Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

Program Notes: Tchaikovsky's Pathétique

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Peter Lieberson

Peter Lieberson
Born: October 25, 1946, New York City
Died: April 23, 2011, Tel Aviv

Neruda Songs

In the early 1980s, Peter Lieberson was still an obscure, largely unrecognized composer when the Boston Symphony chose him as one of 12 to write a work for its centennial season of 1981-82. As the youngest of the 12, he was not yet 40, and he had yet to write an orchestral work. But his Piano Concerto, premiered with Peter Serkin as soloist, catapulted Lieberson to international recognition. For a time, Lieberson was simultaneously a director of Shambhala Training in the Boston area, a professor at Harvard University (his only academic appointment, which lasted from 1984 to 1988) and a composer. He spent the last two decades of his life working solely as a composer while living in Santa Fe. He died in Tel Aviv, where he had gone for treatment of lymphoma.

Lieberson had been born into a family life dominated by the arts. His father, Goddard Lieberson, was also a composer, but his lasting fame derives from many years as president of Columbia Records. His mother was Vera Zorina, a ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and former wife of choreographer George Balanchine. Lieberson studied music at Columbia University and Brandeis University. Charles Wuorinen, Milton Babbitt and Donald Martino were his principal composition teachers. A deep and abiding interest in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism colored much of his music, if not programmatically, then in a spiritual way. As a result of meditating he relaxed and, he said, “as a product of relaxation more space came into [my] music.”

Following the premiere of his Piano Concerto in Boston, Lieberson received commissions from major orchestras and musical organizations from Toronto to Tokyo. One of his most successful works has been a second concerto for Serkin, Red Garuda (1999), his third Boston Symphony commission.

For the Toronto Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma he wrote a cello concerto, The Six Realms (2000). This orchestra also premiered his Viola Concerto (1993). Lieberson’s last works include The World in Flower, premiered by the New York Philharmonic in 2009; Songs of Love and Sorrow, premiered by the Boston Symphony in 2010; and Remembering JFK, premiered by the National Symphony the year Lieberson died. Shing Kham for percussion and orchestra was left incomplete at his death; it was finished by Oliver Knussen and Dejan Badnjar.

sonnets and songs

Santa Fe held special importance for Lieberson. This was where he saw the world premiere in 1997 of the largest project of his career, Ashoka’s Dream, a stage work involving the story of a third-century Indian leader and how he learned generosity through Buddhism. In the cast was the woman he would later marry, mezzo Lorraine Hunt, for whom he wrote the Neruda Songs and the Rilke Songs.

Lieberson discovered the 100 Love Sonnets by Nobel-prizewinning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) in a shop at the Albuquerque airport in 1997. The Neruda Songs resulted from a co-commission by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony. The former orchestra gave the world premiere on May 20, 2005, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson was the soloist. Tim Page in The Washington Post called the Neruda Songs “one of the most extraordinarily affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover to another.” Alex Ross described the music as having “the feeling of one of those golden summer afternoons when the world seems to reach a point of magical equilibrium, and we want to slow down time so that it does not end so quickly.” The Neruda Songs won Lieberson the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2008.

The composer writes: “Each of the five poems that I set to music seemed to me to reflect a different face in love’s mirror. The first poem, ‘If your eyes were not the color of the moon,’ is pure appreciation of the beloved. The second, ‘Love, love, the clouds went up the tower of the sky like triumphant washerwomen,’ is joyful and also mysterious in its evocation of nature’s elements: fire, water, wind, and luminous space. The third poem, ‘Don’t go far off, not even for a day,’ reflects the anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation. The fourth poem, ‘And now you’re mine. Rest with your dream in my dream,’ is complex in its emotional tone. First there is the exultance of passion. Then, gentle, soothing words lead the beloved into the world of rest, sleep and dream. Finally, the fifth poem, ‘My love, if I die and you don’t,’ is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much. Still, Neruda reminds one that love has not ended. In truth, there is no real death to love nor even a birth: ‘It is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips.’”

In their vivid evocations of the rapture and mystery of love, their haunting images, masterly orchestration, refinement and sensuous sheen, Lieberson’s Neruda Songs recall the world of another great orchestral song cycle, Ravel’s Shéhérazade. They also evoke Strauss’ Four Last Songs, especially in the last songs of the cycles, each imbued with a golden glow and a sense of quiet confidence in the acceptance of inevitable death. The Strauss connection goes further. Both Strauss and Lieberson cultivated relationships with their future wives—both professional singers—during rehearsals of their own first operas (in Strauss’ case, Pauline d’Ahna in Guntram; in Lieberson’s case, Lorraine Hunt in Ashoka’s Dream, where she portrayed Ashoka’s second wife, Triraksha; Lorraine became Lieberson’s second wife as well). Pauline and Lorraine also served as powerful muses to their composer-husbands. Unlike the Strausses, who lived into ripe old age, the Liebersons died tragically young—Lorraine at just 52, Peter at 64, both from cancer. A live recording of the Neruda Songs with the Boston Symphony on the Nonesuch label remains as eloquent testimony to the luminous beauty of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s voice, her mesmerizing vocal delivery, and to a sublime artistic partnership.

Instrumentation: solo mezzo with orchestra comprising 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales, high suspended cymbal, maracas, low tom-tom, harp, piano and strings

Download Neruda Songs text and translation (pdf)


Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Born: May 7, 1840, Votkinsk, Russia
Died: November 7, 1893, St. Petersburg, Russia

Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74, Pathétique

Much conjecture has surrounded the “program” of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. During its composition he wrote to his nephew Vladimir Davidov that “the program will be of a kind that will remain an enigma to all—let them guess… This program is saturated with subjective feeling…while composing it in my mind I shed many tears.”

passionate, not pathetic

Tchaikovsky considered calling it the “Tragic,” but when his brother Modeste suggested patetichesky, the composer exclaimed, “Excellent, Modya, bravo, patetichesky!” The word was inscribed immediately on the score’s title page and taken to the publisher Jurgenson. Within a day Tchaikovsky changed his mind. But Jurgenson, no doubt with an eye towards the sales potential of such a catchy title, let the work go out as Symphonie pathétique, and the name stuck. It is worth noting that the word pathétique derives from the Greek patheticos, which has a different flavor than in most modern English contexts, where it usually implies inadequacy and pity, as in “a pathetic attempt.” The Russian patetichesky refers to something passionate, emotional and, as in the original Greek, having overtones of suffering.

Death seems to lurk in much of the work. The words “death” and “dying” occur in a letter Tchaikovsky wrote explaining the plan of the symphony. Some listeners hear an expression of a hypersensitive artist given to alternating moods of exaltation and dejection, and try to follow each emotional state in the music as a mirror of the composer’s soul. Others take their cue from critic Philip Hale, who wrote: “Here is a work that, without a hint or a suggestion of a program, sums up in the most imaginative language the life of man, with his illusions, desires, loves, struggles, victories, unavoidable end.”

Jonathan Kramer offers this balanced view: “Tchaikovsky’s language is one of immediacy, not subtlety, and nowhere is his emotionalism more personal than in the Pathétique. His sentimentalism was symptomatic of his era, but today the excesses of late Romantic art can be appreciated in their historical context. We have known, in the wars of the 20th century, a deeper and far more devastating hysteria than is depicted in the Sixth Symphony. The unbridled outpouring of this music, especially in its last movement, is tolerable today because it does not seem to portray the deepest possible human despair. Although the composer may have intended high tragedy, the music itself does not seem to attempt such lofty heights. It is over-effusive, unstable, impulsive, yet it is immediate and spontaneous—it is, in a word, human.”

Tchaikovsky began working on his last symphony in February 1893 and conducted the first performance on October 28 in St. Petersburg. It was only mildly successful, yet he felt that it was “the best and especially the most sincere of my works. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical creations.” At the second performance, three weeks later, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, the symphony left a powerful impression. But the composer was dead: his Symphonie pathétique had become his swan song.

adagio – allegro non troppo. The introductory bassoon solo, which crawls slowly through the murkiest colors of the orchestra, becomes the melodic material for the Allegro section’s principal theme. The second theme, presented by the violins, is probably the most memorable of the entire work, haunting in its beauty, poignancy and sad lyricism. The clarinet brings this theme down to the limits of audibility. A crash shatters the mood abruptly, and the development section ensues, one of the most violent and ferocious passages Tchaikovsky ever wrote. A brief recapitulation is followed by a consoling coda.

“...the best and especially the most sincere of my works. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical creations.”
– Tchaikovsky, on his Pathétique Symphony

allegro con grazia. The second movement, in 5/4 meter, has famously been called a “broken-backed waltz, limping yet graceful.” A Trio section in the middle, also in 5/4, is noteworthy for the steady, pulsing notes in the bassoons, double basses and timpani.

allegro molto vivace; finale: adagio lamentso. The Pathétique’s third movement combines elements of a light scherzo with a heavy march. So festive and exuberant does the march become that one is tempted to stand and cheer at the end, making all the more effective the anguished cry that opens the finale. The finale’s infinitely warm and tender second theme in D major works itself into a brilliant climax and crashes in a tumultuous descent of scales in the strings. The first theme returns in continuously rising peaks of intensity, agitation and dramatic conflict. Finally the energy is spent, the sense of struggle subsides, and a solemn trombone chorale leads into the return of the movement’s second theme, no longer in D major but in B minor—dark, dolorous, weighted down in inexpressible grief and resignation. The underlying heart throb of double basses eventually ceases and the symphony dies away into blackness...nothingness.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, tam-tam and strings

Robert Markow

About the author

Montreal-based Robert Markow, whose program notes have appeared in Showcase for more than 15 years, is a former horn player with the Montreal Symphony who also taught at Montreal’s McGill University for many years. He is a program annotator for numerous orchestras and musical organizations in Canada, the U.S. and Asia, in addition to writing for leading music journals including Fanfare in the U.S., Opera in London and Der neue Merker in Vienna. He has led music tours to several countries and continues to travel regularly to Europe, Asia and Australia in search of musical stimulation, and to bakeries throughout the world for gustatory stimulation.