Ah, there’s nothing like listening to the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony, the Pathetique, to remind me that the tragic sense of life has always been with me.
That’s ‘always’ as when my father saw it when he casually looked down at me, a newborn baby in my crib just as I opened my eyes and looked up. He put his arm across his eyes and abruptly looked away in apparent shock, so I was told many times, and exclaimed, “My God, he’s been here before!”
And, just now, as I write that, as if on cue, a torrential downpour such as I have not seen here in Hope Ness for a long time is flooding my hopeful last planting of sweet corn. But for just a few minutes. Already it has passed, and to the west I see a patch of blue sky.
Tchaikovsky did not, when he wrote this music, his last symphony, near the end of his famous, but deeply troubled life. He suffered bouts of depression, and anxiety about his creative abilities. Had I been there I would have consoled him about that. He conducted the premiere of this music, his last symphony, in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893. Nine days later he died under circumstances that are still not clear. To say he left his broken heart in this music, and in concert halls around the world countless times through the years since then, is to put it mildly. But it is so much more than that. From beginning to end in the Pathetique Tchaikovsky speaks through his music of the complex human story: innocently hopeful and joyful, full of the spirit of life, but troubled by it, disappointed, regretful, grieving; but ultimately accepting finally with quiet relieve, yet still echoing the sadness of parting in silence.
This is no “rage, rage against the dying of the light:” That too is past; the struggle is over. He, we, imperfect beings have done what we have done, for good or ill, in terrible or most wonderful ways; triumphant even, for a time, but not enough, the promise of our being, not fully realized. And therein lies our tragedy, fading slowly into the vast silence. This music certainly should have been included aboard Voyager, to tell our story.
The last movement especially of the Pathetique is beyond despair: it is an utterly tragic ending. I don’t find it strange at all at this moment in the life of this world, that it seems so to me even more-so now.
And so it apparently seems to conductor Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra, as they linger in a YouTube video for a long, last note of silence after the written music ends. It is deliberate, and it is brilliant, as Gergiev, whose quivering fingers I have occasionally found irritating, go perfectly still over the orchestra for that extended moment. No one, in my experience, has ever understood this music so well.
I first heard it when I was 16, one of the first LP records I acquired, with the help of a promotional deal at the supermarket where I worked on weekends and after class; and the last movement especially made it one of my favorite and most-loved pieces of so-called classical music. Strictly speaking, it is Romantic. From that moment on I was sure to come to Tchaikovsky’s defense when I heard someone belittle him as shallow and overrated. On the contrary, he is underrated. Okay, there is the 1812 overture. And yes, the parade of crescendos does wear thin sometimes. But nobody’s perfect. And besides, the music for the thrilling, transcendental finale of Swan Lake makes up for it many times over.
Thank you, Pyotr, for sharing. And I hope your spirit has found peace and joy, in knowing you are loved.