Hold On To That Feeling

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I had the privilege this week of attending four concerts at my local arena. It’s just three miles down the road, one of the best entertainment venues in the country (Mohegan Sun), yet I rarely visit. World class entertainment, right on my doorstep. This week, I made up for lost time. In fact, there were so many artists that I wanted to see coming in the same week – Neil Diamond, Train, Bryan Adams, Asia and Journey – that I took a vacation from work. I tend to go to extremes at times.

Nietzsche famously said that without music, life would be a mistake. Music has played such an important role in my life that I’m not going to argue with him. Like many introverts, I am affected by music at a very deep level. I am mainly drawn to pop, rock, Broadway, symphonies and opera, and, diverse as they are, I enjoy them all equally but for different reasons. Rock and Broadway cater to my more carefree moods, symphonies and opera to my more contemplative ones, and pop to both.

Music, perhaps more than anything or anyone, makes me feel. Many introverts like myself may be suspected of not having feelings, but I would argue, at least in my case, that they may be deeper than the average person’s given that I spend so much time in solitude, reflecting and ruminating. Extroverts seem busy to me distracting from feelings rather than experiencing them, at least the deeper and more complex ones. The reason mine may not be apparent to others is because I don’t typically show them. They are there nonetheless, are quite intense, and I cherish them. Occasionally they leak out, and music is a key catalyst (movies can be, also, but mainly because music accompanies the emotionally-charged scenes).

Nineteen eighty-two and eighty-three were probably the two most intense years in my life, largely because I had fallen in love for the first time, and, not surprisingly, also suffered my first breakup, a truly devastating event for me. I suppose it is for many, but the fact that I was secretly gay (this was 1982, when being gay was not acceptable) and had nowhere to go for solace or advice made the crash from ecstasy to depression unbearable. So I experienced both the most hopeful and the most depressing events of my life – even to this day – in the course of those two years. Music was my only friend. Every hit song from that time period triggers heightened memories in my brain, either of rapture (“Heat of the Moment”) or despair (“Open Arms.”)

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Asia and Journey were both at the height of their success during this time period, so they are a key part of my first-love soundtrack.  The very first album I bought and played on my first quality stereo system was Journey’s mega-successful “Escape” from the summer of 1981. I was 18 years old, had recently graduated from high school and opened a business, and my world was opening up in many exciting ways. I still remember hearing the first song off that album on my fancy new turntable, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” What a great test of my new system it was! It kicked, both then and in last night’s show: “Don’t stop believin’/Hold on to that feeling”.

I saw Journey in concert the day before my birthday that same year in Hartford. I don’t remember them being as good then as they were this week, thirty-six years later, but that is likely because I was considerably depressed back then. Plus, I awkwardly and bravely had asked someone to go with me because I was so incredibly lonely, a relative stranger who I had a major crush on, and he said no. So I went alone. I do that a lot nowadays without giving it a second thought, but back then it was a somewhat traumatic experience. It affected my enjoyment of the show, which I spent both feeling sorry for myself and berating my pathetic and self-conscious solitude: Look at how everyone else is enjoying the show! This was way before I had figured out that I was an introvert, and that I didn’t have to be like those around me.

Fast forward to this week, and a more confident and secure me. The opening number was possibly the best of the night. It kicked ass, got the whole arena on its feet (including me – and I was acting without self-consciousness, something I’ve gotten progressively better at over the years), and really energized the crowd right from the get-go. It was 1983’s “Seperate Ways,” a song that brings back a very surreal memory for me of driving through the Mojave Desert on my way from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, alone, in the middle of the night, a five-hour trip on a desolate, starry interstate as this song blared in my rental car (“If he ever hurts you, true love won’t desert you”). This was after the end of my fairy-tale romance, but far enough removed that I was starting to consider that maybe there was still hope.The world seemed full of possibilities for me, and I had a great sense of (cautious) optimism and freedom.

Mid-concert brought another major memory-trigger, the love ballad “Open Arms.” It held number two on the charts for six weeks in the spring of 1982, and it was “our song,” me and my first love. He lived 800 miles away, and, having only an intense phone and letter relationship at that point, the song made us think of each other whenever it came on the radio in our respective worlds. After we broke up, I cried to it more times than I can remember.

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When we finally met two months later, we went to a concert that first night together at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, the farthest I had ever been from home. The performer: Neil Diamond, whom I was little acquainted with. However, it was the most magical, Cinderella-like night of my life – May 13, 1982 – and when it all turned to shit several months later, Neil’s introspective music would be my only friend and solace. I obsessed on it, seeing him in concert over a dozen more times in the succeeding years, including this week. I don’t obsess on it as much any more, but Neil’s music still gets to me. I teared up at his concert more than any of the others this week. He was there for me a long time ago when I needed a friend. I strongly related to his lyrics about longing and introspection, and he helped me connect to something and feel less alone. It was truly a lifeline. Ultimately, my favorite song of his is a hopeful one (“Holly Holy”), and part of its lyric is the title of this blog – “Take the lonely child, and the seed, let it be full with tomorrow.”

So yes, Nietzsche, music is an indispensable part of my life. It is the soundtrack to my triumph and despair, the guardian of my distant memories, and an understanding friend in my times of need.

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The 200-Year-Old Barber

I have recordings of over five-hundred operas. It would take me almost two months of non-stop listening to hear them all. Alas, I only have an hour of listening in the car each day (perhaps I should get a job further away), and a small amount before bedtime each night, both of which I take full advantage. There are favorites, of course (based on what I’ve heard so far), as well as desert island must-haves (even though, were I stranded on a desert island, I would finally have the glorious opportunity to listen to them all and, in an age when all of my operas can fit in the palm of my hand, I wouldn’t really have to choose). Carmen. Aida. The Magic Flute. Turandot. Among the priceless gems is Rossini’s brilliant work The Barber of Seville, which he composed in just three weeks when he was twenty-four years old. It was his seventeenth opera, some of them written when he was a child.

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Rossini at 24

When I was a child, I spent summers at my grandmother’s house and watched a lot of TV. Bugs Bunny cartoons were a staple of my early-seventies television diet, and those cartoons used a surprising amount of classical music. I mostly remember hearing Mendelssohn and Rossini, even though I didn’t know their names, and I suspect my love of classical music and opera began there. One memorable episode featured Bugs and Elmer Fudd in The Rabbit of Seville, with heavy use of the famous overture from Rossini’s similarly-titled opera. Another episode, What’s Opera, Doc?, featured the equally famous “Largo al factotum” from the same opera (this one you’ve heard: “Figaro! Figaro! Fiiiiiigaro!”). It would be thirty years before I heard the complete two-hour opera, because, like most average Joes, I thought opera too inaccessible and esoteric for an average Joe. It would be ten more years before I gave myself permission to go see it live, and, just this year until I recognized the genius of the first act’s closing sextet, “Ma signor!”

Rossini had a gift for starting off a composition quietly, then slowly and steadily ratcheting it up to a frenetic and thrilling crescendo. He used this technique in his two most famous overtures, those to Barber of Seville and William Tell, and he really masters it in “Ma Signor.” In this glorious piece, six people, very confused from the recent happenings on stage, are singing different parts all at once, first quietly and slowly, then with increasing urgency and volume until the piece explodes in the musical equivalent of a fireworks finale. When I listen to it with headphones, which is necessary in order to hear all that’s going on in the background, I never cease to marvel at its technical brilliance and utter perfection. It has a satisfying mathematical precision that makes order out of chaos, which perhaps is why I like it so much.

I’m glad to be living in a time when I can easily listen to this and other works (or “opera,” which is the Latin word for “works”) any time I choose, a luxury that no one had in Rossini’s day. In fact, he took advantage of this fact by recycling his own overtures, using the same one in several different operas. Who would remember? Regardless, the man was a genius, right up there with Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. He wrote 39 operas in all, and retired early to live out the latter part of his life as a gourmand and bon-vivant (the restaurant dish tournedos Rossini is named after him). This year marks the 200th anniversary of The Barber of Seville, still considered one of the best comic operas ever written.

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At the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

Life in the big city – Day Two

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Today was a museum day, partly because it rained, and partly because I’m very tired of walking the streets already (I overdid it yesterday). The problem with this plan was that I ended up doing a ton of walking anyway, and in the rain. Twice now I have tried to cut through Central Park to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is about the only direct way to get there from my hotel. It looks simple enough on a map. But both times I ended up going in a loop (the park is huge and meandering) rather than a straight line and coming out pretty much where I started after a good 40 minute walk, and mind you every step of that walk was somewhat painful. I finally found the museum after a walk that was twice as long as it should have been, so I was a little cranky and wet and tired by the time I got there.

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The museum is, of course, magnificent. It’s cavernous. It’s overwhelming. There are so many rooms that I suspect I only saw about half of them in the five hours I was there, and many of those I raced through because I was mindful of the time. The museum did remind me a bit of being in Macy’s in that once I was inside, I couldn’t figure out how to get out. Someone could have offered me $500 to find them an exit and I don’t think I could have done it.

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The other thing I couldn’t find was a scrap of anything to eat or a restroom (actually, this has been a problem in general the whole time I’ve been here). In this sense the museum is not very patron-friendly. But that was all made up for by the stunning artworks the museum possesses, over a hundred and twenty of which I took pictures of (see my Facebook page for today). Yeah, I was that guy. But I had tons of company, and at least I wasn’t stupid enough to use flash. I might be from Eastern Connecticut, but I know a few things about being in museums (I probably used flash last time and got yelled at).

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By the time my museum gawking was winding down I was extremely tired and extremely hungry. I did manage to find something to eat about three-quarters of the way through my visit. It was a $7 peanut butter and jelly sandwich that was the worst one I have ever eaten. I don’t know how you can ruin a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but they managed, and my $3.50 cup of coffee was so hot as to be undrinkable and un-holdable. Plus there was nowhere to sit. So imagine my delight when I noticed a comment card on one of the tables. I asked them if they hated their customers. When I left the museum I found a hot dog vendor on the street, and to my groaning stomach it was filet mignon. It hit the spot, and was enough to fuel my walk back to the hotel – which I didn’t screw up this time.

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I had a whole hour to rest and shower before heading out to my second opera of the week. Luckily, I can leave my hotel and be at Lincoln Center in less than ten minutes. The opera house is gorgeous and elegant. Everything is decked out in red velvet, including the walls and the railings, accented by rosewood and stunning chandeliers that rise out of the way when the show begins. I think the house seats somewhere around 3,000 people, making it the largest opera house in the world.

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This opera was a bit special in that it’s one of my favorites, and in that it was being conducted by James Levine, the aging, beloved, and soon-to-be retired musical director of the opera house for the past four decades. It was a treat to see him there. He is now in a wheelchair and hasn’t conducted many shows lately, but this is also one of his favorites. He received a warm and  thunderous ovation, not once but four times during the evening. They built a special ramp and conductor’s podium for him to accommodate his wheelchair. The audience loves him and so does the orchestra, so they go out of their way to take care of him.

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The opera itself is not one of Mozart’s most popular, but I think the music is fantastic. It’s not a serious opera. There are a lot of lighter moments mixed in with gorgeous and uplifting tunes (one of them, the rousing “All hail the mighty Pasha Selim,” is my cell phone ringtone, below).

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The story concerns two refined British women who find themselves in a Turkish harem after their ship is seized by Pirates. Their beloveds were also taken and separated from them. The rest of the story concerns the effort of the men to rescue the women, even though the women have been given to the Turks as concubines. The opera was featured prominently in the movie Amadeus, which is where I first encountered it. The music struck me even back then when I wasn’t into opera at all. It was a magnificent show. The costumes were gorgeous.

Tomorrow I visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. While I’ve seen the statue before, Ellis Island will be a new experience, and I suspect a moving one.  I may also try to squeeze in the 9/11 Memorial if there’s time, which of course will be more moving still. I’ll report back tomorrow night after what will probably be an emotional day.

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 state  (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).

Songs of life

ROCK CONCERT
Nietzsche said that without music, life would be a mistake.

If there’s one thing introverts and extroverts can agree on liking it’s music, though I suspect they experience it in very different ways. I imagine an extreme extrovert being drawn mostly to high-energy (dance) music, and an introvert to something much more sedate and introspective. I prefer mostly the latter, though I am not opposed to high-energy music. I have my extroverted moods.

When I was in my teens I was very taken with popular music. I used to listen to the Casey Kasem Top 40 countdown every Sunday, writing down each song that made the list and recording many of them from the radio onto my portable cassette recorder (how primitive!) It was an enjoyable hobby that I engaged in religiously, and certain songs really spoke to me and created a soundtrack for my youth. When I hear one of them today, I experience an instant flashback to old feeling states I haven’t had in many years, often accompanied by a brief thrill of hope or, occasionally, despair. It’s a time machine to the ways I used to feel, whether good or bad, all sparked by familiar sound. Perhaps this is why so many of us listen to music from our youth as we get older, shunning newer material. I couldn’t tell you who tops the charts today, and I suspect we all end up thinking that the music from our teens and twenties was the best.

As I got a little older music continued to move me deeply, especially as I fell in and out of love (or infatuation) and experienced heartbreak and loneliness. Here’s where my fondness for Neil Diamond’s introspective songwriting began, as well as my love of Tchaikovsky’s emotionally-charged compositions. I began attending rock concerts in the early ’80s, drawn to their larger-than-life excitement and visual spectacle. This strikes me as odd, as it doesn’t seem like something that would appeal to a typical introvert. Admittedly, I did feel awkward when people would stand and clap or dance to the music, as music is something I experience much more internally. Inside I may be clapping and dancing, but certainly not outside. Regardless, I kept going back and ended up seeing Neil Diamond about 12 times, along with more rock-oriented acts like The Police, Journey, Styx, and Bryan Adams. Yet the songs I liked best were always the ballads, the slow material with meaningful lyrics – Faithfully, Babe, Heaven – and not the stuff that got you out of your chair (or had you standing on it, which I did once and fell off).

I’ve often wished I was musically inclined, as being a songwriter seems like a fantastic and rewarding occupation (assuming you were any good). But I know words better than music, so lyricist is the closest I could ever hope to come.

When instruments speak

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Today is Tchaikovsky’s 174th birthday. My earliest remembrance of hearing his music is at Christmastime. Like many people, this was my first introduction to classical music of any kind (aside from Saturday morning cartoons, which favored the composers Rossini and Mendelssohn). The tunefulness, the orchestral richness, the evocative nature of the images conjured by The Nutcracker Suite are all hallmarks of Tchaikovsky’s genius. His phenomenal ability to express emotion and paint images with music are two of the things I most admire about him. While the thrilling music from The Nutcracker (much of which is to be found in the full score, not the shortened Suite that most casual listeners are familiar with) may be so common today as to be taken for granted, critics of the day called it “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original and characteristic.” It was one of the last things Tchaikovsky wrote, and destined to be his best-known work. It is not unreasonable to say it is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in the Western world, right up there with Beethoven’s Fifth and Straus’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

It wasn’t until college that I became aware of the composer’s wider range of work, a serendipitous event that turned me on to the much larger world of orchestral music. My college psychology professor was fond of digressing during his lectures, and often these digressions turned to Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky, both of whom he liked to psychoanalyze. I adored these digressions. It is probably no coincidence that these two men are in my pantheon of most-admired creative geniuses (the others being Dickens and Beethoven). While Shakespeare I admire for his incredible command of both the human psyche and language, Tchaikovsky managed to do the same, but with music. He was fond of the German poet Heinrich Heine’s remark that “where words leave off, music begins.” Tchaikovsky went further than Shakespeare and said what couldn’t be conveyed in words, no matter how eloquent they may be. When my professor hummed the grudging, lethargic, resigned opening notes of the composer’s Fifth Symphony that intimate the harshness of Russian life (and of Tchaikovsky’s), I was passionate to hear the rest. I hurried out and purchased the first recording of this brooding yet hopeful opus that I could find, and my musical world has never been the same. I am reminded of Dante’s comment on rebirth: “In that book which is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words, ‘Here begins a new life’.”

Suddenly someone understood the depths of my soul, depths that I had kept hidden from myself for fear of what I may find. This affirming and inviting music gave me license to be who I was, to feel what I felt, because I wasn’t alone: someone else had been where I was, and even if everything didn’t turn out alright, at least I had company. The opening phrase of the second movement (video below) was so beautiful, so haunting, so full of despair and longing and anguish that to this day when I hear it, it brings tears to my eyes though I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. It is the most sublime sixty seconds of music I know. I cannot listen to it without drawing a deep, sobering breath, without becoming instantly aware of my vulnerability and the fragility of life, without experiencing present moment awareness more fully than a Zen master. Could anyone listen to this and not be moved, I marveled? (actually, I think the more pressing question was, Why isn’t everyone listening to this?) Like many of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, the palpable pathos of the second movement eventually resolves itself in exuberant triumph in the closing movement, rising above Shakespeare’s “sea of troubles” to find that there is indeed “nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We are the interpreters of our fate, and Tchaikovsky often explored this in his works, especially the Fifth Symphony. It basically asks, Am I going to stew in my sorrow (first and second movements), or deal the hand I was dealt and live my life (third and fourth)? Carpe Diem!

Shortly after my new-found admiration of Tchaikovsky I began attending outdoor concerts at Tanglewood, the sprawling estate in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts where the Boston Symphony spends its summers. The round trip required four hours of driving. I usually opted for an expensive seat right up front, often went alone, and savored every minute of this guilty pleasure. A place where everyone sits rapt and pensive, pondering the big questions of life in a darkened auditorium is an introvert paradise. Tchaikovsky’s notes cried out plaintively on those cool summer evenings, echoing off the hillsides and disappearing into the mysterious night. I devoured more and more of his works at Tanglewood (recordings can’t match a live performance), and there wasn’t much I didn’t like: his bombastic fourth and cathartic sixth symphonies, his innovative violin and piano concertos, his dramatic overtures. He infused everything with emotion and intensity and a desire to either celebrate or bemoan life, often in the same piece. This was a conflicted man, a man of extremes with unbridled passion who tried to make sense of his life, but never quite succeeded. He composed the most famous and rapturous love theme ever written, yet love largely escaped him. He was one of the most popular composers in the world in his lifetime, but one gets the sense that he never felt satisfied or successful. Modern listeners can certainly relate to that conflict. He wrestled with life’s frustrations and tried repeatedly to work them out in his music. It was therapy for him, and for me. My psych professor would be proud of us both.

Music is a very personal passion for each of us, and I can’t expect everyone to understand how Tchaikovsky’s eloquent expression of life’s vicissitudes makes me stand up and cheer inside, gives me faith in humanity or helps me make sense of my own life. Eckhart Tolle says that life has no inherent meaning, that we bring meaning to it. The works of Tchaikovsky bring meaning and richness to my life, even if they failed to do so in his own. This is his collateral gift to me. Tchaikovsky best personifies one of my favorite quotes, from the poet Robert Bly: where your wound is, that is where your genius will be. Tchaikovsky took his struggles (for one, he was a closeted homosexual in a society that would have shunned him for it) and inner demons and exorcised them through music – whether consciously or not – and we are the lucky beneficiaries of his turmoil.

My words, like Shakespeare’s, cannot conjure the composer’s orchestral poetry. I therefore recommend a close listening – no talking, no distractions, as if you were sitting in the audience yourself – of the heartfelt performance of the Sixth Symphony posted below. I engage in this ritual every year on the day of Tchaikovsky’s birth (May 7) and death (November 6) to reconnect with myself, to remember who I am. It is a masterpiece of emotional catharsis. It is not for everyone, and those not accustomed to serious introspection may find the journey unsettling and become anxious. This is one symphony that does not end in a triumphant bang. Tchaikovsky based it on his life struggle, and died just nine days after conducting its première in 1893. Ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short). It requires an hour of your own life, which is asking a lot in a fast-paced world of endless distraction and brief attention spans, but nothing worthwhile ever comes quickly. It is an hour that will send your soul soaring in delicious rapture and, by the end, wallowing in the darkest despair. Beginning at time stamp 40:25, you’ll discover what it sounds like when an orchestra openly sobs. It is a journey you won’t soon forget. You will be as emotionally drained at the sobering conclusion as the empathetic and stunningly aware conductor (Chung Myung-Whun with the Seoul Philharmonic) . But you may, as a result, see life more clearly than you ever did before, this life which Shakespeare called a “walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more.” Tchaikovsky couldn’t have said it better himself in words, but he sure did in music.

 

Where words leave off, music begins

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Where words leave off, music beginsHeine

Lush. Passionate. Anguished. Triumphant. Melancholy. Joyous. Despairing. These words all describe the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840 – Nov 6, 1893), the great Russian composer whose birthday is tomorrow, and who has long been an idol of mine. His music, like that of my other idol (Neil Diamond), is full of deep emotion, expressiveness, introspection and – in keeping with this blog’s topic – introversion.

Am I a little obssessed with my musical idols? Yes. Their creations speak to me like nothing else has. I first was exposed to Tchaikovsky (aside from the Nutcracker excerpts that everyone knows) in college. My psychology professor had a habit of talking about Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in his lectures, mimicking the notes of the first movement and telling us how they expressed the hardness of Russian life. What did this have to do with psychology? Nothing. My professor talked about everything but psychology, but that’s why I loved him. He talked about great music, and literature, and Shakespeare, and all the things that interested me more than psychology did. He even was kind enough to take me seriously when I inquired about musical instruction, as it was my dream to be a conductor. This, of course, was preposterous since I had no musical talent or training, but he contacted the prestigious Hartt School of Music on my behalf anyway.

Being a curious sort (an introvert trait) I dove hungrily into Tchaikovsky’s symphonies, losing myself in their rich layers of sound, in their lush orchestration and beautiful melodies. They spoke of triumph and despair, of acceptance and resignation. After I read a few books on his turbulent life, I realized these symphonies were his diaries, his most private thoughts laid bare. He had no outlet in life to resolve his conflicts, so he worked them out in music. I wrote a paper on his autobiographical Sixth Symphony, delineating what I thought Tchaikovsky was saying at each stage of this richly expressive work that may in fact have been a sort of musical suicide note. He had a gift for speaking through music, and was fond of the quote, “Where words leave off, music begins.” Some things you just can’t put into words. His music solves this problem.

But it’s not just his emotional life that we see worked out in his music. He had a talent for vividly portraying whatever musical commission he was given. When asked to write a piece commemorating the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, he produced a vivid historical account in music in a mere six weeks. When setting Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to music, he produced such a perfect musical expression of the rapture of romantic love that it is still unequalled a century after his death. In fact, it is one of the most recognizable tunes in the world. His music for the children’s tale The Nutcracker captures the magic and wonder of childhood like nothing else I have heard. Once, at a workshop, I was asked what work of art I would want to become one with at the moment of my death. I immediately knew the answer: The Forest of Fir Trees in Winter from The Nutcracker. Could the music in heaven be any more celestial or peaceful?

Tchaikovsky was not a particularly happy man. I suppose true introverts rarely are, and Tchaikovsky definitely was an introvert. He was extremely introspective and analytical. He was racked with self-doubt. He was a nervous wreck in public, to the point of fearing that his head would fall off his shoulders while he was conducting. He suffered from frequent nervous exhaustion that required him to take long periods of R & R. He didn’t like the spotlight, which became more of a problem as his fame increased. And he lived in constant war with himself over his homosexuality which, in nineteenth-century Russia, was a crime punishable by the loss of all civil rights and banishment to Siberia – a potential disgrace for the nation’s preeminent composer. Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother:

“There are people who do not despise me for my vices only because they began loving me before they suspected I was a man with a lost reputation. Among them, for instance, is Alexandra (his sister). I know she guesses everything and forgives everything. So it is with many of those I respect and care for most. Is it not a bitter thing to be pitied and forgiven when, truly, I am in no way guilty? So it has been a hundred times, and will be a hundred times more. In a word, I should like to marry, or by some known liaison with a woman shut the mouths of all despicable gossips for whose opinion I do not care a bit, but who can hurt people close to me.”

Tchaikovsky did make a disastrous attempt at marriage, selecting a totally unsuitable wife who caused him no end of grief and suffering. He ended up making a half-hearted suicide attempt by walking into the Moscow River in the dead of winter, hoping to catch pneumonia. He was unconscious for two days. From this ordeal came his masterful Fourth Symphony. His wife refused a divorce and attempted to extort money from him. She was eventually declared insane, and though they remained married until his death they had no contact with each other.

Tchaikovsky’s one source of solace was his wealthy patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, who was a sort of emotional wife and mother to him. She was a great admirer of his music, and a kindred spirit. She provided him with a generous stipend, allowing him the freedom to concentrate on his music without the constraint of worrying about supporting himself. The two corresponded for over a decade, but she stipulated that they never meet. They exchanged over twelve-hundred letters. On two occasions they accidentally crossed paths, but did not speak to each other. They shared their most intimate thoughts, and were closer to each other than to anyone else in their lives. It is through their letters that scholars have learned much about Tchaikovsky, including his detailed description of the meaning behind his Fourth Symphony, which he dedicated to von Meck.

Tchaikovsky’s fame continually increased, though his music was not always immediately appreciated. It was quite different from the traditional, nationalistic music of other Russian composers, and in this sense he was a trailblazer. Critics in the West thought Russian music barbaric, but Tchaikovsky’s was nothing of the sort. He embarked on a very successful tour of America in 1891, and was the headliner at the grand opening of Carnegie Hall on May 5, 1891, two days before his birthday.

Near the end of his short life, Tchaikovsky had some considerable success, including the granting of an honorary degree by Cambridge University in recognition of his great accomplishments. In the last few years of his life he wrote The Nutcracker and one of the most successful of his ten operas, The Queen of Spades. He died rather suddenly at age 53 from cholera, the same disease that had taken his mother from him at a young age. There is much controversy surrounding his death, including speculation that it was either an active or passive suicide. He had consumed an unboiled glass of water during a cholera outbreak, something he certainly knew was unwise. However, given his recent successes it seems odd that he would choose to kill himself. There was also speculation, however, that his sexual orientation was about to be exposed which, in light of those successes, would have been unbearable. He had conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony just nine days prior to his death, a very personal work that he was quite excited about. It, perhaps like his life, ends in despair and dies away into nothingness.

Suggested starter works:

Symphony Nos. 4, 5 and 6
Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture
1812 Overture
The Nutcracker (highlights)
Capriccio Italien
Marche Slave
Piano Concerto No. 1
Violin Concerto

I have made a tribute to Tchaikovsky which is currently on YouTube. It is in 5 parts, only two of which are completed so far. It contains short samples of over 50 of his works, and some history behind them. It’s a great introduction to his opus, with something for everyone. These tributes will be available here on my blog soon, but for now here are the links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvJhw5vJOQI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ28m7CjwUo

If you search “Tchaikovsky” on YouTube, you will find complete performances of many of his works, including the later symphonies.