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The Boat Ride to Sorrow

The man whose life and work I most admire died on this day in 1893, at the same age that I am now, in the prime of his life. He was one of the most famous composers in the world, even more so outside of his native country, which sometimes failed to recognize his genius. He had visited America for the first and only time just two years prior to his death, where he was lauded from New York to Philadelphia for his prodigious musical talent (he was the star attraction at the opening of the brand new Carnegie Hall, where he led concerts of his own music during the week of his 51st birthday). He had just written the magical and wondrous music for The Nutcracker that year – some of it coalescing during the long boat ride to America – and had given the first performance of his manic-depressive Sixth Symphony only nine days before his untimely death, from cholera, at age 53. This was a man who certainly had more to say, but never had the chance to say it. His last symphony seems to eerily foreshadow his death, ending – no, dying – in a whisper that trails off into silence, surely one of the more unusual endings in the symphonic repertoire (he used the unprecedented musical direction pppppp, basically meaning extreme quietness, which many conductors interpret by observing a moment of silence before lowering their batons to a hushed, stunned and emotionally-drained audience).

My fascination with Tchaikovsky began in 1987. I was in college, and my psychology professor had a habit of digressing wildly during his lectures, often talking about music and literature, two things that interested me far more than psychology. The rest of the class grumbled, but I found it fascinating. Tchaikovsky was a favorite topic of discussion, and my professor would point out the resigned drudgery of the opening to the Fifth Symphony as emblematic not only of the hardness of Russian life, but also of a palpable despair that paints a vivid picture of the composer’s emotional stateĀ  (if there’s one thing Tchaikovsky excelled at, it was conjuring ready images and feelings with his music). Being no stranger to feelings of despair, I was highly intrigued and had to hear this mysterious symphony that promised emotional depth, brooding and introspection. That’s when the love affair began. It certainly wasn’t the usual point of entry to Tchaikovsky’s impressive opus (that would be either the delicious Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture, the triumphant 1812 Overture, or the aforementioned Nutcracker), but then I was always drawn to the more serious things in life. It seemed that in Tchaikovsky I had found a fellow introvert, a man after my own heart.

It is music like the Fifth Symphony, and especially the expansive and ethereal second movement, that makes me thankful I am an introvert, and that I have a special appreciation for the deep, the serious and the reflective. I consider this movement to be one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard, and the first sixty seconds are surely among the most somber sounds ever consigned to an orchestra. While I know some might find the emotional heaviness of this music depressing or be unable to sit still long enough to listen to it, to me it is rapturous, healing and sublime. I have heard it countless times in my life, yet it still manages to slow my pulse and bring a tear to my eye every single time. The live performances I have been privileged to attend I count among the most eye-opening moments of my life – those experiences when time stands still, every distraction vanishes and I feel so present that I marvel at how I’ve been living in the fog for so long. When I listen to the movement while also being mindful of Tchaikovsky’s turbulent life history and struggles, it takes on a whole new dimension. This man poured his heart and soul into his music, and his works closely echo the vicissitudes of his life experience. While I have sometimes fantasized about what it would have been like to meet him, I know that no in-person encounter could possibly match the depth of his spirit that he has communicated through these notes. This is his voice crying out from the grave. He is speaking to me in a language that not everyone can understand and appreciate, but I’m extremely glad that I am able to. It may be a one-way conversation, but the lesson is so profound that I am speechless anyway. The poet Heinrich Heine said, “Where words leave off, music begins.” Indeed, the output of Tchaikovsky’s pen cannot be described. It must be experienced.

In that vein, and in honor of this man who never felt accomplished enough, who achieved worldwide fame yet was often lonely and despondent, who felt compelled to run from his homosexuality (a punishable crime in 19th-century Russia, and a sure disgrace for one of its most famous citizens) by entering into a disastrous and short-lived marriage and then trying to kill himself, and who had a remarkably facile gift for expressing depth of emotion in music that few have equaled, I invite you to listen to the musical passage at the top of the page. It’s a fifteen-minute commitment. You’ve heard people say of a disappointing experience that it’s an hour of their lives they’ll never get back. This experience may pay it back. It’s just one of the four glorious movements of his transcendent Fifth Symphony (he wrote six symphonies; all are excellent, with the last three generally recognized as masterpieces). Turn off the lights, close your eyes, and listen closely. Empty your mind of thoughts and focus on what the instruments are saying, on what Tchaikovsky is expressing. Turn the volume up some, as the opening is very quiet but oh-so-important, a somber segue from the distractions of everyday life to the oft-neglected, deeply buried inner self. You are off on a journey to another world, much like Disney World’s boat ride to the Magic Kingdom symbolically transports you to another place and time. You may become a bit uncomfortable, as this music is so evocative it can stir painful feelings, ones that we normally avoid, at our own peril. There is sorrow in life – untold sorrow, as the U.N. Charter puts it – and it must be felt. Unfelt sorrow turns to dysfunction, to anger, to crime, to drugs, to war (perhaps I did learn something in those psych lectures). Money is not the root of all evil, ignored emotional pain is, and Tchaikovsky was a master at expressing and exorcising it through his music. If you aren’t moved by his pleas, if you don’t shed a tear for his struggles and your own, if you don’t feel a transcendent catharsis by the end of this piece, then you didn’t really hear him. But when you do, you will have discovered an emotional depth that will enrich your life and that you can return to whenever the need arises (recorded sound was just being invented when Tchaikovsky died, but we now have the luxury of his entire output at our fingertips).

Thanks to my psych professor and to a Russian man whom I never met yet feel that I know, I discovered the Fifth, and I will never be the same.

(The Fifth Symphony isn’t all sorrow and despair. Tchaikovsky often juxtaposed great sadness and great joy in the same work, perhaps a statement that working through one leads to the other. This symphony actually ends in thrilling triumph and exuberance. The whole delicious work, in a measured and loving rendition by my favorite conductor, Sergiu Celibidache, is linked below for your enjoyment).

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2 thoughts on “The Boat Ride to Sorrow

  1. Thank you for this post. I have been a lifelong Tchaikovsky worshipper my whole life. There is just no other music on the planet that speaks to the very depths of my being than his. The Fifth a Symphony is probably my favorite of all his works, along with Manfred.

    I listened to the 2nd movement of the Fifth Symphony that you posted in this article. I must say it was a nearly perfect interpretation! It reminds me of Ormandy. Can you tell me what the exact recording is?

    • Hi Richard, thanks for commenting. I’ve never met anyone who loved Tchaikovsky’s music quite as deeply as I do, but perhaps you are a kindred spirit.

      You may be surprised at the orchestra/conductor of the 2nd movement that I linked to, as you likely have never heard of either (I know I hadn’t). It’s by the Symphonic NJR Moscow Orchestra, Isaj Aleksandrovic Dobrovejn conductor. I like their careful and graceful treatment of this movement. I am very picky about interpretations, tempos, etc., as perhaps you are also. The same piece can sound vastly different from different orchestras, so much so that I don’t even like the work from some performers. I tend to prefer slow tempos, and as such I like Karajan, Bernstein and especially Celibidache (extremely slow, and his interpretations are usually my favorite).

      I am intrigued by your mention of Manfred as a favorite. That is one of Tchaikovsky’s works that I’ve just never been able to get into, though I seem to like just about all of his other works, including the operas. What am I missing?

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