both main themes (beginning at m. 283) in D minor (9); coda in F minor (0 regained). (And now we know why the “recapitulation” does not begin in the tonic.) Nevertheless, Chaikovsky belonged to the line whose prime “theater of operation” remained literally the theater, and which therefore drew its musical imagery not from visions of transcendence but from the stock of daily life, human emotion and its vicissitudes.

But we are still left with our question: were the emotions Chaikovsky portrayed his own, and should that matter to us? In the case of the Fourth Symphony, his biography tends to confirm the idea. But beware: once the idea is accepted as a general rule, biographical fallacies are bound to follow. Consider the case of Chaikovsky's last symphony, the Sixth in B minor, op. 74, subtitled Pathétique (“A symphony of suffering”). The subtitle and its implications are mainly due to the last movement, which (like the last movement of Brahms's last symphony) is extremely unusual, perhaps unique, in form and character.

Chaikovsky's Pathétique was (apart from a few then-unknown early eccentricities by Haydn) the first complete four-movement symphony ever to put the slow movement last. Not only that, but the movement, suggestively marked “Adagio lamentoso,” ends with a long, drawn-out decrescendo, unmistakably figuring “the dying of the light.” The symphony ends, in other words, as if in polemical defiance of the Beethovenian prescription that symphonies enact and perpetually reenact narratives of triumph and transcendence. What to make of it? For the audience who heard Chaikovsky conduct it at its St. Petersburg premiere in October 1893, it was indeed a puzzle. The symphony was “not disliked,”44 Chaikovsky wrote to his publisher in some bemusement, “but it has caused some bewilderment.” The idea of adding the subtitle, to give the audience a clue to interpreting the piece, came from the composer's younger brother Modest, a playwright (later his elder brother's biographer). It was added the morning after the premiere.

Eight days later, Chaikovsky died suddenly, and most unexpectedly, of cholera, a disease that (because it was transmitted chiefly where sanitation was inadequate) mostly attacked the poor. The symphony was played again, in memoriam, subtitle in place. This time the audience was an audience of mourners, listening hard for portents. And that is how the symphony became a suicide note. Depression was the first diagnosis. “Homosexual tragedy” came later, in the aftermath of the trial of Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and celebrated “aesthete,” who in 1895 was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” and sentenced to two years at hard labor.

Rumors about Chaikovsky's death that had been flying ever since it happened now coalesced on a story patently modeled on the Wilde affair. According to this account, which is still affirmed by many (even by some gullible scholars) although no evidence supports it, Chaikovsky had been discovered in a pederastic liaison with the scion of a noble family, had been denounced to the tsar (Alexander III, his personal friend), and had been sentenced by an honor court of fellow alumni from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence to commit suicide by drinking a poison (never identified) that would simulate the symptoms of cholera.

The story appeals chiefly to two constituencies: to homophobes, who like stories in which gay men meet bad ends in consequence of their vice; and to gay activists, who are glad to have a martyr to display. The lack of evidence is compensated by what is taken to be the transparent testimony of the “Pathetic Symphony's” finale. Even those who realize that the work was composed too early to have been the direct expression of Chaikovsky's “final tragedy” cite it as evidence of his generally miserable state of mind, which, they conclude, made him vulnerable to the honor court's decree. “I find it very difficult to believe that a man who produced something like the Sixth Symphony was totally at ease,”45 one scholarly defender of the suicide rumor has written. “You have only to listen to the Sixth Symphony to hear a man in torment,” writes another. “The finality of the testament of the Sixth Symphony almost makes it superfluous to indulge in any sort of speculation,” writes a third.

Meanwhile, what documentary evidence there is as to Chaikovsky's state of mind near the end of his life flatly contradicts the “evidence” of the music. By the time in question, Chaikovsky had made a successful adjustment to his condition; with the help of loving family and friends, he had come to terms with his sexuality, found an acceptable modus vivendi within the moral constraints of the society in which he lived, and seems to have been a reasonably happy man. Indeed, the act of producing the Sixth Symphony filled his last summer with bliss. “I have never felt such self-satisfaction, such pride, such happiness,” he wrote to his publisher, “as in the consciousness that I am really the creator of this beautiful work.”46

After the first performance, he spent a cheerful week, his last, in St. Petersburg with Modest. During intermission at the theater one evening he went backstage to greet one of the leading actors, a friend of his brother's. Conversation turned to spiritualism, thence to death itself. The composer of the “Pathetic Symphony” waved the subject aside. “There is plenty of time before we need reckon with this horror; it will not come to snatch us off just yet!” he remarked to Modest, who entered it in his diary that very evening. Then he added, “I feel I shall live a long time.”47 In other words, the finale of Chaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, like the finale of Beethoven's Second, should stand as a warning, rather than an encouragement, to those who under the influence of “pop romanticism” would assume that art is by nature autobiographical. The cases are complementary: Beethoven's Second, one of his most cheerful (and in the finale, downright hilarious) works, was composed concurrently with the composer's despairing realization, attended by thoughts of suicide and expressed in his heartrending “Heiligenstadt Testament”, that his deafness was irrevocable. The agonizing, heart-rending finale of Chaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, by contrast, was composed during as happy a period as the composer ever knew.

What does all of this prove? Only that art is … well, artful. And of no art is that truer than the romantic art of confession, of which Chaikovsky's “Pathétique” is an outstanding example. “Always be sincere,” the comedy team of Flanders and Swann used to say, “whether you mean it or not.” That might have been Chaikovsky's motto. His matchless ability to live up to it, to “do” sincerity with utter conviction, brought the romantic tradition in music—a thing of artifice, illusion, and manipulated codes—to its very climax.


(35) Chaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, 27 November 1877, P. I. Chaikovsky, Perepiska s N. F. fon-Mekk, Vol. I (Moscow: Academia, 1934), pp. 100–101.

(36) David Brown, Tchaikovsky, Vol. IV (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 10.

(37) Brown, Tchaikovsky, Vol. I (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 108.

(38) Chaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, 18 February 1880; Chaikovsky, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy: Literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. IX (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1962), p. 56.

(39) Chaikovsky to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, 21 September 1888; Chaikovsky, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy: Literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. XIV (Moscow: Muzïka, 1974), p. 542.

(40) Chaikovsky to Nadezhda von Meck, 17 February 1878; Chaikovsky, Polnoye sobran-iye sochineniy: Literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. VII (Moscow: Muzgiz, 1962), pp. 126–27.

(41) Ibid., p. 124.

(42) See W. J. Allanbrook, Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

(43) Sergey Taneyev to P. I. Chaikovsky, 18 March 1878; quoted in Modest Chaikovsky, Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky, Vol. I (New York: Vienna House, 1973), p. 292.

(44) Chaikovsky to P. I. Jurgenson, 18 October 1893; Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky, Vol. II, p. 722.

(45) David Brown, John Purdie, Alan Kendall, all quoted in R. Taruskin, “Pathetic Symphonist: Chaikovsky, Russia, Sexuality and the Study of Music,” The New Republic, 6 February 1995, p. 40.

(46) Chaikovsky to P. I. Jurgenson, 12 August 1893; Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky, Vol. II, p. 715.

(47) Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky, Vol. II, p. 722.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 14 The Symphony Goes (Inter)National." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Nov. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-014008.xml