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Symphony Listening Diary—Tchaikovsky 6

Updated: May 24, 2023

I came to this one assuming it was going to be a bit of a treat (in fact I’d already written the entry for it in my head before I’d actually listened). Tchaikovsky never really cropped up in any of this western music history I studied; my impression is that he’s regarded with something halfway between a sneer and a shrug in the kinds of musical circles I mixed and was educated in, owing, I suppose, not only to him being a staunchly tonal composer but one without any history-advancing innovations to his name.

That’s not really fair. I'm familiar with ‘the’ piano concerto by now and I'm just a bit too squeamish about writing people off who achieve total mastery in their field. Still, this was far more demanding than I expected. Whether you’re in the business of comparing the objective merits of styles and artforms or not, there is something to be gained from watching people be really, really good at what they do no matter the medium.

I'm starting to see the problem with this little listening project. It’s difficult to gain a real appreciation of any of these examples of this very demanding art form, and here I was very aware of the limitations of my listening abilities. I’m still really imprinting the teleology thing on to every symphony, and I could tell here that that isn’t really suited to something like this that is kind of episodic in nature. There was less of a sense of a ‘pull’ towards the end (except in the third movement), which makes it compositionally different to other symphonies which in turn means it requires a different mode of listening.

I was massively keen on the use of silence. If you spend 80 years of your life composing, you can spend 80 years perpetually forgetting and rediscovering the value of space and silence in music. Perhaps it’s the kind of thing that arose naturally in the way Tchaikovsky was writing music, or at least suggested itself more often? I say episodic because there didn’t always appear to be a need or desire for transitions between what were distinct thematic areas, and where distinctness was the intended effect silence could naturally be called upon to enhance it. That absence of an overpowering pull towards the end might also have made possible the ending of the first movement, which, in the polar opposite of the bombast I was anticipating, simply faded away. I was a big of that, too.

From now on, I'm going to start trying to take at least one concrete, technical musical observation from each symphony rather than just spewing out wistful questions. While overall I'm aiming to acquire some familiarity with the must-listens of the canon, I would like to feel that I'm widening my technical abilities in doing so. I will be returning to the third movement to figure out how I can do that constantly-rising thing. That will be very helpful for when I eventually get back to writing Struggle.

I have Elgar next, which for some reason I'm feeling the need to treat with a bit more reverence than anything else I've listened to so far.

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