Symphony Saturday

Tchaikovsky wrote one symphony that he did not give a number. This work is quite different from his other symphonies, in that not only is it not numbered, but it is a programmatic work that carries a title: Manfred. In terms of order of composition, Manfred falls between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, which is why it’s featured in this spot, this week.

I had never heard the Manfred Symphony until just a couple of weeks ago. It is a strange work, to be sure — it has moments of absolute brilliance, and it also has moments that make clear some of Tchaikovsky’s later dissatisfaction with it. The brilliant moments, though, are so brilliant that on balance I end up truly enjoying this piece, and wondering why it seems to languish in obscurity, compared with Tchaikovsky’s other symphonies.

From what I’ve read, the work has never really overcome its programmatic elements, some of which led Tchaikovsky into structural problems. (Or so say the critics.) The result is a work that is at times disjointed and inorganic, especially in its final movement. I’m honestly not sure about all that, but I do know that the work is also technically difficult, occasionally requiring virtuoso skill from its players, and it also calls for a very large orchestra, which contributes to the fact that it is not played all that often outside of recording studios. Opinion on Manfred seems largely divided.

Most interesting to me is the story of the work’s genesis. Mily Balakirev had a program, based on Byron’s poem Manfred, which he wanted to see composed into a symphony. He first tried to entice Hector Berlioz himself to do the job, after hearing Berlioz’s wonderful Harold in Italy, but Berlioz demurred, citing his age and ill health. (As Berlioz had a year left to live, he seems to have been quite correct.) The program ended up finding its way to Tchaikovsky’s hands, and Tchaikovsky composed it. The reaction to the work was divided from the outset, and Tchaikovsky himself considered destroying parts of it:

He found progress difficult, but by August 1885 he declared “this will perhaps be the best of my symphonic compositions.” By the time of the première in March 1886, he was qualifying that “because of its difficulty, impracticability and complexity it is doomed to failure and to be ignored,” and by 1888 he declared that “it is an abominable piece, and that I loathe it deeply, with the one exception of the first movement.”

The work’s program is as follows:

1.Lento lugubre – Moderato con animo

Manfred wanders in the Alps. Wearied by the fateful questions of life, tormented by the burning anguish of helplessness and by the memory of his criminal past, he feels cruel tortures to the soul. Manfred penetrates deeply into the secrets of magic and communicates imperiously with the mighty powers of hell, but neither these, nor anyone in the world can give him the oblivion which is the single thing he vainly seeks and begs for. A recollection of the lost Astarte, whom he once loved passionately, devours and gnaws at his heart and there is neither limit nor end to the boundless suffering of Manfred.

2.Vivace con spirito

The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow from the spray of the waterfall.

3.Andante con moto

Pastoral – picture of the simple, poor, free life of the mountain dwellers.

4.Allegro con fuoco

Underground devils of Ahriman. Infernal orgy. The appearance of Manfred amid the Bacchanal. Summoning and appearance of the shade of Astarte. He is forgiven. Death of Manfred.

And here is the symphony itself. Let me know what you think!

Next week: The Fifth, which happens to be one of my most beloved works of classical music!

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One Response to Symphony Saturday

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    I'd have to listen to this again. I love elements of it, but I did check the time at about 35 minutes in. Familiarly breeds greater appreciation when it comes to much of classical music.

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