Magazine article Musical Times

Pathos & Passion

Magazine article Musical Times

Pathos & Passion

Article excerpt

Pathos & passion Tchaikovsky's Pathétique and Russian culture Marina Ritzarev Ashgate (Farnham, 2014); xiv, iôçpp; £60, $104.95. isbn 978 1 4724 2411 2.

SPECULATIONS about composers' possible secret programmes are surely justified if undertaken in a responsible and disciplined way, especially when they throw new light on over-familiar masterpieces or help make sense of puzzling aspects and details. The RussoIsraeli scholar Marina Ritzarev's new study brings a stimulating new take on Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony which the composer himself surrounded with an aura of secrecy, indicating in a letter to his nephew (February 1893) that it would be entitled 'Symphonie à la programme ', to 'remain a riddle for everybody'. This is generally assumed to be some kind of intimate personal confession, anticipating his impending death and possible suicide. But if I'm not entirely convinced by her ambitious thesis that this underlying programme consists of the Passion of Christ, the argument is generally well made with considerable lucidity and insight, and with the minimum of academic jargon. However, it faces a number of contrary authoritative judgements that the Pathétique is Tchaikovsky's outstanding symphony, formally complete in itself and independent of extra-musical elements. Donald Francis Tovey, no Russophile he, declared that 'Nowhere else has he concentrated so great a variety of music within so effective a scheme [...] Little or nothing is to be gained by investigating it from a biographical point of view: there are no obscurities in the musical forms or in the emotional contrasts.' And Roland John Wiley in his mammoth 2009 scholarly biography (reviewed in MT, Spring 2010) acknowledges Beethoven as a presence 'both obvious and subtle', maintaining that such extraneous interpretations as the Soviet critic Boris Asafiev's notion of 'a tragic battle of the spirit with death' obscure 'the typical elements of Tchaikovsky's thinking in the Sixth'.

Though the composer's character emerges in Wiley's perspective as profoundly unattractive, totally self-absorbed, deeply insecure on account of his homosexual nature, and emotionally manipulative, Professor Ritzarev by contrast portrays him in positive terms as an man of wide-ranging intelligence and a critical thinker on religious questions, whose wide reading embraced both the Old and New Testaments and a range of advanced literary and philosophical authors, including Spinoza, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Indeed, like many deep-thinking men of the 19th century, his romantic inclination towards blind faith and devotion was tempered by such highly influential books as Das Leben Jesu by the German theologian David Strauss, and La vie de Jésus by the French oriental scholar Ernest Renan that undermined the idea of the divinity of Christ, interpreting Him rather as an essentially historical person but transformed by his followers into a mythological figure. Likewise, the imaginative artist in Tchaikovsky could feel free to idealise Christ as he also idealised Mozart, seeing parallels between them in terms of an enhanced humanity. Nevertheless, it was not open to the composer to write an overtly religious work employing such 'paraliturgical' forms as the oratorio, since the Orthodox Church strictly prohibited sacred music outside of its ecclesiastical context and control. …

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