Secretive Thoughts, Secretive Art
Elgar and Tchaikovsky: Music as Autobiography
“But I love it”: Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto
Who is the greatest living composer? That provocative question was posed by the press to legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler when he performed in October 1905 at the Norwich Festival. “Edward Elgar” was his spontaneous reply, and it may well have astonished more than a few continental Europeans, given that Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, as well as Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, were then very much alive and in their prime. Although those masters could have equally well claimed the honorary title, Kreisler was unabashed in defending his judgement: “Russia, Scandinavia, my own Fatherland, or any other nation can produce nothing like him. I say this to please no one; it is my own conviction. Elgar will overshadow everybody. He is on a different level. I place him on an equal footing with my idols, Beethoven and Brahms... His invention, his orchestration, his harmony, his grandeur, it is wonderful. And it is all pure, unaffected music. I wish Elgar would write something for the violin.”
Kreisler was not about to leave it as a mere wish. He made contact with the composer, confided his dream to him, persisted in his request – and was repeatedly put off. Not until April 1909 did Elgar, by then endowed with an official commission from the Royal Philharmonic Society, begin working in earnest on his Violin Concerto. Self-doubt and recurring bouts of depression disrupted progress, however, and only gradually did the composition take wing. Elgar finally completed it in August 1910, but even then he was toying again with the idea of discarding whole movements: “I am not sure about that Andante & shall put it away for a long time before I decide its fate,” he confessed on 7 February 1910 regarding the second movement. And as late as 23 June he could still say of the third: “I am appalled at the last movement & cannot get on – it is growing so large – too large, I fear & I have headaches.”
Listening to the concerto now – playing for some 50 minutes, it is one of the longest in the repertoire – one can hardly imagine Elgar’s nagging reservations. It fits squarely into the Romantic tradition and boasts an ideal balance between solo instrument and orchestra. The vocally inspired melodic ideas are tinged with melancholy and longing. From the very opening it is easy to understand why Elgar was sometimes nicknamed the “English Brahms”. If one considers that in 1909-10, when this concerto was written, Schoenberg had already ventured into the realm of free atonality with his Five Orchestral Pieces op. 16 and Stravinsky was at work on Petrushka, employing some decidedly “modern” techniques, Elgar’s music may seem almost anachronistic. But such an assessment of this nostalgic late flowering of the cult of beauty in no way detracts from the score’s indisputable mastery. “It’s good!” wrote Elgar to a friend. “Awfully emotional! too emotional, but I love it.”
“The Fatal Power”: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth suggests a composer’s “confession of the soul”, yet it took him a long time to come to terms with his creation. At the end of May 1888, having only just embarked on its composition, he was already struggling: “Now I am gradually, and with some difficulty, squeezing a symphony out of my dulled brain,” he reported to his brother Modest. Oddly contrasting with this statement is the fact that he managed to finish the large-scale work within just three months and, in the meantime, came to view it more positively: “I don’t think I am wrong in saying that it has come out well,” Tchaikovsky remarked to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck shortly after completing it. But when the premiere – conducted by the composer himself on 17 November in St. Petersburg – was not the critical success he had hoped for, he changed his opinion again and even feared that he had “already written himself out”. Only after directing two further performances in Hamburg in March 1889, did he finally reconcile himself to his symphony, declaring: “I like it once more.”
Tchaikovsky lacked the power of self-assertion, instead believing in the inevitability of destiny, “the fatal power which prevents one from attaining the goal of happiness”. Because he never spelled out concretely what he meant by “Fate”, one can only imagine how delicate a matter it was for him. He unquestionably felt his homosexuality was destiny: in tsarist Russia it was a crime that could result in years of exile. Only in music could Tchaikovsky give vent to his most secret thoughts and hardships, and it was precisely this situation that gave rise to the radically subjective nature of his art.
In a notebook, Tchaikovsky jotted down a few basic ideas about the Fifth Symphony. He describes the introduction to the first movement as “complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence”. This dark, menacing force is reflected in the opening bars by the clarinet in its low register, sounding pessimistic and downcast. We encounter this theme of fate in all four movements, but in the course of the symphony it undergoes astonishing metamorphoses. The theme’s remorselessness is unleashed in full in the second movement. Its glorious instrumental dialogue almost suggests a love duet – the indication in the score is, aptly, “con desiderio e passione” (“with desire and passion”). But in his programmatic jottings, Tchaikovsky also wrote, “Consolation. A ray of light? – No, no hope”, and he hammers out this “no” musically with a martial variant of the Fate idea, which breaks into the movement twice with incredible vehemence to thwart the romantic idyll.
Even in the following waltz movement, Tchaikovsky doesn’t forget his Fate theme. Towards the end, it is played by unison clarinets and horns, but with quiet restraint, as though defused. In the finale, however, Fate again takes on a completely new form. The theme turns seemingly positive as an energetic march, which at the very end, in the coda, even evokes a triumphal procession. It is not difficult to recognize the demon concealed behind the mask. In this transformation, Tchaikovsky makes use of a tried-and-tested formula from music history – the turn from tragedy to affirmation, from minor to major – which Beethoven had developed in his Fifth, another symphony regularly associated with fate. But is this idea relevant to Tchaikovsky, who here blatantly uses the very same theme to move from darkness “into the light”?
Five years later, the composer would answer this question with his Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique”, which is also about destiny. But there the music dies away in the finale. It is extinguished as though the hero’s last hour has come. It may not have been coincidental that Tchaikovsky died only a few days after the premiere. Whether he was the victim of a cholera epidemic or took his own life is still a mystery. Relating this biographical incident to an interpretation of the Fifth Symphony, however, leaves us with a huge question mark after the supposedly victorious final coda. From this perspective, the march rhythm appears forced – major or no major. Fate has revealed itself in all its violence, and protest will be pointless.