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Breathe Into How You’re Feeling October 28, 2020

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Uncategorized.

“I am now wholly occupied with the new work … and it is hard for me to tear myself away from it. I believe it comes into being as the best of my works. I must finish it as soon as possible, for I have to wind up a lot of affairs and I must soon go to London. I told you that I had completed a Symphony which suddenly displeased me, and I tore it up. Now I have composed a new symphony which I certainly shall not tear up.”

– quoted from an 1893 letter from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his brother Modest, as published in Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed by John Suchet

Abbie Richards is a graduate student at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands who, in addition to being an environment and climate scholar, has studied the history of racism, sexism, and classism in golf and also created a hierarchical pyramid of conspiracy theories. I serendipitously came across a story about her conspiracy pyramid and I started wondering where, exactly, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 would fall in the ranks.

Going by the Gregorian calendar, “The Passionate Symphony” premiered today in 1893 in Saint Petersburg, “the Cultural Capital of Russia.”It was the second work dedicated to the composer’s nephew, Vladimir Davydov (or “Bob,” as the composer called him) and, understandably (given Bob’s personality and temperament) was full of feelings. But, before we get all up in the feels, consider that the “tenor” of the piece changed when Tchaikovsky died nine days after he conducted the premiere.

“The Passionate Symphony” was the last piece premiered in Tchaikovsky’s life time and the penultimate piece he composed (with the Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 75, the last “completed” work, premiering after his death). The symphony’s second performance (on November 18, 1893) was a memorial tribute and contained some changes made by Tchaikovsky in the nine days between the premiere and his death. Conspiracy theories about the piece started almost immediately, fueled first by a passing comment between Tchaikovsky and his dear friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and then by Tchaikovsky’s sudden death, not to mention the “in memorium” subtitle that accompanied the second performance.

“If this symphony is misunderstood, and torn to shreds, I shall think it quite normal, and not at all surprising. It will not be the first time. But I myself absolutely believe it to be the best and especially the most sincere of all my works. I love it as I have never loved any single one of my other musical creations.”

– quoted from an 1893 letter from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov as posted in “Music History Monday: His Own Requiem?” by Robert Greenberg

Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were part of “The Five” (or “the Mighty Handful” or “The Might Five”) who collaborated together and promoted a distinctly Russian style of classical music during the 19th century. Around the time of the first performance of the “The Passionate Symphony,” Rimsky-Korsakov reportedly asked Tchaikovsky if the piece was or had a program, referring to a narrative or specific atmosphere. Tchaikovsky said yes, but did not elaborate. The fact that the a cruciform melody (changing tones giving the physical appearance of a crucifix) appears in the symphony and that the symphony ends in an unconventional way got people thinking,

When some of those same people attended the memorial performance on November 18th, they listened closely for some sign that the piece was a musical farewell or “symphony as suicide note.” Of course, confirmation bias kicked in and to this day people point to all kinds of musical “evidence” to support their theories, despite the fact that just a month before the premiere, Tchaikovsky stated that he was in no mood to write a requiem. Plus, there’s the fact that the composer could not have known he was going to die unexpectedly at age 53 and was planning a trip to London. His death is officially attributed to cholera (reportedly caused by drinking contaminated water), but conspiracy theorists have other ideas. (And, I suppose, the fact the Tchaikovsky’s mother died of cholera when he was 14 years old is just more proof for the conspiracy pudding).

“It was not true that cholera victims were always placed in sealed coffins, and Tchaikovsky’s own mother was the proof. It is documented that she lay in an open coffin, and her children were brought into the room to kiss her forehead. None of them contracted cholera as a result.

The custom in Tchaikovsky’s day, she told me, was for the coffin to be open for family and friends to pay respects, and then sealed for the funeral.

As if to clinch the argument, she told me Tchaikovsky’s death had been certified as caused by cholera by several doctors, all experts in their field. The death certificate, and other necessary paperwork, was signed and countersigned in accordance with procedure. Furthermore, since cholera was so epidemic in St Petersburg, the newspapers carried a daily list of victims in its pages. Tchaikovsky’s name had appeared, along with others. A cover-up would have been impossible.”

– quoted from Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed by John Suchet

But, let’s get back to what we (for a fact) know to be Tchaikovsky’s intent: a tribute to Bob. The composer’s nephew was reportedly an artistic young man who ultimately decided to go into the military. Both Tchaikovsky and Davydov struggled with depression and, it appears, their relationship helped them bolster each other. Uncle and nephew had a close enough relationship that the composer at one point considered moving to be closer to the person he described as “the paramount condition of my happiness.” Additionally, Tchaikovsky left all his royalties and copyrights to his nephew, who would eventually resign his commission in order to help his uncle Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother) run the museum created to honor the composer’s life and work. To my knowledge, there’s no question about the fact that Vladimir “Bob” Davydov used morphine and other drugs to numb his feelings or that he committed suicide at the age of 34 – something his uncle didn’t see coming.

Both uncle and nephew, as I mentioned before, could be described as “passionate” or “emotional” (with a side of suffering) and this was the original meaning of the title Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky assigned to his penultimate work, Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest (Bob’s other artistic uncle) claimed to have suggested the title Pateticheskaya (Патетическая ) which contains an emotional nuance and complexity not found in a single English word. The nuance (and subsequent meaning) gets further lost to modern audiences, because the most common title for the piece is the French word Pathétique – which is sometimes reduced to “The Pathetic” to distinguish it from Ludwig van Beethoven’s 1798 piano sonata (with the same French name).

Based on his response to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s question and the fact that Tchaikovsky’s abandoned a title that would have called attention to “a hidden program,” there is evidence that the composer did not want people to be too curious about the meaning. That evidence suggests that Tchaikovsky just wanted people to feel – maybe even to feel some of what he and Bob felt. Or, maybe, the whole piece was just note from uncle to nephew, saying, “You are not alone in this.”

“While on my travels I had another idea for a symphony – a program work this time, but its program will remain a conundrum to everyone. Let them guess at it. This program is imbued with subjectivity. While composing it in my thoughts, I often wept a great deal. Then I began writing drafts, and the work was as heated as it was rapid. In less than four days I completed the first movement, and the remaining movements were outlined in my head. There will be much that is new in this symphony where form is concerned, one point being that the finale will not be a loud allegro, but the reverse, a most unhurried adagio. You cannot imagine the bliss I feel after becoming convinced that time has not yet run out and that it is still possible to work.”

– quoted from an 1893 letter from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to his nephew Vladimir “Bob” Davydov as posted in “Music History Monday: His Own Requiem?” by Robert Greenberg

Please join me today (Wednesday, October 28th) at 4:30 PM or 7:15 PM for a yoga practice on Zoom. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. You will need to register for the 7:15 PM class if you have not already done so. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below or by emailing myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

Wednesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

“…You see, my dear friend, I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls. It is not the straw to which the drowning man clings; but a true friend, refuge, and comforter, for whose sake life is worth living.”

– quoted from 1877 letter from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to Nadezhda Filaretovna “N. F.” von Meck (who supported the financially supported the composer for 13-years), as published in The Life & Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky by Modeste Tchaikovsky

If you are thinking about suicide, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, you can call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also call the TALK line if you are struggling with addiction or involved in an abusive relationship. The Lifeline network is free, confidential, and available to all 24/7. YOU CAN TALK ABOUT ANYTHING.



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