WEDNESDAY, May 6, 2020
Tchaikovsky wrote seven symphonies, but only six of them have numbers. This one was written right in between the 4th and 5th symphonies. It is his longest symphony, the most difficult to play, the most difficult for which to get players (so many different instruments), and it his longest. Because of its many difficulties it is seldom performed live, and until this week I had never heard it. There is incredible disagreement about it. Some say it is his worst, others his best. My initial impression is that it is the weakest, but my opinion over the last few days has flipped. The biggest problem is that it’s hard to perform, and to make it work takes absolutely commitment from an orchestra and a first-rate conductor.
Changes in the recording industry affecting play time…
At the time I was born there were only records, and records had extreme time limitations. First there were the old 78 rpm records, called “78s”, and those could only play for 4-5 minutes on a side, maximum. If someone wanted to hear a symphony, it had to be bought in a set of many records. This was obviously no fun. With the invention of the LP (short for long play with 33 and 1/3 rpms) the playtime was increased to around 22-23 minutes on each side. You still had to flip the record. So if you wanted to listen to a symphony that was 66 minutes long, 20 minutes had to go on a “third side”. Since they could not make one and half records, that meant two records, and that also meant adding something on the 4th side, and you had to pay a lot more money. In addition, it’s messy and awkward to break a movement in two, so if you need 50 minutes of a symphony you have to plan how to fit those four movements onto those sides. If it won’t fit on two, you put less time on each side than you could, because of the “flipping”.
Cutting to the chase, on records they cut stuff because there was not enough room, which was horrible for the music but the only solution.
The first CD appeared in the early 1980s. The maximum time for an audio CD is barely under 80 minutes. That’s still not long enough for Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which lasts at least 90 minutes and often more than 100. So some music is too long for a single CD, but you won’t find much that won’t fit on two. Even if you have something that is incredibly long – one Wagner opera lasts more than five hours – putting in a new CD every 80 minutes is hardly a problem, and there were also multiple CD players that would play music non-stop for many hours.
Theoretically any MP3 can last for as long as you wish, so if you have something that is not supposed to stop for hours, it would be possible to make such a file. Since most things have natural breaks – movements, sets of pieces, today we make playlists, and if we want to listen to all 32 Beethoven Sonatas without stopping (which would be more than a bit insane), we can do it.
How this has changed the way we listen…
If you bought a symphony, would you listen to only one movement? Or if you liked only one, would you feel a bit cheated if you only liked 10 or 15 minutes of the whole thing after paying for something way longer? I think I would.
This is a huge listening problem, because symphonies are things we are pushed to accept as sets of music that belong together. The reason composers started writing preludes, waltzes, etudes and other sets of composition of that sort is that they were free to present any one selection out of any of these sets, then performers could “box” them together in their own way, making groups of pieces that complement each other according to their own wishes.
When you buy a pop or jazz album today, that’s the thinking. The artists decide what they think work best together, but if you like that album, or several, you can take your favorite tracks, put them in any order and so created your own personal playlist. To me this is just smart, and so called “classical performers” who don’t think this way are just stupid. Horribly, tragically stupid, because if you go to a piano concert and have to sit through three Beethoven Sonatas in a row, unless you know them and love them, and love the playing, you will probably leave saying:
“Well, that was boring. I’m never going to listen to that crap again.”
I know this from personal experience from having had to listen to too much music, in a live performance, on a day when I was not in a great mood, by someone whose playing I did not like. I once went to a Beethoven concert, three long piano sonatas, and I walked out. The playing was not great, I did not particularly like those symphonies, so I wanted to get away ASAP and do anything else – watch a movie, play pool, visit friends, eat a meal. For me, as a professional musician, being forced to listen to music in the wrong way, at the wrong time just makes me hate the music. This is never good.
What is the best way to listen?
You have to be awake, comfortable, in the mood, and you have to have control over what you hear, and for how long. If you are exploring a symphony, you can just let it run while doing other things, and most likely by the end you will say:
- I love this. I’ll listen to it many times.
- I like this. I’m not sure just why yet, but I think I want to hear this again.
- Well, I don’t dislike it. It’s not totally annoying, It’s kind of boring, but that may be me at the moment. Maybe I’ll like it better another time. But if I never hear it again, that will be just fine.
- I don’t like this. Something about it irritates me. I don’t feel good while the music is playing, and I just want to get away.
- I absolutely hate this. If there is a Hell, I would have to hear this awful music 24/7. The world would have been a better place if this composer had never been born and some of use were not forced to listen to this ugliness.
So you just try different music. That’s exactly the way I approached this Manfred Symphony. I started with single movements, absorbed each one, then finally listened to the whole thing. I went from not liking about half of it to totally liking the whole thing, and that happened in less than a week.
And there it is, in the above link. The whole story ruined the music for me. I could only fully appreciate the sound by forgetting about all the nonsense. Tchaikovsky went through his usual manic-depressive mood swings, avoiding the piece, then absolutely involved in it, then loving it, then hating it, then wanting to destroy it. A couple “friends” just about drove him nuts telling what to write and how to write it, and if you are like me, you heartily wish he has told these “friends” to drop dead, or at least stop messing in his life. I think that’s enough said.
It’s huge, with so many of the usual instruments plus many unusual percussion instruments.
3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (in A), bass clarinet (in B-flat), 3 bassoons, 4 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in D), 2 cornets (in A), 3 trombones, tuba, 3 timpani, bell (in A), cymbals, bass drum, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, 2 harps, violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, double basses, harmonium (or organ).
Tchaikovsky noted at the start of the Pastorale that:
“The bell should be of medium size and tuned to A. If possible, it should not be placed in the concert hall, but in the closest adjoining room”.
Now the music:
The 2nd movement is the easiest to listen to for something a bit lighter. The 3rd movement is quiet, thoughtful. The 1st and 4th movements are long, very emotional and complicated.
I. Lento lugubre (B minor, 338 bars)
This is almost 17 minutes long. At first it was hard to listen to this because I started with a bad interpretation, and there was absolutely no passion. But later I heard Toscanini, and that was totally powerful and convincing. Later I found this recording, and now my impression is very positive. Markevitch most definitely knew Toscani’s famous interpretation and was greatly influenced by it.
II. Vivace con spirito (B minor, 555 bars)
This has something to do with a faerie and a rainbow. It sets an atmosphere, so it is certainly magical and could go to anything light and otherworldly. It’s basically a scherzo, with a fast beginning and ending and a relaxed ending, but it’s not in 3/4 time. There is a trace of the folk song from his 2nd symphony towards the end. It’s a bit under 9 minutes long. Note that number of bars tells you nothing about length because of very different tempos.
III. Andante con moto (G major, 282 bars)
It’s about 12 minutes long. That makes it as long as some Mozart symphonies, and it also tells you why some people are never going to listen to the whole symphony, or even get this far. But the music is great.
IV. Allegro con fuoco (B minor–B major, 491 bars).
This flat out did not work for me, on first hearing, because the interpretation was very weak. But then I found this recording, and suddenly it all works for me. Everything about this over the top. There is even a short fugue.
The whole thing…
Finally, here is another link that has the whole symphony, in case you want to hear it as one long file, without interruptions.