When I first saw that the Fort Wayne Philharmonic would be playing Schubert's ninth symphony (nicknamed "The Great", not by Schubert himself though I wouldn't put it past him), I groaned. After all, this is the piece I would put on to lull myself to sleep during college. Grudgingly, I dusted off the CD and took it for a spin... and was pleasantly surprised. The "Great" symphony is a large-scale, very lush piece very much like Beethoven's ninth symphony in it's grandiose themes and full, rich sound. There is an almost constant fullness of sound that leaves little room for outside thoughts. The thick, compelling orchestral themes flow one after the other, leaving you only able to think about the music. For actual content, this piece reminds me more of Beethoven's sixth symphony, the "pastoral" symphony. Amidst the lushness, the melodies seem very rustic, evoking thoughts of rolling green hills, woods, spring rains and summer storms.
And what about the composer of this piece? If you MUST know, Schubert (his friends called him Franz, which is only right because that was his name) was born in 1797 and died a few years later in 1828. He was short, dumpy, had curly, black hair and wore tiny wire-rimmed glasses. Basically, an accountant and not quite the image most people have of a composer. He was a child prodigy who eventually got around to popularizing a musical form called the "art song". He wrote over 600 art songs (a record as far as I can tell, though the Rolling Stones might be getting close), most of them about roses, flowing brooks, and other pretty things. He lives a bohemian lifestyle in Vienna, waking up late with a hangover, spending his afternoon and evenings in Vienna coffee houses with painters, poets, and other composers (did someone say "Friends"?), drinking and talking about music. He even found time to write some music, quite a bit actually. During his short life, Schubert wrote nine symphonies, nineteen string quartets, ten operas, the aforementioned 600+ songs, and a little ditty known as "The Trout Quintet".
Unlike many of his peers, Tchaikovsky (pronounced Chie-cow-skee, or Pee-ter if you were a friend) was not a child prodigy. He was a very late bloomer, starting his career in music when he was 21 after trying his hand at being a governmental legal clerk. Most historians agree that he is a much better composer than he was a legal clerk. Apart from his late start in life, Tchaikovsky had one thing that Schubert did not. Yes, he had a father who was a mining inspector but that is not what I had in mind. So then, Tchaikovsky had TWO things that Schubert did not, and probably a lot more than that. Tchaikovsky had a rich widow benefactor! Her one stipulation for providing Tchaikovsky with an allowance was that they never meet. It was upon her dime (or ruble) that Tchaikovsky wrote such well-known ballets as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker". He also wrote an opera titled "The Shoes" but it wasn't very successful. I'll refrain from making the obvious jokes and advise you to do likewise.
On the personal side, Tchaikovsky was hyper-sensitive from birth, bursting into tears on a moments notice. His love for a good cry is easily seen in his music which is filled with weepy melodies that pull the old heartstrings. His themes are filled with wide melodic leaps like the bounding steps of a ballerina. While the piece selected by the Philharmonic has plenty in the "weepy melody" department, this piece, the Violin Concerto in D Major, shows a different side of Tchaikovsky, a more playful, almost masochistic side. As stated before, a concerto is an instrumental solo backed by an orchestra. A violin soloist, however, was the top of the pack, the Eddie Van Halens of the orchestral world. This piece that Tchaikovsky wrote was at first considered unplayable and too radical for audiences. More than just a quick flash of virtuosity, this piece requires that the soloist run through a "dense and tangled forest" of technical acrobatics and to maintain this reckless speed for nearly the entire piece! When this piece is over, there is smoke coming out of a bruised and beaten violin. I am a long-time fan of guitar virtuosos from Van Halen to Yngwie Malmsteen to Steve Via, but this tops them all! But there is more than just pyrotechnics. Somehow, amidst all this "unplayable" jumble of notes, Tchaikovsky managed to weave the lovely, tear-jerking melodies for which he is known. I would whole heatedly recommend that any practicing or aspiring guitarist attend this weekends Philharmonic performance for a jaw-dropping experience you won't soon forget!
More on Tchaikovsky
Copyright 1998 Jason Hoffman