Till My Head Falls Off

HOLD EVERYTHING! STOP THE PRESSES! There's changes afoot for this weekends philharmonic performance. I know change makes you nervous and you break out in that awful rash but before you go crying to the editor, let me assure you that this is a good thing. Originally, Eddie and his musical thugs were going to play a symphony by Beethoven and a symphony by Brahms. You may be thinking to yourself, "Self, there just aren't enough quasi-political dramas about cheese feuds". You could also be thinking that an evening of Beethoven and Brahms sounds purdy durn good and then wondering, as you absent-mindedly scratch your chin just above that nasty razor scar, how such an evening could be improved upon. How about Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony (with Overture to Candide by Bernstein and Don Juan by Strauss thrown in at no extra charge! Now how much would you pay)? How about the Fort Wayne Philharmonic recording their first CD based on these pieces to be released this fall? The choice of Tchaikovsky's 6th was an easy one for the maestro… it's his favorite. Tchivzhel knows this piece inside and out and word on the street is that he conducts it without a score (that's about 100+ pages of written music, for those keeping track at home). But enough of Fort Wayne. Let's travel back, way back to the comforting bosom of Mother Russia. The year was 1840 and a financially sound matron had just given birth. His parents named him Peter, Peter Tchaikovsky (he had a middle name but it looks like the name of some obscure sci-fi tribe where the leader is half gazelle and quotes baking soda boxes at length). Thus was born a gifted, intelligent, and sensitive child (his parents called him the "porcelain child") who, at the age of six, could read and write in French, German, and Russian. They realized that he had an immense talent in music but thought that he couldn't make a decent living this way, so they packed him away to law school. His mother's death traumatized him for life (see "porcelain" above) and he dropped out of law school to follow his musical dream (he's a lumberjack and he's okay…) He was internationally successful, earning enough in his later years to buy a country estate where he lived in complete isolation for two years. Of course, this was after a failed marriage and numerous suicide attempts, so the time alone in the country was probably therapeutic, what with all that lumberjacking. He also had a not-so-secret admirer in the form of a wealthy widow. Nadezhda von Meck supported Tchaikovsky for thirteen years under the condition that they never meet (she had chronic halitosis) and it was under her patronage that Tchaikovsky wrote many of his most famous works. But on to his death, eh?

There are almost as many theories concerning the death of Tchaikovsky as there are about the contents of Spam®. Some say he died after accidentally drinking unboiled water during a cholera outbreak, some say he did this intentionally. A recent theory (and I am not making this up) is that Tchaikovsky had been caught in bed with the nephew of a high-ranking officer. His law-school colleagues, determined to avoid a scandal that would reflect badly on themselves, summoned Pete before a "court of honor" on October 31,1893 (it's a detailed theory) and ordered him to commit suicide. The story continues that two days later, he took arsenic.

Regardless of your preference, he is quite dead. He did, however, leave the world with some incredibly beautiful and moving music. It has been said that his music appeals directly to the heart, making even the sappiest Top 40 love song sound like death metal. He had a great gift for melody, often writing long, lush tunes in his head (which he found was better than writing them on his head). In creating large works of music, he allowed the melody to dictate the form, resulting in music that is not easy for an anal-retentive music scholar to quantify but which is sentimental candy to the ear of the listener. His music is always intensely personal. In fact, when writing his sixth symphony, he often wept bitterly, confessing "I love it as I have never before loved one of my musical offspring." Of course, he said it in Russian and he was probably blubbering at the time. Despite such passion being poured into it's creation, the initial reception of this symphony was cold. This was probably due to Tchaikovsky's conducting style which was as stiff as a middle-schoolers gym socks that have been fermenting in an airless locker since the beginning of the semester. It seems that Peter was so scared as a conductor that he feared his head would fall off (and again, with a respectful kowtow to Dave Barry, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP!). When conducting, he would literally grasp his chin (the one with the nasty razor cut) with his left hand while conducting to assure himself that his head would remain attached. For those attending this weekend, I can't guarantee that Tchivzhels head will fall off but I can guarantee you'll see a man geeked to the max, enthusiastically navigating a huge musical ship through beautiful lands of sound.

Composed in a minor key, Tchaikovsky claimed that his 6th symphony was "the best thing I ever composed or ever shall compose." He didn't have much time to change his mind as he died just a few days after the premier. As such, many consider this piece to be his own requiem. The symphony opens with a brooding theme which includes tidbits from the Russian Orthodox Requiem (again, that death thing!). Rising from this theme is a more frantic, unrestrained portion that reminds me slightly of the skeletal dances of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre. The second movement is a regal waltz, although instead of the usual 3/4, Petey composed this one in 5/4 meter which makes the movement perpetually unbalanced although perpetually enchanting as well. The third movement begins almost optimistically with a jaunty, triumphant march that had to have been the inspiration for the medal ceremony music in Star Wars. Don't put on that Happy Helmet just yet 'cause the usual all-out, go-for-gold finale has been replaced with one of the most sorrowful utterances in the entire symphonic literature. The music is filled with despair, sorrow and heart-wrenching hopelessness, ending in a whisper instead of the usual bang. The melody, when played by the entire string section, literally lifts you from your seat and pushes you through the sad music, reveling in the melancholy like a weasel floating in a pot of gumbo. More than just music, this symphony is an experience, an exhausting emotional trip well worth the price of admission.

Copyright 1999 Jason Hoffman

Previous Article ~ Home ~ Next Article